The web is crowded with passionate bloggers extolling the benefits of the raw-food diet: cleaner teeth, less odor, shinier coats, more energy and far fewer visits to the vet’s office. But when we move beyond anecdotal evidence, does science support it? And what exactly constitutes a healthy home-cooked canine diet anyway?
For more than two years, Sir Robert McCarrison, a doctor whose work is referenced in the authoritative Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats, conducted a study in which he fed roughly 1,000 rats a healthy diet, including sprouted beans, raw cabbage and carrots, raw milk, and a moderate amount of meat and bone. He also provided them with sun, fresh air and a clean place to live. Their eventual necropsies revealed no disease — not one. Two other groups, who had the misfortune of being fed rice or diets rich in boiled, sweetened and canned foods, showed disease in every organ, and some became so agitated that they devolved to cannibalism.
Taking this compelling research into account, the next question is where to begin. Two major schools of raw feeding exist today. The first, “Biologically Appropriate Raw Food” (BARF), was created by veterinary surgeon Ian Billinghurst. A typical BARF diet is made up of 60 to 80 percent raw meaty bones (poultry necks, wings and backs; rabbit or quail quarters or halves; and so forth), and 20 to 40 percent fruits and veggies, meat, eggs, and dairy foods, along with an abundance of supplements. The second, the “prey-model” diet, strictly mimics what proponents believe would be the animal’s natural diet in the wild. Whole rabbits or game hens, for example, are often offered to the dog. This diet recommends 80 percent muscle meat, 10 percent bone and 10 percent organ meat, and nothing more.
Whichever approach speaks to you and your vet, the foundational principles are largely the same: dogs’ meals should be organic, unprocessed, wholefood- based and raw whenever possible.
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According to most raw feeders, dogs should eat muscle meat (hamburger, chicken, turkey), as well as a healthy array of organ meat (heart, liver, kidneys), whole fish and raw meaty bones (RMBs). Cooked bones are dangerous and should never be fed, as cooking leaves the bones brittle and prone to splintering. To balance out nutritional needs, you’re generally advised to add other ingredients to the menu, including dog-safe vegetables, legumes, limited grains and fruits, and some supplements. That’s where it gets tricky.
Heidi Hill, the owner of Holistic Hound in Berkeley, Calif., is a trained homeopath who has been feeding her dog Pearl raw for nearly 10 years. She often advises her customers to start out with prepared diets to avoid becoming overwhelmed or, worse, neglecting the nutritional needs of their dogs. “If you’re home-cooking or preparing more than, say, 20 percent of your dog’s food yourself, you really need to do your research,” says Hill. Complete and balanced commercial diets and pre-mixes to which you add your own fresh meat can take the guesswork out of healthy nutrition. Hill also recommends that you confirm that products are locally sourced, made in small batches, organic whenever possible and both hormone- and antibiotic-free.
If, on the other hand, you feel up to the task of managing your dog’s nutritional needs yourself, you can work with your veterinarian or an animal nutritionist to assure that you fill the most common gaps in canine nutrition created by home feeding: bone meal for calcium, fish oil for omega-3s, supplementation for vitamins A and D and more.
From the outset, liberate yourself from the myth that one diet fits all dogs. Many dogs, for example, thrive on the fatty acids and minerals present in sea vegetables (kelp, nori or dulse, for example), but others may experience allergic reactions to them.
Grains are also frequently indicted as a problem for dogs, but the real culprits are often the mold mites (such as Tyrophagus putrescentiae) that can be found on food in opened kibble bags. Still, veterinarians generally agree that canines’ short digestive tracts make it harder for them to digest grains; if you feed your dog grains, be sure to cook them. Dr. Pitcairn advises quick-cooking and economical grains, such as rolled oats (which have the highest protein count per calorie of any common grain), cornmeal, millet and bulgur.
Raw veggies can also present dogs with a digestive challenge, and the following should be cooked as well: corn, peas, green beans, broccoli, potatoes and squash.
If you have a juicer, mix leftover carrot, beet, apple, or other fruit or vegetable pulp in with the rest of your dog’s meal.
Finally, chia seeds are a great source of antioxidants, protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, and another healthy addition to the raw canine diet now moving into the mainstream. The most digestible form is a gel, which you can make by whisking one cup of cool water with 1 3/4 tablespoons of seeds. Let it stand for three or four minutes, and whisk again. Wait another 10 minutes, whisk again and you’re good to go. The rule of thumb for feeding is one tablespoon of gel for every six ounces of food.
How Much Is Enough?
Lew Olson, who has a PhD in natural health and canine nutrition, breaks down the canine diet by weight in her book, Raw & Natural Nutrition for Dogs:
• 100 lb. dog: 2 to 3 lbs. daily, or two meals of 1 to 1.5 lbs. each
• 75 lb. dog: 1.5 to 2 lbs. daily, or two meals of 12 to 18 oz. each
• 50 lb. dog: 1 to 1.5 lbs. daily, or two meals of 8 to 12 oz. each
• 25 lb. dog: 8 to 12 oz. daily, or two meals of 4 to 6 oz. each
In other words, many nutritionists who support raw diets suggest that a dog should eat the equivalent of about 15 percent of her body weight each week.
If you’re just starting out with raw food, you may choose to begin by combining homemade fare with a highquality commercial food. Remember that not every dog thrives on a raw diet. If your dog is immune-compromised, for example, it might not be the way to go. And while most healthy dogs’ systems can handle many strains of bacteria, good hygiene is still important when handling raw meat. If you’re concerned about your dog choking, grinding meat and bones to a hamburger-like consistency can eliminate the risk.
The most important task in this transition is to talk with those who have experience and are up-to-date on the research, read up on nutrition, and keep your holistic vet in the loop throughout the process. Fans of raw feeding believe that even a partial transition will give your dog such a spring in her step that you’ll be making the switch faster than you can say RMB.