Raw Dog Food vs. Cooked – Which Is Better For Dogs?

There’s been a lot written about raw food for dogs – some praising it, others condemning it. I think that the whole “raw vs. cooked” controversy is an unnecessary distraction from the real issue that should be focused on, which is “fresh food vs. processed food”.

Of course, each dog is unique and the nutritional needs of different dogs are often best met in different ways. Having said that, there are a few principles that I think are universal when it comes to pet nutrition:

Our Principles:

1. Use high quality, nutrient-dense ingredients
2. Create a precise formula for each meal so it provides complete and balanced nutrition
3. Minimally process the food so the nutrients are the most readily absorbable and least damaged.
4. Serve the meals as soon as possible to minimize any depletion of nutrients and spoiling.

I don’t think anyone would argue with these principles (if they would, I’d be interested to hear why).

The real question comes down to how little to process the food (the third principle). For those of us who advocate feeding fresh food, the heavy heat and processing to make commercial dry or canned foods results in significant destruction of the nutrients found in the food. Manufacturers then try to replace some of the lost micronutrients with chemical additives, which are often less absorbable. I always chuckle when I see a bag of “natural” or “organic” kibble, since I think that much of the benefit of using better quality ingredients is undone by the heavy processing done to the meals in order to produce dry food.

Advocates for raw food contend that even light cooking of fresh food compromises the nutrients. Detractors claim that feeding raw increases the risk of introducing pathogens like salmonella and E.coli. I think that there is some truth to both statements, but the question comes down to what are the trade-offs for each approach.

Most credible experts that I consult with agree that a healthy dog’s digestive system is well-equipped to deal with normal amounts of bacteria, etc. that may be present in raw meat. At the same time, according to many of the same experts, light cooking of meals (sufficient to destroy any pathogens) causes only minimal damage to even the most heat-sensitive nutrients. 

So there’s no compelling reason to pick one approach over the other. Instead, the decision should be made on a case-by-case basis.

The general rule that I think should be applied is that the less processing that is done to the food, the better. And for most dogs, that is no processing at all – that is, raw.

Having said that, there are some dogs with sensitive digestive systems that don’t handle raw food very well, and find cooked food easier to break down. And other dogs with compromised immune systems (or who live with people with compromised immune systems) for whom the risk of illness from pathogens is real. There are still other dogs who just prefer their meals cooked, for whatever reason. For those dogs, lightly cooking the food is the best approach.

Surveys of our customers indicate that about a third of them cook the meals for their pets, and two-thirds feed raw. Both groups see dramatic improvements in their dog’s health versus commercial kibble, and neither group report any health problems resulting from their choice.

So my advice is not to get too fixated on the issue of raw or cooked. If you’d feel more comfortable lightly cooking your pet’s meals, go right ahead. The important thing is to feed fresh food, whether raw or cooked, and try to minimize the use of heavily processed kibble.

Ready to do the healthiest thing for your pet? Order Darwin's Natural Pet Food

  • Michael Cecere

    Hi Gary,

    I think this is the most sensible summary of the raw vs. cooked “controversy” I have seen. Too often people address the issue and take sides based on emotional and ideological reasons. Many of the benefits of feeding raw stems from the fact that it is minimally processed. It is the same reason that there is a human raw movement. Home prepared food for your pets is always the best option for optimal nutrition, cooked or not. I prefer to feed my pets raw or lightly cooked, but there is nothing wrong in not being a “purist” and cooking the food if that is what makes one comfortable. Handling of food also is of the utmost importance no matter what form it comes in. A dog or cat can become sick from mishandled food whether it be kibble, canned or raw. As far as commercial food goes, I like the raw versions, not just because of my ideological bent towards the idea, but because most brands tend to have less fillers and unnecessary ingredients than canned or kibble.

  • Samantha

    just a question. a dogs digestive system is designed to process raw food yes? dogs cant cook their own food. so why do we feed them cooked food? it upsets their system. so ive heard any way and it makes sense. unsure if i am correct or not but i believe it.

  • Anonymous

    if one of my dogs were immunocompromised due to ILLNESS or genetics, I’d feel a raw food diet was even MORE important. Immunocompromised doesn’t change the digestion rate of a dog’s GI tract. Because it’s so fast, bacteria doesn’t have time to cause a problem, and the dog’s stomach is still HIGHLY acidic to kill harmful bacteria.

  • Jim

    If you read some of Evolutionary Canid Biologist – Dr. Robert K Wayne’s work, he says “Dogs are wolves” from nose to butt. (Yes they look different on the outside, but their identical on the inside GI Tract).

    So…dogs ARE designed to eat a raw diet, and should eat a raw diet for optimal nutrition. However, if it came down to cooked vs commercial pet food, the former would be the obvious choice for someone interested in providing more optimal nutrition for their dog.

  • morgan

    I fed my last dog a raw organic diet for 10 years and he still got cancer. My household is also chemical free. During his last months we found a new amazing vet who fully practices classical Chinese Medicine and found that his spleen was not strong enough ‘to cook’ his food for him so he needed foods that were lightly cooked in order to digest his food. In humans the more compromised their digestion is – the more they need their foods cooked. I am now leaning towards this theory with animals as well. My young pup has genetic issues with digestion so I am currently lightly cooking some of her food and giving raw meaty bones. However, as my dog’s digestive tract heals – I will move towards less cooked then hopefully over to the raw prey model. I used to think giving dogs cooked food was ‘wrong’ – but through education I am changing my views on this based on the dog’s condition of digestive health. A dog with weak digestion needs cooked foods because they are easier to process – a healthy dog should eat raw. There is no one model for all.

  • marcsmith54321

    Morgan you hit the nail on the head. An all encompassing diet does not suit all pets. Some dogs need Raw and some need Pasteurized.

    • morgan

      Ah, thank you for the back up on my thoughts. I am currently finishing up requirements to become a nutritional therapist for humans but will apply practical knowledge to companion animals. In the New Year I am starting a nutritional consulting business for animals. It is my goal to get animals on REAL foods be it cooked or raw – whichever is best for their systems, their conditions & their health – based on an individual basis.

  • Morgan

    This conversation comes up often for me. There was something I wanted to add that none of us had touched upon and that is temperature of the food served to the animal – some of the prepared foods come frozen. People should consider – 'warming' – an animal's food. For one – if they were eating in the wild – their prey would be warm. I heard someone once say – cats like their food “mouse temperature”. Generalizing here, my vet explained that if they eat their food at around 50 degrees – the body has to raise the temperature of the food to around 100 degrees before it can really process it – energy is being wasted – it's more work for your animal to digest its food cold & if we are speaking on the 'in the wild' terms – it would not be natural for an animal to eat their food frozen or the temps of our refrigerators. One suggested way of doing this would be to let it thaw in the fridge or counter – take the food out ahead of time to let it get to room temp or so — then add some hot/warm water when serving – you want to take the chill off so their body doesn't have to work so hard digesting. I know some people get worried about bacteria – but I like to believe that they are scavengers and their bodies are made to tolerate what we as humans cannot. This suggestion is all relative to the temperatures of the climate where you live as well – I am by no means suggesting being careless about leaving food out for hours or in high temps. I am just suggesting – people consider raising the temperature of the foods they are serving if they serve cold or frozen.

  • AJ

    Hello everyone. I’m having a difficult time trying to decide whether I should go raw. I have a King Charles spaniel. He has hip problems and he’s a picky eater. He was on primal raw diet before and he got nausea from it. So I’m skeptical on goin raw again. Has anyone had good experience with this food? I’d like to try raw again.