Everything owners need to know about raw pet food diets

Digby Bodenham
15 April 2021 - 7 min read

Interest in raw food diets has surged over the past decade. ManyPets Sarah Dawson who used to work in practice as a vet nurse says that 10 years ago she used to get two or three questions about raw food every year; last year she was getting them weekly.

With so much information online, we thought we’d try to help owners make the best decisions for their cats and dogs by looking at some of the key issues around raw food.

We spoke to Sarah and vets Dr Sophie Bell, owner of Animal Love First Aid, and Dr Emma Bower, who offers advice to owners through FirstVet. All have an interest in helping owners with diet and did further research on raw food for us for this piece.

As with any big decisions about your pet’s health and wellbeing, it’s worth speaking to a vet. If you are considering a raw food diet, the vets we spoke to suggest trying a brand that is recognised by the Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA) rather than constructing the meal yourself as it can be difficult to get the right balance of proteins and nutrients, and packaged raw food may be safer for you and your pet.

Why are more pet owners opting for a raw food diet?

People have become more health-conscious in the past few decades and this is trickling down to how they think about their pets. As owners take more interest in how traditional processed pet foods are made and the additives and bulking agents they include, some are considering alternative diets.

Social media has also played a part as people share information in online groups or see pictures of other owners feeding raw. Coupled with more raw brands springing up and advertising to owners, this has caused interest in raw to surge.

We spoke to ManyPets customers who switched to raw to find out how they got on with it. And if you're interested in changing you're pet's diet we have a guide to switching pet food.

We also looked at the rise of raw and the history of pet food.

What are the benefits of raw pet food?

Owners should be aware that there isn’t much scientific research into raw food. That doesn’t mean there are no benefits but if there are, many are anecdotal.

In general, a well-balanced diet will contribute to a pet’s long-term health and help it live a happy long life.

But many owners say the specific benefits of raw food include:

  • Healthier skin and a glossier coat
  • Better dental health
  • Improvements to digestion and gut health
  • Help with insulation regulation for diabetic pets

Some benefits have been noticed by vets as well, although they point out it might not be right for every pet. Dr Sophie Bell says: “I have seen many dogs improve health-wise, especially skin and digestive problems, when switched to a well-balanced raw diet. But like any veterinary discussion, one size does not fit all. Some dogs simply will not improve and may well have more issues when switching to raw. It is best to have discussions with experts in the field.”

For many pets raw food results in smaller poos. Although this might be more a benefit for owners than pets.

Raw food can be useful if you’re trying to understand a pet’s allergy. Some cooked wet and dry food might be labelled as one flavour, such as fish, but will contain meat. like chicken. You may find it’s easier to find out exactly what is in some raw food brands if the ingredients are clearly listed. Although be aware if your pet is allergic to a meat like chicken, it will also have a reaction to it in raw form.

A raw diet may suit some cats well, as they have a low thirst drive and raw foods are high in moisture. Unlike dogs, cats are entirely carnivorous and benefit significantly from eating ‘whole prey’ options that mimic the texture and nutrient content of foods found in the wild.

Don't forget you can video call a vet for free if you have a ManyPets pet insurance policy. Our cover includes unlimited access to FirstVet, which is available 24/7.

We rounded up a few raw food providers along with other pet food brands you might not have heard of.

What are the risks and downsides of raw food pet diets?

Pre-packaged raw food from PFMA-registered brands should be relatively safe for pets but there are much greater risks when owners prepare their own raw diets.

These include:

  • Nutritional deficiency
  • Harmful excess of vitamins
  • Parasites and bacteria
  • Injury from bones

Even pre-packaged raw food can contain bacteria and virus. With any raw food, things like Salmonella, E.Coli, listeria, Norovirus or other pathogens can be present, which can cause illness in pets and humans. So it needs to be handled and stored carefully.

To remove parasites and pathogens, hands and surfaces should always be washed after food is handled, or when pets have licked them. Owners are advised to freeze all raw foods for at least 72 hours, before defrosting in the fridge and serving at room temperature.

Some foods include ‘pluck’, which is a mixture of offal meats that can contain trachea, lung and thyroid tissue, and in rare cases this can cause hyperthyroidism in pets. You should check whether this applies to your chosen brand or, if opting for a DIY diet, exercise extreme caution about the cuts you include.

The main drawback to raw food is that it can be difficult to ensure you’re providing your pet with a balanced diet, and this is particularly true if you’re feeding them a DIY diet. Dogs need a variety of plant-based nutrients, and some breeds are particularly prone to malnutrition if fed purely on raw food. Some dogs risk developing a Thiamine deficiency if their diet is heavily based around raw fish, and oily fish and liver contain a lot of vitamin A and D, which can be harmful in excess.

A raw diet can also be more expensive and you’ll need to dedicate a certain amount of freezer space to your pet, which can be a sticking point if you have a very large dog or more several animals to feed.

And even if you’re keen on feeding your pet a raw food diet, it’s worth bearing in mind that they just may not take to it.

Can puppies and kittens eat raw food?

Puppies and kittens can have raw diets but there are things you need to consider. The most important is understanding the nutritional requirements a dog or cat has at specific life stages for its age and size. This will differ depending on breed so it’s worth speaking to a vet.

FirstVet’s Emma Bower says: “It is sometimes argued that young puppies do not have sufficient immunity to deal with a raw diet but there is limited evidence for this. But I would not recommend it in any pets that are immunocompromised (or have owners that are).”

And be aware if the food you’ve chosen contains chunks of bones, as they may effect teeth development and older pets with dental disease may struggle with them.

For more on diets for young pets, check out our guide to feeding puppies and kittens.

What do the professionals say about raw?

First, it’s great that you’re interested in your pet’s health and diet. Raw might be right for your dog or cat but don’t worry if it isn’t. It can take a bit of trial to find the right food for your pet and if it doesn’t seem to be working out or needs change over time, you can speak to a vet and try something else. Some people swear by raw diets but there’s no shame if it’s not right for you.

Because of the lack of scientific research, many vets may not actively endorse raw food diets, but they may be open-minded about the benefits and a good vet should listen and help you navigate decisions around nutrition.

We had a conversation with two vets and vet nurse about what vets wish you knew about raw food that you can watch here.

It was recently announced that the PFMA will be launching a certification scheme for raw food manufactures to set an industry standard for production and nutrition.

If you do decide to go for it, here are some pointers from the professionals we spoke to:

  • Read the PFMA advice sheet about raw food and choose a brand recognised by the PFMA.
  • Always wean a pet gradually onto a new diet, and have no expectations when it comes to their behaviour.
  • Some breeds of dog need a finely balanced diet, so it’s worth checking with your vet before make any significant changes.
  • Providing dogs with meaty bones can affect their behaviour, as they may guard them jealously or fight over them.
  • A raw diet should be a balance of mainly meat with smaller percentages of offal, bone and vegetables or fruit. This may not suit pets with chronic conditions, or older pets who find unground bone hard to handle.
  • Think through your reasons for switching to raw – if it’s due to an allergy, if that allergy is for chicken and you have not realised this, the pet’s allergies will likely be the same if fed raw or processed chicken.

If there’s a single thing you should consider before starting your pet on this kind of diet, it’s that there may be health implications involved for you and your pet. It’s always best to consult a vet first.

ManyPets customers can video call a vet through FirstVet to ask any questions about their pet.