Are raw food diets for dogs a good idea? Learn the pros and cons of feeding your dog only raw meat, bones, and other uncooked or unpasteurized ingredients.

By Debra Steilen
Updated April 07, 2021
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Organ meat. Muscle meat. Bones. These and other uncooked ingredients are what you'll be buying, preparing, and serving if you decide to put your dog on a raw food diet. But be aware; these diets are controversial. Some people—like Ian Billinghurst, inventor of the Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF) diet—say these foods are what dogs ate before they became domesticated. Other experts think nutritionally balanced commercial dog foods are the right way to go.

Learn more about the thinking behind raw food diets and the risks identified by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the FDA before you throw away the kibble and get up close and personal with piles of raw meat.

What Foods Are Included in a Raw Diet for Dogs?

According to the AVMA, raw food diets for dogs usually include some or all of these things: organ meats such as liver or kidney; muscle meat (often still on the bone); whole or ground bones; raw eggs; fresh fruits and/or vegetables; and some dairy products such as unpasteurized yogurt or milk. None of this food is cooked before you feed it to your dog.

Note that some fruits and vegetables like grapes and raisins are toxic to dogs, and should be avoided as part of any diet—including a raw food diet. There is also a risk involved with feeding your dog any raw animal products, as they can present a risk for bacteria like Salmonella or E. coli.

There are a variety of raw food diets, each touting a slightly different combination of foods. Some of the types you may have heard of: the Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF) diet, the Prey Model Raw (PMR) diet, and the Ketogenic Raw Food (Keto) diet. 

illustration of dog with bowl of raw foods
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

What is the BARF Diet?

The BARF diet is one variation of a raw food diet. Canine athletes such as racing greyhounds and sled dogs have been eating higher-fat raw food diets for a long time, according to The Journal for Nutrition. In 1993, Australian veterinarian Ian Billinghurst created the BARF diet for family dogs. He theorized dogs would do well on this diet because they ate such foods before they became domesticated pets.

Is the BARF Diet OK for Puppies?

The folks who believe in the BARF diet say yes, but it's best to check with your pup's veterinarian first. If you both agree this is the right diet for your puppy, to avoid tooth damage you shouldn't give your puppy the weight-bearing bones from large animals such as cows or sheep according to The Happy Puppy

That site suggests if you're trying to give your puppy raw food on a budget, you should prepare your puppy's raw food yourself instead of buying prepackaged raw foods. Shop for cheaper animal parts that don't present a choking hazard for small puppy mouths and give your pup dog-safe fruits and vegetables.

What Are the Benefits of a Raw Food Diet?

Anecdotal evidence from Billinghurst and his supporters say those benefits include a shinier coat, healthier skin, cleaner teeth, more energy, and smaller poops, according to the Canine Journal. That sounds great, right? Except there isn't any scientific evidence to support those claims.

Plus, it's the nutrients in any particular diet that are going to determine which benefits a dog gets from eating it, says Jessica Romine, DVM, DACVIM, a veterinarian at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Southfield, Mich. "It's not so much the raw nature of the food as it is the actual components of the food," says Romine, who is board-certified in veterinary internal medicine. "For example, if a raw food diet is higher in fat than what the dog was eating previously, then he'll develop a glossier coat."

What Health Risks Are Attributed to a Raw Food Diet?

Pointing to a number of studies, the AVMA discourages raw or undercooked meat for dogs because it may contain potentially deadly pathogens that can sicken your pet and may even be transmitted to you and your family. The AVMA also says raw food diets may not be nutritionally balanced (which is especially dangerous for puppies); the diets' high protein levels may lead to liver or kidney disease. And giving whole bones to dogs comes with a risk of choking, broken teeth, or internal punctures.

The AVMA suggests that you shouldn't feed dogs raw foods that aren't cooked, pasteurized, or irradiated to kill bacteria. Avoiding foods like that means your dog's diet will be safer and minimize the public health risk.

How Do I Get Started Serving My Dog Raw Food?

If you're strongly interested in serving your dog a raw or home-cooked diet, work with your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist to develop a naturally balanced diet.

Where Can I Find Meat for My Dog’s Diet?

Try your local butchers (they can order specialty items); ethnic grocers; farmers (a great source for organ meats); hunters; and online meat suppliers for raw feeders and dog owners.

What About Delivery Options?

You may not have the time to shop for special ingredients or do all the grinding, chopping, measuring, mixing, and freezing that come with food prep. That's where raw dog food delivery services come into play. Companies such as The Farmer's Dog, Ollie, and Nom Nom package meals made of fresh meat, produce, vitamins and minerals, and other ingredients that are freeze-dried or frozen to maintain their nutrients.

But here's the thing: You'd be taking a chance with these well-meaning delivery services because they aren't regulated. "There isn't a protocol dictated by the FDA," Romine says. "And there's no quality control board overseeing their manufacturing processes."

What Precautions Should I Take with a Raw Food Diet?

Get the full picture for keeping your pet and your family safe while handling raw food at the AVMA website. Here are some of the organization's key recommendations.

Food Prep

Avoid food-borne bacteria by cooking raw meat before feeding it to your dog. Keep your pet's raw meat separate from meat intended for your family. Wash fruits and vegetables before giving them to your dog.

Cleanup

Wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw food. Sanitize dog bowls, countertops, cutting boards, and utensils on a regular basis.

And be wary of buying raw meat—especially chicken—at the grocery store and then feeding it to your dog, Romine says. "It's pretty risky—because the store assumes the meat will be cooked before serving," she says. "You can't assume the package will be sterile on the outside, either."

Can I Create a Low-Fat Raw Food Diet for my Dog?

If this is important to you, your best bet is to consult a veterinarian or board-certified veterinary nutritionist to put together a raw diet that provides your pooch with a well-balanced diet that's lower in fat.

How Can I Tell If My Dog Gets Sick From a Raw Food Diet?

You'll probably be able to tell by the fluids expelled from his body. Similar to those of food poisoning, Salmonella symptoms include vomiting and a nasty diarrhea that does not respond to a bland diet or probiotics, per Romine. "But your dog can be an asymptomatic carrier of Salmonella or E. coli," she says. "He won't look or act sick, but he can still be shedding bacteria in his stool. And that puts people at risk, especially young children or the elderly."

If you suspect your dog is sick, take him to your regular veterinary clinic. Your vet will run a culture on your dog's stool to identify the bacteria and suggest a treatment plan if the culture is positive.