Should I Try a Raw Food Diet?
Few conversations in animal health can stir up passions as much as those involving raw food feeding. Some proponents attest to raw food’s amazing power to correct inflammatory conditions like skin irritations, joint problems, or GI distress. Some critics point to public health risks of foodborne pathogens or choking hazards of feeding things like whole chicken wings.
The simple answer to the title’s question is: “it depends.” Just as no two creatures are the same, there is no “one size fits all” approach to a healthy diet. The right diet for your dog or cat depends on her health, metabolic needs, and even the weather. (More on that in a moment.)
Let’s start by talking about why many people reach for raw in the first place, and also address some of the concerns around food safety. Let’s also compare raw to other types of diets and touch upon the foundation of good food. The answers should help guide you in making the best decision for your pet.
The Composition of Kibble vs. Raw Pet Food
Most pets come into our families on a kibble diet. Kibble is everywhere and judged by serving size it is one of the most affordable options. It’s shelf stable which makes it convenient and cheap for the supply chain (i.e. the path from manufacturer to distributor to store to you to bowl). In 2020, kibble/dry dog food sales represented 57% of a $42 billion US pet food industry. (This was a 3.5% annual decline for kibble despite overall US pet food sales growth of 10%.) Data also shows that the average price per pound for kibble is $1.93 compared to $32.55 for freeze dried options.
What makes kibble 1587% cheaper than freeze dried? It has a lot to do with its composition. Starch is one of the primary calorie sources in kibble. While puppies – with their high energy needs for growth – can do well on these carbohydrate-heavy diets for a time, fed long term into adulthood kibble can be a primary cause of obesity and the inflammatory diseases associated with it.
Enter raw food. Many pet parents reach for raw to right the ship of these inflammatory conditions. Raw diets can do this very effectively. Fresh raw diets are in many ways the opposite of kibble. Where kibble is highly processed, fresh raw food is unprocessed. Raw takes longer to digest and this longer digestion means there is no deluge of absorbed calories gumming up the gears. Premium raw diets also are designed with protein as the primary energy source as opposed to kibble’s carbs. The protein in fresh raw food is usually high-quality, enzyme-rich, whole and species-defined (e.g. turkey, beef liver) as opposed to the highly-processed nutrient-stripped meat meals (e.g. fish meal, poultry meal) found in kibble. Raw can be energetically cooling too – more on this in a moment.
Raw Pet Food and Foodborne Pathogens
But how safe is raw from a public health perspective? In the US about 25% of the chicken you buy in the grocery store is contaminated with salmonella or campylobacter – bacterium that can be harmful to humans. This contamination is widely accepted by federal authorities and non-actionable.
Contrast that to the FDA’s zero tolerance policy for salmonella in raw pet food. To date, there have been no reported cases of bacteria in raw pet foods harming people or pets. Even though there have been serious outbreaks of salmonella contaminated kibble harming humans, and aflatoxins in kibble poisoning pets the FDA has honed in on raw pet food makers holding them to a higher standard. Whether you look at recalls on a brand-basis or a pound-basis, 98% - 99% of all pet food recalls in 2021 were of kibble and the top two reasons for the recalls were aflatoxins (toxic mold) and pathogenic bacteria (e.g. salmonella, E.coli, listeria).
As a result of the FDA’s amped-up vigilance of raw food, some raw pet food manufacturers voluntarily utilize a process called high pressure pasteurization (HPP) in their fresh and freeze-dried production to eliminate food borne bacteria like salmonella. In HPP, ingredients are put into hermetically sealed packaging. The packaging is placed in a pressure vessel that is then filled with cold water and put under intense isostatic pressure for a few seconds to a few minutes. That pressure is about five times the pressure of the Mariana Trench (the deepest place on Earth – nearly 11,000 meters below sea level). This extreme pressure disrupts the cell membranes of microorganisms in the food, and bacteria like salmonella and E.coli die.
HPP is used today to treat many of the foods humans eat – like juices, baby foods, soups and salads, guacamole, hummus, salsa, pre-made meals, and processed meats and seafoods. HPP is not a cure-all, however, as some spore-forming organisms like Clostridium botulinum (the botulism culprit in human sickness) are not eliminated.
If the COVID19 pandemic of 2020-22 has taught us anything, it is to wash our hands. Applying this practice to all the food you handle – be it raw chicken for your dinner, kibble, or raw pet food mitigates a ton of risk.
As for Fido or Tabby, a healthy pet’s digestive system can effectively process raw meat. Their acidic stomachs, natural digestive enzymes, and bile also can enable them to handle contaminated (or even spoiled) substances without getting acutely sick.
The Foundation of a Healthy Pet Food Diet
So if raw can “right the ship” of inflammation, is it a good choice 24/7/365 in healthy animals? Maybe, maybe not. A better question to ask would be: what is the best diet for my pet right now?
Ideal diets in healthy companion animals are built with whole foods, comprised largely of quality muscle and organ meats, some dark green vegetables, healthy fats, boosters like bonemeal or eggshell, and other nutrients (like fruits) depending on the species. Done right, all the nutrients a dog or cat needs for a complete and balanced diet can come from whole foods and not powdered vitamins or minerals (which is a widely unregulated industry in the USA).
Really good complete and balanced diets go beyond getting the macronutrients (like protein, fat and fiber) and the micronutrients (like vitamins and minerals) right. A truly complete and balanced diet also looks at the health and needs of the whole being and balances that with external forces like the seasons and weather patterns. This approach uses food as medicine to create balance between the energy within and the energy without.
Food as Medicine
Natural medicine ascribes energetic qualities to food on a spectrum of hot to cold, and dry to damp. These qualities are innate to the ingredients yet affected by the way they are prepared. Raw foods are considered cooling, gently cooked foods are neutral, and highly processed kibble is considered warming. Proteins like turkey, rabbit and white fish are cooling; pork and salmon are neutral; chicken and beef are warming; lamb and goat are hot. Green vegetables like kale, broccoli, spinach, swiss chard, cucumber and celery are all considered cooling too. Starches like potato, peas, beans, rice and other grains are considered damp – an excess of which causes heat as discussed above.
A holistic approach to a rotational diet for a healthy dog may start with a foundation like this:
Gently cooked or raw fresh turkey and ample greens, little to no starch.
Gently cooked or raw fresh pork or wild salmon, ample greens with a little sweet potato or carrot.
Gently cooked fresh chicken, beef or lamb with greens and a moderate amount of sweet potato or carrot.
Gently cooked or raw fresh chicken, beef or turkey with ample greens, little to no starch.
So how should you help your dog or cat achieve harmony of health with food? Choosing complete and balanced pet foods based on their energetic qualities and embracing a rotational diet of fresh foods is a good start. So is remembering this adage. “The more one approaches pet feeding with inflexibility, the more humble pie one must eat.”
About the Author
Amy Renz is the CEO of Goodness Gracious, Massachusetts maker of human grade pet food, treats, chews and toppers. Founded in 2009, Goodness Gracious is as much a spirit as it is a company. Empowered with a diverse workforce, Goodness Gracious handcrafts its products for dogs and cats from scratch in small batches in its own licensed and inspected human food facility; and it gives 51% of its profits to animal charities. Goodness Gracious products include a line of gently cooked fresh food for dogs, single ingredient human grade jerky and chews for dogs, single ingredient cat treats, and more. You can find Goodness Gracious treats and its human grade gently cooked fresh dog food by visiting GoodnessGraciousCo.com