I started feeding Winnie a raw diet a couple weeks after I got her at around 4.5 months of age. She came to me on Science Diet puppy food. Her previous owners told me that she was eating it fine, but when she came to live with us she refused to eat it. I’m not sure if it was the stress of moving to a new home that made her lose her appetite, or if she never really liked kibble to begin with. In any case, I joined Dogster soon afterwards and started learning more about dog food and dog nutrition. I made a switch to Wellness puppy food, and after less than 1-2 weeks of an unsuccessful transition, I decided to try out a raw diet.
What is this “raw diet” I speak of? A raw diet consists purely of raw meat, bones, and organs. The idea is to feed a species appropriate diet, one that wolves eat in the wild. Dogs are direct descendents of wolves- and while their behavior has changed drastically, they still maintain the same internal physiology. As much as our dogs like non-meaty food (Winnie’s personal favorite is apples), they are still carnivores and thrive on a meat-based diet.
There are two styles of raw feeding- the prey model style and the BARF style (promoted by Dr. Ian Billinghurst). I personally feed the prey model style, which consists of 80% meat, 10% bones, and 10% organs. The BARF style incorporates vegetables as no more than 20-30% of the diet. Which you choose is really more of a personal decision. Since I feed a prey model style diet, I will base most of my discussion on that. The rule of thumb is to feed 2-3% of your dog's body weight, depending on his/her activity level. For example, Winnie is about 18 lb (yes, she’s a tiny Corgi!) and she is fed about 0.4-0.5 lb a day. That is about 2.5% of her body weight. Half of the organ allotment (5%) should be liver, and the other half should be another organ (pancreas, thymus, spleen, kidney, etc).Heart and lung don't count as organ because they don't secrete, but you can feed it as a muscle meat. As the popular saying goes (at least on Dogster!),
“If it doesn’t secrete, feed it as meat!”
Edibility of Bones
As for bones, all RAW poultry bones (chicken, turkey, duck, etc) and rabbit bones are edible. Cooked bones are ALWAYS a no-no, no matter what diet you're feeding. Raw bones are soft and pliable and are perfectly fine. The edibility of some bones, however, depends on the dog (esp. the size of the dog and his ability to handle larger bones). Beef bones are generally not recommended for any dog because they're very dense and can wreck your dog's teeth. However, if they're nicely covered with meat, then it's fine for your dog to eat them (but take the bone away after the meat is gone). Weight-bearing bones (hooves, legs, etc) are especially dense and I don't recommend them. Remember that you never want to just feed bare bones. It is ideal to feed something that is covered in gobs of meat.
Most beginning raw feeders stick with chicken for the first couple weeks so that their systems adjust to raw. After that, progress slowly to organs and other proteins. Liver and other organs are VERY rich and can cause runny poop if they are given too soon. Pork and lamb also tend to be rich because they’re fattier. The key to raw feeding in the beginning is to take it easy and slow. If you don't want to switch your dog cold turkey, then feed kibble in the morning and raw at night (or vice versa) and slowly decrease the amount of kibble while increasing the amount of raw. It is generally not recommended to feed kibble and raw at the same time because cooked and raw digest at different rates.
Buying and storing meat
Asian markets tend to have a lot of weird, good items not available in your usual grocery store. Raw is as expensive as you make it. I generally try to stay under $2/lb, and for some people it ends up being cheaper than kibble. I like to think that you end up saving money in the long run because of reduced trips to the vet's office and no need for anesthetic dental therapy (which can cost a lot of $$$). I personally get my meat from Asian markets (which are abundant where I live), regular grocery stores, and online stores. I also try to avoid buying meats that are injected with antibiotics and hormones.
Do-it-yourself raw (as in, buying your meat from the grocery store) is always cheaper than pre-made raw, especially if you have larger dogs. Some premade raw brands include Nature's Variety, Stella & Chewy, Primal, and Bravo. You can also get meat for free if you have friends who hunt. If you do get wild meat, make sure to freeze meat for at least 2 weeks to kill off parasites if the meat you're feeding is fresh-killed meat. I also recommend buying in bulk because it tends to be cheaper. You can also go on Craigslist or Freecycle and ask for unwanted, freezer-burned meat. I once got several pounds of chicken breast, beef roast, and pork roast off of Freecycle from a lady who had just turned vegetarian. All for free. Score!
If you have any local raw-feeding co-ops in your area, it is definitely worth checking them out. Most co-ops operate through Yahoo! Groups. There are many online raw suppliers as well, but shipping can get expensive, depending on where you live. Here's a list of some online raw suppliers (there are more, I just don’t remember all of them). Generally, the more you buy, the less you pay for shipping. Many people find that it helps to have an extra freezer to store meat, but it’s definitely not necessary. Meat lasts indefinitely in the freezer (dogs don't care about freezer burn), so it's good to stock up during hunting/holiday season when meat is cheap.
I usually feed Winnie outside or on a towel. Others like to feed inside a crate, in a bathtub, on a piece of tarp, etc. Make sure to take proper precautions when handling raw meat. Dogs can handle raw just fine (their systems were meant to handle bacteria), but humans should still wash their hands and wipe down things appropriately.
My dog has eaten the following meats during her lifetime: beef, pork, chicken, turkey, duck, eggs, salmon, sardines, venison, goat, bison, lamb, and rabbit. Fish (raw or canned) and green tripe make up about 5% of her diet. Organs usually include liver, kidney, and spleen. Raw feeders generally like to make red meat (beef, pork, venison, lamb, etc) at least 50% of the diet. A poultry-based diet (chicken, turkey, duck, quail, etc) can lead to nutrition deficiency. For me, poultry makes up no more than about 25% of her diet, more or less.
Keep in mind that all this variety is not necessary, but you increase the chance of providing the necessary nutrition by feeding different kinds of protein. You DO NOT have to go out of your way to feed your dog filet mignon or prime cuts of steak. Dogs are perfectly happy with freezer-burned meat! (no, seriously). Nor do you have to seek out more expensive, “exotic” meats like goat, bison, etc. Stick with what you can provide (but don’t be cheap and feed only chicken either, because a poultry-based diet will lead to a nutritional deficiency).
Another big piece of advice (which I consider very important) is to know thy dog. Know what your dog is capable of, what he/she can or cannot handle, and his eating habits. No dog will have the same “menu”- each dog is different. For example, I know that Winnie is a very careful chewer when it comes to bones. I am therefore confident in giving her smaller pieces of bone without worry. I also know that she cannot handle most pork bones or any beef bones, so I stick to giving her boneless pork or beef. If your dog is a gulper, stick with big pieces of meat so that he has to gnaw and chew and not swallow the entire thing whole. KNOW THY DOG.
Feeding raw does take more time than dumping kibble into a bowl, but I enjoy watching my dog eat species appropriate food. I love meat shopping for my dog and knowing the fact that she's eating something so healthy and species-appropriate. I know that I’m giving my dog a diet that will significantly improve her quality of life for years to come, and I strongly encourage other dog owners to look into feeding their own dogs a natural diet.
She has sparkling white teeth, a soft and shiny (and non-smelly) coat, a muscled and toned body, good energy, and tiny poop. You probably couldn’t even tell she had environmental allergies (save her scratching). I’m convinced that if she were on a kibble-based diet, her paws would be pink and her coat would be nasty and brittle.
The best part is that she actually LIKES to eat now. She LOVES her meal time like no other! (Although that video on Youtube of Sparky doing his kibble dance might beat Winnie in enthusiasm)
Without a doubt, there are probably many issues, topics, and concerns that I failed to address in this post (either because my fingers or tired or I just forgot to mention something). The raw diet isn’t something to take lightly- it requires you to take the time to do proper research; you can’t just jump straight into it without knowing what is going on. In all honesty, the raw diet does take work in the beginning- the amount of information to retain can seem really daunting. HOWEVER, it is simpler than it seems. As time goes on, it gets a lot easier. Before you know it, you'll be thinking, "Jeez, this stuff is so easy and simple! No wonder nature thought of it" :)
I personally found that Dogster was a wonderful resource for me. The community in Dogster’s Raw Forum helped me enormously when I first started exploring the diet back in 2007. Since then, the “members” of the Raw Forum have increased dramatically in number!
If there was one main resource I would recommend to anyone who is interested in starting the raw diet, it would be this link. The thread was started by a fellow Dogster member, Gio (and his brother Romeo), who compiled MANY raw diet resources into that one thread. It is worth checking all of the links!
And of course, I would be more than happy to answer any personal questions through email. Since I’m currently on summer break from college, I have more than enough time on my hands :)
Happy (M)eating! :)
NOTE: If you're going to talk to your vet about feeding raw, just know that most veterinarians do not condone raw; don't be surprised if your vet is strongly against it. If you want to pursue feeding your dog a raw diet, make sure you have a vet that respects your opinion, even if it may differ from his/hers. There are, of course, some vets that are tolerant of or support raw. If you're lucky, you may have such a vet.