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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Sue Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Raw Diet and Cancer: Dog Edition

Updated: September 30th, 2021


Raw diets and cancer are not a great mix. Dogs with cancer are at higher risk for food-borne illnesses, and may not digest raw vegetables.

Raw diets are very popular in many circles. But a raw diet and cancer is not a great mix.

“Are raw diets good for dogs?” is a common question.

Well, yes, and no — to answer that question, we should clarify whether we are discussing a diet for healthy, vigorous dogs, or whether we are talking about a dog afflicted with cancer.

These are two very different states of body health.

Raw Diet for Dogs

Many raw food diets are really excellent, balanced nutritional rations that can significantly improve health.

Advocates of raw diets often cite research that has shown that cooking at high temperatures can increase carcinogens. (Dr. Dressler talks about this in his book, as well.)

And if you’re looking for a natural approach to feeding your dog, well… kibble doesn’t occur in the wild.

Wild dogs eat whatever they can catch or find, including the organs of their prey. They’ll even eat roadkill.

Wild dogs eat whatever they can catch or find, including the organs of their prey. They’ll even eat roadkill.

So what about vegetables?

Raw Vegetables for Dogs

Raw vegetables contain lots of vitamins and nutrients that your dog can benefit from.

But dogs have pretty short intestines and lack certain enzymes that are useful in digesting vegetables, such as cellulases.

This means that the vast majority of fresh veggies eaten by dogs pass through without being digested at all.

Ever give your dog some raw veggies? You probably recognized them in their poop over the next couple days.

Great for fiber and stool quality… not quite so great for absorbing nutrients.

So a raw diet may be useful for healthy dogs.

It can be really healthy — as long as you have a source you trust, and it’s meeting all their nutritional needs.

That’s not necessarily true for dogs with cancer.

Raw Diet and Cancer

Dogs dealing with aggressive, malignant, hard-to-cure cancers are usually walking around in a state of immune compromise.

This means their immune system is not as good as the immune system in a healthy dog.

If the dog with cancer is also on chemotherapy or being treated with radiation, the immune compromise will be even more severe.

Why does this immune compromise matter when it comes to a raw diet? Bacteria.

Bacteria are found just about everywhere, including raw food.

Raw Meat for Dogs

The meat that you buy in the grocery store, no matter how fresh it is, is not as fresh as a deer taken down by a pack of wild dogs.

Most of us don’t have the ability or desire to slaughter our own feed animals.

And the longer meat sits on a shelf, the more bacteria is going to grow on its surface.

Dogs dealing with cancer are immunocompromised and more susceptible to infections.

Dogs dealing with cancer are immunocompromised and more susceptible to infections.

There are many bacteria that can cause mild to serious infections in dogs.

Bacteria in Raw Meat

You know the usual suspects. E.coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Clostridium perfringens, and Yersinia are regular villains in the news.

These microbes are most commonly found on the surface of food after it is stored for a while in the plastic and foam containers we buy at the store.

A dog with cancer, in particular an overwhelming cancer, and most especially a dog on immune-suppressing treatments, is susceptible to these microbes.

And they may get sick as a consequence.

Dogs with cancer are already fighting illness. Dealing with a bacterial infection on top of that is just too hard.

Now, not every dog with cancer that eats a raw diet will get sick. That is absolutely true.

But are you willing to take that risk?

Cooked Food for Dogs

One of the benefits of cooking is that you kill germs.

Another benefit is that food gets “pre-digested” by cooking. That makes it easier for a dog (or human) to digest it.

Better digestion, better absorption of nutrition.

Cooked Meats for Dogs

Typically, bacteria lives on the surface of chicken, pork, and fish, but these meats can also have pathogens inside the flesh. These meats need to be cooked all the way through to protect your dog.

Beef is typically safe as long as the outside of the cut is cooked. The middle can stay pretty rare with minimal risk.

All ground meats of any kind must be cooked through to prevent foodborne illness because the grinding process increases the surface area that can develop bacterial colonies.

Cooked Vegetables for Dogs

Vegetables contain certain flavonoids that are essential for turning on a process called apoptosis, which is planned cell death.

Cancer cells lack the normal process of apoptosis and attempt to live forever at the expense of your dog’s body.

We want to encourage apoptosis in our cancer patients… and what better way than through diet?

But there’s that issue with short digestive tracts not breaking down vegetables well …

… luckily, nature has the answer.

In nature, dogs often get vegetable matter from the lining of the stomach and intestines of plant-eating prey.

How can we mimic this effect to help our pet dogs digest and access the nutrients in vegetables? We cook them.

This vegetable matter has already started breaking down thanks to the digestive tract of the prey animal.

How can we mimic this effect to help our pet dogs digest and access the nutrients in vegetables?

We cook them.

Veggies can be steamed, sprouted, or fermented to make them digestible for dogs.

By breaking them down a little, they become more like the pre-digested foods found in the digestive tract of dogs’ natural prey.

Especially when you combine them with a dietary enzyme before feeding to your dog.

Balance – The Dog Cancer Diet

Ok, so a totally raw diet puts your immunosuppressed cancer dog at an increased risk for foodborne illness, plus might be depriving him of some of the great nutrients present in raw vegetables.

But you’re worried about carcinogens from extreme heat in cooking.

Dr. Dressler’s solution is simple: cook with a light hand.

Simmer meats at a low temperature until they are fully cooked.

For chicken, pork, fish, and all ground meats, cook them through completely.

For a slab of beef, you can just cook the outside to kill the bacteria on the surface.

In general, keep your temperatures below 300°F and you will avoid creating carcinogens.

Steam vegetables until they are soft. Or puree raw vegetables to physically break them down and make them easier to digest.

Add a Multivitamin to Ensure a Complete Nutritional Profile

Don’t forget that your dog’s diet needs to be complete and balanced, even when you cook it at home.

Don’t forget that your dog’s diet also needs to be complete and balanced!

Homecooked diets are notorious for being nutrient-deficient and/or unbalanced.

To make sure your dog with cancer is getting everything he needs, consult with a veterinary nutritionist.

You can also check out Dr. Demian Dressler’s Dog Cancer Diet, which has been reviewed by multiple veterinary nutritionists and is complete and balanced — as long as you add a multivitamin for extra insurance.

Paws and wags,


Further Reading

Heterocyclic amines: Mutagens/carcinogens produced during cooking of meat and fish

Flavonoids in Cancer and Apoptosis

Apoptosis and Dog Cancer

Brussels Sprouts, Broccoli and Cabbage in Dog Cancer Diet?

Leave a Comment

  1. Melinda Miller on October 7, 2021 at 7:26 am

    You don’t seem to be aware of commercially prepared raw diets, and that the major manufacturers of raw diets use an advanced, non-thermal pathogen process called HPP (high pressure processing) that inactivates any pathogens. In addition, the major raw diet manufacturers all use “test and hold” protocols, meaning they test each batch of food for pathogens and those finished products are withheld from distribution until a negative pathogen report comes back from a third party laboratory. Because the commercial raw diets are ground and frozen, the cellulose in the veggies are broken down – first by being ground, and next by freezing (which bursts the cell wall). This makes the veggies fully digestible. So, if a person feeds a prepared raw diet from one of the major manufacturers, a raw diet is perfectly safe from pathogens, and fully digestible. And provides the most bioavailable form of nutrition, even to a dog with cancer.

    • Molly Jacobson on October 11, 2021 at 10:13 am

      Hi Melinda! We’re aware of commercial raw diets and the extra steps they take to make them as safe as possible. There are certainly veterinarians and dog lovers who feel these are safe choices for their dogs, and that’s great. I personally have fed my dogs some of those diets. We here aren’t dogmatic about any choices, because every situation and dog and owner is unique, and what’s right for one dog might be wrong for another. That’s also why our disclaimers are so plentiful — to check everything with your own vet about your own specific dog’s case.

      As a book publisher running a blog for laypeople — many of whom had no idea dogs even get cancer to begin with. We are VERY mindful that for many people, commercially prepared raw diets are out of reach. When they see “raw” they think “the food I have in my fridge is probably fine.” I appreciate you weighing in with your perspective!

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