Whether you’re looking for a change in routine, hope to address health issues through your dog’s diet, or you’re just a curious, caring dog lover, you may have come across the question of raw versus cooked food for dogs.

A raw dog food diet can include uncooked meat on the bone, raw bones (whole or ground up), organs like liver and kidneys, uncooked eggs, raw vegetables, raw fruits, and some dairy (think yoghurt).

Some dogs in service to humanity eat raw food routinely, including sled dogs and racing greyhounds, and the dietary practise is gaining global popularity. A dog consuming raw food is said to be on the “BARF” diet, a dubious acronym that expands to Bones and Raw Food, or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. It’s a bit of a mouthful, and a hot topic in pet care circles. Dog lovers have been chewing it over since Australian vet Ian Billinghurt proposed it back in 1993[1].

There are supporters on both sides of the raw versus cooked question, from pro-raw peeps pointing out that nobody cooks wild dogs their dinner (unless it’s roasted in a wildfire!) to pro-cooked folk emphasising that prepared foods are scientifically tested and statistically safe(r). For every assertion, there’s a counter argument. Raw-food advocates may say that prepared food can be boring, but there are a variety of flavours and textures in premium pet foods to keep Sniffles smiling. Cooked-food aficionados could be concerned about irregular nutrient levels in non-cooked dog food, but your dog’s nutritional health can be tested and adjusted.

The problem is that opinion does not necessarily equal the ideal diet for your dog, and the buzz – often individual stories told as universal truth – can be confusing. At www.dotsure.co.za, we’re fans of asking good questions, and finding a smart, simple solutions in effort to give your pets the longest and healthiest life possible, so we’ve unpacked the issue with a suggestion at the end.

“Keep in mind there are benefits and risks associated with all choices of food for your dog,” warns Modern Dog Magazine soberly, “so you must decide if the benefits of a raw diet outweigh the potential risks.”[2]

Before you begin: how convenient is raw, really?

Feeding your dog raw can be as easy as opening a packet of cooked, dry dog kibbles, but if you’re doing it DIY at home instead of buying commercially-prepared raw food, it can be time-consuming to source, store and serve raw food for your hound. You may find yourself hunting around for affordable meat and bone prices, good cuts, vacuum-packing for the freezer, needing another freezer to stock up for while you’re away, or forgetting to defrost in time, all before your doggy’s dinner time. Then again, if you already prepare your dog’s cooked food at home, it will may mean less time stirring at the stove.

Commercial raw food for dogs is far easier to buy, store and use, coming in fresh or frozen packs. They generally offer a combination of raw meats, fruits, veggies, grains and supplements with no or low preservatives or unnecessary flavourings or additives. This means, though, that they’re also not guaranteed to give your dog its daily recommended allowance of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, proteins, and starches. This is because proportions – and the sources – of the ingredients vary in packaged raw food, and “may not be balanced each day”[3]. It will require some careful thought and even extensive research and consultation to properly nourish your dog in the longer term. That’s a lot of admin, and your dog might become malnourished if you get the math wrong along the way.

Nutrition first

The big concern around diet is nutrition. “On a daily basis, dogs and cats require about 40 different nutrients, most of which can only be acquired through the food that they consume” warns the Pet Food Industry Association of Southern Africa (PFI),  “and all of which have been considered in registered, commercially prepared foods.”[4] Check prepared food, whether raw or cooked, for a PFI registration to be sure of dependable nutrition. You’ll find a list of PFI members here.

The risks of raw

While raw-food advocates are quick to point out that their dogs have shinier coats, healthier skin, cleaner teeth, and more energy since going raw, raw meat is problematic for canines as it can carry salmonella or E. coli, bacteria that can cause huge upset in the gut and even death. Salmonella is zooptic, meaning that it can transmit from dog to human, and if your dog is infected, you could become infected too (when clearing his poop, for example).

Additionally, if the human handling the raw meat does not wash their hands properly, they could directly transmit bad bacteria into their own body and become ill. It’s important to practise strict hygiene when handling meat, washing and rinsing your hands well before and after.

The term “raw” also suggests more fruit and veg, which can be misleading to someone choosing the proportions of the ingredients in a raw meal. While dogs may eat the partly-digested contents of their herbivorous and omnivorous prey’s stomachs in the wild, these foods do not form the bulk of their diet. Dogs need a protein-based diet, which a large proportion of berries, carrots and leaves cannot provide.

There’s another danger. If you use whole bones from different livestock sources, they could split, splinter, or break, and in so doing, break teeth (think of senior dogs) or become lodged in the gut, or even cause an internal rupture in the intestine. The solution is to source pet-safe bone meal instead, but this may not be easily or consistently available in your area and require a special trip.

Controversy around cooked

Cooked, commercial food has its fair share of controversy, too. There are reports across time and all over the world of dog food products with toxic substances, or toxic levels of ordinary vitamins . They are mostly isolated, regional cases but there have been doggy deaths.  Luckily, the issues are generally addressed, atoned for, and swiftly resolved, especially in the more established pet food brands with a global footprint.

Prepared food is often heated in production, which can reduce some of the food’s natural nutrition, so nutrients may be added back into the food, which could make them less readily absorbed by a dog[5].

“The less processing that is done to the food, the better,” suggests Darwin’s[6]. If only it were that simple!

Every dog to its own diet

Just as there is no other dog on earth like yours, there is no single rule to feeding him or her. A dog with a sensitive digestive system may handle cooked food better because it’s easier to digest. A dog with a compromised immune system e.g. canine AIDS or leukaemia will not necessarily fair well with potential pathogens in raw food.

Making the choice – you’re not alone

While the decision is yours, there are passionate professionals hungry to help you make it. We strongly suggest that if you’re going to go for raw, or a raw-cooked combo, or even if you’re going to prepare your dog’s all-cooked food yourself at home from basic ingredients, that you ensure they’re getting everything they need in terms of minerals, vitamins, amino acids etc. This is where support comes in.

Consult a professional

Our suggestion is to consult with a trusted, qualified vet for each dog in your pet family, to choose a ratio of raw to cooked that is safe to serve and nutritionally appropriate to the dog’s needs. Dogs needs change, so we also encourage you to monitor this carefully over time, with regular assessments at the clinic. If the idea of paying vet bills for what’s in Rover’s bowl kills your own appetite, our pet cover can help hugely. What’s more, you can Name Your Price on the monthly premium you pay to provide premium pet care to your doggy. Whether it’s carrots, canned meat, dry cubes, fresh wet flesh, or a combo for Fido’s dinner, let us know your thoughts and experiences on this meaty topic over on our Facebook page especially for you and your pets.😊