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What’s best and more natural for your dog — raw or cooked food?

Should your dog go paleo?

So, you’re convinced (as who wouldn’t be?) that commercial dog food is best avoided. If you’re the thoughtful type, wanting to do what’s best for the dog in your care, you’ll likely find yourself now deep in the knotty issue of whether to go raw or keep on cooking.

It feels like raw would be healthier and more natural. It’s real food, right? Pure and unadulterated. It’s the food that wolves and other wild members of the family Canidae thrive on. So, why shouldn’t our wild-at-heart pups? After all, isn’t this the canine equivalent of adopting a paleo diet?

It can certainly seem that way.

But let’s take a closer look at the differences, between then and now, both in the food and the dog.

Point 1: That wolf taking down a deer is not at all the same as your pup munching down raw hamburger

Unless you yourself are a year-round hunter, what you can reasonably expect to feed your dog in the realm of raw meat is not likely to approach what those wild cousins eat. Stalking, bringing down, and then feasting on an animal that was alive only moments before is worlds apart from eating raw meat slaughtered and then processed many weeks before in a facility.

The meat so processed has been non-living tissue and parts for many hours, days, even weeks. This material naturally attracts to itself all manner of microorganisms that even the cleanest of facilities cannot do away with altogether. And so the meat often picks up a variety of hitchhikers along the way: E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, sometimes also yeasts and molds.

If you purchase human-grade meat (that is, meat sold in a grocery store for use at your own table), do not expect that meat to be pathogen-free. Meat destined for humans is sold with the expectation that it will be cooked, and so a certain pathogen level is both legally permissible and quite common on this meat. Cooking will make that meat safe. Raw, it may not be so safe. And if it’s not safe, you run the risk of finding that out too late. And not in a good way.

If you know anything about the rendering process that produces kibble, you know something about the process that the raw meat and meat by-products go through in the commercial dog food business, as well as where that meat comes from to begin with. Neither the source nor handling processes are “clean,” neither being governed by the same stringent regulations as human-grade meat. You don’t want that meat either.

If human-grade meat should be cooked before being eaten, the feed-grade meat of the commercial dog food industry shouldn’t be (many of us think) eaten at all. Its faults go beyond what cooking can correct.

Point 2: Your dog is not a wolf (or a coyote, a jackal, a dingo, a bush dog, or fox)

Although we may think of our dogs as only a step or two away from wild, there are actually many significant genetic adaptations that separate the domestic dogs of today from their still-wild canid cousins. Saying that a modern dog’s digestive system is better adapted to eating raw meat is like saying that our own digestive systems are so adapted. Long, long in the distant past, our ancestors began cooking their food. And somewhere along the line, they began giving cooked food as well to their canine companions — as we’ve pretty much been doing ever since.

All of which means that in the tens of thousands of years following early domestication (which, quite possibly, we undertook as a species twice), the genetics of canine digestion altered. Dogs that could better survive the change in diet are the ones that thrived to pass along the genes that mirrored those changes. Our dogs, in other words, evolved alongside us.

Adapting from the meat-only diet of wolves to a more varied diet, most particularly one including grains, was a crucial step in the domestication of dogs. It was this adaptation that enabled dogs both to survive and thrive in our company. And the markers of this change in diet can be traced in the genetic code of modern dogs. Dogs, for example, have four to 30 copies of the gene that produces amylase, an enzyme that begins the breakdown of starch in the intestine. By contrast, wolves have only two copies of that same gene. The upshot? The gene is 28 times more active in dogs, with the result that dogs are five times better at digesting starch than wolves are. In another gene, one that codes for the starch-digesting enzyme maltase, there are four key differences in the wolf and dog versions, one of which codes in dogs for the longer versions of the enzymes found in herbivores and omnivores. Making dogs, again, able to more efficiently digest starches and use the nutrients locked inside them. Changes such as these provide hard evidence of the ways in which the human diet helped shape the domestication of dogs, including what they were eating as well.

If you’re thinking of raw, consider also this

Let’s say you’re still considering raw. It just seems so natural, you might still find yourself thinking. If you are contemplating this approach, be sure to exclude from this diet any dog with a compromised immune system or gut or bowel issues. The bodies of dogs with these maladies are not sufficiently protected against the bacterial burden of a raw diet. It would be safer to feed these dogs cooked food.

And regardless of the dog, if you decide to feed raw, you must take special care not to contaminate kitchen utensils and counter and cutting surfaces. As for the dog bowl, keep babies and toddlers away from it, and disinfect it between uses. This is not so easy as you might suppose. A 2006 study found that standard methods of cleaning and disinfecting food bowls — including using bleach and running through a dishwasher — did little to remove Salmonella.

Be aware too that pathogens can travel in the saliva and stool of dogs fed raw diets. It is all too easy for these pathogens to make their way to the human companions of such dogs. And that’s a risk that can be fatal.

Whole foods, real ingredients, cooked

The consensus of current research is that animals digest whole food diets better than kibble (this study is sometimes cited, or this), which certainly makes good sense, but there have been no studies showing that raw food is better or more easily digested than those same ingredients cooked. On the other hand, we’ve got the genetics of dog digestion to show us that dogs can and do digest a wider variety of foods than their wild counterparts; we know that for many thousands of years, if not more, they have done so; and we know quite a lot about the risks, both to dogs and their humans, of the pathogens that accrue around raw food with the passage of time.

Feeding your dog fresh, whole foods will improve your dog’s health and digestion. This much we know from science and observation. But to date there has been no clear and overwhelming evidence for making the move from fresh, cooked foods to raw foods. And plenty of reasons not to.

For more detailed reading on the subject, take a look at this summary of the current knowledge of the benefits and risks of raw meat diets and this critical review of the current studies. Definitive answers are difficult to come by, but if you’re thinking of going raw, it’s a good idea to be aware of the risks both to your dog and to the family as a whole. Whole food, real food, makes good sense. Raw food — if you’re talking raw meat — maybe not so much.