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Should Your Dog's Food Be Raw or Cooked? Pros and Cons

By Michele Welton, Dog Trainer, Breed Selection Consultant, Author of 15 Dog Books


Most people who feed real food to their dogs cook the food. And that's fine – much, much better than feeding kibble or canned. Your dog is going to love it.

But an increasing number of owners, breeders, trainers, even veterinarians, have gone back to the traditional practice of feeding raw food to their dogs.

Dogs have been fed raw food (meat, fish, eggs) for more than fifteen thousand years.

Two dogs playing in the water

It's only comparatively recently that people began offering cooked food. A dog's digestive system isn't really designed for digesting cooked food, but it can usually adapt pretty well to simple cooked foods like meat, fish, eggs, and veggies.

At least.... many dogs can.

So if you've decided you want to try feeding real food, your first decision should be: raw or cooked?

Raw Cooked
Digestibility   dogs absorb raw nutrients to the max   cooked nutrients are not as well-absorbed
"Exercises" your dog's digestive system   yes   not very much
Amount of poop   less  more
Includes vitamins, antioxidants, amino acids, enzymes   lots   many are killed or damaged by cooking
Risk of bacteria in the food   small amount is sometimes present   most are killed by cooking

As you can see, raw wins on all counts except for the risk of bacteria.

Let's talk first about all those green checkmarks where raw is superior to cooked.

Then I'll answer the controversial question, "Is raw food safe to feed a dog?"

5 reasons raw food is better than cooked food

Reason #1: Dogs are designed to eat raw food, to completely digest raw food, and to draw the maximum nutrients from raw food.

A dog's digestive tract is tailor-made for raw food. The shape of his teeth are perfect for tearing meat and crushing bone. The powerful hydrochloric acid in his stomach breaks down tough food material and kills bacteria. His short, straight intestinal tract quickly eliminates any questionable food before it can do any harm.

That's the digestive system of a raw meat eater. That's the digestive system of your dog, whether Chihuahua or a Great Dane.

The entire canine family (wolves, coyotes, wild dogs, domesticated dogs) has a digestive system designed to eat, digest, and absorb raw meat.

Which makes sense, because they can't roast or bake the rabbits they catch, right? They just eat the thing raw.

That's why a raw diet is also called a biologically-appropriate or species-appropriate diet.

raw meat

Reason #2: Eating raw food keeps a dog's digestive system fit and healthy.

You know the old expression, "Use it or lose it"? When a dog's digestive system goes to work digesting raw food, his digestive system is exercised, which helps it stay strong and healthy.

Unfortunately, cooked meat makes your dog's digestive system lazy. When you cook meat, the heat breaks down the meat so that what you serve to the dog is already semi-digested. Eating semi-digested meat doesn't exercise his digestive system, and this lack of use can open the door to future digestive ailments.

Reason #3: Raw food is packed with enzymes, vitamins, amino acids, and antioxidants.

Unfortunately, these vital nutrients are damaged by cooking. In the case of essential digestive enzymes, now your dog must produce those missing enzymes in his pancreas. Forcing the pancreas to work overtime when it shouldn't need to can lead to pancreatic ailments.

When you cook your dog's food (or whenever you feed kibble or canned food), always ADD synthetic digestive enzymes to the food to help him digest it.

raw meat

Reason #4: Raw foods contain a unique form of moisture that cooked foods don't have.

We all know that meat and veggies are naturally wet. Touch meat and you can feel its juices. Peel a carrot and the inside looks and feels moist and juicy.

But I'm not talking here about the kind of moisture that you can see or feel.

There's a more important kind of moisture that raw foods have. It's an internal moisture packed inside the molecular cells of raw meat, vegetables, and fruits.

Internal moisture is only released after the food reaches the intestines. This liquid bathes the intestines, keeping them moist and slippery, which helps avoid constipation.

Unfortunately, although cooked meat and veggies look and feel moist, their molecular cells have been broken down by the heat, and their valuable internal moisture has been lost.

Reason #5: Dogs are less commonly allergic to raw food, and more often allergic to cooked food.

For example, Cashew is a Cocker Spaniel owned by a friend of mine. Cashew is allergic to cooked beef, and also to kibble and canned foods that contain beef. (All kibble and canned foods are cooked).

But when switched to raw beef, Cashew had no problems. This is probably because the proteins in raw beef are in their natural form and thus recognizable by the dog's digestive system.

Whereas cooking alters the molecular shape of meat proteins so much that the digestive tract of some dogs don't even recognize it as food. Their immune system says, "Hey, what's that?" and sends out waves of histamines to attack the unrecognized "intruder". The result can be chronic allergies and digestive upsets.

Is raw food safe?

Whenever the topic of raw food comes up, especially raw meat, the #1 concern that dog owners have is, "Isn't that risky?"

Our mothers and grandmothers have taught us to be careful around raw meat. We wash our hands thoroughly after handling it. We sterilize our countertops.

So how could raw meat be safe for dogs? Doesn't it have bacteria in it? Like e.coli or salmonella?

Yes, pathogens can be present in raw meat.

Pathogens can exist on raw veggies and fruits, too. There have been many supermarket recalls of veggies and fruits for bacterial contamination.<.p>

Even dry and canned dog foods (which are all cooked) have been recalled multiple times for contamination from pathogens and other "ingredients" that weren't supposed to be there but found their way in via mass assembly line processing.

Unless we keep our dogs in bubbles, we cannot keep them away from bacteria. Bacteria is everywhere. That's the bad news.

The good news is that a small number of bacteria doesn't bother a healthy dog with a normal immune system. It's gross to think about, but doesn't your dog lick his own behind? Lots of e.coli in poop, but he doesn't get sick from that. Bacteria only become dangerous when they're able to colonize and multiply, and that rarely happens in a healthy dog.

Remember when I said that the canine family has a digestive system designed for raw food? Let's look at how that works:

  1. A dog's stomach produces powerful hydrochloric acid. Bacteria die off in acidic environments.
  2. A dog's digestive tract is short, which means waste material zips through quickly. Any bacteria that may have escaped the strong stomach acid doesn't have much time to dig in and multiply before getting pooped out.

In other words, strong stomach acids + quick elimination = little chance of normal bacteria causing any problems for a normal dog.

Ah-ha! Notice that I said "little chance of normal bacteria causing any problems for a normal dog."

You might have some questions about that word normal. For example, "If you buy raw meat at the supermarket and it happens to contain bacteria, how do you know it's normal bacteria?

Couldn't it be loads of bacteria? Or some superform of bacteria?"

You've probably seen ugly documentaries about the sorry state of our slaughterhouses and meat processing plants. They're awful.

Could the raw meat you buy at the supermarket be so contaminated that it's too much for even a DOG'S strong digestive system to handle?

Germs under microscope

That's a fair question. I have the same concern.

So I don't feed raw meat from the supermarket. I feed organic, grass-fed meat from my local farmer's market. The livestock is raised on small farms, grass-fed, without hormones or antibiotics, and without being processed through the giant processing plants that supply supermarkets with their meat. I can't prove that my meat is safer, but it feels safer.

I also feed a commercial raw diet which has been subjected to a safety process that kills bacteria. It's called High Pressure Pasteurization and it means the food was treated with extremely high water pressure that kills bad little buggers like e.coli, salmonella, and listeria. One company describes it as "putting the squeeze" on pathogens – without destroying vital nutrients as would occur with heating.

Next question..... just as we might ask what "normal" bacteria is, we might ask what a "normal" dog is.

Obviously our dogs aren't wolves and they're not wild. Is the digestive system of a domesticated dog still able to handle raw?

Yes. Thousands upon thousands of owners, breeders, trainers, and veterinarians feed raw. They feed raw to Chihuahuas and German Shepherds and Labradoodles and mixed breeds.

The digestive system of a domestic dog is not appreciably different from that of a wild dog.

However....

The longer your dog has been eating cooked food (or dry kibble or canned food, which are also cooked), the more slowly you should transition him to raw.

This is because his digestive system has become lazier and less functional from the unnatural diet. It needs a few weeks to build up the proper enzymes for a natural diet

What if a dog is unhealthy? Suppose he already has a digestive disease or a compromised immune system?

Interestingly, sometimes those dogs are the best candidates for switching to a raw diet. It might even be a game-changer in curing or improving his ailment.

Talk it over with a vet who either recommends raw or at least has an open mind about it.

On the other hand, there are some dogs for whom a cooked homemade diet might be the best choice. Now, if your vet doesn't even recommend cooked homemade, I would look for another vet. Honestly. Because that's not an open mind at all.

2 ways to feed raw food

Either assemble the raw ingredients yourself, or buy a commercial (pre-made) raw food.... or do some of each.

Homemade meal1) To prepare it yourself, see my simple homemade recipe.

Instinct Raw frozen dog food2) To buy a commercial raw food, visit your local pet store. You'll find frozen raw food in the freezer section; just defrost and serve. You'll find small bags of freeze-dried raw food on a shelf; just add water and serve. I use the frozen myself, but both are good.

You can also buy these foods online.

See my recommended brands of frozen and freeze-dried dog food.

Commercial raw diets make complete meals by themselves, or when combined with my homemade recipe, or even with kibble or canned food.

2 ways to feed cooked food

Either cook it yourself, or buy a commercial (pre-made) cooked food.... or do some of each.

Homemade meal1) To cook it yourself, see my simple homemade recipe.

NomNomNow dog food2) To buy a commercial cooked food, order it online and have it delivered to your house. If you love the idea of delicious homemade, but don't have the time or inclination to make it, a company called NomNomNow will make the food in their kitchen and deliver it right to your door. See my in-depth review of NomNomNow.

Michele Welton with BuffyAbout the author: Michele Welton has over 40 years of experience as a Dog Trainer, Dog Breed Consultant, and founder of three Dog Training Centers. An expert researcher and author of 15 books about dogs, she loves helping people choose, train, and care for their dogs.



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