You’ve probably seen it mentioned in your dog-related forums and Facebook groups, or it’s been recommended to you by a groomer, a trainer, or a friend. Everything you hear about it seems to be one of two extremes – either it’s being touted as some kind of miracle cure for everything from allergies, to cancer, to heartworms – or, someone is claiming that it will immediately turn your dog into a bloodthirsty monster… if it doesn’t kill him first, of course.
So, what’s the big deal with this “raw diet”? Well, I can tell you right now: it isn’t a miracle cure for everything. I can also tell you that it will not turn your beloved Fido into Cujo or one of the zombie Dobermans from Resident Evil. But from personal experience, I can promise you that switching my dogs to a raw diet was one of the best, if not THE best decision, I’ve ever made for their health.
A raw diet is a diet composed mainly of uncooked meat. There are many different kinds of raw diets, all of which have their fair share of avid supporters. The most fun part of researching raw diets is that nobody seems to agree on any one specific way of feeding raw. Some include fruits and veggies, while some do not. Some are composed of ground up meat and supplements, while some strive to feed whole animals: organs, fur, feet, and heads intact. There are the raw feeders that shout “grass-fed organic” from the rooftops, and then, there are those that pick up roadkill and free meat from potentially sketchy strangers on Craigslist.
There are two major groups that raw diets can be separated into: commercial raw diets (such as Bravo, Stella and Chewy’s, or Vital Essentials), and homemade raw diets, made and balanced by the pet owners themselves. Homemade raw diets come in many forms, but there are two models of feeding that seem to be the most popular: “prey model” and BARF (which stands for “bones and raw food” or “biologically appropriate raw food” and also makes you wonder who in the world thought that acronym was the best marketing choice). BARF diets are much higher in vegetable content than prey model, while prey model’s name is relatively self-explanatory – the diet is based on percentages of muscle meat, bone, and organ that are supposed to mimic a large prey animal that a wild canine would eat in the wild.
Commercial raw diets are commonly regarded as the safest raw option by most veterinary professionals, mostly due to the fact that they are already balanced and require no thought process from the owner beyond “buy, thaw, serve” – which to them is a huge plus, considering their last emergency client’s dog was lethargic and half-dead because all they were feeding him was ground beef and white rice for the first 10 months of his life. On the flip side, commercial diets are also incredibly expensive, and sometimes might be hard to come by, depending on where you live. And with the proper research, time, and patience, homemade diets can be perfectly balanced and just as safe than commercial diets.
All of these options contain mostly raw meat, bone, and organ, and they may or may not contain fruits, veggies, grains, supplements, or processing such as grinding, high pressure processing (HPP), freeze-drying, or even bacteriophages. Most commercial raw diets include all or some of those things, although recently some commercial diets have been advertised to contain nothing but meat/bone/organ. However, there is much debate over whether or not a diet of meat, bone, and organ with no supplements or additives is indeed balanced.
I know what you’re thinking. This whole raw diet thing seems complicated and time-consuming. You buy a bag of kibble, you put some in a bowl, and you let your dog eat it. Why complicate it any more than that? Well, the raw diet does come with a variety of benefits. Raw diets have been claimed to clean teeth and promote healthy gums (while avoiding costly dental procedures), create shiny coats and healthy skin, help alleviate allergies or infections, and even cause your dog to poop less often and in smaller amounts.
Still – it is not the “miracle cure” it is sometimes claimed to be. Raw fed dogs are not invincible like some Internet experts may seem to imply. Dogs that are fed a raw diet are not automatically immune to infections, fleas, worms, bloat, cancer, or physical injuries (yes… I’ve seen all of those things claimed on raw feeding forums and groups). And, no matter how many times you hear “it’s so easy!” and “it’s cheaper than kibble!” – that may not be your personal experience.
A raw diet can greatly benefit almost every dog – from puppies to seniors, Danes and Chihuahuas, working dogs and couch potatoes. But every dog is different – and arguably even moreso, so is every owner. Raw diets are not “one size fits all.” It takes research – in other words, time and effort – to find out what works best for you and your dog in particular. And an improper or unbalanced raw diet can cause far more issues than it could potentially help in the long run. This one’s too pricy, this one’s time-consuming, this one’s not balanced – but this one’s just right!
So you’re aware that raw diets won’t make your dog immortal, and you’re prepared to do some digging to find out how to start. Now… how DO you start?
The first thing you should do is find a support system. This could be an experienced friend, your veterinarian, a reputable raw feeding Facebook group, or any one person or group of people who can give you advice along the way. The worst thing you can do when feeding a raw diet is feeding an UNBALANCED raw diet, and in order to prevent that, you will probably need an avenue in which you can find advice and answers to your questions as you go along. I run a group called The Raw Feeding Community on Facebook, which strives to be such a resource.
Next, you will need to consider what kind of raw diet would be best for you and your dog. Your budget, freezer space, and the amount of time you will be able to spend sourcing, weighing, and portioning your dog’s diet will be some of the major factors in this decision. Commercial raw would be best for those who are willing to pay for convenience. A homemade diet will be significantly cheaper, but may require more time and space than a commercial diet typically would.
It might be easier for you, your wallet, your free time, and/or your lack of currently available freezer space, to feed a partial raw diet rather than make the full switch to raw. Raw meaty bones, like turkey necks or chicken leg quarters, can be fed alongside frozen or freeze-dried commercial raw products in order to save money and also provide the benefits of teeth cleaning and mental stimulation that commercial ground raw normally does not typically offer.
Although I have witnessed many people in Facebook groups and online forums warn that kibble and raw should never be fed together because they digest at different rates, this is a myth. I have never seen this claim backed up, but rather, have just seen it spread around by someone-that-heard-it-from-someone-else. Scientifically, this theory doesn’t make sense – the digestive system just doesn’t work that way. Meat and bone digest at different rates too, but it is obviously okay to feed those things together. Don’t let this myth deter you from feeding a diet of kibble and raw. Mixing raw and kibble is a common and effective way to feed, and has been successfully practiced for years by countless pet owners. Feeding a 50/50 raw diet along with kibble can still provide your dog with many of the health benefits of raw. Even replacing one meal a week with a turkey neck you picked up from Wal-Mart’s meat section, instead of a boring bowl of kibble, will give your dog a weekly teeth cleaning session. Look at it this way: some raw is better than no raw at all!
Pricing a raw diet depends on many factors. Obviously, things like your dog’s size, weight, activity level, and metabolism come into play, since that will determine how much your dog needs to eat. But things like where you live come into play too – are there any nearby co-ops or distributors? What about ethnic markets, where you can find much better variety and deals on meat than your typical grocery store? Are there many local butchers, hunters, processors, or farmers in your area who could be contacted for cheap, or even free, scraps? Sometimes, being able to afford a raw diet means taking the extra time and effort to find the best deals, and also, having the freezer capacity to be able to buy meat in bulk.
Although raw feeding may seem overwhelming at first, you’ll soon find that the benefits of this diet are equally overwhelming. Why else would so many pet owners go to such extremes to feed raw? Fortunately for the new raw feeder, there are many resources available to anyone who is interested, and you have many options to allow raw feeding to fit into your specific lifestyle… whether you live on acreage in the country, or in a small NYC apartment. Raw would be a great thing to consider in order to provide your dog with a healthier diet, and therefore, a longer, healthier life. Isn’t that what all dog owners want?