Growing up, feeding our pets was as simple as ripping open the cheapest bag of pet food and pouring it into a bowl for my cat. But many people today believe pets deserve better than that. Where I live, most health food stores have big freezers full of raw meat, bones, and other uncooked goodies for our furry friends.
We personally don’t have any pets right now, but two things have stood out to me. One is the price of feeding your pets raw food. It is expensive. Secondly, I wondered if this raw meat and vegetable diet is actually closer to the natural diet of animals. Our family cat growing up, Willy, was fed the typical cat food diet. But, living on two acres, he decided that wasn’t adequate. In good weather he hunted all day, bringing down birds, hunting mice, gophers and even small rabbits. He was pretty good at what he did and he certainly ate it raw too. He occasionally brought us offerings of his killings.
But is a natural diet of wild food always good? In our cat's case, he was much more likely to get worms from the birds he caught and ate. Other parasites could also be transferred to him. Those who are against feeding pets raw food also point out that pets can get ill from raw food (including what's sold at a health food store), just like humans can — E. coli being one of the biggest concerns.
What kind of bacteria can raw food contain?
When it comes to raw food, the risk for contracting a bacterial disease increases exponentially.
In 2019, a team of researchers in Sweden tested 60 frozen packs of raw dog food from a variety of manufacturers for any bacteria from the family Enterobacteriaceae, salmonella and for Clostridium perfringens and Campylobacter (both common causes of food poisoning). Astonishingly, all 60 samples contained some amounts of Enterobacteriaceae, and 31 packs contained levels higher than the threshold for satisfactory microbial hygiene set by the European Union. Clostridium perfringens was detected in 18 packs and salmonella was detected in four.
"This research offers further compelling evidence to support vets' concerns about the potential animal and public health risks associated with feeding pets a raw meat-based diet," Daniella Dos Santos, junior vice president at the British Veterinary Association, told CNN. "We would advise any owner wanting to try a raw meat-based diet for their pet to first consult a veterinary surgeon."
These bacteria aren't the only ones pet owners need to worry about. E. coli is another major concern, as this study explains.
A study conducted in 2018 in the Netherlands analyzed 35 raw meat pet food products and found the majority of them contained E. coli. About 80 percent of the food items contained antibiotic-resistant E.coli while 23 percent contained a type of E.coli that can cause kidney failure in humans. Salmonella and listeria were also detected in some of the food.
This research shows that even raw food products sold over the counter can be dangerous for your pets. “We have known that there are risks associated with raw meat feed diets since the early 2000s," Professor Daniel Chen told The Guardian, "but this is the first [research] in Europe that has gone as far as to check commercially available frozen raw meat diets."
Why do some pet owners prefer raw food?
No pet owner wants a sick pet, yet that is exactly why many pet owners give their dogs or cats raw food. A growing number of pet owners and veterinarians are promoting raw pet food because it goes back to the natural diet of pets. Many believe that the typical bag of pet food is bad for pets because it includes a lot of undesirable ingredients such as fillers, chicken by-products and other animal by-products not considered fit to be consumed by humans. Rancid oils and fats, also not considered edible for humans, are used in some pet foods.
Advocates for raw food believe a raw meat and vegetable diet is supposed to be easier for animals to break down because hundreds of years ago pets did not eat cooked food and that their digestive tract could break down raw food better than cooked.
Plus, over the years many recalls have occurred involving dry and wet pet food products for a wide variety of issues. Everything from metal tags in food to the 2007 recall after thousands of pets died due to poisoning from high levels of melamine. I can see why pet owners are concerned.
Whether you choose to feed your pet raw or processed food, there's never a 100-percent way to guarantee that no animal ever gets sick from what it eats. However, certain precautions should be kept in mind when contemplating feeding your furry friend raw food.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in January 2018.