We love our dogs and want the best for them, and that of course includes the food that we give them.
On this point, what food is best for your dog, there has never been so much discussion. And much of the debate — amongst dog owners, veterinarians, researchers and canine health advisory bodies — has focused on the raw food diet.
Online there are many eye-catching stories of an ailing pet’s health dramatically improving when fed a raw diet; of pets developing shinier coats and firmer muscles, and living longer. Might we be letting our pets down if we don’t feed raw?
But is anecdote backed up by science, and what’s the latest thinking on the pros and cons of feeding your dog raw? Is switching to a raw diet right for your dog and your lifestyle — and if you wanted to switch, how would you do it?
What is a raw food diet for dogs?
Put simply, a raw diet for dogs consists principally of uncooked meat, edible bones and internal organs (i.e offal, such as liver). The line of thought is that in feeding raw, we are feeding our dogs (and cats for that matter) what their ancestors would have eaten in the wild. In other words, we are feeding our pets their ‘natural’ diet, the food that their bodies are genetically attuned to.
Essentially the reasoning is similar to that of the Paleo diet for humans, which has been similarly been gaining a lot of attention in recent years, and is based on foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors might have eaten during the Paleolithic era (approx. 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago).
Did wild dogs eat meat only?
Clearly no one can know for certain exactly what canids (our pet dogs’ ancestral genus) ate in the wild thousands of years ago, so there are varying interpretations or versions of the raw food diet for dogs — in particular, there is debate over whether dogs are naturally carnivores that would seek out and consume only whole prey, in other words meat on the bone, or whether they also ate vegetables and fruit.
However, the various raw food diets for dogs share the same basic principle: that feeding our pet dogs the natural diet of their ancestors provides them with better, more natural nutrition than is available from modern day processed dog foods.
Types of raw food diet for dogs
The most popular raw diet for dogs goes under the not wholly appealing acronym BARF, which stands for ‘Biologically Appropriate Raw Food’ or the ‘Bones and Raw Food’ diet.
The BARF diet was created in the early 1990s by Australian veterinarian Dr Ian Billinghurst, who has written extensively on the subject. Quoting from his website: ‘To produce the BARF diet is very simple. You may use whatever you can find in the way of whole, RAW, healthy foodstuffs… meat, bones, vegetables and organ meats etc. — that mimics the diet of a wild or feral animal.’
In the BARF diet the food is generally passed through a grinder before being fed to the dog. Some dog owners choose to grind the bones in with the food, others feed bones separately.
To feed the diet in the 1990s you had to prepare the food yourself at home, and many raw feeders of course still feed homemade. However, many commercial pre-prepared raw meals for dogs are now available.
The question of prey
The prey model, probably the next most popular approach to raw feeding for dogs, differs from the BARF diet in that here the raw food is provided, where possible, in the form of whole prey, such as whole rabbits or chickens (but note, the feeding is not of live prey).
This is based on the idea that dogs naturally, in the wild, are carnivores who would seek out and eat whole prey, which would include muscle meat, bone, and internal organs. Any vegetable nutrients in the prey model are derived from the internal organs of the prey, rather than included as additional ingredients.
1. The pros of feeding your dog raw
Time to look at the main arguments put forward in favour of feeding raw:
a) Feeding the natural diet for dogs
The fundamental argument for feeding raw is that this diet is the biologically appropriate method of feeding because our pets’ bodies evolved eating this diet — ‘anything less will fall short of what their bodies require for best health, longevity and freedom from disease.’ (Dr Billinghurst).
Whilst our pets have been the subject of much breeding and inter-breeding over the centuries, producing a wide range of breed sizes and builds not present in the wild thousands (or even hundreds) of years ago, the essential biology of dogs and cats has not changed. So, proponents argue, the natural diet of their ancestors remains the most appropriate diet for our pets today.
b) Leading to better health and longer life — naturally
Advocates believe feeding an evolutionary appropriate raw diet profoundly benefits the dog’s health, including less wind and firmer poo; a fuller, shinier coat; greater enthusiasm for their meals; fewer intolerances; less incidence of obesity.
In addition, writing on the BARF diet, Dr Billinghurst points to much reduced incidence of ‘dental problems, skin problems, ear problems, eye problems, bowel problems, kidney and heart problems, pancreas and liver problems and immune system problems,’ and ‘an enormously reduced chance of developing both infectious and degenerative diseases. They rarely develop cancer. This healthy state continues into advanced old age.’
As may be expected, manufacturers of mainstream pet foods dispute claims that their foods are either unhealthy or give rise to increasing incidences of dog cancer. At present there are few independent scientific studies on the raw food diet — perhaps partly due to there being little incentive for commercial pet food companies to fund such studies.
That said, there are a number of studies in progress and, for example, a recent study Dr Anna Hielm-Bjorkman in Finland evaluating the levels of homocysteine, a marker of inflammation and chronic disease in the body, relating to diet found that the dogs fed raw food, and who continued to eat raw food, had the lowest homocysteine levels.
c) You can know just what you are feeding your dog
Feeding a homemade raw diet, you are in complete control of what you include in your dog’s food, and the quality and origin of the ingredients.
You are able to prepare the diet to avoid foods to which your dog may be allergic, and to meet your dog’s specific nutrient requirements. You can also vary the nutrients according to, say, time of year, activity of your dog etc.
Similarly you can be sure to avoid inclusion of unhealthy additives, such as preservatives, or foodstuffs that are high in calories.
If using, pre-prepared commercial raw meals you obviously do not have quite the same control over ingredients. But there are advantages in that it is a simpler feeding regime and you do not have to find all the individual ingredients that go to make sure your dog receives a nutritionally balanced, varied diet.
The raw meals are usually supplied frozen, which means they don’t require added preservatives.
How easy is it to switch to raw?
Generally, dogs are fairly adaptable creatures and switching to raw is not a complicated matter as long as your dog is in good health. That said, our pets are individuals and there is no absolute rule about their preferences. If your dog doesn’t take to raw, you will probably not want to force him.
On your side it will also be easier if, at least to begin with, you use a ready-prepared raw food as opposed to homemade.
A straight swap can work, feeding your dog their usual meal the night before, allowing 12 hours, and then make the switch to raw food in the morning.
Alternatively, you can try phasing it in by offering raw as a treat initially then slowly increasing the percentage of raw in their diet. Raw dry food is also now available, which has a similar texture to commercial kibble.
Your dog may experience some initial symptoms as his digestive system adapts, most commonly bad breath and/or diarrhoea (or constipation), but these should soon pass; if not, consult your veterinarian.
2. The cons of feeding your dog raw
We’ve taken a look at the main points that are advanced in favour of feeding raw. But are there drawbacks?
a) Risks from harmful bacteria
Bacteria such as e.coli, salmonella and clostridium botulinium have been found in raw food for dogs, and remain present in the dogs’ stools.
A dog’s constitution is much stronger than humans. Therefore you and other people in the household are likely to be more at risk of being made ill by such bacteria than your pet. You do need to ensure you apply the rules of good hygiene to protect yourself and others in the household.
For example, after handling raw meat always wash your hands thoroughly, and clean cutting surfaces and utensils. You can also minimize the risk of bacteria spread by using stainless steel bowls to serve your dog raw food, and washing up the bowls as soon as your pet finishes eating.
However, if very elderly people or young children are in your home, or people with a compromised immune system, you need to take extra care to ensure these vulnerable members of the household are protected from any contact with harmful bacteria.
On a similar note, a raw diet is not suitable for dogs with a compromised immune system, for example if your dog is suffering from cancer or similar diseases. And raw is inappropriate for dogs suffering from kidney diseases or liver diseases because, due to the high protein levels in raw food, such dogs will find the food difficult to digest. Always consult a veterinarian.
b) It’s down to you to get the nutritional balance right
When feeding homemade it is also quite difficult to ensure you’re providing your dog with the necessary nutritional balance and varying diet of proteins that he needs.
It is important to vary your dog’s raw meals so that he receives the full spectrum of amino acids in the correct balance to minimize the likelihood of food intolerances developing. In addition, a varied diet helps to maintain the integrity of your dog’s gut lining.
As ever, you also need to be vigilant when feeding bones. Raw whole bones can be good for natural teeth cleaning and nutrition, but there is always the potential of chipping or damaging the teeth on a bone, or ingesting bone fragments.
c) Expect raw to be more time-consuming, and more expensive
To get the potential benefits of feeding your dog a raw diet, you need to get the nutritional content right. This takes a fair degree of nutritional know-how, which in itself takes time and commitment to develop. And symptoms arising from nutritional deficiencies can take months before they can clearly be identified.
The sourcing and calculation of ingredients to ensure sufficient and varied nutrition, as well as preparation of the meal, are also time-consuming and can be difficult to fit into a busy lifestyle.
Feeding pre-prepared raw meals can get round most of these problems, but you still need the freezer space, and you can expect feeding raw in any form to be more expensive than high quality cooked wet or dry dog foods.
Ok, ‘fess up: do I feed raw?
The short answer is no, not so far.
I have fed raw for a brief period looking after a friend’s dog, using frozen pre-prepared meals. After a couple of days I had a routine going with a separate place in the fridge for the defrosted, current meal pack and immediate wash-up of the metal feed bowl after Bodhi had finished, and it was all fairly trouble-free.
However, for the time being we continue to feed Charlie our pointer with a high quality dry food, with some wet food, of similar quality, mixed in. On this diet we find he is fit, healthy and energetic. He also has a fine, glossy coat.
The increased focus on health and wellbeing in recent years, for humans and pets, has brought about an improvement in the quality of dog food.
In addition new, smaller independent manufacturers have entered the market offering high quality non-raw dog food that is easy to feed and (relatively) affordable.
For good ‘cooked’ dog food, look for a brand that is made with high quality ingredients; is derived from a named animal source (with no animal byproducts); is free of artificial flavours, colourants or preservatives; baked slowly to retain nutrients (rather than heated at high temperatures); and contains the broad range of essential vitamins and minerals.
I think the decision whether to raw or non-raw is very much a personal one — what works for you and your dog.
And, after all, you can keep the decision under review. You can try out a raw food diet for your dog and see how it goes; or even combine the two by feeding an element of raw.
But do also speak to your veterinarian if you are thinking of switching your dog to a different diet. She or he will be able to advise if there are any specific issues in relation to diet and your particular dog’s health.
Deciding whether to feed your dog raw
You know your life and your dog best. In this brief overview I hope I have helped to clarify the issues and dispel any feelings of confusion or overwhelm.
Now, with a firm foundation of information and knowledge, you can move forward confidently, without feelings of guilt, or anxiety about making a ‘wrong’ decision.
As dog lovers we always want to do the best we can for our dog. In taking the time to think about and provide a good diet for your dog, you can be confident you are helping to give your dog a long, healthy and happy life.