As good dog parents, we want the best of everything for our canine friends. We shower our dogs with toys and treats. We make sure that their shots are up to date. We work hard on training so that they will be good canine citizens. Most important of all, we love them. In fact, many of us have a closer bond with our dogs than we have with members of our “human family.” And why not? Much of the time they give us a great deal more in the way of complete, unconditional love than we get from the humans in our lives.
With all that we give to our dogs, though, much of the time we don’t consider their diet as carefully as we should. In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago that people figured their dog was eating just fine if what he ate in the run of a day was the leftovers from the breakfast, lunch and dinner of his humans.
We Know Better Now
Or do we? Most dog owners today feed some sort of commercial dog food product. But are we really giving our dogs what they need in order to ensure good health and longevity?
Before I go any further with this, I need to offer you “full disclosure.” I do not spend a small fortune on expensive dog food brands. I feed my dogs generic dry dog food, and I do so with the blessing of my veterinarian. I don’t spend a small fortune on grain-free, omega-enhanced brands. Store brands are all I feed. And I have raised many, many dogs to lifespans that were far in excess of that which might normally be expected for their particular breed, on those inexpensive foods.
That said, if you want to feed your dogs a different diet, one that you feel might be better for them, I’m the last person who’s going to criticize you. You want to give your dog every possible advantage in life, and for that, I applaud you. If you’re planning on switching to a raw food diet for your dogs, though, I want you to have all the facts that you need in order to make an informed decision. A raw diet for dogs is a relatively new concept, and not approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
…It’s worth noting that medical bodies don’t always get everything right. Think about this – as recently as the early 1900s, medical professionals were offering their human patients substances like opium, cocaine and arsenic to treat various minor conditions, and recommending lobotomies for what would now be considered cognitive disabilities and treatable mental illnesses.
The point here is, we learn. What was standard procedure yesterday might be unheard of today, or vice versa. Right now, there is too little known about the benefits of a raw diet for dogs, because the concept is still in its infancy.
The raw food diet for dogs may turn out to be the best thing since Pupperoni, or it may end up being proved to be a total waste of your time and money. It remains to be seen, and in the meantime, if you are considering feeding your dog a raw diet, I want you to have all the facts.
There is quite a lot of material to cover here, and you’ll find that some of the sections that follow contain a great deal of information, while others consist of just a paragraph or two. This is simply because some facts can be covered quickly and easily, while others require more lengthy explanation. I’ve tried to keep things easy to read while still giving you all the information you need.
So, without further ado, here are 23 raw dog food facts.
1. A Raw Dog Food Diet is Just That – Raw.
If you’re feeding your dog a complete raw dog food diet, you will be feeding only raw food, consisting of uncooked meat (usually both organ and muscle meat), crushed bones, raw eggs, veggies, fruit and possibly some dairy products.
A raw dog food diet emphasizes uncooked meat (often muscle and organ meat), whole or crushed bones, fruits, vegetables, raw eggs and some dairy. The diet originated with Ian Billinghurst, an Australian veterinarian, who devised it and promoted it under the acronym BARF, which stands for Biologically Appropriate Raw Food, or Bones and Raw Food.
2. The Science Behind a Raw Diet May Be Unsound
As previously mentioned, the AMVA does not consider the BARF diet to be good for dogs. Dr. Billinghurst maintains that the raw diet is desirable because it closely duplicate the way dogs would have eaten before they were domesticated. In other words, he discounts generation upon generation of evolution, disregarding the fact that right now, dogs are domesticated, and have been for quite some time, basically insisting that they should go back to the point, in terms of diet, that they were at before they bonded with humans and assumed some of the dietary practices of humans.
I am not suggesting that Dr. Billinghurst is right, or that he is wrong. I’m just pointing out that you probably should not base your decision on whether or you should adopt a raw food diet for your dogs on his theory. There is probably more to it than just evolution when it comes to what we should be feeding our dogs.
3. The Raw Diet is Increasing in Popularity
If you take a look at this graph, you’ll see that there’s no shortage of people who do agree with Dr. Billinghurst that a raw diet is best for dogs.
Within 4 years, the sales of raw, frozen and refrigerated pet foods nearly tripled in the United States. So are we on to something? Or is this just a “dog diet” trend, like our human trends? Like our South Beach diet, or our Paleo, or our smoothie craze? Keep reading to learn more about the raw food diet for dogs, and then make the right decision for you and your best buddy.
4. There are Advantages and Disadvantages to a Raw Dog Food Diet
Before feeding your dogs raw food only, you need to know the benefits as well as the disadvantages of a raw diet.
The benefits include:
- Better digestion
- Lower risk of allergies
- Firmer stools
- Healthier coat and skin
- Easier weight management.
The disadvantages include:
- Increased preparation time
- Reduced shelf life when compared to dry dog food
- Chance of humans coming into contact with food-borne pathogens
If you handle raw food with care, and don’t mind sacrificing some of the convenience that comes with just tearing open a bag of dry dog food, a raw dog food diet might be a desirable choice for you and your dog. I would suggest, though, that you consult your veterinarian before making any dramatic changes to your dog’s diet, and that you read the rest of this post before switching to a raw food diet.
5. There are Two Ways of Changing to a Raw Dog Food Diet
If you are wondering how much raw food to feed your dog when transitioning to a raw food only diet, there are two answers – you can take the “cold turkey” approach and begin feeding raw food exclusively right away, or you can add raw food gradually to your dog’s diet.
Some people, when switching their dog’s diet, take the position that if a raw diet is better for dogs, then there’s no point in waiting – all dry or canned foods should be disposed of immediately, and the dog should consume only raw foods. The main problem with this approach is that any sudden change in diet (even just a switch from one brand of dry dog food to another) can lead to gastric upset.
Of course, some dogs will do just fine with a sudden change in diet. Don’t be alarmed if you go the “cold turkey” route and you find that your dog’s stool has become looser than usual. By the same token, don’t ignore a symptom like diarrhea, especially if things don’t return to normal within a day or two of switching to a raw diet for your dog.
I would suggest that before you consider the “cold turkey” approach to dietary change, you should consult your veterinarian. My personal opinion is that you are unlikely to get the “green light” from your vet for this particular method, and in fact, one prominent veterinarian, Karen Becker, warns that any sudden change in diet can lead to gastric upset. The gradual approach is almost always best.
6. There are Four Ways of Effecting a Gradual Change to a Raw Diet
If you decide to err on the side of caution and not switch to a raw diet in one fell swoop, there are four highly effective ways of transitioning.
1. Start with Treats
This is a way of transitioning slowly to a raw dog food diet while monitoring your dog’s condition throughout the change. You’ll begin with giving your dog small portions of raw food instead of his regular treats. Over the first few days, you can gradually increase the amount of raw food tidbits you offer. Within about a week, if your dog’s stool seems normal, you can replace one of your dog’s regular meals with a meal consisting entirely of raw food. Do this for several days, and if all is going well, you can switch completely to raw food.
2. Combine Foods
With this approach, you’ll be feeding your dog his regular food along with raw food, adjusting the portions. On the first day of the transition, 1/8 of your dog’s food should be raw. On day 2, up the raw food to ¼ of the total food offered. On day 3, it’s half and half, and then by day 4 you will have transitioned to a purely raw dog food diet.
Because you will be increasing the proportion of raw food rapidly, it’s even more important to watch your dog for signs of gastric distress with this approach. Make sure, too, that you mix the regular and raw foods together – that way, if your dog is resistant to change, it will be more difficult for him to reject the raw food.
Feed Raw and Regular Food Separately
There is a myth out there to the effect that combining foods is a bad thing, because kibble-type foods take longer to digest than raw foods, and this can cause digestive issues. It’s just that – a myth.
Think of it this way – how many times have you added the leftover carrots from your dinner to your dog’s meal? Did you worry about combining foods when you did that? Did any harm result?
Now, looking at your own diet, the last time you had a salad before consuming a nice steak, did it send you running for the bathroom?
Of course a dog’s digestive system is different from a human’s, but humans and dogs alike have, for millennia, eaten various foods in combination. No harm has ever come to either species from eating foods that are digested at different rates, either in combination or at separate times.
If you dislike the idea of feeding combined foods, though, you can feel free to feed raw and cooked foods separately. Just keep the proportions the same as you would with the “combined foods” approach. You will, of course, have to feed more often, as it is not reasonable to expect a dog to eat, say, 1/8 of his daily allotment of food at one meal, and then 7/8 in a subsequent meal.
1. Cook First
You can also transition your dog to a raw food diet gradually by cooking the food first. I know that this sounds counter-intuitive, but it can be highly effective for dogs that have sensitive stomachs.
You begin this method by taking the raw food that you have purchased or made for your dog (more on making your own raw food later), and cooking it to start with. On the first day, cook the food completely. On the second day, cook the food until it is about ¾ done. On day 3, cook it about halfway, and on day 4, just lightly cook it. By day 5, you will be feeding your dog food that is completely raw.
If the decrease in cooking time causes your dog to develop diarrhea, you’ll need to slow down the transition a bit, cooking a bit longer for a while longer. Of course this means that you’ll have to devote a bit of time to meal preparation, but if your dog is sensitive to changes in his diet, and you’re determined to feed him raw food, you will have to accept that more time and effort will be required.
7. Even a Dog With Gastro-Intestinal Disease Can Eat a Raw Diet
You can transition a dog with GI disease to a raw diet, but the procedure will be more complex than with a dog whose gut is in good working order. You can never use the “cold turkey” method with a dog whose gut is not in balance.
A healthy dog will have a naturally acidic gut, which is ideal for breaking down raw food and destroying “bad” bacteria. If your dog has been accustomed to consuming a high-carb diet, his gut will be more alkaline, and will need time to normalize, adjusting to the point where raw foods can be effectively handled. If raw food is not introduced gradually, the dog may “reject” the raw food by vomiting, and may also develop diarrhea.
The key here is moderation. Don’t withdraw the kibble entirely – instead, reduce it a bit each day, until your dog has had the time to build up the kind of gut microbes that make it easier to digest raw food. Also add the raw food gradually – an ingredient at a time. It usually takes at least a week for the microbes that thrive on raw food to proliferate, and those that act upon cooked food to diminish.
“After about a week the microbes that feed on real meet and real dietary fiber will proliferate and those that feed on dry dog food will dramatically reduce in numbers. Your dog’s gut will be healthier, and so will your dog!
8. A Slow Transition is Not Natural
You may have heard people justify the “cold turkey” approach to raw diet transitioning on the basis that doing it slowly isn’t natural. And they’re right – it’s not natural. But then, neither is much of anything that we’ve done over the course of domesticating dogs that is natural.
Do you suppose that when the first cave man tossed a piece of cooked meat to a wolf hanging around the campfire, he said to himself “OMG, I’d better not do this; it’s not natural – wolves don’t cook their food”? Of course he didn’t. And with that very first act, by that very first cave man, we effectively stopped feeding our canine friends in a way that was ever intended by nature.
Moving forward several millennia, Dr. Karen Becker tells us that we have to forget about what nature intended, and deal with our dogs’ digestive tracts in the state they’re at right now. In other words, if your dog’s gut is not accustomed to raw food, you don’t want to start him on a raw diet to the exclusion of what he’s used to. You need to take it slow.
It’s not natural, but it is sensible.
If you’re getting the impression that I’m no fan of going “cold turkey,” you’re right. In the interests of giving you all available information, I threw it out there as one method, but I don’t believe it’s a desirable method.
9. You Need to Work With the Right Veterinarian
Speaking of veterinarians, I have to tell you that many vets do not approve of feeding your dog a raw diet. I’ve already pointed out that a raw diet is not AMVA-approved. Having said that, though, there are veterinarians, like Dr. Becker, who advocate a raw diet. If you’re considering transitioning your dog to a raw diet, I would strongly recommend that you find a practitioner like Dr. Becker, who is knowledgeable about the advantages, as well as the perils and pitfalls.
As Dr. Becker puts it, “If a seasoned holistic veterinarian isn’t participating in the dietary transition, it can go so poorly for some of these animals that they end up being hospitalized. These unsuccessful attempts at a dietary transition are why traditional vets will say, ‘Some pets just can’t tolerate raw foods or fresh foods. You just need to leave well enough alone and continue feeding kibble.’”
The last thing you want is to have your dog become so sick because of your well-meaning efforts that he ends up in the hospital, wondering why he feels so horrible, why you’ve left him there, and if you’ll ever be coming to bring him home. I have already gently suggested a couple of times that if you’re considering a raw diet, you should consult your vet. Now I’m going to take it up a notch – you must consult your vet before embarking on a raw food diet. And if your regular vet is not knowledgeable when it comes to raw food, then you need to find another vet who is before you proceed with switching.
10. Not All Vets are Supportive
Even if your veterinarian is knowledgeable when it comes to a raw food diet for dogs, you may find that he or she will tell you that it’s a bad idea. Personally, I’ve never broached the idea of a raw diet with my vet, simply because, as I stated in the fourth paragraph of this post, I’ve always fed commercial dry dog food, and I’ve had very long-lived dogs. I have no idea how my vet feels about raw dog food, because it’s not an issue for me.
If, after having all the facts, you decide that raw food is the way to go, you may find that your vet is not onside with what you want to do. In that situation, you have two choices – give your dog raw food in defiance of what your vet feels is best, or find another vet who will support your choice.
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11. A Raw Food Diet Means a Commitment to Change
Some dogs will transition very easily to a raw food diet. Others will take some time. You might find that switching over to raw food will take just a few days, or it could take weeks – every dog is different.
If you are fully committed to learning how to feed raw dog food to your best buddy, and you’re absolutely convinced that this is the right course of action, then you also have to be committed to change, no matter how long it takes. It’s a lifestyle change, pure and simple, for both you and your dog. You’ll have to learn where to buy raw dog food, or how to make raw dog food, and how much raw food to give to your dog.
You’ll also have to understand that the switch may not be without complications.
12. There Can Be a Detox Period When Switching to Raw Dog Food
When changing over to raw dog food, you may find that your dog experiences certain side effects, including:
- Dry skin
- Mucus-coated stool
- An increase in ear wax
- Runny eyes
- Loss of appetite
These symptoms can be alarming, but unless they increase to the point where your dog is in discomfort or losing weight, they’re normal. Usually they’ll go away in a week or two. In the meantime, make sure that your dog has plenty of fresh, clean water, brush him regularly, and keep his eyes and ears clean.
You might also find that your dog is drinking less than he usually does, but this is normal. Raw foods contain a lot more moisture than dry dog food, so your dog will likely consume less water. You still need to make sure that he always has access to water, though, the same as you always have.
13. Raw Diet Poop Looks Different
One thing that often panics converts to a raw dog food diet is the change in the appearance of their dog’s stool. This is something else that relates to the increased moisture content in a raw diet – kibble poop is drier.
The key here is not to confuse a soft stool with diarrhea. There’s nothing wrong with a softer stool – but if your dog is passing highly liquefied feces, you’re going to have to go back a few steps and re-introduce the kibble until things level out.
A bit of straining when defecating is also normal.
Now, a word on odor.
Of course I am not suggesting that you should bend down and smell your dog’s poop, but if you do notice a difference in the smell, that is also normal. Usually, a dog that is fed a raw diet will pass feces that are far less offensive, nose-wise, than a dog that is fed a commercial dry diet.
The takeaway here is simply this – don’t be tempted to abandon a raw diet just because you’re thinking “OMG, his poop is all wrong!”
It’s not wrong. It’s just different.
14. More on Poop – You Might Have to Change Your Schedule
We’ve already talked about the different ways to transition to a raw dog food diet. Whichever way you adopt, though, you’re going to have to assume that it will result in a change in your dog’s “potty” schedule. Probably he’s going to need more trips outside to start with, especially given that the increased moisture content in a raw diet leads to smoother, more regular bowel movements.
The other thing you need to know is that if you’re not home all the time, and therefore unable to watch your dog, is that in the first little while, there may be accidents.
Please don’t punish your dog if he poops on the floor while you’re away. In the first place, it’s not fair – by the time you get home, he’s long since forgotten that he did something you don’t like. In the second place, his diet has affected his bowels, and things aren’t… um… moving the way they used to. He might experience mild diarrhea for a while during the transition to raw dog food, and he might also need to “go” more often.
If you’re home, just keep an eye out. If you’re not, and your dog messes, don’t make a big deal out of it – that’s what they make soap and water for!
15. You Should Introduce New Foods Gradually
When it comes to transitioning your dog to a raw food diet, it’s not just about the amount of raw food; it’s also about the type of food you’re adding. For instance, it can take time for a dog that’s used to kibble that contains corn, wheat and other grains to adjust to the increased protein levels in raw food.
Raw protein should be added a bit at a time. You might want to consider feeding just one type of raw protein (chicken, maybe?) for the first week or two. Then add in other proteins, one at a time each week, until you’re sure that your dog is doing well on his new diet.
Most of the time, converts to raw diets start with poultry, because poultry is very digestible and bland. Adding too much in the way of rich food can lead to gastric upset and diarrhea. Go with small portions of lamb or pork, and then progress to beef, which is less easily digested.
Then, once you’re ready to add edible bone, do that gradually as well. The last thing you want to do is give your dog something approximating a mammoth leg, and expect him to be able to digest it. Also, never, ever give your dog poultry bones – they splinter and can pierce the esophagus, stomach or intestines. In the interests of safety, bone products should only ever be given in the form of ground-up meal, and should never contain poultry bones, which do not grind effectively.
Some advocates of raw diet claim that it is fine to feed large, meaty raw bones. I completely disagree – NO intact bone is safe.
16. You Should Introduce Organ Meat Gradually
Organ meats are very good for your dog – rich in nutrients, and very digestible once your dog’s gut has become accustomed to other raw foods. With organ meats, you need to introduce them slowly, because they can cause diarrhea. It’s actually best to feed organ meat along with bone product – the bone makes for a solid stool, while organ meats tend to loosen the stool, so taken together, they cancel out each other’s side effects.
Remember, too, that organ meats are so nutrient-rich that they need to be fed only in small quantities.
17. Your Dog Can Eat Offal
If you were to consider a “whole animal” as food for your dog, you would find little or nothing that your dog couldn’t eat, including offal – stomach lining, intestines, kidneys and so on. These foods, though, can take time to adapt to, so watch your dog carefully for signs of diarrhea or other gastric issues, and add them slowly and in small quantities.
If your dog’s stool is black, you may have fed too much offal. On the other hand, if your dog is eating mostly wild game or very dark red meat, a black stool could be normal.
18. Commercial Raw Food is Your Friend
Some dog owners prefer to begin making their own raw food right away. Others begin with (and sometimes stay with) commercial raw meat dog food. This is simply because they don’t have to worry about the ingredient mix, and whether they’re getting it 100% right. Raw dog food brands like OC Raw Dog Food, Instinct Frozen Raw Dog Food, Northwest Naturals Raw Dog Food and others already know the correct balance when it comes to feeding your dog a raw diet.
If you’re just starting out feeding your dog a raw diet, you could do a lot worse than to rely on a commercial manufacturer. In fact, you might find raw dog food brands that please you and your dog so much, you’ll just rely on them. If you want to step outside the box, though, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t think about making your own raw dog food.
19. You Can Learn How to Make Your Own Raw Food for Dogs
It’s easy to make your own raw dog food! You just need to buy some good ingredients, and mix them up in the proper ratio. You’ll notice that the recipes I’m offering are pretty flexible – you don’t have to obsess over getting too much meat, or too little in the way of veggies. There’s “wiggle room” here – your dog isn’t going to suffer if the proportions aren’t perfect.
Try out some of these recipes!
Chicken and Veggies
- 6 chicken parts (thighs, breasts or legs), de-boned
- Half a pound of chicken livers and/or hearts
- 3 eggs (raw, or boiled and mashed)
- 2 cups of carrots and/or green bean
Chop up the meat and veggies, and add the eggs. For senior dogs with dental issues, you might want to run the whole thing through a blender before serving.
You can also add some raw, chopped spinach if you like – studies have shown that dark green vegetables may decrease the risk of some forms of cancer.
Beef and Greens
- 1 pound of lean ground beef
- ½ pound of beef liver and/or heart
- ¼ pound of ground beef tail bones
- 1 green apple
- ½ pound of green leafy vegetables – kale, collard greens, Swiss chard and/or spinach
Chop the apple and greens and add to the other ingredients.
Surf and Turf
- 1 chicken breast or two chicken thighs, de-boned
- 3 cups de-boned mackerel or 2 cans of salmon
- 3 raw or boiled and chopped eggs
- 1 cup of chopped spinach
- 1 cup of chopped broccoli
Combine all ingredients and serve.
I might note that this is a far better way of getting your dog Omega-3 than packaged, processed dog foods that might have been allowed to sit on the shelf forever while the fish oil goes rancid – NO fish oil is better than rancid oils!
Surf and Turf, Version 2.0
- 1 pound of chicken breasts or thighs, de-boned
- 1 pound of lean ground beef
- Half a pound of beef liver and/or heart
- 2 cups of green beans
- 2 cups of chopped broccoli
Mix and feed!
1 pound of chicken breasts or thighs, de-boned
½ pound of chicken livers and/or hearts
4 cups of mixed vegetables (chopped carrots, broccoli, spinach or kale)
Chop up the chicken breasts and thighs and mix with other ingredients for most dogs. For senior dogs with dental issues, whirl the whole thing in a blender and serve.
These are just a few recipe ideas for feeding your dog a raw food diet. As you can tell, there is a lot of room for flexibility. You can substitute various meats for those suggested, introducing duck, lamb or wild game to your dog’s diet. There’s no right or wrong here, so feel free to experiment – as long as the food is raw, and there’s a proper balance between meat, dairy and veggies (with the possible addition of eggs), you’re likely getting it right.
20. You Might Never Completely Switch
From what you’ve read so far, you may have come to the conclusion that a raw diet would be very good for you dog. But realistically, you might never switch over completely, and that’s fine.
Perhaps the reason for your reluctance to go full-on raw is due to the fact that you’re not fully convinced that a 100% raw diet would be best for your dog, and that’s fine – I’m not absolutely convinced either!
You might also feel worried about the possibility of digestive upset, and I don’t think that’s an unrealistic concern.
Another huge concern is the cost of raw foods, and I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that a raw diet can be expensive.
If you don’t switch entirely, though, there’s really nothing wrong with partial measures.
21. You Can Add Raw Food Without Switching Entirely
There is no reason why you have to switch over completely to a raw dog food diet if you’re not comfortable with doing so. You can add raw foods to your dog’s diet simply and easily. Give him a bit of carrot or a green bean instead of a processed treat. Mix some raw egg in with his regular food. Add a bit of organ meat from time to time. Don’t discount the value of leftovers – I’m not suggesting that you feed your dog table scraps, but if you have some veggies left over from your own dinner, give them to your dog.
Not everyone is prepared to invest the time and money needed to feed their dogs a pure raw diet, but you can add raw foods in.
22. There is No One “Right” Way
As a species (human) that has bonded in a huge way to another species (dogs), and therefore assumed a certain level of responsibility for their well-being, we worry about how we feed our dogs. Are we getting it right?
Well, if you’ve read the foregoing material, you know that some experts feel that a raw diet is best for dogs. Others disagree. All we can do is take the information that we have at hand, and do the best we can with it. Whether that means we feed our dogs a raw diet, or a cooked diet, or a combination of the two, I don’t know. It’s up to you what you do with the information I’ve offered.
What I do know, though, is that I love my dogs, and I assume that you do too. How you feed your dog, though, is going to depend on a number of factors – how much you can spend, how much time you have to devote to feeding, and what you believe to be the best course of action.
23. You Should Still Ask Your Vet
I still believe that your veterinarian is the best source of information when it comes to what you should be feeding your dog. If your vet thinks that a raw diet is the best thing for your dog, then you should respect his or her level of knowledge and experience, and proceed accordingly. If your vet disagrees with feeding a raw diet and you’re still determined to feed that way, then at least find a veterinarian who knows about raw diets and can give you the advice you need.
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The Final Word
The concept of a raw diet for dogs is still in its infancy. Some experts advocate it, and others do not. There is no one, single answer that will relate absolutely to you and your dog. All I can suggest is that you choose a method of feeding that best suits you, your dog, and your lifestyle. Watch what’s going on with your dog, and if it looks like the raw diet isn’t working, pull back and regroup. And always, always, consult your veterinarian before making any extreme changes.