For thousands of millennia, our canine and feline companions have subsisted on diets of raw meats and human dinner scraps.
Around 60 years ago, commercially prepared pet foods began growing in popularity, supplanting the more natural diets of our dogs and cats. The past 10 years, however, have seen a rise in raw food diets.
Supplying your dog or cat with raw foods is a safe and healthy alternative to commercially produced foods. There are numerous raw food diets out there for pet owners to try. Most raw food diets are based off of two models, the BARF diet and the Prey diet.
The BARF diet was initiated by Dr. Ian Billinghurst in his attempt to provide pets and wild animals with a better environment to thrive in. BARF stands for ‘Biologically Appropriate Raw Food‘ or ‘Bones and Raw Food‘. The BARF diet includes everything from non-meats to an array of supplements. Dr. Billinghurst insists that store bought pet foods do not offer the same advantages for pets that were offered to their ancestors who dined on raw and wildmeat.
The Prey diet simulates the proportions of an actual prey animal in a pet’s diet. The Whole Prey diet, for example, simulates animal prey by including bone, fur, feathers, scales, muscles, organ meat, and skin. There are no supplements used with this diet, meaning that everything your pet needs is provided by the ‘prey’ being used.
A simpler raw diet is largely composed of as wide a variety of meats, butchers’ scraps and bones as possible, and table scraps as supplements.
Another, more convenient way to feed a raw diet is to buy a commercially prepared, pre-frozen raw diet – complete and ready to feed. Just thaw in your refrigerator, and feed. There are many companies offering frozen raw diets now.
There are many benefits that have been reported by pet owners after they have switched their pets to a raw food diet, and I have seen this in my practice. Here is a list of improvements that pet owners have experienced:
• shinier hair coat
• eliminated ‘dog’ odor
• better body muscle to fat ratios
• cleaner teeth and breath
• decreased itching
• normalized energy levels
• improved urinary tract health
• better resistance to infections
• increased mobility with a decrease in arthritis pain
• decreased allergy symptoms
• little to no hairballs in cats
• lower stool volume
Not all pets will experience all of the health benefits listed above, but most pet owners report that their pet experiences one of more of the benefits after switching over to a raw food diet.
Additional benefits include not having to make as many trips to the veterinarian – a healthier pet, fewer vet bills. Another potential advantage is that in general, raw diets are less expensive than (premium) commercial diets, if you prepare the diets yourself, at home.
The number one concern is food-borne illnesses such as Salmonella and E. coli, and spread of these to humans. Other concerns include choking on bones and perforation of the stomach or intestines from bones. Feeding raw foods to sick or debilitated pets is another concern.
In truth, Salmonella and E. coli are not well documented concerns for your pets. The intestinal tracts of dogs and cats are designed for handling and digesting raw meats. When raw meat is ingested, the stomach pH goes to a highly acidic pH of 1, making it very difficult for these organisms to survive. The short digestive tract of a carnivore enables the food to be digested and ready to go (as feces) within 6 hours, before the bacteria can become a problem.
To prevent any spreading of harmful bacteria to yourself, take a few extra precautions. Bacteria are normally transmitted through what is known as fecal-oral contact – handling the waste and then inadvertently touching the mouth. The best way to protect yourself is simple; use common sense and practice good hygiene. If you are ill, do not feed raw food (have someone else do it), and do not handle any waste. Anyone who is sick or has a poor immune system has a better chance of passing something on to their pet or being susceptible to disease themselves.
An additional concern is choking on bones, and intestinal obstruction/perforation. These events are rare, but they are still possible. Most dogs and cats chew the bones well, breaking them down into small pieces that pass through the intestinal tract quickly. Some dogs and cats still manage to eat raw bones and choke on them, usually by eating them too quickly.
To prevent this, chop up the bones into small pieces prior to feeding. When cats are fed raw meat with bones, the food should always be chopped up into very small pieces, one-quarter inch or smaller. Never feed cats whole chicken necks.
An easy way to avoid these issues is to buy one of the commercially prepared raw diets – they include everything needed, including chopped up bones.
Incorporating Raw Food into Your Pet’s Diet
A home raw diet is, and should be, simple. When preparing a raw diet, keep some basic food ‘groups’ in mind. Meat, chopped bones, and vegetables should be a large part of what you feed your pet, along with organ meats once a week. If you keep these basic principles in mind, then you should have no problem providing your pet with a much healthier lifestyle.
Raw Feeding For Dogs
If you are going to prepare raw food on your own, make sure you feed from four principle ‘raw food groups’:
• Organ meats
• Fruits and vegetables
It is easiest to feed chicken as the meat and bone source if you are preparing the meat fresh. Chicken backs and thighs are inexpensive, and a great way to start. After purchasing the chicken, wrap each piece individually and freeze it. Defrost it overnight, and then chop it up in the morning. Defrosting the chicken for approximately 9 hours allows it to become slightly soft, but not rubbery, and therefore easiest to chop.
Raw Feeding for Cats
Cats are thought to more clearly benefit from a raw diet. Most commercial cat foods contain a disproportionate amount of carbohydrates. Because cats are obligate carnivores, little grain is generally found in their natural diet. In addition to grains, cat foods often contain a large amount of vegetables, often included to achieve proper nutritional balance.
Taurine, an essential amino acid for cats, is reduced or eliminated in heat processing. Pet food manufacturers must add taurine supplements to cat food, which is generally unnecessary in a raw diet. Proponents of raw diets believe that a raw diet more closely matching the diet of cats in the wild will yield many improved health benefits, including a noticeable reduction in the incidence of many late-life feline health issues.
When preparing a raw diet for your cat at home, as with dogs, be sure you feed from the principle ‘raw food groups’. For cats, vegetables and fruit are optional:
• Bones (chopped up very small to avoid choking)
• Organ meats (given once a week)
To start, use chicken backs and thighs, same as with dogs. After purchasing the chicken, wrap each piece individually and freeze it. Defrost it overnight, and then chop it up in the morning. Defrosting the chicken for approximately 9 hours allows it to become slightly soft, but not rubbery, and therefore easiest to chop.
A Balanced Diet
Bones (or bone meal or an alternate supplement) are a must with a raw diet. Many people starting out may avoid adding bones, feeling that ‘meat’ is the most important part of the diet. This is not true, as calcium is essential for health.
Be sure to balance the amount of meat fed with bones or bone meal, as meat is very high in phosphorus and contains little to no calcium. The correct balance of phosphorus to calcium is approximately 1.3 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorus. A good example of a correct meat-to-bone ratio is with chicken necks, backs or wings; if you base your proportion on these samples, you’ll have a good balance. Always keep in mind how your pet would eat in the wild – not just meat, but a large portion of bones.
Vary the meat sources from time to time to provide a variety of nutrients to your dog or cat. An easy way to do this is to purchase commercial raw diets and feed these from time to time. These generally cost about 2-3 times as much as your home-prepared chicken, but they contain chopped up meats, bones, organs, vegetables, and other ingredients.
Feeding raw isn’t an exact science. Rest assured that over time, by varying the protein sources and amounts of bones and other ingredients you feed, your pet will receive a balanced diet.
How Much Do I Feed?
This will also vary with your dog or cat. A dog that is more active and has a higher metabolism will eat more, while a less active dog or one with a slower metabolism will eat less. Puppies will typically eat more than adults, since they need to fuel their rapidly growing body.
As a general guideline, you can feed one pound of food per 50 pounds of dog. Rapidly growing dogs and active dogs tend to need more; older dogs and inactive dogs tend to need less. If your dog gains weight on this amount, then decrease it; if your dog loses weight on this amount, then increase it.
Meats that are lower in fat include turkey, buffalo, ostrich, venison, and rabbit. Meats that are higher in fat and help put weight on include beef, lamb, duck, and pork.
Cooking does destroy vital nutrients in food, including vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. In commercial foods, these have to be added back after processing. But are the added nutrients as good as what’s found in raw food?
Pets seem to do very well on this diet, so we’ll let the results speak for themselves. I have seen many healthy coats and shiny white teeth. If you take care to use only fresh meat, keep it refrigerated, and follow correct sanitation practices when handling it, you will have few problems and a happy dog or cat.
Heal Your Pet At Home!
Dr Andrew Jones, DVM