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Building a Raw Food Diet for Your Dog

Over the past few years, raw dog food has become a popular topic among pet parents seeking alternatives to traditional canned or dry food diets.

Between 2012 and 2016, raw pet food sales skyrocketed from $117 million to $393 million, and there are no signs that the interest in raw dog food is slowing down with additional interest in  freeze-dried and frozen raw foods.

If you’re considering a switch to a raw food diet for your dog, it’s important to understand all of your options, the benefits of raw food and the risks.

What is a raw dog food diet?

Feeding dog at homeWhen we say “raw” food, we’re talking about ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible, delivering nutrients that are as unadulterated as possible.

For some, this means feeding their pet a fully raw, or uncooked, meal that includes meat, bones, fruits and vegetables. However, because this form of raw feeding includes uncooked meat, which can pose a safety hazard, pet parents need to pay extra close attention to preparation and storage.

Additionally, for well-rounded nutrition, an at-home raw diet should be designed with the supervision and guidance of a veterinarian or pet nutritionist to ensure your pet is consuming the right amounts of all the ingredients and nutrients they need.

A more common approach to a raw food diet (and one that is potentially safer for your pet’s health), are commercially available options that meet AAFCO standards and have gone through a microbial kill step. These factors ensure that the food is held to nutritional standards and is safer for your pet to ingest and for you to handle. 

Raw dog food diet options

When it comes to building the right raw dog food diet plan, pet parents have plenty of options.

At-home raw dog food diets

One way to serve your dog raw food is to prepare it at home by sourcing and balancing quality ingredients. However, it’s important to keep in mind that building a raw dog food diet from scratch can be dangerous if you don’t take the proper precautions.

“When home-prepared diets are not balanced properly, there can be vitamin and mineral deficiencies over time,” says Dr. Angie Krause, owner of Boulder Holistic Vet in Colorado.

Additionally, there are contamination concerns with raw food, including meat and eggs. Bacteria like salmonella and listeria can be very harmful for not only your pet but any humans in the  household who prepare the food or come into contact with your pet’s bowls or feeding area.

Store-bought, frozen raw dog food diets

Instinct frozen dog foodIf you’re not sure you’re ready to commit to preparing a raw dog food diet at home from scratch, you can find prepared and packaged raw foods at many pet retailers. Look for them in the refrigerated or frozen section.

Commercially available raw diets have gone through some form of treatment to help ensure they are safe for your pet. Microbial kill steps such as cold-pressure processing or extrusion help limit your pet’s exposure to bacteria.

Store-bought raw dog food diets offer convenience, but the product’s efficacy and your pet’s safety rely on your close attention to feeding guidelines and expiration dates.

Freeze-dried raw dog food

Another store-bought option for raw-curious pet parents is freeze-dried varieties. These packaged products tend to have a longer shelf life than refrigerated raw foods.

“The freeze-drying process allows for easier storage and does remove some parasites, which could be present in the meat,” says Dr. Travis Arndt, assistant medical director at the Animal Medical Center of Mid-America. Be sure to research the company you may be buying from to ensure their microbial kill process. Petco requires all vendors to have this process in place, so you can feel comfortable with the food you purchase.

Can I feed my dog raw meat?

Feeding your dog raw meat puts them at risk of contracting salmonella, listeria or E.coli, since raw food may contain these pathogens. While these bacteria tend to be more harmful to humans, they can still kill pets in some cases. Because of that risk, avoiding raw meat in favor of a safer and more nutritionally balanced option is recommended.

How to prepare a raw diet for your dog

Before switching to a raw dog food diet, speak with your veterinarian. “Talk to your veterinarian about why you are considering switching to a raw diet,” says Arndt. “Is it to find an alternative treatment to a chronic medical condition plaguing your pet or just a general desire to help maintain your pet's optimal health?”

If you simply want to test out whether a full switch to raw dog food may be beneficial to your dog, consider beginning with raw dog food toppers. These prepackaged raw foods that are available in pet stores can be added to your dog’s kibble or canned food to provide the nutritional benefits of a raw diet.

Follow feeding guidelines and pay close attention to package expiration dates, discarding any packages once they’re no longer considered safe to consume.

If you plan on switching to a full raw dog food diet, start slowly and transition your pet over about 10 days—the same way you would transition them to any new diet.

If your pet’s raw diet comes frozen, allow it enough time to defrost in your refrigerator to keep bacteria from contaminating the food. Defrost only what your pet will eat in a few days to keep it fresh and safe. Never feed your dog partially frozen foods that have yet to defrost, as this can pose a choking hazard or cause damage to their internal organs.

If you have any questions about raw food options available for your pet, consult your veterinarian or a Petco partner for a nutrition conversation.