In recent years, many pet owners have abandoned commercial diets in search of more “natural” choices. This practice, has been paralleled with the human search for more natural and organic products. Raw meat-based diets (RMBDs), also marketed as “Biologically Appropriate Raw Food” or “Bones and Raw Food” (BARF) include uncooked ingredients that may be home-prepared or commercial animal-source protein, raw unpasteurized eggs and milk, bones, raw vegetables and/or fruit.

According to Hippocrates, the goal of any therapeutic intervention is to ‘first do no harm’. The ultimate goal is to live a healthy, long life. Evidence of nutritional benefit or risk in feeding raw food has been reviewed by scientific bodies and researchers.

Advocates of raw diets claim benefits ranging from improved longevity to superior oral health, better fecal quality and better digestibility. Elimination of allergies and inflammation, as well as easier weight management and the benefits of providing natural enzymes and substances destroyed by cooking, are also mentioned. Nevertheless, claims are only based on individual testimonials. Typically raw meats (but not other uncooked foods like grains or starches) are slightly more digestible than cooked meat. The wolf model and the limited capacity to digest the carbohydrate that constitutes a substantial proportion of commercial pet food has also been promoted. However, the domestic dog is genetically altered with increased starch-digesting capacity. Differences in energy balance and other nutrient needs, should also be taken into account.

On the other hand, several studies reported in peer-reviewed scientific journals have demonstrated both nutritional imbalances and intrinsic contamination of raw diets with a variety of pathogenic organisms. Nutritional imbalances such as calcium/phosphorus imbalances, vitamin deficiencies, clinical nutritional diseases such as taurine-deficiency cardiomyopathy among young cats and hypervitaminosis A have been reported. Moreover, cats and dogs may develop foodborne illness after being food contaminated with contagious pathogens. Secondary transmission of these pathogens to pet owners, especially children, the elderly and immunocompromised individuals has been reported. Implicated pathogens include: Salmonella, E.coli, Campylobacter species, Listeria monocytogenes, Yersinia enterocolitica, Brucella species, Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium Spp., other potential bacterial entities, non-bacterial pathogens such as helminths and protozoa including Toxoplasma gondii, Giardia, Echinococcusgranulosus and Trichinella species.

At this time, there are no scientific studies comparing the health benefits of raw and commercially prepared foods. Cooking, pasteurization, irradiation or other methods that successfully eliminate pathogens would render the food products safer and minimize the public health risk and be acceptable. The decision to feed one diet or another is a personal decision of the pet owner. In general, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA-CVM), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Veterinary Nutritionists (ACVN) have posted relevant statements on their websites with which they do not recommend feeding companion animals raw diets because of associated risks for both animals and public health.

Finally, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) advices the following:

  1. If purchasing commercial raw diets, select products that have been adequately treated to eliminate pathogens.
  2. Do not purchase a product with a damaged container.
  3. Keep the product frozen until ready to use, and promptly refrigerate or discard any leftovers.
  4. Keep the raw meat intended for your pet(s) separate from that intended for your family, to avoid any cross-contamination. Do not handle raw meat intended for your pet in the same area(s) or use the same utensils or equipment used for preparing food for your family.
  5. Never allow cooked foods to come into contact with raw meat unless they are subsequently cooked at temperatures that will kill bacteria.
  6. Wash vegetables and fruit prior to feeding.
  7. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw food.
  8. Regularly sanitize pet dishes, surfaces, cutting boards and utensils.
  9. Rigorously control insects and other pests that may be attracted to the raw meat and could spread contamination

Selected references

Davies RH, Lawes JR, Wales AD. Raw diets for dogs and cats: a review, with particular reference to microbiological hazards. J Small AnimPract. 2019 Jun;60(6):329-339. doi: 10.1111/jsap.13000. Epub 2019 Apr 26. PMID: 31025713; PMCID: PMC6849757.

Schlesinger DP, Joffe DJ. Raw food diets in companion animals: a critical review. Can Vet J. 2011 Jan;52(1):50-4. PMID: 21461207; PMCID: PMC3003575

van Bree FPJ, Bokken GCAM, Mineur R, Franssen F, Opsteegh M, van der Giessen JWB, Lipman LJA, Overgaauw PAM. Zoonotic bacteria and parasites found in raw meat-based diets for cats and dogs. Vet Rec. 2018 Jan 13;182(2):50. doi: 10.1136/vr.104535. PMID: 29326391.