Feeding raw meat diets to dogs is a very controversial issue. Some proponents passionately advocate these diets (e.g. the BARF diet) based on vague and unproven recommendations. Opponents cite various studies showing that pets fed raw meat (not surprisingly) have high carriage rates of potentially harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, and reports of diarrhea or nutritional imbalances in these animals. However, there have been only a few good studies looking at the true health benefits and risks of feeding these diets to dogs.
A recent study in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health described the risks of therapy dogs shedding Salmonella and other potentially harmful bacteria. The authors tested 200 dogs over a 1 year period, 20% of which were fed raw meat as part of their normal diet. Dogs fed raw meat were 23 times more likely to shed Salmonella compared to other dogs. They were also 17 times as likely to be shedding extended spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) Escherichia coli (a highly drug-resistant form of E. coli).
The study concluded that, because of the risk of Salmonella shedding and the high-risk nature of the patients and other people that therapy dogs interact with, dogs that are involved with hospital/patient visitation programs should not be fed raw meat.
What does this tell us about feeding raw meat to pets?
Although this study doesn’t answer all of the questions about the risks of raw meat diets, it reinforces the fact that pets fed raw meat have significantly higher rates of shedding of potentially harmful bacterial such as Salmonella and antibiotic-resistant E. coli. Eating pig ear treats has also been associated with Salmonella shedding. However, there was no association between a dog being fed raw meat and the animal itself developing diarrhea. In fact, raw-fed dogs had a lower incidence of extra-intestinal infections (combination of eye, ear, skin and urinary tract infections).
In general, raw meat diets should be avoided. While adverse health effects were not reported in this study, disease (including deaths) from Salmonella has been reported in dogs in other studies. While the overall risk may be low, feeding raw meat is an avoidable risk. However, it would be inappropriate to completely ignore the finding that raw-fed dogs had lower rates of certain infections. It is possible that there can be health benefits from feeding raw meat in certain dogs, but the potential benefits must be weighed against the potential risks to the animals and people with which the has contact. Raw meat diets should never be fed to pets that have contact with immunocompromised people (in the household or as part of visitation program), infants or the elderly.
If you are going to feed raw meat to your pet, make sure you take precautions to reduce the risk of infecting yourself or someone else. We’ll post more on that aspect soon.