Feeding a Raw Diet

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You’ve probably seen it mentioned in your dog-related forums and Facebook groups, or it’s been recommended to you by a groomer, a trainer, or a friend. Everything you hear about it seems to be one of two extremes – either it’s being touted as some kind of miracle cure for everything from allergies, to cancer, to heartworms – or, someone is claiming that it will immediately turn your dog into a bloodthirsty monster… if it doesn’t kill him first, of course.

So, what’s the big deal with this “raw diet”? Well, I can tell you right now: it isn’t a miracle cure for everything. I can also tell you that it will not turn your beloved Fido into Cujo or one of the zombie Dobermans from Resident Evil. But from personal experience, I can promise you that switching my dogs to a raw diet was one of the best, if not THE best decision, I’ve ever made for their health.

A raw diet is a diet composed mainly of uncooked meat. There are many different kinds of raw diets, all of which have their fair share of avid supporters. The most fun part of researching raw diets is that nobody seems to agree on any one specific way of feeding raw. Some include fruits and veggies, while some do not. Some are composed of ground up meat and supplements, while some strive to feed whole animals, organs, fur, feet, and heads intact. There are the raw feeders that shout “grass-fed organic” from the rooftops, and then, there are those that pick up roadkill and free meat from potentially sketchy strangers on Craigslist.

There are two major groups that raw diets can be separated into: commercial raw diets (such as Bravo, Stella and Chewy’s, or Vital Essentials), and homemade raw diets, made and balanced by the pet owners themselves. Homemade raw diets come in many forms, but there are two models of feeding that seem to be the most popular: BARF (which stands for “bones and raw food” or “biologically appropriate raw food” and also makes you wonder who in the world thought that acronym was the best marketing choice), and “prey model”.

Commercial raw diets are commonly regarded as the safest raw option by most veterinary professionals, mostly due to the fact that they are already balanced and require no thought process from the owner beyond “buy, thaw, serve” – which to them is a huge plus, considering their last emergency client’s dog was lethargic and half-dead because all they were feeding him was ground beef and white rice for the first 10 months of his life. On the flip side, commercial diets are also incredibly expensive, and sometimes might be hard to come by, depending on where you live. And with the proper research, homemade diets can be perfectly balanced and just as safe, if not more safe, than commercial diets.

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I follow most “prey model” guidelines, but still occasionally include fruits/veggies and supplements.

All of these options contain mostly raw meat, bone, and organ, and they may or may not contain fruits, veggies, grains, starches, supplements, or added processing (from grinding to HPP to freeze-drying). Most commercial raw diets include all or some of those things, although recently some commercial diets have been advertised to contain nothing but meat/bone/organ. Most homemade raw diets are balanced over time by specific percentages of (you guessed it) meat, bone, and organ – plus anything else that may be added to that specific diet. One of the most common ratios, promoted by the “prey model” followers, would be 80% muscle meat/10% bone/5% liver/5% other secreting organs, while BARF feeders follow a model of 60% raw meaty bones/40% veggies. Prey model feeding strives to recreate something similar to what wild canines would be eating in the wild; the ratio of meat/bone/organ, as well as the fact that fruits/veggies are typically excluded from the diet, is based on the belief that domesticated dogs are carnivores.  BARF feeding, on the other hand, is based on the belief that domesticated dogs are instead omnivores, and require veggies as an essential part of the diet. But these are just general guidelines, and many raw feeders seem to be feeding a combination of these diets rather than strictly one or the other. For instance, there are still “prey model” feeders that include veggies, dairy, or supplements in the diet. Many BARF feeders seem to be using the 80/10/5/5 ratio now too, rather than the very simple 60/40 ratio that was first recommended by the “founder” of the BARF diet, Ian Billinghurst. In other words, prey model and BARF seem to be meshing together, and some aspects of a homemade raw diet (such as supplements or veggies) are regarded as personal choice rather than mandatory.

I know what you’re thinking. This whole raw diet thing seems complicated and time-consuming. You buy a bag of kibble, you put some in a bowl, and you let your dog eat it. Why complicate it any more than that? Well, the raw diet does come with a variety of benefits. Raw diets have been claimed to clean teeth and promote healthy gums (while avoiding costly dental procedures), create shiny coats and healthy skin, help alleviate allergies or infections, and even cause your dog to poop less often and in smaller amounts.

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Photo credit: Elle Attebery

Still – it is not the “miracle cure” it is sometimes claimed to be. Raw fed dogs are not invincible like some Facebook experts may seem to imply. Dogs that are fed a raw diet are not automatically immune to infections, fleas, worms, bloat, cancer, or physical injuries (yes… I’ve seen all of those things claimed on raw feeding forums and groups.) And, no matter how many times you hear “it’s so easy!” and “it’s cheaper than kibble!” – that may not be your personal experience.

A raw diet can greatly benefit almost every dog – from puppies to seniors, Danes and Chihuahuas, working dogs and couch potatoes. But every dog is different – and arguably even moreso, so is every owner. Raw diets are not “one size fits all.” It takes research – in other words, time and effort – to find out what works best for you and your dog in particular. And an improper or unbalanced raw diet can cause far more issues than it could potentially help in the long run. This one’s too pricy, this one’s time-consuming, this one’s not balanced – but this one’s just right!

So you’re aware that raw diets won’t make your dog immortal, and you’re prepared to do some digging to find out how to start. Now… how DO you start?

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Photo credit: Jamie Fincher

The first thing you should do is find a support system. This could be an experienced friend, your veterinarian, a reputable raw feeding Facebook group, or any one person or group of people who can give you advice along the way. The worst thing you can do when feeding a raw diet is feeding an UNBALANCED raw diet, and in order to prevent that, you will probably need an avenue in which you can find advice and answers to your questions as you go along. I am the founder of The Raw Feeding Community on Facebook, which strives to be such a resource.

Next, you will need to consider what kind of raw diet would be best for you and your dog. Your budget, freezer space, and the amount of time you will be able to spend sourcing, weighing, and portioning your dog’s diet will be some of the major factors in this decision. Commercial raw would be best for those who are willing to pay for convenience. A homemade diet will be significantly cheaper, but may require more time and space than a commercial diet typically would.

It might be easier for you, your wallet, your free time, and/or your lack of currently available freezer space, to feed a partial raw diet rather than make the full switch to raw. Raw meaty bones, like turkey necks or chicken leg quarters, can be fed alongside frozen or freeze-dried commercial raw products in order to save money and also provide the benefits of teeth cleaning and mental stimulation that commercial raw normally does not typically offer. Although I have witnessed many people in Facebook groups and online forums warn against feeding raw and kibble together – claiming that the differing digestion rates will “trap” the raw behind the slowly-digesting kibble, causing bacteria in the raw meat to sit in the stomach for too long which will potentially harm your dog – I have never seen this claim backed up, but rather, have just seen it spread around by someone-that-heard-it-from-someone-else. Scientifically, this theory doesn’t make sense; the digestive system just doesn’t work that way. In fact, the canine digestive system is built to handle large amounts of bacteria. Not only that, but the longer something stays in the stomach, the more time it has to break down; adversely, something that passes too quickly through the digestive system may not get enough time for the nutrients to be utilized completely. Don’t let this myth deter you from feeding a diet of kibble and raw. Mixing raw and kibble is a common and effective way to feed, and has been successfully practiced for years by countless pet owners. Feeding a 50/50 raw diet along with kibble can still provide your dog with many of the health benefits of raw. Even replacing one meal a week with a turkey neck you picked up from Wal-Mart’s meat section, instead of a boring bowl of kibble, will give your dog a weekly teeth cleaning session. Look at it this way: some raw is better than no raw at all!

Pricing a raw diet depends on many factors. Obviously, things like your dog’s size, weight, activity level, and metabolism come into play, since that will determine how much your dog needs to eat. But things like where you live come into play too – are there any nearby co-ops or distributors? What about ethnic markets, where you can find much better variety and deals on meat than your typical Kroger? Are there many local butchers, hunters, processors, or farmers in your area who could be contacted for cheap, or even free, scraps? Sometimes, being able to afford a raw diet means taking the extra time and effort to find the best deals, and also, having the freezer capacity to be able to buy meat in bulk.

Although raw feeding may seem overwhelming at first, you’ll soon find that the benefits of this diet are equally overwhelming. Why else would so many pet owners go to such extremes to feed raw? Fortunately for the new raw feeder, there are countless resources available to anyone who is interested, and you have many options to allow raw feeding to fit into your specific lifestyle… whether you live on acreage in the country, or in a small NYC apartment. Raw would be a great thing to consider in order to provide your dog with a healthier diet, and therefore, a longer, healthier life. Isn’t that what all dog owners want?

If you want to look farther into this raw diet craze, there are many online resources that you can check out. The Raw Feeding Community on Facebook is a group of thousands of active members ready to discuss raw, and the group also has an extensive files section with everything you need to know about switching to a raw diet. Rawfed.com is another great resource, which includes a list of raw feeding myths and their explanations. Dogster.com also has a forum dedicated to discussing raw diets.

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