Dog eating raw meat

Q. I have a co-worker who feeds raw chicken wings to her dog. I thought chicken bones could kill dogs. Is this safe?

A. Chicken bones can and do kill dogs. All bones, whether raw or cooked, can potentially fracture teeth and block or tear the throat, stomach and intestines. Raw bones have additional risks that concern both veterinarians and public-health officials: foodborne pathogens such as salmonella. Bacteria such as this are a risk not only to the animals eating the diets, but for other pets and people in the household, particularly for the very young, very old and immunosuppressed. The risk isn't limited to raw meat, by the way, since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that all pet food and treats need careful handling.

Consider the Alternatives

Many people now feed their dogs and cats what’s known as the BARF diet (for “bones and raw flesh” or “biologically appropriate raw food"). These pet owners are generally well-educated people who are trying to do what’s best for their pets; however, their devotion to this style of feeding borders on religious zealotry in the minds of many veterinarians.

I personally feed brand-name commercial diets from top companies to all my pets. As a veterinarian, I have a difficult time with the idea that a diet based on science and feeding trials could be so easily dismissed by pet owners who are so committed to their pet’s health. I have known many of the veterinary nutritionists working in the industry for many years, and I am comfortable with their work and their integrity. But I also know many intelligent pet owners who provide their animals with a home-prepared diet that includes raw, meaty bones.

Talk to Your Vet

I doubt that I will ever be completely comfortable with a raw diet, but I have no problem with people who want to maintain their pets on a home-prepared cooked diet in consultation with their veterinarian, preferably one that was vetted by a veterinary nutritionist. I just ask them to keep in mind that if they are not careful to research before they start and to source their ingredients carefully, they may end up with a diet that is not nutritionally balanced and, in the case of raw foods, contaminated with harmful bacteria. We just don’t know enough about all the possible formulations of home-prepared diets to say, hands down, that they are OK.

I am well aware that many pet owners will disagree with me. The number of people who feed raw chicken bones (along with other raw muscle meats, organs and bones as part of a raw diet plan) and have perfectly healthy animals is no doubt proof that feeding a raw chicken bone to a dog is not the automatic death sentence many pet owners have long believed it to be.

But as a veterinarian with more than three decades of experience, I still can’t, in good faith, recommend a raw food diet to my clients as the best option for their pets. The science of pet nutrition is constantly evolving, though, and the debate on this issue remains a healthy one within the veterinary community.