It used to be that if you wanted to feed your dog raw, you had to prepare it yourself from scratch. Today, there are many commercial options for feeding raw food. These come in a variety of types, from freeze-dried to dehydrated to frozen.
But which is best for your dog?
While all these diet options use heat-free processing methods, the differences in how they’re prepared mean each have different benefits and drawbacks. In this article, we’ll look at the science behind these different raw dog food preparations to find out which is most nutritious, the safest, and which is right for your dog.
What Is Raw Dog Food?
Raw dog food is any kind of dog food that is prepared without exposure to high heat. Because these diets aren’t cooked, they’re considered raw, even if they come in a less-than-typical form.
Heat destroys nutrients and denatures enzymes. Because of this, raw foods naturally have a higher nutritional value than cooked diets. This means that they require fewer (if any) synthetic nutrients to meet the daily dietary needs of the average dog. These diets are also more closely aligned with the natural diet of canines. Balanced diets with plenty of variety help support canine health and can reduce the occurrence of many diseases.
Of course, raw meat, which makes up the majority of the raw dog food diet, carries some risks. Meat harbors many different kinds of bacteria, such as Salmonella and e. Coli. Careful storage and handling practices reduce the risks of these pathogens. And most healthy dogs have no problem consuming raw meat.
The form raw food takes plays a large role in the overall risks of feeding the diet. Similarly, different types of raw food offer different nutritional benefits.
Raw Dog Food Options at a Glance
If you make your own raw food, then you are likely dealing with fresh meat and vegetables or frozen meat or meat mixes. Commercially, raw food is available in a variety of forms. The ingredients used in these commercial diets can be strictly raw or high-pressure pasteurized to reduce the pathogen load.
There are pros and cons to pasteurization, just as there are pros and cons to each type of processing method. Below, we'll look at the science behind the most common types of raw dog food.
Fresh raw dog food used to be the standard. This type of diet is traditionally made up of raw meat, organ meat, raw meaty bones, and fruits and vegetables or micronutrient supplements.
When sourced from responsible butchers and truly fresh meat sources, these kinds of diets are highly nutritious and very safe. Meat that is consumed quickly after the animal is butchered retains most of the natural nutrients with limited pathogen growth and meat spoilage. Fresh raw meat must be stored in a chilled environment with limited oxygen exposure for maximum safety and nutritional benefit. Storage should be limited to a few days at most.
While this type of diet is one of the best options for your dog, the necessity for quick turnover makes it not ideal for most owners. Feeding a strictly fresh raw meat diet requires access to butcher-grade fresh meat or safe wild harvested game. Most dog owners simply do not have the option to feed fresh raw meat year-round.
Due to the storage constraints associated with feeding safe, fresh meat, there are no commercial options for fresh raw meat diets. Instead, owners have to compile their own balanced dog diet using fresh meat sourced from butchers, hunters, or similar options.
- Highly nutritious
- Low pathogen load when stored properly and used quickly
- Most readily imitates a wild canine diet
- Requires near-daily access to fresh raw meat
- Requires owner to actively procure a variety of cuts, meat types, and whole food supplements for balanced nutrition
Freeze-dried raw dog food is made by exposing meat and meat-veggie-supplement mixes to cold temperatures and then removing the ice (moisture) by sublimation. Because there is no heat used, freeze-dried foods tend to retain more nutrients than both dehydrated and frozen meat.
Additionally, these products tend to retain better color and texture profiles. With proper rehydration techniques, it’s possible to get a better-tasting, more nutritious product compared to most other raw food processing methods.
These raw diets contain less moisture than dehydrated foods and tend to have fewer surviving pathogens. In fact, the dry nature of these foods leads to a decrease in pathogen load over time. This, combined with a long shelf-life, make them an easy and safe option for feeding pets.
Many raw dog food companies are turning to freeze-drying as their primary processing method. This is because of the ease of feeding and storage these diets offer on top of the higher nutrition retention.
The most popular commercial brands that offer a freeze-dried line include Stella & Chewy's, Primal, and Orijen. As with other “complete and balanced” foods, it is important to add variety to ensure your dog is getting enough of the right amount of nutrients. Many, but not all, commercial brands use high meat counts in their recipes.
- Easy to store and feed
- Retain more nutrients than other options
- Low moisture leads to increased pathogen death over time
- Long shelf life
- Can be stored in the cupboard
- Overall nutrient content and safety are dependent on the source meat
- Not all are as “complete and balanced” as advertised
Frozen raw dog food is a popular choice. It has many of the same benefits as fresh food but is much easier to feed due to its storability. But many owners make the mistake of believing frozen raw meat is just as safe and nutritious as fresh. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, especially when it comes to frozen commercial raw dog food diets.
When fresh meat is frozen, the pathogen load in the meat is not killed but rather preserved. Once the meat reaches viable temperatures, around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, those pathogens start reproducing. With enough water and oxygen, they can easily double in number every 20 minutes. Frozen thawing meat has an excess of moisture, and many raw dog diets are not vacuum sealed, allowing oxygen to reach the surface. While most healthy dogs can handle a high pathogen load, this poses a risk to humans who have to handle the meat.
These same factors also lead to the destruction of nutrients in raw meat. The thaw-freeze cycle that occurs in most residential freezers only compounds these problems. Studies have shown that while protein, amino acid, and fat content are not affected by freezing, many nutrients are. In fact, the amount of every essential vitamin in meat drops between 10 to 20% after freezing.
Frozen raw meat diets can offer a decent amount of natural nutrition and be fairly safe, but only if the meat is from quality sources and is flash-frozen very soon after slaughter. The meat must then remain completely frozen and thawed below 40 degrees to retain the safety of fresh raw meat.
There are a variety of commercial options for frozen raw dog food. Some, like Oma’s Pride and Raw Fed K9, are strictly available through online retailers. Others, like Instinct and Just Food can be found at major pet food stores.
In either case, it is important to note that products marketed as “complete and balanced” are just as unlikely to meet those claims as dry dog foods. This is why it is important to feed a variety of raw meat options and use whole-food supplements to round out the nutrition profile.
- Easy to store
- Quality meat sources can retain a decent nutritional value
- Many commercial options available
- Not as nutritious or safe as fresh raw meat
- A freeze-thaw cycle of residential freezers can destroy nutrients and allow for pathogen growth
- Care must be taken to properly thaw
- Long storage can result in additional nutrient loss
- Not all commercial diets are as “complete and balanced” as advertised
Dehydrated raw dog food is made by exposing raw ingredients to low heat and circulating air to slowly remove the moisture from the food. Dehydrated foods have less than 2.5% moisture content. This method removes the water pathogens require to reproduce and stops the decomposition process.
Dehydrated food is not as nutritionally dense as fresh raw food, but retains far more nutrients and intact enzymes than cooked food. How much of the nutrient profile is lost during the drying process varies greatly depending on the chemical composition of that nutrient, the type of drying used, and the food it is present in. For instance, carotene can deteriorate by as little as 5% or as much as 80% during the dehydration of different vegetables.
Similarly, dehydration can have vastly different effects on the pathogen content of raw food. When glucose is present in the dehydrated mix, such as when fruits and meats are dried together, the survivability of Salmonella is greatly increased. Even without protective compounds found in fruits, dehydration rarely kills all pathogens present. This means that the safety of the dehydrated food is largely dependent on the freshness of the meat before processing occurs.
On the plus side, dehydrated raw food includes some of the most affordable commercial options.
Dehydrated dog foods can come in both raw and cooked forms, so it’s important to read labels carefully. Some brands that offer raw dehydrated options are Dr. Mercola and Sojos. Just as with dry dog food, dehydrated foods are often marketed as being complete and balanced despite having less-than-desirable amounts of meat. As with other options, variety is key.
- Easy to store and feed
- Can be stored in the cupboard
- Has a long shelf life
- When stored properly, additional nutrient loss is minimal
- Often fairly affordable
- Most nutrients experience some loss during processing
- Safety is dependent on meat quality and the ingredients present
- Many commercial dehydrated options are low in meat ingredients
- Not all are as “complete and balanced” as advertised
HPP – High-Pressure Pasteurized
High-pressure pasteurization (HPP) isn’t so much a process in itself, but rather a step some companies use to create their raw food. Many commercial foods now use HPP because it creates a raw product with a lower pathogen load.
Unlike typical pasteurization, which utilizes high heat, HPP uses cold temperatures and high pressure to kill pathogens (in some cases HPP can be done with heat). Unfortunately, this process also kills beneficial bacteria, neutralizing any probiotics that have been added to the recipe. Studies have shown that HPP has the potential to denature meat by breaking down the protein molecules in it. On one hand, this appears to increase digestibility. On the other hand, it can make the protein compounds less recognizable to the immune system. When the body can’t recognize the protein in food, it will react as if it were a pathogen. This can cause sensitization and lead to food allergies.
Nutritionally, most studies agree that HPP conducted at low heat and between 400 and 600 MPa, has minimal impact on overall nutrition. Certain vitamins, like vitamins A and B12, appear to be more sensitive to pressure treatment. But even these losses were minimal compared to most raw food processing methods. While most enzymes are unaffected by low-temperature HPP, some are denatured. And almost all are negatively affected when higher heats are used.
Most raw experts agree that buying high-pressure pasteurized raw dog food is not necessary for healthy dogs. But they also concede that HPP doesn’t have a great effect on the overall nutrition of raw foods and therefore does not need to be actively avoided.
To help win over the FDA and overly cautious veterinarians, many companies are now using HPP to create their diets. Indeed, it is getting harder and harder to find a raw commercial diet that isn't created using HPP, regardless of the type.
High-pressure pasteurization is well-represented in frozen, dehydrated, and freeze-dried raw foods. Instinct, Stella & Chewy’s, Primal, and most others available in stores use HPP for high-risk meats, such as poultry, if not for all their raw products.
- Reduces pathogen load
- Minimal effect on enzymes and minerals
- Increases digestibility
- Has a negative impact on some vitamins
- Denatures protein molecules
- Hard to find commercial products that do not use HPP
Both in terms of nutritional value and safety, fresh raw food is the best option for your dog. Unfortunately, this also happens to be the least attainable option for most people. Luckily, freeze-dried raw food, which comes in at a close second, is very easy to get ahold of.
The trick here is to find a freeze-dried raw food option that utilizes enough quality, fresh meat ingredients to meet your dog’s nutritional needs. This can be tricky, as most commercial options fall short.
While frozen raw food is not the best option in terms of nutrition or safety, it is easy to find recipes with plenty of meat in them. This is especially true if you go through a smaller bulk retailer. Many of these companies offer meat-only options that are meant to be used to build a balanced diet. Going this route takes more work, but it also gives you more control over your dog’s nutrition. Plus, if you are careful about storage and thawing, you can reduce many of the disadvantages that make frozen food less desirable.
In the end, all varieties of raw food diets have the potential to benefit your dog far more than traditional kibble and canned food. The key is to find one that includes plenty of fresh, quality meat as the main ingredient and that fits your lifestyle and your dog’s needs.
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Sara Seitz worked in the pet industry for over a decade. In addition to being a certified dog trainer, Sara gained experience working as the general manager of a dog daycare and boarding facility, as the creator and manager of a pet sitting company, as a groomer, and as a dog behavior evaluator. She also has a bachelors in animal behavior from CSU. Currently, Sara works as a freelance writer specializing in blog, article and content writing.