Featured photo credit: Instagram @dug.gus
So you want to feed a homemade raw diet to your dog, cat, or ferret, but you don’t know where to begin. You’ve probably realized by now that there are many ways to feed raw. It all comes down to determining your pet’s individual needs, as well as your own. Figuring all of this out may include some trial and error, which does require some time and patience while you learn and adapt to this new adventure of feeding a homemade raw diet.
How do I start?
This is typically the first question everyone asks. You will have to consider what all goes into a raw diet first, and decide if you are ready to make the switch yet.
First, I would recommend looking into what resources you have available in your area. Find raw feeding co-ops, butchers, ethnic markets, meat processors, local farms, or even restaurant supply stores that may have good prices and/or “odd” products, like hearts and livers. Homemade raw is typically only affordable if you look for the best prices.
Usually, the best prices are found by buying in bulk. In order to buy in bulk, you will probably need to invest in an extra freezer. Chest freezers seem to be the most cost effective, while upright freezers allow you to be more organized. You will also need containers to store meat in, such as plastic bags or Tupperware. (Reditainers can be found on Amazon and tend to get good reviews from raw feeders.) Another thing to consider is whether or not you have enough fridge space to put meat that you are thawing or storing until the next meal. Of course, the amount of freezer/fridge space you will need depends on how much you will be feeding per day, and that will depend on how many animals you are feeding and how big they are.
You will also need a basic kitchen scale in order to make sure you are feeding the correct amounts of everything by weighing the meat. You will learn to appreciate a good set of knives when breaking down things like whole chickens, you will most likely need a cutting board, and as an extra precaution, you might even consider getting gloves due to frequent handling of raw meat.
Although not at all required, many raw feeders eventually invest in equipment such as a dehydrator to make treats, or even a high quality meat grinder, especially for dogs that may not be able to handle whole raw meaty bones, or to make sure a finicky cat or ferret, that may try to pick around things they don’t want to eat, has a balanced diet. (Most grinders cannot handle bone, so make sure you do your research before buying and expect to spend some money in the beginning!)
How much should my pet eat?
The general guideline is to feed 2 to 3% of your pet’s ideal adult body weight. That means if your pet is overweight, you should calculate the food based on their ideal weight, rather than current weight. Remember that every animal is different, and some will need more or less than others depending on things such as energy level, amount of exercise, metabolism, and even genetics or breed.
While medium to large dogs can eat once a day, smaller dogs, cats, and ferrets should eat multiple meals a day. Two meals a day is sufficient, but if possible, three to four meals a day would be optimal. Same goes for growing puppies or kittens; they should be fed based on their adult weight, split into 3 to 4 meals throughout the day.
How do I know the diet is balanced?
I cannot stress this enough: just feeding raw meat does not mean you are feeding a correct or balanced raw diet. A raw diet requires as much variety as possible (i.e. you can’t feed just chicken), with a minimum of 3 different protein sources, and the correct percentages of meat, bone, and organ. An unbalanced diet can be extremely detrimental, and even fatal, in the long run.
To make sure you are feeding a balanced diet, you should follow the 80-10-5-5 guideline. This is:
80% muscle meat, 10% bone, 5% liver, and 5% other secreting organ.
These percentages are based off of the “prey model” raw diet. However, just feeding these percentages alone doesn’t automatically mean the diet is balanced. A variety of different protein sources is extremely important in order to provide adequate nutrients. If you cannot provide enough variety, ideally 4 or more on a regular basis, you may need to consider including supplements, which will be covered later in this article.
Omega-3s should be supplemented in almost every raw diet, due to the lack of adequate omega-3s and higher amounts of omega-6s in conventionally farmed meat [source]. Fish oil is the best choice to supplement these omega-3s back into your pet’s raw diet. Due to the oxidizing nature of fish oil, you want to feed it alongside an antioxidant like vitamin E. Bonnie and Clyde fish oil contains enough vitamin E for your dog to utilize, making it a great choice.
Click here for a calculator that will help you determine how much muscle meat, bone, and organ to feed based on your pet’s ideal adult weight. Keep in mind that this calculator includes all organs in 10%, rather than 5% liver and 5% other organs, so you will have to determine those more specific amounts yourself.
Transitioning to raw
When you’re ready to switch, you’ll need to look into some digestive enzymes to help your dog (or cat) with the transition. You can find human-grade digestive enzymes at most health food stores or on Amazon. There are also many different kinds of digestive enzymes made specifically for dogs, such as All Zyme or Sunday Sundae. Things like raw goat’s milk can also provide some probiotics. The Honest Kitchen has a great product called Pro Bloom, instant goat milk with live cultures and enzymes.
You will also need to start the switch with something bland – usually chicken, but turkey can be substituted. These proteins are recommended before red meat because they are bland and easy to digest in comparison to rich red meat, therefore less likely to cause diarrhea and digestive upset during the switch. All meat being fed should contain under 100mg sodium per serving, and it should not be enhanced, seasoned, smoked, or cooked in any way. Higher bone content is recommended during the first meal, or even first couple meals, because higher bone content creates firmer stool. Chicken leg quarters are typically recommended for larger dogs, while wings or necks would be better suited for smaller dogs. Larger dogs have a greater chance of trying to gulp smaller things like wings or necks, which can be a choking hazard.
Go at your pet’s own pace. Every animal is different, and some may take longer to adjust than others. Do not offer too much variety at once. Once your pet’s poops look normal, he or she may be ready to be weaned off of the higher bone content, and introduced to the next protein (preferably red meat), and eventually, be introduced to organs. For some animals, it takes weeks to get them introduced to enough variety to be a balanced diet (and in the meantime, supplementing the diet with a multivitamin may be helpful, since you do not want to feed an unbalanced diet for too long). On the other hand, some will be able to handle new things easily, which will make their transition time much quicker. Remember, you are striving to eventually provide 80% muscle meat, 10% bone, 5% liver, and 5% other organs.
Although it is typically recommended to switch to a raw diet “cold turkey” (kibble one day, raw the next), and that seems to work for most animals, you do not have to completely rule out transitioning slowly by introducing raw meat in small amounts and gradually increasing the raw until they are completely weaned off of their previous diet. If your dog/cat/ferret has a sensitive stomach, or if your cat/ferret is picky at first, a slower transition is absolutely an option available to you. (Please note, cats and ferrets should not be “starved out” in order to get them to eat something they refuse; this can cause serious health problems. Here is a more in depth explanation on ways to get cats to switch.) Again – every animal is different, and you will have to figure out what method will work for you and your pet.
Balance over time
You may see this phrase a lot while reading about raw. All this means is that every meal does not have to be balanced – instead, you can balance the diet to the correct percentages over a week or so. You may not be feeding bone or organ every day. Of course, if you want to include the exact amount of meat, bone, and organ in each meal, that is perfectly fine as well.
“Know thy dog” (or cat, or ferret)
This is another phrase that is commonly found in the world of raw feeding. “Know thy dog/cat” applies to situations where not every pet is the same. Every animal is an individual, and one may have different requirements than the next. Pay close attention to your pet’s poop, and take note if it is too loose or if your pet seems constipated. Keep in mind, though, that raw fed animal poop can be quite different than kibble fed. It will be significantly smaller, and your pet will probably poop less often. Their poop might turn white white and crumble away if it is left in the yard for a couple of hours. However, the poop should not come out white, but rather turn white over time. If it comes out white, that is typically an indication of too much bone content.
What exactly is a raw meaty bone?
When you think “bone”, you might automatically think about those smoked beef femurs and marrow bones that you can buy at pet supply stores. When it comes to a raw diet, those are not the kind of bones that should be included. In fact, those bones have the potential to crack teeth, which may lead to infection and expensive vet bills.
A “raw meaty bone”, or RMB, is actually just a raw bone with meat on it. Examples include chicken leg quarters, turkey necks, duck wings, chicken backs, whole rabbit, lamb ribs, etc. Feeding bones that are less dense than your pet’s teeth will prevent cracked teeth. Raw edible bones that are appropriately sized for your dog also do not splinter like cooked or smoked bones do.
Raw meaty bones provide the bone content in a raw diet. Bone content provides most of the calcium, therefore, if your dog can’t eat whole bones, you do need to provide a different source of calcium. Raw meaty bones also provide benefits such as improved dental health and mental stimulation during meal time. However, if for any reason you are unable to feed raw meaty bones, you can feed ground meat that contains bone (which you can find at most raw feeding co-ops or grind yourself), or you will need to supplement the diet with bone meal or a calcium supplement. Your dog requires 900 milligrams of calcium per 1 pound of meat.
What are some example first meals?
Bone-in chicken is most commonly recommended, due to being bland and easy to digest. If your dog can’t tolerate chicken, turkey or rabbit is a good alternative. Bone content is important during the first couple days because it helps prevent loose stool.
For a medium to large dog, chicken leg quarters are typically a good starting point. For smaller dogs, cats, or ferrets, things like chicken necks or wings might be easier for them to handle. Chicken backs are another option that can be found cheap, but keep in mind that they are very high in bone content, so you will want to introduce some boneless muscle meat as well, in order to prevent constipation.
Digestive enzymes will help your pet during the transition period. Slippery elm bark powder is another option. Probiotics can be added, in supplement form or by using things such as raw goat’s milk. Feeding veggies can help provide some beneficial prebiotics and fiber, too.
You will have to weigh the food with a kitchen scale in order to feed the correct amount based on your pet’s ideal adult weight.
An example first meal for a 50 pound dog could be: ~1 pound chicken leg quarter, digestive enzyme, canned pumpkin
An example first meal for a 20 pound dog could be: 1 chicken wing + chicken breast totaling around .5 pounds, Honest Kitchen Pro Bloom instant goat milk
An example first meal for a cat or ferret could be: chicken necks + chicken hearts (total amount depending on pet’s ideal weight, how many meals per day, etc)
I’m worried about my dog choking on bones.
Some dogs that are fast eaters tend to try to gulp their food, which can be a potential choking hazard. If you have a fast eater or you are worried about your dog gulping pieces that are too big, feeding frozen pieces that are bigger than your dog’s head may help your dog chew more carefully. Feeding ground meat might also be a better idea for serious gulpers.
If your dog swallows a bone that you are worried was too big, do not induce vomiting! Bones can damage the stomach and throat on the way back up. Just let your dog’s digestive system handle it, and watch closely for bowel movements. If your dog doesn’t poop, you should consider a vet visit in order to make sure he is not obstructed.
Do I need to add supplements or veggies?
Supplementing a raw diet is a common topic in the world of raw feeding, and not everyone agrees on whether or not it is necessary.
Research and raw feeding professionals agree: supplementing a raw diet can be beneficial when done correctly and in moderation. It is an unfortunate fact that raw diets are lacking in scientific research. There is little proof that just a prey model diet alone provides all necessary nutrients. There are many factors that come into play as well, based on variety of proteins offered in the diet, how and where the meat animal was raised, etc.
Although there are many multivitamin supplements on the market, such as Nupro, many of these supplements contain things like vitamin A, which is already supplied by the organ percentage of a raw diet. Since overdosing some of these nutrients isn’t a good thing, it is better to use a supplement that fills in the holes, but doesn’t over-do anything else.
Iodine, manganese, magnesium, vitamin C, and vitamin D are some nutrients that sometimes fall short in prey model diets. These can be covered by a supplement that contains green sea vegetables, such as Berte’s green blend.
Feeding fruits veggies in moderation is beneficial, too. They can provide some of the nutrients that prey model lacks, plus some fiber and prebiotics for healthy digestion. Leafy greens like kale, chard, bok choy, broccoli, parsley, mustard greens, dandelion greens, and spinach should be the main focus, while carrots, green beans, zucchini, and berries are also great choices. In order to be digested and utilized efficiently by your dog, you should puree or grind veggies up in a food processor before feeding to make them more bioavailable.
Most experts in the raw community recommend around 5-10% veggies. If you choose to feed veggies, your percentages would then look like 70-75% muscle meat, 10% bone, 5-10% veggies, 5% liver, and 5% other organ.
Here are some outside resources for more information on why feeding veggies is beneficial.
“Yes, Vegetables for Dogs!” by Steve Brown, author of Unlocking the Canine Ancestral Diet
Do Dogs Need Fruits and Veggies? – Primal Pooch
Let’s go over the basics again.
You should strive to feed 70-75% muscle meat, 5-10% veggies, 10% bone, 5% liver, and 5% other secreting organ starting at 2-3% of your pet’s ideal adult body weight and adjusting as needed. Variety is very important in a raw diet, and you should strive to include as many different proteins as possible. Supplementing the diet with fish oil is necessary, a green sea veggie supplement is recommended, fruits and veggies have many benefits in moderation, and choosing to use other supplements may be appropriate on a case-by-case basis as well.
Remember to “know thy dog” (or cat, or ferret) and feed accordingly to your pet’s individual needs. A raw diet can be affordable by investing in an extra freezer, finding out what resources you have in your area, and buying in bulk. Continue to do as much research as you can, and don’t hesitate to ask any questions you may have or check out our files section for more detailed information in our Raw Feeding Community Facebook group, or you can ask an admin a question directly by messaging the Raw Feeding Community Facebook page. And don’t forget to check out the rest of our articles!