Review Article Compte rendu
Raw food diets in companion animals: A critical review
Abstract — Feeding of raw meat-based diets to pets has become an increasingly popular trend amongst pet own-
ers. Owners, who desire to provide the best for their pets, seek veterinary opinions about food options. This paper
reviews and applies standards of evidence-based medicine to grade the available scientific literature that addresses
the nutritional benefits or risks, infectious disease risks, and public health implications of raw, meat-based pet
diets. Although there is a lack of large cohort studies to evaluate risk or benefit of raw meat diets fed to pets, there
is enough evidence to compel veterinarians to discuss human health implications of these diets with owners.
Résumé — Diètes à base d’aliments crus chez les animaux de compagnie : Un examen critique. Les diètes à
base de viande crue pour les animaux de compagnie gagnent de plus en plus en popularité parmi les propriétaires
d’animaux de compagnie. Les propriétaires, qui désirent ce qu’il y a de mieux pour leurs animaux de compagnie,
cherchent à obtenir des opinions auprès des vétérinaires à propos des choix alimentaires. Le présent article examine
les normes de médecine factuelle et les applique afin d’évaluer la documentation scientifique publiée abordant les
bienfaits ou les risques nutritionnels, les risques de maladies infectieuses et les répercussions sur la santé publique
des diètes à base de viande crue pour les animaux de compagnie. Même s’il y a une absence d’études de grandes
cohortes afin d’évaluer les risques ou les bienfaits des diètes de viande crue pour les animaux de compagnie, il existe
suffisamment de preuves pour motiver les vétérinaires à discuter des répercussions de ces diètes sur la santé humaine
avec les propriétaires.
(Traduit par Isabelle Vallières)
Can Vet J 2011;52:50–54
of more “natural” and “homemade” choices. This has been
partially driven by a movement paralleled in the human food
marketplace for natural and organic products. This change was
further fueled by the recent Menu Foods melamine contamina-
tion. In 2007, an article in the Wall Street Journal (1) outlined
the dilemma faced by many pet owners. Aside from concerns
about commercial foods, there are many additional reasons for
this change in feeding practices.
Michel (2) summarized well the reasons people seek uncon-
ventional pet foods. Firstly, unlike veterinarians and researchers,
n recent years, many pet owners have abandoned conven-
tional, veterinary recommended, commercial diets in search
most pet owners approach feeding their pets much like they
approach feeding their families. While nutrition is important
in food choices, there are social and cultural aspects to food
selection and feeding practices. Items often included in pet
food are by-products of the human food industry. Although
generally very nutritional and healthy, pet owners would not
choose to eat these foods themselves. Logically, some individuals
would then question feeding these items to their pets. Secondly,
food has a social significance to humans. As pets become more
intimately associated with the family unit, the desire to prepare
and vary diet becomes greater. Thirdly, feeding pets is a means
by which one can exert some level of control or be empowered
in influencing the health and well-being of a loved companion.
One increasingly popular trend in unconventional pet food is
the feeding of raw, meat-based diets.
The pet owner and the veterinarian are bombarded with a
plethora of information and opinions regarding raw foods. So,
how is all of this information evaluated? What criteria can be
used to make logical, safe decisions?
How to evaluate the evidence
The goal of any therapeutic intervention (recommendation of a
specific diet) is to first “do no harm.” In addition, the goal is to
help the patient live a longer, better life, and ideally, a therapy
should be selected based on sound clinical reasoning, scientific
evidence, and an understanding of risk management (3). An
attempt should be made to grade the type of medical evidence
Department of Veterinary Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences,
Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Calgary,
3330 Hospital Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta T2N 4N1
(Schlesinger); Calgary Animal Referral and Emergency Centre,
7140–12th St SE, Calgary, Alberta T2H 2Y4 (Schlesinger, Joffe).
Address all correspondence to Dr. Daniel P. Schlesinger; e-mail:
Reprints will not be available from the authors.
Use of this article is limited to a single copy for personal study.
Anyone interested in obtaining reprints should contact the
CVMA office (email@example.com) for additional
copies or permission to use this material elsewhere.
available when making these decisions. To grade medical evi-
dence, there must first be an understanding of the different types
of studies that are published.
A case control study identifies patients that have an outcome
of interest (cases) and patients without the same outcome (con-
trols), then looks back to see if these patients had the exposure
of interest. A case series study is an examination of a series of
patients with an outcome of interest. There is no control group.
A cohort study identifies 2 groups of patients, one that received
the exposure of interest and one that did not, and follows these
groups forward to the outcome of interest. A randomized con-
trolled clinical trial involves participants that are randomly
allocated to an experimental group or a control group then,
follows both groups over time to assess the outcome of interest.
Finally, a systematic review or meta-analysis creates a summary
of medical literature that uses explicit methods to perform a
comprehensive literature search and critical appraisal of indi-
vidual studies and then uses appropriate statistical techniques to
combine these study results (4). Studies are graded as evidence
levels 1 to 5 (3,4).
Level 1 studies include systematic reviews of multiple studies
which have limited variation in their results, randomized con-
trolled clinical trials (multiple), or an individual randomized
trial with narrow confidence interval (very little if any overlap
between groups). Also included in this group would be an “all
or none” study where all patients died before treatment was
available, but some now survive or some died before and now
all survive with the treatment.
Level 2 studies are systematic reviews of cohort studies with
consistent results or individual cohort studies, including lower
quality randomized clinical trials (, 80% follow-up). Level 3
studies include systematic reviews of case control studies with
consistent results or individual case-control studies. Level 4
studies are a case series or poor-quality cohort and case-control
studies. Level 5 studies include expert opinion without explicit
critical appraisal; or the conclusions are based on physiological
research or principles.
This paper reviews available scientific literature about possible
benefits and risks of feeding raw food to pets. Studies will be
classified relative to the level of evidence. Literature was searched
using the University of Calgary Library’s search engine with
key words “raw food diets” and “pets/dogs/cats.” This engine
searches multiple medical and agricultural databases.
Evidence of nutritional benefit or risk in feeding
There are no published level 1, 2, or 3 studies of nutritional risk
or benefit of raw meat feeding to dogs or cats.
Level 4 evidence of nutritional benefit
The only available published information on feeding raw
meats to a number of dogs and cats that could be interpreted as
remotely positive is a survey study on feeding practices in the
United States and Australia (5). Results of the survey indicated
that 98.7% of dog owners and 98.5% of cat owners deemed
their pet healthy. Of all of those owners, bones or raw food were
provided as part of the main meal to 16.2% of dogs and 9.6%
of cats. Less than 3% of owners fed exclusively home-prepared
diets. The study did not try to correlate the owner’s perceptions
of health with diet, but the bone and raw food feeders would
have been amongst the group that considered their pets to be
Level 4 evidence of nutritional risk
There are isolated case reports that could be classified as level 4
evidence of risk. Hypervitaminosis A was reported in a cat
fed a pork liver-based raw food. The cat returned to nor-
mal health when the diet was changed back to a commercial
canned food (6). Feline pansteatitis was reported in 10 cats fed
a homemade diet of cooked pig brain or raw and cooked oily
fish (7). Nutritional osteodystrophy was reported in 2 litters
of 6-week-old large breed puppies fed a bones and raw food
(BARF) diet from about 3 wk of age (8). Nutritional second-
ary hyperparathyroidism has also been reported in a litter of
German shepherd puppies fed a diet of 80% rice with 20% raw
meat. The diet contained excessive amounts of phosphorus (9).
Not all puppies fed the diet experienced problems, suggesting
individual or genetic susceptibility.
A nutritional analysis of 5 raw food diets (2 commercially
produced and 3 home-made) found low calcium and phos-
phorus in 3 of the 5 diets. Two commercial diets were high
in vitamin D. Two of the diets were deficient in potassium,
magnesium, and zinc (10).
Supporters of raw food will argue that feeding a variety of
foods will lessen the risk of nutritional imbalance (11).
Level 5 evidence of nutritional benefit
In a letter to the editor, proponents of raw food feeding refer-
ence a single scientific article supporting their contention that
digestive enzymes in fresh food enhance biological availability
and that heating depletes these enzymes and therefore the
nutritional quality of the ingested food (12). The paper, by
Prochaska and Piekutowski (13), is a review of the medical
literature supporting their hypothesis that natural enzymes in
food act synergistically with those in the human digestive tract
to release maximum thermodynamic free energy from food.
The report discusses the literature that supports the idea that
the enzymes can survive the digestive process in humans and
may increase the nutritional value of food. The paper concludes
that there is no direct evidence that lack of enzyme synergy
leads to any disease processes. Further, the authors state that
the role of enzyme synergy has not been studied in sufficient
detail to predict its biological significance (13). Another study
assessed long-term consumption of raw foods (not meat) in
humans to assess the impact on cardiovascular disease (14).
Raw fruit and vegetables constituted between 70% to 100%
of the diet and it was determined that there was a decreased
risk of heart disease based on improvement in LDL cholesterol
and triglyceride concentrations, but possibly an increase risk
of coronary artery disease because of vitamin B12 deficiency
(associated with elevated plasma homocysteine and lower HDL
Evidence for infectious disease “risk” to pets
or humans sharing the same environment
Level 1 evidence of infectious disease risk-none
Levels 2 and 3 evidence of infectious disease risk
There are several studies that document the presence of infec-
tious agents in raw foods and the potential for contaminating
or shedding these agents in the pet’s environment. A recent
study (15) analyzed 240 samples from 20 commercially prepared
raw meat dog diets (beef, lamb, chicken, or turkey), 24 samples
from 2 commercial dry dog foods, and 24 samples from 2 com-
mercial canned foods. The commercial foods were collected
on 4 different dates, 2 mo apart. Three samples were collected
from each product at each sampling point and were evaluated by
culture for Escherichia coli, Salmonella enterica, Campylobacter,
and by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for Cryptosporidium,
Neospora, and Toxoplasma. The PCR was performed only during
the third and final sampling period. Almost 6% of the raw food
diets were positive for Salmonella, while none of the conven-
tional diets were positive. Escherichia coli were isolated from all
types of diets. It was found in almost 50% of the raw food diets
but in only 8/24 (33%) dry and 2/24 (8%) canned diets. There
were no significant association between the type of raw meat
and the agents isolated.
In 1 small study of client-owned dogs, 80% of raw chicken
diets were culture positive for Salmonella serovars, while none
of the commercial dry foods were positive. Thirty percent of
the stool samples of the raw chicken eaters were also positive;
the commercial diet consumers’ stools were negative (16).
Another study looked at research dogs fed a frozen commercial
raw food (17). The diet was tested for Salmonella prior to feed-
ing and divided into contaminated and non-contaminated.
The contaminated diet was fed to 16 dogs and the same non-
contaminated diet was fed to 12 dogs. There were no clinical
signs of disease in any of the dogs, but 7 of the dogs fed the
contaminated diet shed Salmonella serovars in their stool for
1 to 7 d after consumption. Five of the 7 shed the same serovar
that was recovered from the food sample. All dogs had tested
negative prior to starting the trial. In a cohort study examin-
ing shedding of Salmonella and other pathogens in a group of
healthy pet therapy dogs (n = 200), there was 0.61 case/dog
year of Salmonella shedding in dogs consuming raw food versus
0.08 case/dog year in non raw food consumers. There was also
an increased risk of shedding extended spectrum cephalospori-
nase producing E. coli (18).
Raw diet feeding is especially prevalent in greyhound facili-
ties. One study evaluated the Salmonella serovars isolated from
feces obtained from greyhounds with gastroenteritis against
those isolated from the diet fed prior to the onset of diarrhea
(19). Out of 41 fecal samples assessed, 31 were positive for
Salmonella and 16 were the same serovar as found in the diet.
For control, 35 “normal” fecal samples were cultured. Four
“normal” samples were positive for Salmonella.
Another documented risk is the occurrence of antimicrobial
resistance in many of the isolates. A study analyzing 166 com-
mercially available raw food samples, purchased randomly from
local pet stores in 3 Canadian cities found a prevalence of 21%
for Salmonella, with chicken being an ingredient in 67% of the
positive diets. Eighteen serovars were observed with resistance
present to 12/16 antibiotics tested (20).
Few studies document that Salmonella shedding by dogs
or cats can result in illness in humans. An outbreak of disease
due to multi-drug resistant Salmonella Typhimurium in 4 ani-
mal facilities has been reported (21,22). Illness occurred in
employees, clients, and animals that were present in 3 differ-
ent companion animal facilities and 1 animal shelter (21,22).
Eighteen humans and 36 animals were fecal culture positive for
Salmonella. Some of the animals died. Equally disturbing was
that some animals in the facilities and in clients’/employees’
homes cultured positive but were asymptomatic. Those affected
clinically included veterinary staff, pet owners, children, and
other pets. Although the diet fed to the pets was not discussed,
the study demonstrated that Salmonella can cause disease in pets
and that humans in contact are at risk.
Other examples of this risk are reports of Salmonella infec-
tions in humans linked to pig ear treats (23–26). A recent
survey reports a multistate outbreak of human salmonellosis
linked to contaminated commercial dry dog food (27). This
case illustrates that Salmonella present in a pet’s food can affect
humans in the household, with young children being at the
greatest risk for exposure.
Level 4 evidence of infectious disease risk
One study evaluated 25 commercial raw food diets for dogs and
cats (28). Coliforms were found in all diets and Salmonella in
20%. Another study looked at the association between feeding
raw meat and Salmonella enterica infections in a greyhound
breeding facility (29). The bacteria were isolated from 93% of
fecal samples and 66% of all samples (environment, feces, food).
The investigation was prompted by an outbreak of illness in
the dogs linked to the feeding of raw meat that was classified
as unfit for human consumption. In the 10 mo prior to the
investigation, 27 puppies from 8 litters had been affected, with
An earlier study (30) cultured 112 samples of commercial
raw meat used in greyhound diets. Almost 45% of samples
were positive for Salmonella serovars and there was wide-
spread antimicrobial resistance. The findings, however, are not
restricted to meat fed to greyhounds. Salmonella serovars were
isolated from 3.5% of fresh ground beef samples collected from
retail stores in the United States (31). Salmonella serovars were
isolated from 20% of broilers, 8.7% of market hogs, 7.5% of
ground beef, 44.6% of ground chicken, and 49.9% of ground
turkey (32) samples from federally inspected facilities in the
United States. In a group of racing sled dogs, where diarrhea
is relatively common during racing and raw meat feeding is
prevalent, Salmonella was isolated from approximately 63% of
fecal samples (33). There was no significant difference between
dogs with diarrhea and with normal stool. Another study of pet
dogs consuming mostly commercial foods found an isolation
rate of about 1% (34).
As there appears to be strong evidence that raw food can
contain Salmonella, it is vitally important, if feeding a raw meat
diet to a pet, that hygiene of the food preparation area and the
feeding bowls be diligently maintained. This may, however, be
difficult to achieve. A recent study found that standard methods
of cleaning and disinfecting food bowls were minimally effec-
tive at eliminating Salmonella (35). This included soaking with
bleach and cleaning in a dishwasher.
Level 5 evidence of infectious disease risk
Feeding raw meet to pets has been cited as a human risk fac-
tor in several review articles related to public health (36–38).
However, there have been no studies conclusively documenting
the risk to either pets or owners. Salmonella infections have been
reported in cats (39–40). In one of the reports, the infection
was associated with raw diet and the infection was fatal (39).
There are also isolated case reports of illness in humans associ-
ated with Salmonella in household pets, although raw food was
not identified in these cases (41,42).
Clearly, there is some compelling evidence suggesting that raw
food diets may be a theoretical risk nutritionally. In addition,
raw food poses a substantial risk of infectious disease to the
pet, the pet’s environment, and the humans in the household.
What is lacking, however, is level 1 evidence from randomized
controlled trials or strong level 2 evidence from large cohort
studies to evaluate risks or benefits of raw meat diets in pets.
There is, though, sufficient evidence available that veterinarians
should feel obligated to discuss the human health implications
of a client’s decision to use a raw meat-based food for their pet.
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1. a) Cats show “pinking up” (hyperemia) of the nipples at
2 to 3 weeks of gestation.
a) Les chattes présentent de la «rougeur» (hyperhémie) des
tétines lorsqu’elles atteignent 2 à 3 semaines de gestation.
2. b) Stay sutures allow relatively atraumatic manipulation of
b) Les sutures de «support» permettent une manipulation
atraumatique relative des tissus.
3. e) Intestinal lymphangiectasia is a significant cause of
protein-losing enteropathy but is not associated with
tenesmus or dyschezia.
e) La lymphangiectasie intestinale est une cause importante
d’entéropathie avec perte de protéines, mais n’est pas
associée au ténesme ou à la dyschésie.
4. d) Xerostomia by definition means dry mouth. It would not
be associated with excessive salivation (ptyalism).
d) Par définition, la xérostomie signifie bouche sèche.
Elle n’est donc pas associée à une salivation excessive
5. b) Colic may accompany these diseases in cattle.
b) Les coliques peuvent accompagner ces problèmes chez les
6. d) The cornea/limbus is affected in 60% of patients, the lower
eyelid in 27%, the upper eyelid in 10%, and the nictitans
in 7%. Orbital involvement is due to local extension from
one of the primary sites.
d) La cornée/limbe est affectée chez 60 % des patients, la
paupière inférieure chez 27 %, la paupière supérieure chez
10 % et la membrane nictitante chez 7 %. L’orbite est
touchée en raison d’une extension locale à partir d’un des
7. c) Although they are the classic lesions of campylobacterosis,
these lesions are only observed in 10% to 30% of lambs
aborted from this disease.
c) Bien que ce soit les lésions classiques de la
campylobactériose, ces lésions sont observées chez
seulement 10 % à 30 % des agneaux qui avortent à cause
de cette maladie.
8. c) In neonatal isoerythrolysis the dam makes antibodies
against the foal’s red blood cells, and these antibodies are
concentrated in the colostrum.
c) Dans l’isoérythrolyse néonatale, la mère fabrique des
anticorps contre les globules rouges du poulain et ces
anticorps sont concentrés dans le colostrum.
9. c) Milk spots (lesions of ascarid infection) are large and
fibrotic, not necrotic. Fluke infection and contagious hepa-
titis do not occur in pigs. Selenium deficiency is associated
with liver hemorrhage.
c) Les taches de lait (lésion d’une infection par les ascarides)
sont grosses et fibreuses, non nécrotiques. L’infection par
les douves et l’hépatite contagieuse n’affectent pas les
porcs. La carence en sélénium est associée à l’hémorragie
10. e) Cats with hepatic lipidosis are notorious for their refusal
e) Les chats qui souffrent de lipidose hépatique sont
remarquables dans leur refus de manger.
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