Raw Dog Food: A Quick, Everything-You-Need Guide

By Jennifer Dempsey / August 30, 2018

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 potential benefits are something worth taking note of. If you’ve ever considered making the switch to raw dog food, this article is for you.

raw dog food

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 that 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 pet food that you find at your local supermarket are full of preservatives and fillers that allow them to have a longer shelf life. Unfortunately, artificial 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 store-bought food, which ensures that each raw meal is served fresh. Some pet owners may consider this to be a drawback. Long lasting 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.

Proponents of a raw diet claim the following benefits: 

  • Healthier skin and coat
  • Increased energy
  • Greater overall vitality
  • Improved digestion
  • Cleaner teeth
  • Better muscle tone
  • Smaller stools 

Pet owners have reported that many of the benefits and changes happen quite immediately.

benefits of raw dog food

Potential Risks of Raw Dog Food

Again, these benefits don’t come without risks. The majority of veterinarians do not advocate for raw food diets and there are reasons worth acknowledging. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) have all come out with statements against feeding raw diets to our pets. 

Contamination

When handling raw meat, there is always a possibility for bacterial 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.  Avoid touching your face while handling meat and always thoroughly wash your hands afterwards. Immediately refrigerate or carefully dispose of any uneaten portions. 

Countless studies have shown that raw diets are far more likely to contain harmful bacteria such as salmonella, listeria, and E. coli, than other commercial pet diets. These organisms cannot only make our pets sick, but also infect ourselves. Your dog can transfer the bacteria by licking you, so avoid kisses and always wash your hands and face after handling your pet as a precaution. 

Immunocompromised dogs, including dogs with cancer or receiving chemotherapy, should also not be fed raw diets due to the risk of bacterial contamination. 

Properly Sourced

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.

Unbalanced Diet

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.

Raw diets should also not be fed to dogs with liver disease or kidney failure as it is too high in protein. 

Dental Health

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 of the gastrointestinal tract. 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 kibble and canned foods have integrated the concept of raw food into their products. These dog foods containing raw meat are either frozen or freeze-dried 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 may 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 or more a day. Conversely, a 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. An increase of potentially several dollars a day 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.

raw dog food

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. As always, consult with a board-certified nutritionist (rather than relying on other people’s recipes on the internet) when preparing a home cooked diet to make sure that it is nutritionally balanced for your pet. 

#1 – Calcium & Phosphorus

One of the most important rules for a nutritionally complete raw food diet is making sure it contains enough calcium and phosphorus. Deficiencies can cause bone and dental abnormalities. All dogs, but particularly growing puppies, need excellent sources of these minerals and won’t survive without them. Growing puppies should not be fed a raw diet because if they don’t get enough of these minerals it can cause deformities and growth defects. 

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 have been washed and sprayed with a topical sanitizer. It is best to grind the egg shells to prevent any sharp pieces or choking hazards.

#2 – 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.

Organs include:

  • Liver
  • Kidney
  • Brain
  • Lung
  • Testicles
  • Spleen
  • Pancreas
  • Thymus

Pet parents should plan on organs making up 10-30% of their dog’s meal. Many people stick to 10% organ meat, with 5% comprised of liver.. Any more than 10% of liver in the diet can cause digestive upset.

#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 of 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, 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 many 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 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 functions.

The following are examples of low-fat options.

  • Light meat chicken or turkey without skin
  • Chicken necks without the skin
  • Lean ground beef
  • Rabbit
  • 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 cautious of. Giving too much fish oil can also cause gastrointestinal upset, delayed wound healing, blood clotting abnormalities, and weight gain. 

We recommend trying fish such as herring, sardines, smelts, or mackerel. Pet parents can add 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 for our beloved pet. Diets that are lacking in any nutrients or vitamins, have proven to be directly linked to the development of a number of health issues. This is why it is so important to work with a veterinary nutritionist in order to formulate the perfect balance in your dog’s diet. 

#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 contains higher levels 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.

raw dog food choices

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 affects 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.

Sources

https://simplewag.com/raw-dog-food/

https://keepthetailwagging.com/rawfooddiet/

About the author

Jennifer Dempsey

Dr. Jennifer Dempsey is a small animal veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Central Florida and her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida (Go Gators!) She has resided in the Orlando area since graduation and has gained years of experience helping cats and dogs live happier and longer lives. As a general practitioner, she has found client education to be one of the most important aspects of day to day life in veterinary medicine. Medical writing has helped her to connect with a larger audience and make sure that pet owners are fully aware of their loved one’s medical condition. She currently shares her home with two rescued mixed breed dogs named Primo and Morgan.

  • Rachel McArthur says:

    Very insightful! Thank you for all the information! Wow, so many things that a dog can eat and never knew it! Found out about Apoquel on this sight and glad to know the information because my dog will no longer be taking it!


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