Most dogs are fed commercially processed food, but there is a growing interest in feeding dogs BARF or an utterly raw meat and bones diet.
I feed my own dogs (Labradors and cocker spaniels) an entirely raw food diet, but it was not a decision I made lightly. In fact, it took me over a year to take the plunge after doing my research and being reasonably confident it was the right decision.
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Commercially processed dog food
There is a vast range of quality ‘all-in-one’ commercial foods at an equally large range of prices. Most of these foods are manufactured in a pelleted form known as kibble. There may possibly be some long-term disadvantages to feeding kibble.
Kibble feeding has only been commonplace for the last fifteen to twenty years, and it is becoming apparent that certain conditions may be associated with it. One of these is dental caries.
Tooth and gum infections resulting from a build-up of plaque on the teeth of kibble-fed dogs are considered by some vets and experienced dog owners to be a problem related to diet. Removal of plaque buildup in some kibble-fed dogs may be necessary regularly from quite a young age. This usually involves subjecting the dog (and your wallet) to a general anesthetic, not just once but possibly annually, for the rest of his or her life. There are ‘dental cleaning’ chews, etc., on sale in many pet shops, but I have not found them very effective.
Another condition that has been linked to some types of kibble (those high in fat) in some studies is bloated. An excruciating and frequently fatal disease, ‘bloat’ is distension and (usually) twisting of the stomach. Several websites claim that bloat is the second biggest killer of dogs after cancer, but I haven’t seen the evidence for this claim. You can read more about bloat on this vet’s website.
It is usually found in larger, deep-chested dogs such as Weimaraners and is less common in little dogs.
Many experienced dog owners have changed to raw feeding in the last few years. They are still in the minority, but the minority is growing. Initially, most vets did not favor raw feeding for several reasons, which we shall look at below, but that situation is gradually changing.
The two most popular types of raw feeding are the BARF diet (biologically appropriate raw food) and the RMB (bare meaty bones) diet.
The main difference is that the BARF diet contains vegetables, as followers believe these are essential to replace the stomach/gut contents a wild dog would get from access to the prey animal. ‘Barfers’ grind or puree these vegetables, as dogs cannot digest certain vegetable constituents in their natural form.
Those feeding RMB diet believe that vegetables are both unnatural and unnecessary and ensure that the dog has access to carcasses in the kind of natural proportions that would occur in the wild, including a certain amount of ‘green tripe’ (stomach that has not been thoroughly cleaned of its contents). I feed my dogs the RMB diet and do not feed any vegetables.
Possible problems with raw food
There have been several concerns expressed about raw feeding. Perhaps the most worrying for the ‘would be raw feeder’ is intestinal perforation. This was my chief concern about switching to raw food. It is claimed by opponents of raw feeding that sharp pieces of ingested bone may penetrate the dog’s digestive tract during or after ingestion, causing severe injury and even death.
Another claimed risk is gastrointestinal infection from the bacteria, which we know are commonly found in raw meat. Parasitic infections, as are nutritional deficiencies caused by dietary imbalance, are another concern. Intestinal impaction – gut blockage – by semi-digested bone is another possibility.
All this sounds quite horrific, and many vets are against raw feeding for these reasons. Several sources state that the evidence to support the claims against raw food must be better collated and exaggerated. Some also claim that vets have a vested interest in kibble, which they often sell, and that some of the information provided on veterinary courses is biased as it is supplied by the multi-million-pound pet food industry.
There are claims and counterclaims, largely unsubstantiated, and passionate views on both sides of the debate.
When faced with possible death and disease on both sides of the feeding debate, which way should a dog owner turn? Thankfully, the facts are less scary than the ‘possibilities.’
The facts are these: Most dogs thrive and are well on both feeding systems. Thousands of dogs live full, long, and healthy lives on kibble alone. Thousands of dogs are fed raw meat and bones without ill effects. My five dogs have now been eating raw meat and bones for over six years, which amounts to eleven thousand meals between them. During that time, only one had needed veterinary treatment, and that was for an eye injury sustained while hunting.
The risk of gastrointestinal perforation may be smaller than previously thought. Impaction or intestinal blockage is unlikely if the animal is fed meat and bone in the correct proportions as part of a meal – recreational bones (i.e., bones fed separately from a meal) are more likely to be the culprit. I have read on several websites that ‘modern dogs cannot digest bone,’ I can tell you categorically that this is untrue. I have watched the bone going in and seen what comes out (see below).
Regular worming should prevent a build-up of parasites, and gastrointestinal infections are a risk a dog runs whenever it eats anything rotting or disgusting found on the ground. The fact is, most dogs eat foul rubbish, including the feces of other animals, regularly without any ill effects. Should you choose to do so, the food you give your dog as part of an RMB diet will hopefully be fresh, reducing the risk even further.
As for nutritional imbalance, this is the poorest argument against raw feeding. We don’t feed our children the same identical kibble for every meal, and most of us seem to reasonably feed them a balanced diet.
Whether or not you feel raw food is too risky is a personal decision. Many claims for improved coat, vigor, and health, over and above that of dogs fed on kibble, are made by those that provide raw food. These claims are usually anecdotal and often very subjective. Most dogs fed on kibble are in satisfactory condition, too. In fact, the almost fanatical fervor of some supporters of raw food and their extreme claims towards kibble and kibble manufacturers may put others off joining them. The following advantages to raw feeding are, however, well documented.
Advantages of raw feeding
Dogs fed a proper raw diet produce significantly reduced low-odor feces. This is a particular advantage to those who have to pick it up! Raw-fed dog feces are firm and, if broken open, will crumble into a pale, dry powder within a few hours of being passed. This is simply because almost all the food is tailor-made to suit the dog and fully digested. What is passed is powdered, mainly bone.
Kibble-fed dogs produce large quantities of foul-smelling soft feces, which do not always have an effective emptying action on the dog’s anal glands. Raw-fed dogs are less likely to need their anal glands emptied artificially by hand (usually your vet’s hand).
The process of crushing and grinding bones has an abrasive action on your dog’s teeth. Raw-fed dogs do not usually suffer from dental caries. This means freedom from dental surgery and the risks of repeated general anesthetics.
Raw-fed dogs take much longer to eat their food and gain much pleasure from their meals; the decisive chewing action required to break up bones generally benefits the dog’s mouth, and chewing alleviates boredom.
Advantages of kibble feeding
There are some immediate advantages to feeding kibble. Opening a packet and pouring some food into a bowl is very convenient. You know that your puppy is getting all the vitamins and minerals he needs, which is reassuring, especially for a new owner, and you don’t need to get involved in messy food preparation. In addition, kibble feeding is currently widely recommended and supported by the veterinary profession, so you are unlikely to come into conflict with your vet for feeding your puppy this way.
Making a decision
I did a lot of research before I changed to raw feeding and was initially particularly concerned about intestinal perforation risks. As the weeks of raw feeding turned to months and the months to years, I began to relax. I have been feeding my dogs the RMB diet for about six years and am very happy with the results; my dogs have sparkly white teeth and are never troubled with anal gland problems.
The RMB system is straightforward because I have almost unlimited access to whole rabbit carcasses. Only some people are in this situation.
Your decision on how to feed your dog will be a personal one based on your circumstances. If you decide to feed raw, make sure you have plenty of freezer space to store your dog food, and most importantly, read up on the different methods, introducing the diet gradually one meat at a time and feeding flesh and bone in the correct proportions.
Getting it right
While I am thrilled with the RMB diet for my dogs, I am concerned about how some dog owners may feed their dogs on a raw diet.
I have recently met and spoken to some dog owners who believe they feed their dogs a proper raw diet when simply feeding uncooked food. They provide plenty of raw meat but do not feed bone. They provide the raw meat you or I might happily make into a casserole. Chunks of stewing steak and chicken breasts. This is not a suitable diet for a dog.
It is essential to appreciate the role of bone as a crucial and significant part of a raw diet.
But bones are so sharp!
Understandably, people worry that their dogs might get splintered bone in their mouths or digestive tract. I am in awe as my dogs take a carcass apart and break up the bones. Even as a scientist, I cannot express how dogs can swallow terrifyingly sharp, crushed, and cracked raw bone splinters without harming themselves. Not just once but day after day and year after year.
How is it that my dogs are still alive and well? Dogs produce a lot of mucus and slime in their digestive tract, which probably helps. Once it is in their stomach, the powerful acids dissolve bone reasonably quickly, but even so, how it all passes down without damage is quite astonishing. All that I can tell you is that I watch my dogs do it every day. Whole rabbits crushed and mangled in minutes, chicken carcasses, venison backbones, whole fish, etc. All raw, of course. Everything is chomped and swallowed with relish. And what is more, there are no visible bones in their feces, just fine powdered bones.
Bones are essential
However scary it may be, if you want to feed your dogs an RMB or BARF diet, you must give them sufficient bone, which must be raw and meaty. The proportion of bone in this diet is likely to be far higher than you might imagine, and this bone must be fed as a part of a meal. In other words, wrapped up in muscle and connective tissue “on the hoof.”
Feeding your dog a huge chunk of meat (muscle) for his dinner and then giving him a huge bone to chew on three hours later is not doing him any favors; the key is Raw, Meaty Bones in the equivalent proportions that you would find in a small prey animal.
So, what kinds of quantity of bone should I feed?
An excellent guide to bone quantity is to think about the proportions of bone in the carcass of the kind of animal a medium-sized predator and scavenger (like our dogs) might eat. A rabbit is an ideal example. If you gut a rabbit and feed it to a dog (don’t feed rabbit guts; they contain tapeworms), the proportion of bone is substantial. And this is the kind of natural bone proportion you should aim for in a dog’s diet.
Think ‘meaty bones’ instead of ‘meat and bones’. Obviously, not everyone has access to rabbits, but chickens are a similar size, and you can purchase chicken backs from several sources. When we have chicken portions for supper, we buy a whole chicken, cut off the legs and breasts, and give the rest to the dogs. It is a cheaper way to purchase chicken portions, too. It may look fiddly, but once you have done it twice or thrice, quartering a chicken with a sharp knife takes less than two minutes.
In addition to rabbits, we also give our dogs a lot of by-products from deer (my husband is a keen stalker), tripe, ribs, even heads, and a lot of whole fish (keen sea fisherman, too!) Not everyone is in a position to feed their dogs on this ‘whole prey animal’ basis, and this is where problems can arise.
Many people feed raw meat from much larger animals, such as cattle. The bones from these animals are, for the most part, too large for many dogs to break down effectively, and the temptation is to feed far too much meat in proportion to bone. If you want to provide beef, meaty ribs are your best bet.
What about small puppies
It is probably not wise to consider rearing a litter of puppies on raw food until you have researched the subject thoroughly and had plenty of experience feeding adult dogs raw food. A three or four-week-old puppy is proliferating and has specific nutritional needs that cannot be met with a few spoonfuls of minced meat.
Puppies need sufficient calcium and vitamin D to ensure straight, solid bones. Sunlight is an essential factor in vitamin D, and keeping puppies indoors all the time is not a good idea. Fish is another good source. Vitamin D supplements are not necessarily good; too much vitamin D can cause other problems.
Breeding a litter of your own and weaning your litter onto raw food is not an exact science, but you need a sound understanding of nutrition and the dietary needs of a small puppy. And you do need to be unafraid to feed these tiny puppies bone. Minced meat on its own is not sufficient. Just the thought of little puppies devouring spiky bones is enough to put most people off raising puppies on a raw diet, and the vast majority of you will be happier feeding a pregnant bitch, and raising puppies on kibble.
If you do want to keep your raw-fed bitch on her raw diet throughout pregnancy and raise her puppies the same way, please do your research. You will need a good supply of a wide variety of foods to ensure the puppies grow strong and healthy. You will need raw eggs, fish, chicken wings, rabbit legs, chicken feet, green tripe, etc.
It can be done, and many others have done it successfully, but you will need to arm yourself with information well in advance of mating your bitch.
Of course, I cannot promise that if you give your dog this kind of food, no harm will come to him. Nor can I promise you that he will not get salmonella or some other horrible disease. All I can do is suggest that you talk to people who feed raw “appropriately” and decide on the risks and potential benefits. It will help put your mind at rest and give you the necessary information to do the job correctly.
Raw feeding for dogs is only for some. If you want to do it, you will need plenty of freezer space and be willing to gut and prepare carcasses or have a good source. It helps to have a supportive vet who won’t run for the kibble at the first tummy upset, though you may find you see very little of him/her.
Dogs fed on wild rabbits should be thoroughly wormed every six weeks. If you fail to do this, your dogs will get burdened with tapeworms. Breeders are probably sensible to stick to kibble unless they are experienced and knowledgeable raw feeders. Gundog owners might be wise to remove fur from their dog’s dinners to avoid any risk of the dog being tempted to bite down on the skin. Having said that, for our older dogs, we often leave the skin on rabbit’s feet (yes, they eat the claws and everything!) and have found no difference in our dog’s handling of the game during the retrieve.
Raw food versus kibble
Remember that the whole raw food versus kibble is not a matter of right versus wrong. Or of ‘safe versus unsafe’. There are pros and cons to both ways of feeding. It is a question of what suits your lifestyle and needs now. It is clear that if you are going to feed raw, you need to be informed and do it properly.
I’ve included some helpful sources of information below. You can find lots more by googling Barf or Raw Food for Dogs. Remember that extremists are on all forums and newsgroups, so you must be objective about what you read.
Enjoy your research!