Fresh, Frozen and Commercially Prepared Raw Pet Foods
By: Jennifer L. Summerfield, DVM
As dog and cat parents, we want to do everything we can to help keep our nonhuman family members healthy. And that includes feeding them right, since nutrition is a foundation for that good health we’re working hard to maintain. In recent years, a number of new, nontraditional feeding options have popped up as alternatives to the dry kibble in a bag that many of us are accustomed to feeding our pets.
At first glance, it’s not hard to see why these options are attractive to pet parents. After all, our own physicians and nutritionists have long been advising us to incorporate fresh foods into our diets and stay away from preservatives and processed foods when we can. We associate the idea of freshly prepared or raw foods with health and well-being, and we all know that TV dinners and highly processed products high in sugar and fat aren’t good for us over the long haul.
But is this advice equally relevant for our dogs and cats? Let’s investigate. And keep in mind that we’ll primarily be discussing commercially available pet foods that are found on store shelves and coolers, not fresh or raw diets that you may have made at home.
There are some definite pluses to feeding fresh, frozen or raw pet food diets to healthy pets with no known significant health concerns. Consider the following:
- Fresh food diets undergo less processing to get them to their final form, (what tends to be referred to as “minimally processed”) which helps maintain the integrity of the ingredients used to deliver nutrients to your pet.
- Since they are often found frozen, refrigerated or freeze-dried, minimally processed foods often contain fewer preservatives or none at all.
- They often look—and smell—better to our pets, making them potentially more appealing to choosy dogs and cats. This can help increase meal palatability, whether you decide to fully feed a minimally processed diet or use it as a meal topper.
- When purchased from a reputable pet food brand, you’ll also know that the food has undergone various microbial kill steps to help remove bacteria and reduce the risks that may be associated with homemade fresh or raw diets. This risk can be mitigated somewhat through manufacturing processes such as high-pressure pasteurization (HPP), which can reduce (but not eliminate) the bacterial load in raw meat products.
Although those may all seem like great reasons to try a nontraditional pet food for your dog or cat, be aware that there may be some potential downsides to consider. Two considerations with these types of diets can include:
- With fewer preservatives, it follows that minimally processed food has a shorter shelf life than kibble or canned wet food. While this is a positive for many pet parents, it is something to consider when you think about your storage options and how much food you want to have at home at once. Frozen fresh or raw food has a longer life while still frozen but, once defrosted, typically must be fed within about 7 days (depending on the brand). On the other hand, options like freeze-dried raw food are shelf-stable outside of coolers or freezers.
- Fresh, frozen and raw diets are currently a niche market, so the companies that make them tend to be (but aren’t always) small and less established. Keep in mind that this could mean that the new, small brand you may be considering might not yet be able to employ a veterinary nutritionist or conduct comprehensive feeding trials like more established companies that have been around for decades can. If you decide to pursue a minimally processed diet for your pet, be sure to consult your veterinarian and research the company to ensure it has the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) seal of approval on its label (to show that it's complete and balanced) and has a strong industry reputation.
Risks of a homemade fresh or raw diet
We know many people are choosing to cook their own pet food at home, but keep in mind that this practice does have risks, including:
- Nutritional imbalances: A major advantage of feeding a traditional commercial pet food from an established manufacturer with strict quality-control standards is knowing that it’s nutritionally complete and balanced for the type of pet you’re feeding. Many of the one-size-fits-all, home-cooked pet food recipes on the internet are NOT nutritionally complete or balanced for long-term feeding. This can be a problem for both dogs and cats, as dietary deficiencies can lead to such serious health problems as heart disease, vision problems, orthopedic disorders and more.
- Risk of food-borne illness: With raw meat diets in particular, the risk of food-borne illness from Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli or other bacteria contamination is always a concern. Although they are less susceptible to developing clinical signs of illness after exposure to food-borne bacteria, dogs and cats can still become quite sick, especially if they are very young, elderly, pregnant or immunocompromised in some way. Exposure to these bacteria for the humans in the household, whether through direct contact with the raw meat products, surfaces raw meat has touched or through bacterial shedding in the feces of a pet who eats a raw diet, can also be a concern.
Is a minimally processed diet right for your pet?
So, where does all this leave us?
If you're considering this type of diet for your pet, here's some advice to help keep everyone safe:
- For raw meat diets, always use good sanitation practices when touching, handling and preparing your pet’s meals. Only use ingredients from brands that use HPP to help reduce overall bacteria load. All food products sold at Petco meet this standard.
- If you’re considering a commercially prepared fresh, frozen or raw diet, research the company’s formulation process and quality-control standards. Look to see if they have a veterinary nutritionist on staff and if they perform feeding trials with their diets to ensure that they provide adequate nutrition. And of course always look for the AAFCO seal of approval on the label.
- To help make the most informed choice for your pet’s specific needs, always consult your pet’s regular veterinarian before making any diet changes.
If you think minimally processed food may be right for your cat or dog, Petco has made it easier to find the right brand for you by ensuring all our foods meet the three points above. So, when you’re ready to try a new diet, you can be sure to find the right one for your pet at Petco. If you’re still looking for the perfect option, try our Right Food Finder for Dogs as well as cats.