How safe is a raw diet? Not very—and the facts are chilling: Ann Martin has spent her career taking on the pet-health establishment

How safe is a raw diet? Not very—and the facts are chilling: Ann Martin has spent her career taking on the pet-health establishmentDogs and cats have been domesticated for thousands of years. They have eaten file residue of man's diet, which, since the inception of fire, has been cooked. In the past 15 years, a number of purported natural diets for dogs and cats have grown in popularity. Although the Biologically Appropriate Raw Food (BARF) diet is cited most often, many variations exist. Basically, the diet is composed of raw meat, bones, vegetables and, sometimes, grains.

How safe are these diets? In 1995, I began researching them and sought opinions from veterinarians, breeders and people who had, or were, feeding this diet to their animals. I also consulted research studies. What I found convinced me that I wouldn't be feeding a raw diet to any of my pets.


Pets are just as susceptible to the bacteria and parasites in raw meat as humans arc. Sahnonella, E. coli, campylobacter and trichinosis can cause severe illness and death. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that a high percentage of meat and poultry contains at least one strain of bacteria. Hence, the agency advises that you thoroughly cook meat and poultry. Toxoplasma, a parasite found in warm-blooded animals, can also be transmitted from raw or undercooked meat. David T. Roen, DVM, writes, "A veterinary neurologist told me the other day that they have seen au increase in seizure disorders in dogs and cats caused by toxoplasmosis, especially in areas where raw meat diets are trendy."

When I asked Geoff Stein, DVM, he wrote: "The problem with these 'natural' diets is the misguided assumption that 'natural' is better. It's 'natural' for wolves to die of salmonella once in awhile." He added that wolves would probably be healthier if they ate cooked meat.

Many raw food proponents theorize that freezing meat will kill bacteria. Not so. Laboratories preserve bacteria and viruses by freezing them. Cooking meat is the best way to eliminate the potential for illness.

Proponents also theorize that bacteria is destroyed by stomach acid. But Sharon Gwaltney-Brant, DVM, from the National Animal Poison Control Center, disagrees. "Pathogens such as salmonella, E. coli, clostridium and campylobacter have evolved 'coats' that protect them in their transit through the stomach, and this allows them to take hold in the intestines," she says. This could be the cause of the severe diarrhea some raw food people attribute to "detoxing."

Cats are also susceptible to bacteria found in raw meats. A case study, published in 2003 in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, involved cats that developed salmonellosis as a result of a raw diet. "The salmonellosis caused gastrointestinal upset, weight loss and anorexia, leading to both cats' deaths." Salmonella cultures from one cat were identical to cultures from the raw meat the cat was fed. "The resulting infection was confirmed as cause of death in both cases," the study said.

Nutritional Problems

In March 2001, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published a paper written by Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, and Kathyrn E. Michel, DVM, and their evaluation of raw food diets for dogs. Five diets were tested; three were homemade, and the other two commercial. The findings of Freeman and Michel pointed out a number of problems with raw diets, including low phosphorus and potassium levels, calcium-to-phosphorus ratios of 0.15 and high concentrations of zinc--all of which are areas of concern with growing puppies. One of the homemade diets yielded E. coli 0157:H7, which has been attributed to death in humans. Said the authors: "The results ... indicated that there are nutrition and health risks associated with raw food diets."

To date, there are no studies that conclude that raw diets are healthful for pets. Even the Pottenger Study--often cited by raw food supporters--was undertaken between 1932 and 1942 and provides no clear-cut consensus whether it was the raw meat, the cod liver oil or the raw milk in the diet that promoted a mortality decrease in cats. Until the study can be replicated with today's control standards, we can't accurately interpret the results.

Raw Bones

Many diets also encourage the feeding of raw bones. Julie Churchill, DVM, a specialist in nutrition, states, "Bones, even raw and ground bones, Call perforate the gastrointestinal tract. This call lead to peritonitis, severe infections or emergency surgery, and dogs die from this each year." Linda Dugger, DVM, told me about the problems she had seen in dogs that had ingested raw bones. "I've seen intestinal perforations, broken infected teeth, esophageal irritation and colitis from these things."

You also have to consider the damage to teeth by chewing on raw, meaty bones. Veterinary dentists whom I contacted were opposed to this practice. Fraser Hale, DVM, wrote that people think that feeding bones helps dogs have clean, white teeth. "What I see are dogs with sparkling teeth with crown fractures and endodontic disease." Gregg DuPout, DVM, expressed virtually the same opinion: "I don't recommend feeding bones due to the common occurrence of fractured upper 4th premolar teeth requiring root canal or extraction." Instead, he recommends brushing your pet's teeth to achieve good dental health.


Raw food proponents also contend that a cooked diet removes enzymes from food, yet many add digestive enzymes to the raw diet as well. Lisa Newman, ND, president of the International Natural Pet Care Association, says, "If a raw diet is full of enzymes, [this] shouldn't be necessary." She also writes that long-term use of enzyme supplements Call cause the body to shut down its ability to digest nutrients.

Enzymes are proteins. Upon entering the stomach, they are broken down by digestive chemicals into amino acids, which are then utilized to make new proteins and repair damaged tissues. The body's genetic materials contain the information needed to make as many enzymes as necessary for digestion.

My pets aren't wild animals, and I refuse to risk their health with diets that have caused illness and death. I've seen case after case of pets suffering while on a raw diet, yet the owners attribute the problems to everything but the diet. If you're going to feed your pet a raw diet, do your homework, read books, consult a veterinary nutritionist and consider the alternatives: a homemade diet with cooked meat or one of the non-mainstream, human-grade pet foods available at enlightened stores.

Not Good for Pups Either

It's clear that puppies can suffer nutritional inadequacies on a raw food diet. Josepha DeLay, DVM, and Jenny Laing, DVM, from the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, in a 2002 paper titled "Nutritional Osteodystrophy in Puppies Fed a BARF Diet," describe two litters of 6-week-old dogs who showed hind limb collapse, weakness and failure to thrive. One litter was fed a BARF diet beginning at 2 1/2 to 3 weeks of age. The second litter began the diet at 5 weeks. "The dames had been fed the same diet during gestation." All pups were weak, in pain and were either unable to stand or had abnormal gaits. DeLay and Laing concluded that lesions in the pups' bones resulted from the diet's abnormal calcium-to-phosphorus ratio and a likely absolute calcium deficiency.

Ann Martin is a leading authority on commercial pet foods and related animal-health concerns. She is the author of the revised and updated edition of Food Pets Die For (NewSage Press, 2003) us well as Protect Your Pet (NewSage Press, 2001).