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For Veterinarians

The Health and Safety Concerns of Raw Dog Food and Raw Treats

Considering a raw diet or raw treats for your dog? Does freeze-drying kill bacteria? Learn the evidence associated with raw dog food and what to consider for your own dog.

By Krista Halling DVM CCRP DACVS

There has been a recent surge in interest among dog owners regarding a raw food diet, also know as the bone-and-raw-food (BARF) diet or the raw-meat-based diet (RMBD). Dog owners want the best for their furry companions; however, raw food can be associated with significant health and safety concerns to both dogs and their owners. Here we delve into the considerations associated with feeding raw food and raw treats to your dog.

What is raw dog food?

Raw dog food and raw dog treats consist of bones, meat, organs, body parts (ex: pig ears) or eggs given to dogs as a meal or as a treat. This food is either homemade or sold raw, raw-frozen, freeze-dried or dehydrated. Although high pressure pasteurization (HPP) is sometimes applied (see below), raw dog food is usually not subject to conditions sufficient to kill food-borne pathogens.

The hype around raw dog food

Advocates of a raw diet often tout improvements in coat shine, digestibility, energy levels, dental health and ability to avoid certain dietary allergens. While these claims resonate with many pet owners – and anecdotally some dogs do experience health improvements – it’s crucial to approach them with a critical eye, as peer-reviewed articles supporting these alleged benefits remain scarce.

Raw dog food is usually not subject to conditions sufficient to kill foodborne pathogens.

Health and safety concerns of raw dog food

Harmful bacteria

One of the foremost concerns associated with raw food is bacterial contamination. Raw meat, body parts, bones, and treats can all harbour harmful pathogens such as Salmonella species, Clostridium species, Campylobacter species, Listeria species and toxogenic varieties of Escherichia coli. These bacteria largely originate in an intestinal tract, however during processing of the food animal, muscle, bones and organs can be contaminated with the intestinal bacteria.

Raw dog food can be a source of harmful bacteria (Photo: electron microscope scan of E. coli)

The concern is that the foodborne bacteria can cause canine gastrointestinal diseases, can modify a dog’s intestinal microbiome, and can be shed at high rates via feces into the dog’s environment. Antimicrobial-resistant strains of bacteria have also been identified in feces of dogs on a raw diet. The potential health threat isn’t limited to pets alone; it is a public health concern. Humans who handle raw food or who are in frequent contact with dogs on a raw diet are also at risk of exposure to these bacteria.

Freezing, freeze-drying or dehydration are not reliable and effective methods of killing bacteria.

It is important to note that from a food safety standpoint, freezing and freeze-drying or dehydration are not reliable and effective methods of killing bacteria, thus dehydrated, frozen or freeze-dried food is still considered raw from the standpoint of bacterial pathogens.

Commercial high-pressure pasteurization (HPP) is a treatment which uses high pressure instead of high heat, in order to preserve much of the nutritional value of the food. HPP can kill most concerning bacteria, but for this outcome to occur it is crucial that this process be performed correctly.

Parasite contamination

Parasites and parasite eggs can be found in the intestinal tract, in muscle, and in organs such as liver and kidneys. There is therefore a risk of parasite existence in raw food, and a bit less so in frozen or freeze-dried raw food.

Nutritional imbalance

Contrary to what many people think, our domestic dogs are omnivores, not carnivores, meaning that they require a diet containing both meat and vegetable matter in sufficient quantities. Too little or too much of certain micronutrients or macronutrients can greatly impact a dog’s overall health and well-being.

Crafting a complete and balanced raw diet therefore requires careful consideration. If considering a raw diet for your dog, we recommend consulting with a veterinarian to ensure that the diet meets your dog’s nutritional requirements for both its energy output and the stage of its life. If selecting a commercial raw food diet, look for one which is complete and balanced for your dog’s life stage.

Digestive problems and obstruction

When dogs are given bones to chew, this can lead to dental fractures, life-threatening intestinal obstruction (particularly in the esophagus) and constipation. Signs of gastrointestinal obstruction include anorexia, vomiting and regurgitation, and this situation requires emergency veterinary attention.

Bones can cause health problems when fed to dogs
X-ray image of dog’s chest showing bone foreign body (white rectangular object in red circle) in the esophagus. Photo: Dr Matt Kopke

Public health risk to humans

The potential for bacteria to be transmitted from dogs to humans, is another concern associated with raw diets. The people at greatest health risk from exposure to raw dog food, to a dog on a raw diet, or to the dog’s feces, include:

  • Children under 5 years of age
  • People 65 years of age or older
  • Pregnant women
  • Immune-compromised people

To minimize the risk of humans being exposed to food-borne pathogens, practice the following guidelines when dealing with a raw dog food diet:

  • Thoroughly wash hands and preparation surfaces after handling a raw diet
  • Avoid cross-contamination of dog food and human food
  • Discard feces from a dog on a raw diet as soon as possible
  • Hands should be thoroughly washed after coming in contact with such feces or with the ground where a dog on a raw food diet relieved itself

Making an informed decision

When assessing a raw dog food product, consider asking the manufacturer the following questions:

  • Is the food a complete and balanced diet for your dog’s life stage? (Not applicable to treats)
  • What process(es) are used to kill food-borne pathogens?
  • Is the food tested for food-borne pathogens, before and after any processing?
  • Do they consult with a veterinary nutritionist?

At Dogpacking.com we overall do not recommend feeding a raw diet or raw treats to dogs. Having said that, a raw diet may work well for some dogs. Before embarking on a raw diet, we recommend carefully weighing the known risks and potential benefits, speaking with your veterinarian and considering the individual circumstances of both yourself and your furry companion.

Additional resources for dog owners and vets

About the author

Krista Halling is a veterinarian board-certified with the American College of Veterinary Surgeons and co-founder of Dogpacking.com.


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Raw Pet Food poster. Center for Disease Control.

Algya KM, Cross TL, et al. Apparent total-tract macronutrient digestibility, serum chemistry, urinalysis, and fecal characteristics, metabolites and microbiota of adult dogs fed extruded, mildly cooked, and raw diets. J Anim Sci. 2018 Sep 7;96(9):3670-3683.

One response to “The Health and Safety Concerns of Raw Dog Food and Raw Treats”

  1. Michelle says:

    A great resource here! Thanks for sharing.

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