It’s impossible to predict whether your dog will become sick from eating raw meat.
All dogs are different, as are samples of raw meat. Your pup may crunch up a raw chicken wing and remain in perfect health, or he may contract a terrible – potentially lethal – disease.
No matter the outcome, feeding your dog raw meat amounts to very high-stakes poker.
Raw meat absolutely presents more risk than cooked meat does (regardless of whether the cooked meat take the form of commercial kibble or a home-prepared meal). There is nothing controversial about this; cooking kills many of the germs and pathogens present in raw meat.
Raw meat just isn’t reliably safe for your dog.
We’ll talk about the problems associated with deliberately feeding dogs raw meat in a moment, but first, we wanted to take a moment to talk about what you should do if your dog has already eaten a piece of raw meat. For example, your dog may have snatched a piece of raw meat you dropped while cooking or helped herself to something sitting on the kitchen counter.
First of all, don’t panic – particularly if your dog just ate a small amount of raw meat.
There’s a big difference between your dog eating a bite of raw chicken or beef and feeding your dog raw meat on a day-in, day-out basis. The piece she ate may not have been covered in bacteria, so she could get lucky. If the piece does turn out to have been contaminated, the fact that your dog only ate a small amount will likely reduce the chances that she’ll become seriously ill.
Even if your dog ate a considerable quantity of raw meat (such as a whole chicken breast), you probably don’t need to race over to the vet. Just get your vet on the phone, explain what happened, and follow the advice provided.
Don’t induce vomiting or take any other drastic measures. Just be sure to watch her for signs of illness and contact your vet again if she starts vomiting or experiencing severe diarrhea.
Throughout most of our shared history, dogs have essentially eaten our scraps.
This is still the case today to an extent. Compare the ingredients list on a bag of dog food to those on a frozen dinner; they are made of the same stuff, more or less.
Ancient people would toss literal scraps and unwanted portions of cooked meat and vegetable matter to the dogs lurking around the fire.
When commercial dog foods became widespread, most people embraced the convenience and often superior nutrition they provided. By the middle of the 20th century, commercial dog food became the mainstream diet for dogs.
But, in 2001, a veterinarian by the name of Ian Billinghurst published a book called “The Barf Diet.” Before you get the wrong idea, the book is not referring to, you know, actual barf (although our dogs would probably love it – we’ve all seen our precious pup yak something up and re-eat it before we could clean it up).
BARF is an acronym that stands for:
Some contend that it stands for Bones and Raw Food, but the idea is generally the same.
The book purportedly embraces “evolutionary principles” and seeks to mimic the diet of wild canines and felines. Many people fell in love with this idea and started feeding their dog things like raw chicken wings and meat-covered bones for dinner (often along with fruits and vegetables).
Many dogs love the taste of raw meat and tend to tolerate it well. But, as explained previously, raw meat is often contaminated with a variety of pathogens that can sicken your dog. You could even wind up at the emergency room if you aren’t careful.
You don’t have to take my word for it: Most veterinarians and researchers eschew raw meat diets. In fact, the very first sentence of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s raw meat policy states:
“The AVMA discourages the feeding to cats and dogs of any animal-source protein that has not first been subjected to a process to eliminate pathogens because of the risk of illness to cats and dogs as well as humans.”
Ask your own vet what he or she thinks of the raw diet, but be prepared for a similar answer. In the meantime, consider what the FDA says about raw meat (spoiler alert: the article is titled “Get the Facts! Raw Pet Food Diets can be Dangerous to You and Your Pet”):
“The study showed that, compared to other types of pet food tested, raw pet food was more likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria.”
To investigate the safety of raw meat diets, the FDA sampled hundreds of pet foods, including kibbles for dogs and cats, dry food for exotic pets, jerky treats, and more. The results are eye-opening.
Only 1 in 860 cooked or dried foods (a batch of dry cat kibble) was contaminated with either Listeria monocytogenes or bacteria from the genus Salmonella.
By contrast, nearly 24% of raw pet foods was contaminated by one of the two bacteria. Fifteen of the 196 raw food samples tested positively for Salmonella bacteria, while 32 showed the presence of the Listeria species in question.
Part of the rationale behind feeding dogs raw meat is the desire to provide them with a “biologically appropriate” diet.
However, there are a couple of problems with this thought process.
Plenty of wild dogs and wolves get sick by eating raw meat – some get over the illness easily enough, while others may pay the ultimate price. But they do not have a choice in the matter; there aren’t many places a wild canine can get a cooked meal.
The primary reason that raw meat is dangerous involves the bacteria and other microorganisms that may be present in most raw animal flesh.
These may not lead to symptoms in all dogs, but it is wise to avoid the possibility entirely.
Salmonella is a genus of bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal illness and septicemia in humans. Most such infections are relatively minor and resolve after a few days, but some strains (called serotypes) can cause very serious illness or death.
Usually, Salmonella infections are of special concern for very old, young, or immunocompromised patients, but even otherwise healthy adults occasionally require hospitalization.
Some Salmonella strains can also affect dogs. Most dogs simply carry the bacteria in their gut without developing any signs of illness. However, some dogs become quite sick and suffer from acute diarrhea for several days. Occasionally, even more severe symptoms manifest.
Additionally, even if your dog doesn’t develop an illness from the bacteria, they surely spread infective spores nearly everywhere they go, potentially putting your family at risk.
Listeria monocytogenes is a dangerous bacteria that causes illness in a wide variety of animals. It usually causes inflamed lesions in afflicted animals.
Although Listeria infections are relatively rare people, the 50% mortality rate associated with the infection makes this a germ to avoid.
Dogs can carry and shed Listeria via their feces and grooming habits, which can increase your chances of contracting the disease. Dogs can become sick or die from Listeria, although this appears to be quite rare.
Campylobacter is a genus of bacteria that primarily causes illness in humans, but it also afflicts dogs on rare occasions.
Unfortunately, as explained by VCA Hospitals, most clinical cases involve one of two Campylobacter strains that are both resistant to antibiotics.
Most humans contract Campylobacter by eating undercooked poultry, but people occasionally catch the illness from the bacteria excreted by their dog. It’s not yet clear how often this occurs, but it is best to err on the side of caution.
Bacteria of the genus Clostridium, particularly Clostridium perfringens, can cause severe diarrheal illness in dogs.
Many dogs carry the bacteria asymptomatically, but others become gravely ill. About one-third of dogs with diarrhea test positive for Clostridium, but many otherwise healthy dogs test positive as well.
Researchers do not fully understand what makes some strains of the bacteria dangerous while others are apparently harmless. It is clear that many strains can cause serious illness in humans, so it is wise to avoid giving your dog food contaminated with this bacteria.
Escherichia coli – often abbreviated as E. coli — is a bacteria that lives in the large intestine of most mammals, including dogs and humans.
The vast majority of the bacterial strains are harmless, even important, components of normal intestinal flora. However, a few strains are capable of causing severe, acute illness – particularly in young puppies.
Diarrhea is the most common symptom, but vomiting and cramping can also occur, as can dehydration from fluid loss. Those with weak immune systems may develop kidney failure in response to the bacteria.
Pigs are often infected with pork worm (Trichinella spiralis) – a microscopic roundworm that causes illness in people or dogs who consume undercooked or raw pork. These worms penetrate the muscles of infected animals, causing gastrointestinal illness, muscle pain, and other symptoms. The worms can persist for years in humans, and it is occasionally fatal.
Many people are surprised that raw salmon can carry pathogens; after all, it is a staple in most sushi restaurants.
Don’t worry; it remains safe for humans (and cats, bears, and most other carnivores) because this particular parasite only seems to cause problems for dogs.
Salmon and a number of their relatives often carry a parasitic flatworm called Nanophyetus salmincola. In most cases, this flatworm is relatively innocuous, causing few – if any – problems in animals who consume raw salmon. But these flatworms can themselves be infected with an organism called Neorickettsia helminthoeca, and this is what causes problems for dogs.
Typical problems include diarrhea, vomiting, inappetence, fever, and swollen lymph nodes. Without treatment, most dogs (90%) die from the infection.
As you can see, there are a number of different pathogens that may lurk in a hunk of raw meat. Your dog may have been eating raw meat for years without ever getting sick, but each time you offer raw meat to him, you are rolling the dice with his health and yours.
If you really want to feed your dog raw, consider going with a manufactured kibble that includes chunks of raw freeze-dried morsels. These kinds of foods are increasingly more common, and provide your dog with the yummy taste of raw food without the safety and contamination issues.
What do you think of feeding your dog raw meat? Have you ever considered it? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ben is a proud dog owner and lifelong environmental educator who writes about animals, outdoor recreation, science, and environmental issues. He lives with his beautiful wife and spoiled-rotten Rottweiler JB in Atlanta, Georgia. Read more by Ben at FootstepsInTheForest.com.