There are only two ways that energy enters the body. The first is breathing, the second is through eating. Since we can’t control the air we breathe, what we eat is our focus in attaining good long-term health. In all living beings, good health starts with an appropriate diet. I am a strong advocate of a healthy, species appropriate raw diet for dogs and have been feeding it for several years. I have dogs of various ages, all of whom are on a raw diet. They enjoy eating it, and their health is outstanding. Their waste is half as much, they go less often, and it’s much less to pick up. I had tried intermittently feeding kibble to my dogs, and after continuous digestive problems I went back to raw, and wondered why I ever stopped.
WHAT DO PETS EAT?
“What should dogs and cats eat?” To most people, the simple answer is “dog food,” or “cat food.” Let’s take a closer look into this, it is a notion that deserves to be questioned. How did this come about, and who exactly is telling us what is best for our pets? The processed, extruded “pet food” pellets that we are familiar with have only been around for about 55 years!
“Pet food” caught on in the early 1900’s, before that, dogs existed on whatever foods their owners chose to give them, such as scraps of meat and bones… you know, “real” food. One of the first dog foods was introduced in 1922. It was canned horse meat and scraps. During and after WWII, dry pet food took off as a way to use cheap by-products and grains as a profitable source of income to sell to consumers, who now wanted the convenience of dry pet food. In the 60’s, the now-gigantic pet food industry began a campaign to get people to stop feeding their dogs anything but packaged dog food, warning against real food like table scraps.
By that time, the first extruded pet foods were on store shelves. Extrusion is the process of cooking a mixture using pressure and steam-heat in an extruder to form a dry, hard kibble. Because these products are processed at a high temperature, heat-sensitive ingredients such as enzymes and vitamins can be damaged or destroyed. Pet food manufacturers add synthetic vitamin/mineral supplements to compensate for this deficiency. Do you eat processed junk food, then pop a multi-vitamin pill with every single meal you eat? Ideally, you (and your pet) should get your necessary vitamins from actual whole foods sources, and from varying your diet to be balanced over a certain period of time. I believe nutrition comes not from a bag or can, but from whole, real foods that I can see!
If you choose a raw diet, you will be joining a large following in the US and Europe, of pet-owners, animal nutritionists, trainers, holistic veterinarians, and breeders who have discovered the endless benefits a raw diet offers. Raw-feeders have reported everything from resolution of allergies, improved immune system, reduced stool volume, enhanced digestion, improved dental health, lean body mass, and fantastic health and vitality overall. There are certain diseases and conditions that can be eliminated, or at least improved, with a proper diet. It also provides a solution for animals who don’t tolerate grains well. In essence, we are choosing to feed a diet that does not simply provide our pet to “survive,” but to “thrive”!
DOGS, CATS, AND FERRETS ARE CARNIVORES
Look into your dog or cat’s mouth. You will find these teeth are an indication of the diet they were meant to have. Their jaws have limited lateral movement (side to site) to chew like ours do. They have fang-like canines, and teeth meant to bite, tear, and scissor flesh. Even my little Yorkshire Terrier can tear through a chicken quarter and crush the soft bones with her teeth! This action also helps clean the teeth. Kibble does not clean teeth anymore than eating hard crackers would clean your teeth. Cats and dogs also have the digestive system of a carnivore- a short small intestine and a lack of enzymes (such as salivary amylase) that break down carbohydrates.
Dogs have been reclassified scientifically as Canis Lupus Familiaris, making them a sub-species of the wolf (Canis Lupus). I would like to be clear that dogs are not wolves, and are different in many ways. However, no matter how cute and fluffy your dog may seem, his internal physiology is similar to a prey-hunting wolf. So we look to the natural diet a wolf has evolved to thrive on to give us an idea of what dogs may eat. Their digestive systems, stomach acids, and short digestive tract are suited to a carnivorous predatory diet.
But dogs and cats aren’t the only ones- I would also like to mention ferrets. Along with cats, they are “obligate carnivores”, and both thrive on a raw, grain-free diet. Ferrets require a diet that is highly digestible and rich in animal protein. Many ferret owners have transitioned to raw to meet those needs, and to replicate the natural diet their ancestors would eat, rather than feed commercial cat or ferret food, which can contain fillers, chemical preservatives, and other less desirable additives.
What you feed your pet is a personal choice, and by no means is raw your only option, as every animal has individual factors or health issues that may make other diets, such as kibble or homemade cooked, a better choice. Choosing and planning a raw diet for your pet requires self education, research, and common sense. Just because it is raw does not mean it is nutritionally balanced or healthy. You have several options, which are briefly reviewed below.
Also known as the Raw Meaty Bones diet, this is a true evolutionary diet! It consists of a wide variety of meaty bones, organs, and offal included in the meal plan. Feeding whole meaty bones provides the animal a chance to eat as nature intended, using their teeth and jaws, and providing mental stimulation. RMB feeders often buy in cost-effective bulk from butchers, co-ops, or meat suppliers. This type of diet is not new, but has been further popularized by veterinarian Dr. Tom Lonsdale, who has written comprehensive and peer-reviewed books, including “Raw Meaty Bones”.
BARF diets, short for “Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods” or “Bones And Raw Foods”. It consists of raw meaty bones, eggs, certain dairy products such as cottage cheese or yogurt, raw minced fruits and vegetables, some supplemental items, and occasionally some add a small amount of grains. The BARF diet was made popular by veterinarian Dr. Ian Billinghurst, who attests to the health promoting benefits of an evolutionary diet. He is also the author of several books on the subject, including “Give Your Dog a Bone” (published in 1993), and several others that are essential to read before beginning this diet.
PRE-MADE FROZEN RAW DIETS
For the person seeking convenience, or just starting out with raw, commercial pre-made diets are an increasingly popular option for dogs, cats, and ferrets of all ages. They are as easy as defrost and feed! They are usually ground up, looking much like frozen hamburger. They’re available in forms such as patties, nuggets, and medallions. Some brands include meat, bones, organs, veggies, fruit, eggs, oils, and additional supplements. Look for one that is a complete balanced diet. The great thing is also the variety of proteins offered for rotation, including venison and rabbit for dogs with allergies. Some name brands include: Northwest Naturals, Nature’s Variety, Companion, Bravo, Aunt Jennies, and Primal. You can contact these companies to find a distributor in your area.
WEIGHING RISKS IN RAW DIETS
With all the options you have in feeding your pet, there are risks in each one. Considering all the past pet food recalls, I would not consider a commercial diet to be 100% risk-free by any means, and I personally feel no “safer” when feeding kibble. I feel the health benefits of a raw diet outweigh any potential risks. The two main concerns with raw diets are bacteria and bone hazards.
While food-bourne bacteria like such as e-coli and salmonella can be existent in a raw diet (these bacteria can live anywhere, including vegetables), these risks are managed and often relatively small. You drastically lower any risks by choosing fresh meat from reliable quality sources to feed your pets, and by storing it appropriately. Dogs and cats are routinely exposed to many types of bacteria and pathogens in their daily lives, and can do just fine.
Things that dogs put in their mouths would be much different for us, as their bodies are differently equipped. Remember- this is an animal that can eat feces and show no ill-effects! If your pet, or someone in your household is immune-compromised, you may take that into consideration in your choice of diets, and discuss it with your veterinarian. When handling raw meat, you take the same commons-sense precautions you take when preparing it for yourself or your family at home, including washing your hands and sterilizing surfaces the raw meat comes into contact with.
Some may be worried that their dogs can choke on raw bones. On the flip-side, dogs have also choked on kibble and rawhide chews. Ask your vet how many dogs have come in with blockages from rawhides, yet they are still widely used and sold in pet stores. However, raw bones are vital to diets, providing calcium and minerals, as well as teeth and gum benefits to the animal. Bones such as chicken bones are considered digestible. Larger bones, such as beef bones, and should be selected and sized so that the dog cannot choke on them. Common sense comes into play. Bones must be fed in the appropriate size and type for the dog, and cooked bones should NEVER be fed, as they splinter.
WHAT IF MY VET DOESN’T RECOMMEND RAW DIETS FOR PETS?
The simple answer may be to find a vet who does! There are many veterinarians worldwide, and growing, who fully support raw diets and even feed it to their own animals. Some have been recommending it to their clients for 20 plus years and have seen the benefits clinically. Many are holistic vets with extensive knowledge of nutrition. Veterinarians may be concerned that an average person could be incapable of providing adequate balanced nutrition for their animals when doing it on their own- this is why it’s essential for the pet owner to be informed and educated. Do your research and talk with other raw feeders.
There are veterinarians who choose to sell low-quality brands of kibble that contain animal by-products and high amounts of corn and other grains, rather than selling super-premium kibbles with human-grade ingredients. If they are advocating the former as the best diet choice, it calls into question how much they really know about nutrition. A pediatrician doesn’t tell you to only feed your child pre-made, fully balanced food out of a box or bag, so why should your vet tell you to do that with your pet? There will always be people who have different opinions on nutrition, and some who are simply not educated on raw diets. Regardless of others’ opinions, it is your pet’s health, and it is ultimately your decision to make.
Starting a raw diet may seem overwhelming, but the benefits are your pet’s to reap! Fortunately, there are many books available on the subject, as well as a wealth of information on the Internet. There are also message boards, and online raw-feeding groups that are there to offer you guidance and support.