feeding dogs raw meat vs. cooked
Pet Health Questions and Answers

Raw or Cooked Food for Dogs (Which is Healthiest?)

If you are wondering what to feed your dog to keep them healthy, then you’re not alone. In fact, lots of dog owners say they feel torn between a raw and a cooked diet.

Should dogs eat raw or cooked food?  Raw food is easier for dogs to digest, but it’s hard to prepare a nutritionally balanced raw diet at home. In contrast, cooked food (i.e. commercial pet food) is “nutritionally balanced”, but it’s also heavily processed. As a compromise, you could try commercially prepared raw food or lightly cooked fresh food.

But, when choosing the best food for your dog, don’t just ask “raw or cooked?”. You should also consider the overall quality of the food. In fact, both raw and cooked foods can be considered “healthy”, as long as you choose the right types.

Should I Feed My Dog Raw or Cooked Dog Food?

For over a hundred years, we’ve fed our dogs cooked (processed) dog food. But during the last ten years, some pet owners have switched their dog to a raw food diet. Does this mean raw food is healthier than cooked?

Well, neither food is perfect. While a raw diet is very high in nutrients, it is not always practical. Similarly, while cooked food is convenient and affordable, it contains a lot of synthetic nutrients. As such, it might not be as healthy as we’re led to believe.

In fact, if you explore dog food production in more detail, you’ll see why raw food holds so much appeal.

Problems with Cooked Dog Food

Since the early 1900s, most pet owners have fed their dogs cooked food (typically kibble or canned food). This food contains animal protein that is cooked at an extremely high temperature (rendered). This removes excess moisture and kills harmful bacteria such as Salmonella.

Although rendering is practical and cost-effective, it’s not particularly healthy. This is because:

  • It removes some vital amino acids (such as Taurine) from the meat. Synthetic versions must be added, and we cannot be sure if these are absorbed properly.
  • It makes it less palatable, so synthetic flavors must be added to enhance the taste.
  • It is less digestible than raw (or lightly cooked) food.

Also, most manufacturers use animal byproducts or poor-quality meat in their dog foods. This is because pet food production is a profitable way of using up animal products not fit for human consumption.

For these reasons, some people believe that cooked/processed dog food is unhealthy. In addition, several scandals in the dog food industry have sparked further distrust in consumers.

Dog Food Scandals

For many years, no one questioned the health and safety of cooked/processed dog foods. This all changed when the following scandals came to light:

  • In 2007, several brands of pet food had to be recalled because they were contaminated with Melamine. This caused mass panic across North America, Europe, and South Africa. It is estimated that around 3,600 dogs and cats died after eating the contaminated food. However, some sources suggest that this figure could be much higher.
  • Just this year, several brands of dog food were recalled due to toxic vitamin D levels. According to CBSNews, several pets died as a result of eating the affected food.

The Melamine scandal of 2007 was particularly worrying, but there have been smaller dog food scandals almost every year since. Each time this happens, consumers lose faith in conventional dog food. As such, it’s no surprise that more and more people are considering raw food for dogs.

The Raw Dog Food Revolution

In 2008, we witnessed the so-called “raw food revolution”. The initiators of this revolution were BARF. BARF initially stood for “Bones and Raw Food Diet” but this has since been changed to “Biologically Appropriate Raw Food”.

BARF was popularized by Dr. Ian Billinghurst. He advocates a diet rich in raw, high-quality meat (60% of the diet), veg, and grains. After BARF, there was the Ultimate Diet and then the Volhard Diet.

Dog owners have also produced e-books and blogs to explain the benefits of a raw food diet.  One of the criticisms of the raw food revolution is that it is based on opinion, rather than scientific fact.  Even so, many pet owners are satisfied with the results of a raw dog food diet.

What Is So Special About Raw Food for Dogs?

According to raw food advocates, the best thing about a raw food diet is the fact that it is species-appropriate. In other words, it’s the “natural” diet for dogs. This suggests that dogs will be happier and healthier eating this particular diet.

In fact, according to Raw Feeding Veterinary Society RFVS, dogs who are fed a raw diet tend to have:

  • Plenty of energy (this prevents obesity)
  • Optimal gut microbiome – this makes the dog’s poop firmer and less smelly. It can also cure Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • A shiny coat
  • No atopic dermatitis (switching to a raw food diet can cure atopic dermatitis in some dogs)
  • Optimal dental health

We consider obesity, a dull coat, and bad breath to be somewhat ‘normal’ in dogs. But perhaps their cooked diet is causing these health problems. This would explain why a raw diet appears to fix these issues.

Nevertheless, it’s important to keep an open mind. Raw food is not necessarily the best option for all dogs. Added to which, some people dispute the claims made by the Raw Feeding Veterinary Society.

do dogs prefer raw or cooked meat?

Raw and Cooked Food Diets for Dogs

Before we review the pros and cons of each diet, we should be clear about what is meant by “raw” and “cooked” food. This is because there are at least 2 different types of raw and cooked foods.

In terms of cooked dog food, there is:

  1. Highly processed dog food (containing rendered meat).
  2. Fresh dog food that has been gently cooked.

Also, in terms of raw dog food, there is the:

  1. Home-prepared raw food diet.
  2. Commercially prepared raw food diet.

Each of these four diets has pros and cons. So, let’s explore them in more detail.

Cooked Dog Food Pros and Cons (Highly Processed Dog Food)

Most of the dog food in our supermarkets is highly processed. It contains animal byproducts that have been cooked (rendered) at a very high temperature.

Many people give processed food to their dogs. This includes canned foods, kibble, and processed treats. So, what are the pros and cons of this type of food?

Pros Cons
This food is usually “complete” or “nutritionally balanced”, so we don’t need to worry about deficiencies. This is particularly true of companies that adhere to AAFCO guidelines. According to AMVA, processed dog food may be harder for dogs to digest. This is because some of the digestive enzymes are destroyed during the cooking process.
There’s a low risk of disease because bacteria, pathogens, and parasites are killed during the heating process. So, the risk of salmonella or E. coli poisoning is virtually nonexistent. Some amino acids (such as Taurine) are degraded during the rendering process. Synthetic Taurine is added back. However, some studies suggest that synthetic Taurine may be difficult for dogs to absorb.
The products are informed by years of research and clinical trials. Some pet food manufacturers have been around for 50+ years. When meat is cooked at very high temperatures, Heterocyclic amines are formed. These have been linked to cancer.
Processed dog food is affordable. It’s not a natural diet for dogs because dogs evolved on a raw food diet. As such, it seems like a raw diet would be biologically appropriate.
It does not perish so it can be stored for long periods of time. This makes it more convenient than raw food. According to NCBI, Bisphenol A (BPA) has been found in canned dog foods. This is a harmful chemical that has been linked to thyroid disease. Mercury, Melamine, and other contaminants have also been found in pet food.
Kibble – the most popular type of processed dog food – contains a lot of carbohydrates. Kibble has been linked to obesity in dogs.

Cooked Dog Food Pros and Cons (Gently Cooked Commercial Dog Food)

In response to the raw food revolution, some companies introduced gently cooked dog food. This food is cooked at a lower temperature, so the animal protein is not rendered.

Gently cooked dog food is a compromise between 100% raw on the one hand, and processed dog food on the other.  So, let’s explore the pros and cons of this type of food.

Pros Cons
There is a fairly low risk of salmonella and other bacterial diseases because the food is cooked to a threshold temperature.

 

This diet tends to be expensive.
Most companies stick to AAFCO guidelines, so we can be reasonably satisfied that the product is nutritionally balanced.  This means it may be safer than a home-prepared raw food diet. This diet is not as “natural” as a raw food diet.
This is a good transition product if your dog is reluctant to switch from cooked food to raw food. This diet is quite new. There are not many long-term studies looking into the effects of eating gently cooked food. For example, we cannot be sure if the threshold temperature is high enough to kill all harmful bacteria.
Lightly cooked meat proteins are more digestible than rendered meat proteins. They also contain more amino acids.

 

Gently cooked legumes are more digestible than raw legumes.
Heterocyclic amines (linked to cancer) are not produced during the cooking process.

 

Most companies use high-quality meat that would be fit for human consumption. This many enhance the dog’s health.

Raw Dog Food Pros and Cons (Home-Prepared)

The raw food revolution started in the home. Dog owners used books, e-books, and online resources to design a raw diet for their dogs.

Although some pet food companies now produce raw food meals, some people still choose to prepare the diet at home. So, what are the pros and cons of preparing a raw diet at home?

Pros Cons
This diet is very similar to the evolutionary diet of dogs. As such, it seems like the most natural diet. The risk of salmonella and E. coli poisoning is increased.  This risk extends to the entire family – especially to the person who is preparing the dog’s meals. That’s why a raw food diet is not suitable for dogs (or owners) with a weakened immune system.

 

Home-prepared diets can be more affordable than commercially produced diets. Home-feeding plans (i.e. BARF) are not necessarily informed by clinical studies. Added to which, some dog owners may misunderstand the recommendations. As a result, nutritional deficiencies can develop over time.

 

Raw meat is more digestible than cooked meat. It also has a stronger profile of nutrients and amino acids. Some dogs don’t adjust to the taste of 100% raw.
According to RFVS, a raw diet has been used to treat IBS syndrome, colitis, atopy, and dental problems. This diet requires careful planning and commitment. Having said that, some owners find the process therapeutic.
As mentioned, the risk of some cancers may be reduced because the food is not heated.

Raw Dog Food Pros and Cons (Commercially Prepared)

Although raw dog food is still somewhat niche, there are several pet food companies offering raw meals for dogs. This food is commercially prepared but NOT processed.

So, what are the benefits (and drawbacks) of this type of food?

Pros Cons
It is a biologically appropriate diet for dogs. This is more expensive than a home-prepared raw diet, or conventional pet food.
Some companies develop their products in consultation with pet nutritionists and AAFCO nutritional guidelines. In the US, choose a product that has taken part in AAFCO trials. Or, choose a company that publishes digestibility data on its website. In the UK, the Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association (PMFA), publish the details of 11 raw food member organizations. These organizations are trusted because they adhere to strict guidelines. The food perishes quickly so you can only buy small amounts at a time. Some companies offer mail order, but this can be costly.
This requires less planning than a home-prepared raw diet. Also, there’s no need to handle raw meat. Meals tend to be packaged separately and this creates a lot of plastic waste.
As mentioned, a raw diet has been used to treat IBS syndrome, colitis, atopy, dental problems, and obesity. In terms of Salmonella poisoning, the risk is slightly lower than a home-prepared raw food diet but still higher than a cooked diet.
If you choose vacuum-packed varieties, the risk of salmonella and other bacterial infections is quite low. This is because bacteria die when there’s no oxygen available.

Other Issues to Consider

As you can see, the raw vs cooked food debate is not straightforward. This is because there are different types of “raw” and “cooked” foods, so we should avoid blanket statements. For example, food that is cooked at very high temperatures has a different nutritional value to food that is cooked at a low temperature.

Also, when choosing the best diet for your dog, you should consider the following points.

Look for High-Quality Protein

As mentioned, dog foods that are cooked at very high temperatures tend to contain poor-quality protein. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that all cooked protein is bad.

Some dog foods contain high-quality protein that has been gently cooked or minimally processed. If your dog dislikes raw food, or they have a weak immune system, gently cooked food might be the best option.

If you do feed your dog a raw diet, choose high-quality meat only. The Canine Journal recommends high-quality protein that’s fit for human consumption. Or, if you don’t want to prepare the meat yourself, choose a PMFA-associated brand of raw dog food.

So, whether you feed your dog “raw” or “cooked”, choose a product that contains high-quality protein.

can you mix raw and cooked dog food?

Is the Food Fresh?

Again, one of the issues with conventional dog food is that it’s far from fresh. The ingredients are cooked at such high temperatures that many of the nutrients are destroyed.

This doesn’t necessarily mean all cooked food is bad. If food is cooked gently, it is still considered fresh. Fresh ingredients are tastier and easier to digest. In addition, lightly cooked food retains most of its nutrients.

So, lightly cooked or raw food is superior to processed dog food because it contains fresher ingredients.

Is the Food Nutritionally Balanced?

As mentioned, one of the main benefits of processed dog food is that it is nutritionally balanced. This is especially true of dog foods that have the AAFCO seal of approval. In contrast, a raw diet can be very rich in certain nutrients but lacking in others.

So, if you opt for a raw diet, you should ensure it is nutritionally balanced. The best way to do this is to buy your food from a PMFA-associated seller. But this can be expensive. So, if you intend to prepare the diet yourself, you’ll need to do your research and consult with a specialist (more on this below).

Do Dogs Prefer Raw or Cooked Meat?

Taste is very important. Some dogs love the taste of raw meat, whereas others will turn their nose up. So, if you want to transition your dog from a cooked to a raw diet, you might be met with some resistance.

Some dogs just need time to adjust, whereas others simply cannot develop a taste for raw meat. In this case, lightly cooked fresh food can be a good compromise.

Is the Food Safe for your Dog and your Family?

One of the biggest concerns with raw food is disease. As mentioned, harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli are often present in raw meat. Small numbers of these bacteria do not harm a dog. But if they multiply, this can cause serious illness.

Added to which, dog owners can become very sick they contract Salmonella or E. coli.  According to TandF, raw meat often contains traces of E.coli. It may also contain traces of Enterobacteriaceae – a strain of E. coli that is resistant to antibiotics. Clearly, this could cause huge problems for human health.

Clostridium spp, Campylobacter spp, and Listeria may also be present in raw meat, and these bacteria are very harmful to humans.

So, if anyone in your family has weakened immunity, do not feed your dog a raw diet. In any case, it’s important to practice good hygiene when handling raw food.

What is the Official Opinion on Raw Food for Dogs?

When it comes to the raw food debate, many dog owners feel torn. On the one hand, they want to feed their dog a “natural” diet. But, on the other, they are worried about the risk of disease. So, let’s see what official guidance tells us.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA) discourage the feeding of raw animal products to dogs and cats. This is because they believe heat-treating is necessary to eliminate pathogens. The British Veterinary association shares the same concerns.

However, some people believe we are at a “turning point” with regards to pet food. This is because some vets are beginning to show support for the raw food diet.

For example, the Raw Feeding Veterinary Society (RFVS) claim that the “gold-standard” pet food should be as close to the animal’s evolutionary diet as possible. In the case of dogs, this means a raw food diet. The RFVS believe that synthetic supplements, additives, and preservatives are not healthy for dogs. As such, they do not support processed/rendered dog foods.

Time will tell if the raw dog food diet becomes mainstream. In the meantime, even members of the RFVS state that a raw food diet should only be attempted if you have the time and means to do it responsibly.

Nutrient Deficiencies in Raw Dog Food

If you choose to prepare your dog’s food at home, you should be aware of the following risks:

  • Feeding dogs too many raw eggs can lead to a biotin deficiency.
  • Vitamin A toxicity can occur if your dog eats too much liver.
  • Some home-prepared plans underestimate the amount of carbohydrate and fiber dogs need in their diet.
  • Too much raw fish can lead to a thiamine deficiency.

These are just some of the risks you should be aware of.

raw vs. cooked food for dogs

How to Do the Raw Dog Food Diet Safely

If you want to switch your dog to a raw food diet, here are some tips to consider:

  • Before committing to your decision, speak to a qualified vet that specializes in this area. The Raw Feeding Veterinary Society (RFVS) can point you in the right direction, or you might know a vet in your local area. They can tell you if a raw food diet would be appropriate for your dog. They can also help you design a balanced diet. Do not rely exclusively on books, e-books and internet resources when planning your dog’s diet.
  • Practice good hygiene when preparing food. Use a separate workspace to prepare the food and keep a set of utensils specifically for this job. Wash and disinfect them after each use.
  • Do not allow children, or anyone with a weakened immune system, to prepare raw meat.
  • Use high-quality protein that is fit for human consumption.
  • If your budget allows, you might find it easier to buy a “complete” raw dog food. If so, choose a reputable company.
  • Make sure you know which foods are poisonous to dogs. For example, citrus, onion, and chocolate should never be given to a dog.
  • If you freeze raw food, make sure it has defrosted fully before serving it to your dog.
  • Raw food preparations can be lower in calories than commercial foods. Generally, this is a good thing because it prevents obesity. But don’t make the mistake of underfeeding your dog.
  • According to PSDA, bones (raw or cooked) should not be given to a dog. Bones can cause gastrointestinal problems and even choking.
  • If you choose to include legumes in your dog’s diet, research suggests that these should be cooked rather than raw to aid digestion.

You should monitor your dog’s progress and discuss any concerns with your vet.

Raw vs. Cooked Food for Dogs

When it comes to the raw food vs. cooked food debate, there is no clear winner. On the one hand, raw food is healthy and biologically appropriate. But, on the other, it is hard to manage, potentially expensive, and can leave dogs susceptible to disease.

Similarly, cooked food is free from harmful bacteria and “nutritionally balanced”. But it contains a lot of synthetic nutrients.

As such, don’t focus too heavily on the raw vs cooked food debate. Instead, ask yourself the following:

  • Does the food contain a high-quality source of protein?
  • Will your dog find it tasty and satisfying?
  • Is the food safe for your dog? And for your family?

In practice, this usually means that gently cooked dog food or commercially prepared raw meals are best.