You want the very best for your dog. From nutritional supplements to new brands of food to the latest and greatest tips for holistic wellness, chances are you've tried it all. However, the one thing that many dog owners shy away from is implementing a raw food diet. Trust us, we get it. The idea of preparing raw food for your dog can be daunting... to say the least. Nevertheless, the benefits are undeniable and something worth taking note of. If you've ever considered making the switch to raw dog food, this article is for you.
What is Raw Dog Food
Raw diets for dogs are designed to mimic the diet of your dog's early ancestors. Primary ingredients of a raw diet are those found in the wild such as raw meat, bones, and vegetables. The ingredients involve minimal processing and take into account the individual dietary requirements of the dog.
Additionally, a raw dog food diet is typically comprised of:
- Muscle meat (often still connected to the bone)
- Bones (which can be whole or ground)
- Organ meats (i.e. livers and kidneys)
- Raw eggs
- Vegetables (such as broccoli, spinach, and celery)
- Apples and other fruits
- Dairy (i.e. yogurt but used minimally)
Raw food diets vary greatly from the typical highly processed kibble that you find at your local pet store. In fact, most raw food diets are created right in your own kitchen and never spend a day on a supermarket shelf.
What is the BARF Diet
The BARF diet stands for Bones and Raw Food, or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. It is a term coined in 1993 by Australian veterinarian Ian Billinghurst. Billinghurst believed that adult dogs would benefit from an evolutionary diet, one that is solely based on what dogs consumed before they became domesticated. Billinghurst concluded that raw diets were a way in which today's dogs would thrive and that commercial dog food was detrimental to their health.
While Billinghurst's observations of the benefits of a raw diet were unmistaken, his opinion is one which many mainstream veterinarians and the FDA disagree with.
Even with the risks of raw diets widely published, many supporters still feel that the pros of raw food diets outweigh the cons.
Benefits of Raw Dog Food
Most bags of commercial, grain heavy pet food that you find at your local supermarket are chock full of preservatives and fillers that allow them to have a longer shelf life. Unfortunately, these preservatives and fillers don't do much (if anything) to contribute to your dog's health.
Conversely, raw meat and raw food diets are loaded with nutritional benefits. Their ingredients can spoil quickly unlike the processed, store-bought food which ensures that each raw meal is served fresh. Some pet owners may consider this to be a drawback. Longlasting kibble is certainly a quicker option when it comes to mealtime. However, the majority of pet owners who switched to raw food agree that after seeing the results they would never go back to the "easy" option.
Potential benefits of a raw diet include:
- Healthier coat
- Increased energy
- Greater overall vitality
- Improved digestion
- Eliminate vitamin deficiencies
- Cleaner teeth
- Healthier skin
- Better muscle tone
- Improved behavior (contributed to better nutrition and increased dietary vitamins)
Pet owners have reported that many of the benefits and changes happen quite immediately.
Potential Risks of Raw Dog Food
Again, these benefits don't come without risks. Many mainstream veterinarians do not advocate for raw food diets and there are reasons worth acknowledging.
When handling raw meat there is always a possibility for bacteria contamination if the meat isn't supervised properly. Raw meat can contaminate cutting boards, countertops, and other foods if they aren't completely disinfected afterward. Sanitizing surfaces and ensuring the cleanliness of the area is paramount.
Raw meat must not only be prepared correctly, but also properly sourced. Know where the meat is coming from and make sure you are purchasing it from a source you trust.
Another risk of feeding a raw food diet is not ensuring that it is nutritionally balanced. Over time, an unbalanced diet from raw feeding can lead to a slew of health conditions. Momentarily we will walk you through everything that Fido needs in their raw diet if you so choose to make the switch.
Finally, raw meat diets involve feeding bones. When feeding bones you run the risk of the dog inadvertently breaking a tooth or causing an internal puncture. Bones also pose the threat of a choking hazard. It is imperative for dog owners to not leave their pet unaccompanied while enjoying a bone as it can quickly lead to devastating and sometimes irreversible consequences.
Commercially Produced Raw Food
Since Ian Billinghurst's book, Give Your Dog a Bone, was published, more and more companies that once solely produced kiddle and canned foods have since integrated the concept of raw food into their products. The raw meat in these products is sold either frozen or freeze-dried dog food and most of the time serve as combination diets. In other words, the meal is not entirely raw but contain grains, vitamins, and vegetables that are all mixed with the raw food source.
It goes without saying that store-bought raw pet food is a simpler way to integrate the concept of raw feeding. Naturally, the more raw meat and ingredients, the more benefits you will see. However, store-bought raw options are an alternative that eliminates many of the risks associated with preparing a raw diet at home.
Price Points: Kibble Vs. Raw Feeding
When considering making the switch to raw dog food, many pet parents wonder how much money it's going to cost them. Dog owners report that a commercially available raw chicken diet costs approximately $2.50 a day for a 30-pound dog being fed once per day. However, depending on the size of your dog and the meat source, raw diets can cost upwards of $5 a day. Conversely, a super premium commercial dog food will cost approximately $1 a day for the same dog.
Of course, we all wish that money was no object when it came to our fur baby. However, for many, that's simply not the case. A $1.50 a day increase may not seem like a lot up front, but as you can imagine, it adds up and may not currently make sense for your personal lifestyle. On the other hand, many owners believe that spending money now will prevent the costs associated with health problems later down the line.
Basic Rules for Feeding Raw Food
If you ultimately decide that you want to give raw feeding a try there are several important factors that will make a world of difference and help ensure that you are creating a well-balanced meal.
#1 - Calcium & Phosphorous
One of the most important rules for a nutritionally complete raw food diet is making sure it contains enough calcium and phosphorus. All dogs, but particularly growing puppies, need excellent sources of these minerals and won't survive without them.
Careful not to confuse a raw meat diet with an all-meat diet. Feeding only meats can cause bone and nervous system issues even in the healthiest of dogs and severe bone problems in puppies.
In order to ensure that the dog's diet has enough calcium and minerals, approximately 12-15% of the meal should be meaty bones. The following is a list of what type of bones to look for.
- Chicken wings, necks, legs or thighs
- Turkey necks (other bones of the turkey can be very large)
- Lamb or goat necks
- Lamb or goat ribs
- Beef tail bones (particularly good for larger dogs)
Some dog owners choose to feed whole animals such as whole rabbit or whole fish. These animals, along with some members of the poultry family, make for food options as they contain the right amount of bone.
Additionally, egg shells contain an appropriate calcium to phosphorus ratio but pet owners must ensure the eggs are purchased from a farm. Eggs bought from the grocery store contain a toxic spray in their shells.
#2 - Multivitamins
Next, multivitamins. When you think of multivitamins, think of organs. A big mistake that pet parents can make is not feeding enough of them. Organs are filled with nutrients that your dog needs in order to have a balanced meal.
Pet parents should plan on organs making up 10-30% of their dog's meal. If you can only find one organ (particularly liver), stick to 10%. Any more than 10% of liver can cause digestive upset. If you find multiple organs they can be combined to make up approximately 30% of the dog's meal.
#3 - Lean Meats
After you solidify the bones and organs, next comes lean muscle meats. Approximately a third to a half of Fido's balanced meal (depending on the amount and number of organs you decided on) should be comprised on lean meats. Muscle meats are rich in proteins and contain the hormones and enzymes that dogs need for survival.
The following are good choices for muscle meats.
- Beef (ground beef, cheek meat)
- Beef heart (should not be more than 5% of the diet)
- Bison (ground bison, stewing bison meat)
- Lamb (ground lamb, stewing lamb, shoulder meat, breast meat)
- Pork (pork shoulder or butt, loin, cushion meat, boneless rib meat)
- Chicken (boneless thighs, breast meat)
- Turkey (ground turkey, boneless thighs, breast meat, tenderloin)
#4 - Benefits of Fruits & Veggies
By sticking to the first three rules you are well on your way to a meal full of nutrients. However, if you should so choose, adding fruits and vegetables can give Fido an extra boost of wellness. Fruits and veggies offer benefits such as prebiotics, carotenoids, and lycopene (among many others). These nutrients can't be sourced from meat and can provide a great deal of advantages.
Whenever possible, make sure to buy organic. We recommend either mushing up the produce by hand or using a food processor to make it easier for Fido to enjoy.
#5 - Be Aware of Fats
Now comes some a few important things that pet owners must be aware of! First off- fats. Don't get us wrong, some fat is essential. Fats are key players in nerve and immune function as well as maintaining skin health. However, the truth about fats, even healthy fats, is that they contain twice the number of calories as protein and very few minerals and vitamins.
Many experts in the field of raw feeding believe that feeding too much fat is the number one mistake when it comes to raw food diets. This is not to say that you should eliminate all fat! There is a healthy balance. You should aim for the fat content to be around 10% and definitely not higher than 20% of the total meal. This amount of fat will ensure that the rest of the nutrients are able to be absorbed while still incorporating the fats necessary for essential body function.
The following are examples of low-fat options.
- Light meat chicken or turkey without skin
- Chicken necks without the skin
- Lean ground beef
- Pork loin
- Most fish
- Wild game (not duck)
#6 - Limit Grains
Next, limit grains and starchy foods like potatoes and peas. The dog's body does have the ability to digest a limited amount of grains, but we recommend keeping these to a small amount.
Additionally, when your dog consumes starchy foods it causes their body to release insulin, a hormone that causes a lot of food to be stored as fat. Therefore, if your dog is overweight, staying away from things like grains and potatoes is a good idea.
Finally, starch only adds calories to the meal, not essential vitamins or minerals. In fact, many experts agree that a number of benefits of raw feeding don't only come from the raw meat, but cutting out the starch. There really aren't any benefits to starch, only risks.
#7 - Fish 1 x Week
If you enjoy staying up on the latest and greatest supplements for your dog's health then you've likely heard of fish oil.
You may also know that while it was once a trend that everyone jumped on, it's now something to be quite cautious of. Instead of fish oil, many dog owners are opting to feed whole fish as apart of a balanced raw diet.
We recommend trying fish such as herring, sardines, smelts, or mackerel. Pet parents can add the fish to their dog's food once or twice a week. To help balance out fats, aim for the whole fish to represent approximately 5% of your dog's total diet.
#8 - Nutritionally Balanced
We've continued to stress how important a nutritionally balanced meal is. It's true. Diets that are lacking in one regard or anything have proven to be directly linked to the development number of health issues. However, this is not to say that you should lose your mind over making sure each meal is perfectly formulated with the aforementioned percentages. We are all still learning what "balanced" actually entails and the more research that comes out, the more likely things will change. Just ensure you are keeping an eye on things like fats and grains and making sure to include plenty of meat that contains vitamins and minerals.
#9 - Change is Good
If you have a picky eater on your hands then we likely don't have to tell you that a little variety is always welcomed. Consider mixing your dog's meal up from time to time by adding things like turkey feet or beef tail. Each part of the animal makes up for different nutrient benefits. For example, the feet of poultry are chock full of glucosamine which helps support joint health and can help prevent conditions like hip dysplasia in dogs.
#10 - Slow and Steady
As with all new changes to your dog's diet, stay alert. Knowing your dog's normal is the most efficient way to be able to recognize when something isn't right. Additionally, we recommend taking things slowly. Gradually integrate the raw food into your dog's current food. Start with 10% raw and allow your dog's digestive system to adjust. Keep switching out more of the original food with the new raw food until your dog's meal is 100% raw. Trust us, there is no reason to rush the process. The last thing you want to do is cause your dog to be sick and completely turned off from the idea of a raw meal.
How Much Raw Food?
Finally, many pet parents ask how much raw food they should be feeding Fido. A general good rule of thumb is that your dog should be consuming approximately 2-3% of their ideal body weight. This percentage can fluctuate a bit. If you have a very active dog you will want to feed a little more as they are burning off more calories than the average dog.
Raw Dog Food: The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, we know that you want the very best for your dog. At Honest Paws, we are all pet owners and can understand firsthand the love you have for Fido. The main point that we want to stress is the importance of your dog's diet. What your dog consumes on a daily basis effects nearly every aspect of their livelihood. Even if you don't see it now, later down the line so many things circle back to their food source and whether or not it is balanced and nutritionally sound.
Ultimately, whether or not you choose to make the switch to raw dog food is entirely up to you. There are both pros and cons for making the change and the needs of every dog will vary. For instance, a dog suffering from gastrointestinal issues may have more to benefit from than a dog who is in optimal health. What we do recommend is staying informed and making sure you know all there is to know before making a decision. Knowledge is power and Fido is relying on you to make sure they are being fed the very best.
Fabiana is a caring pet owner who also works as the Lead Editor of CertaPet. She enjoys helping other pet parents get all the furry-friend-related-info they need, as well as spending time with her precious pooch.