Features November 2010 Issue

Dog Breeders Who Only Feed Raw Dog Food Diets

Why dog breeder Denise Flaim began feeding raw dog food to her Rhodesian Ridgebacks and has stuck with it through the years.

You know you’ve been feeding raw for a long time when it no longer seems like a radical, ground-breaking, or – ubiquitous adjective for beginners – scary way to feed.

Just a few of Denise Flaim’s healthy kids, canine and human. Having raw food and raw-fed dogs and puppies in the house has never harmed Flaim’s triplets.

When I started feeding raw – a dozen years and three generations of Rhodesian Ridgebacks ago – it was the Middle Ages of raw feeding. Ian Billinghurst’s Feed Your Dog a Bone was the hard-to-find illuminated manuscript (the lax editing could have stood some sprucing up by Benedictine monks), and everyone used the unfortunate acronym BARF, which stood for “bones and raw food” (or, later, the loftier-sounding “biologically appropriate raw food”). No commercial raw diets were available, and new converts dutifully ordered their Maverick sausage grinders over the Internet. The instruction booklet said the table-top grinder couldn’t be used on any bones harder than chicken necks or wings, but everyone ignored that. I can still remember the painful whirring of the motor, and then the crackles and pops as the thin ropes of ground meat and bone came out the cylinder.

Early days
Like many people, I started feeding raw reactively, not proactively. I had a new dog, my first show dog and first Ridgeback, who just wasn’t thriving on kibble. I remember setting down Blitz’s first raw meal with great fear and trepidation. And then – anticlimax – he didn’t choke, die, or even look at me cross-eyed. He ate, he thrived, and off we went and never looked back. Three more adult Ridgebacks followed, and dozens of puppies, who in turn had puppies of their own. All got their start in life on raw-food diets.

Back then (and still today), the Holy Grail of raw feeders was a quality meat source at affordable prices. Through local dog folk, I learned about Armellino’s, a butcher in nearby Huntington Station, New York, who was a wholesaler of naturally reared poultry – chickens and turkeys raised without hormones or pesticides. Joe Armellino was your go-to guy for a free-range Thanksgiving dinner. And he had turkey necks – dare I hope? Did I hear that right? – for a bargain 79 cents a pound.

By my second or third trip there, as I gratefully accepted my 10-pound bag of turkey necks, Joe asked me quizzically, “Are you starting a soup business or something?”

“No,” I replied with a chuckle. “I grind this stuff up for my dogs.”

And as I explained my feeding regimen – the noise, the blood, the guts, the time – lights started going off for Joe. Maybe he could buy a commercial grinding attachment. Maybe he’d order that BARF book. This was a bit of back to the future: His father, who had owned the business before him, used to sell minced meat for dogs.

A dog’s or puppy’s health shows from the inside out. No matter how fantastic a pedigree, it can be ruined by bad nutrition and bad rearing.

Today, 12 years later, my dogs still eat at Joe’s. His business has gone to the dogs – literally – and his store walls are lined with dog photos, from Danes to Dachshunds, who get their sustenance there. Joe doesn’t do mail order, he doesn’t do any fancy packaging or marketing. He just gets the meat directly from the source, grinds it, puts it in 2- or 5-pound sleeves, freezes it, and then sells it to the steady stream of doggie customers who are now a major part of his business.

Passing it on
My puppies are weaned on Joe’s ground food mixed with evaporated milk at four weeks old. When the pups are around six weeks, I tell their new owners what I’m feeding, instruct them to order a good multivitamin and fish-oil source (for those nifty omega-3s), and have them stop by to visit Joe. (If they’re not local, many will invest in a freezer and schlep back for a food run every few months.)

I also provide them with a list of “don’t panic” points, including, “Don’t freak out if you don’t see your puppy drinking a lot. Her food is so well-hydrated, she won’t be constantly lapping up water like her kibble-fed counterparts.”

The three main problems with raw feeding for newbies are the time, the cost, and the learning curve. Joe solves the first two: His food is convenient (just thaw out overnight, dump in the bowl, and add supplements) and affordable (about the same price as a high-quality kibble).

As for the learning curve, I’ve fed this family of dogs for more than a decade. I know what to expect in terms of their growth needs. The biggest advantage to feeding raw is being able to control what you feed. (Which is the disadvantage to commercially prepared raw diets along with, frankly, price.) I am sure an Alaskan Malamute breeder instructs her puppy people to feed differently than I do, as would a Yorkie breeder. Our dogs, in their genetic programming, process food differently. So when my Ridgeback puppies hit 4 months, and their ears start doing a Sally Field (hello, “Flying Nun”) because teething is taxing their little bodies, I know to increase the calcium and fat in their diets, and I can literally watch their crimped ears flatten and their flat feet knuckle up.

Such breed-specific nutritional knowledge doesn’t happen in a decade, or two. I am fortunate in my breed to have a long-time mentor, Alicia Hanna of Kimani Kennels. She’s taught me how to reverse rickets in Ridgebacks; that’s what the above description is, really. And she drove home for me the importance of the old British saying “Half the pedigree goes through the mouth” – you really are what you eat.

Getting vets to buy in
Veterinarians are often the biggest obstacle to owners who would like to feed raw. And I understand why: They are worried about owners who will take shortcuts and compromise their dog’s health in the process, far more than any fear of salmonella contamination. (Your garden-variety smoked pig’s ear carries a similar risk.)

Any skeptical vet I have ever encountered has been put at ease when I tell him or her these two things: First, I know the source of my dog’s meat, which is raised as holistically as anything I can buy in the supermarket for my own consumption; and second, I understand the importance of having a calcium source. This meat has a more-than-adequate bone content, and it’s finely ground to the consistency of hamburger meat to mitigate any issues of perforation or compaction. (Supposedly, grinding the bones negates any teeth-cleaning benefit, but life is nothing if not a series of compromises. And that’s one I can live with.)

“Well,” the vet invariably says. “You’ve done your homework. But the average pet owner isn’t as conscientious.” Maybe so, but it’s my job as the breeder to instruct my puppy people on how to feed correctly. And there’s a huge piece of me that thinks the lowest common denominator is a terrible place at which to set the bar.

All this is not to say that raw-feeding doesn’t have its drawbacks. Last year, I almost lost a litter of puppies when they contracted enteritis, an intestinal bacterial infection, presumably from the constant licking of their very fastidious raw-fed dam. Desperately watching as my puppies faded, and unsure what to do, I put them on a liquid antibiotic, and they all rebounded. Now, all my expectant mothers go to a cooked diet with added carbohydrates for increased milk production about halfway through their pregnancy until the puppies are weaned at eight weeks.

It works, it works, it works
After that close call, why do I continue to feed raw, you might ask. Because in all the years I have been feeding this way, I haven’t had any major health issues with my dogs. They stay vibrantly healthy and look like a million bucks. The longer I am in dogs, and the more I talk with old-time breeders who themselves are becoming an extinct breed, the more I take this simple truth to heart: Health shows from the inside out. No matter how fantastic a pedigree, it can be ruined by bad nutrition and bad rearing. Common sense prevails: Dogs need sunshine, exercise, and good, whole, hydrated food.

Dog people – especially serious dog people – like to get all self-righteous about how they feed. It’s our way or the highway. I want my puppies to be raw-fed and I strongly encourage that way of feeding (just as I do minimal vaccination and pesticide-free landscaping), but in the end I realize I don’t have control. And I also realize that changes in lifestyle and economics also impact how we care for our dogs. In an ideal world, they shouldn’t, but who lives in an ideal world all their life?

My Ridgebacks aren’t the only litters I have around the house: My human kids consist of 6½-year-old triplets. When they were toddling, I was concerned about bacterial cross-contamination. And the cost of diapers and formula (I’m holistic, but breast-feeding triplets? – I’m not that holistic!) was beginning to make a real dent in our budget. So I began cooking the Armellino food, boiling it up in a pot with a grain source such as barley, to stretch it a little further. I did that for about two years, until the kids were bigger and could be trusted not to, say, lick the dogs’ food bowls or stuff fistfuls of raw turkey in their mouths.

But it wasn’t until I looked back over that time that I noticed some subtle changes in my dogs. They were still generally healthy on the cooked, carb-loaded diet, but I noticed an increased frequency of acute problems: the occasional ear infection or impacted anal sac, for instance. A homeopathic vet suggested I start a journal to note these little changes, and if I had followed that advice during that period, I’m sure I would have noticed additional “nickel and dime” changes that the cooked food brought – and not for the better. If ever I needed proof of the price we pay when we destroy the enzymes and nutrients in our dogs’ food by cooking it, there it was.

So, in my heart of hearts, do I think raw is better than home-cooked is better than canned is better than kibble is better than plasterboard? To be honest, yes. But do I think I loved my dogs any less by making the lifestyle and economic concessions that I needed to, when I needed to? To be honest, no.

In the end, what raw feeding taught me were the same life lessons we all take to heart: Never act out of a place of fear. Embrace common sense. (If whole foods are good for us, why should our dogs be any different?) Keep things simple. Act locally. (Thank you, Joe.) And master the use of the prepositional phrase “In my experience” at the beginning of any sentence involving a controversial subject like raw feeding. Because your experience is your experience, whether others agree or not.

Denise Flaim of Revodana Ridgebacks in Long Island, New York, shares her home with three Ridgebacks, three 6 ½-year-olds, and a husband.

Comments (18)

I am interested in the response to DoggoneDaddy. We also would like to start a raw diet for our 20 month old chocolate lab, but are not sure where or how to start. It appears we need supplements (Omega 3), but is this same as the krill oil we humans take? I think I need "starting a raw food diet for dummies)!

thanks

Posted by: LoveMyDog | April 10, 2014 4:22 PM    Report this comment

I have been feeding my pack a raw diet for over 15 years. In that time I've fedover 2 TONS - that's 4 THOUSAND pounds - of raw meat and bone. If it was as dangerous as some vets/people say it is shouldn't I have encountered SOMETHING by now? Other than one incident of near choking (my Corgi mix tried to inhale a turkey neck) my dogs are happy and healthy. IF people are interested in learning more about feeding raw I created a website to help those new to the diet: www.rawdogranch.com

Posted by: Lauri S | April 10, 2014 1:31 PM    Report this comment

It is only natural for dogs to eat raw food ... Been feeding mine with raw meat for years .... I am not a breeder but just an owner of a couple of German Shepherds ... I feed them raw eggs, meat and organic holistic grain free biscuits ... One of my shepherds was a rescue and came to us with a really bad ear infection which after lots of money and visits to vets was fruitless. I took things into my own hands and used a mixture of rose hip oil and Erythritol drops in his ear ... Infection gone ! Erythritol is a natural sugar from the bark of a tree that stops bacteria sticking to the linings of the body ... I diluted it with water and put drops in his ear and it worked a treat :) ... You can't feed it to dogs but it can be used in small doses on the external parts of the body.

Posted by: Deby | December 16, 2013 12:31 AM    Report this comment

Would love to feed raw but confused if it's good for one with compromised immune system. Generally speaking my 2.5 half yr old golden has ear infections, colitis (mushy poops from over excitement) and once had canine papilomas. Is raw ok for a slightly weaker immune system or should it be avoided? I hear of all the raves that it will improve their health. Also, where do folks find the most affordable option? I do not trust the big box stores or asian markets....

Posted by: barbara t | December 15, 2013 9:47 PM    Report this comment

Oh and i did forget to mention that grinding DOES spread bacteria throughout the food. IF you grind, it should be very coarse (using a plate with 1" holes), so it is more like stewing beef size consistency. Normal dogs have great strong jaws and teeth for ripping and chewing. I feed some coarse ground foods, but i do feed a lot of whole foods and large meat bearing bone, whole chicken frames stuffed with tripe and organs as well. this exercises the jaws, cleans the teeth and works the gums to prevent gum disease adn tooth decay. Even my little Italian greyhound pups could do a job on chicken frames, necks, etc. Grinding is NOT the ideal food to feed. I like to see folks do it right, if they are going to feed this way.

Posted by: lepusreg | December 14, 2013 7:39 PM    Report this comment

I've been feeding raw for 27 years and breeding dogs longer than that. Since switching to raw, every litter (dam included) had been fed on raw. I will say that fading puppies have nothing to do with the diet. It stems from the dam not imparting adequate maternal antibodies to her puppies. I have never had this happen to a whole litter, only a couple of single individuals whom I treated and did not use in any subsequent breeding program. I feel these individuals have some amount of inherent immune fucntion weakness. I would never dream of blaming this on bacteria from the food. The microbe is nothing, the terrain (immune system and general bodily functioning) is everything! I feed my bitches with pups only very fresh raw food. There is absolutely NO comparison in both health and longevity of raw fed dogs vs kibble/canned/cooked fed dogs. I feed absolutely NO grain or root vegetables or high fructose/sugar containing fruits. Wolves don't eat this and these kinds of carbohydrates cause inflammation in the body. Fermented, pureed greens and the odd addition of berries in season, are about the only "veg" material my dogs get and not every day. Maybe 2 - 3 times per week. They are superbly healthy.

Posted by: lepusreg | December 14, 2013 7:30 PM    Report this comment

I would recommend the Raw Feeding Group on Yahoo Groups and their off shoot Raw Feeding (not Raw Feeding Friends) group on Facebook for the most reliable information and ongoing support for those new to raw feeding. I've been raw feeding, combination ground mix and prey model, Shih Tzus for over 3 years without issues.

Posted by: roslyn m | December 14, 2013 12:51 PM    Report this comment

My Dobe breeder recommends feeding all of her pups a raw diet. You can definitely see the difference in their coats, teeth, muscle mass. I now put all of my dogs, rescues & pure breeds on raw. I don't find it to be difficult to feed at all. Even my veterinarian (who is not big on raw diets) always comments of the health of my dogs and how clean their teeth are. I will always feed raw.

Posted by: HappyDogMom | September 8, 2013 1:49 PM    Report this comment

Anyone have a good recipe & also i was told to add eggs, shells & all!! anyone hear of this? its for a great dane pup. but i also have 2, 10 year old newfs i would like to gradually change to raw foods.

Posted by: Unknown | February 10, 2013 12:19 PM    Report this comment

I have fed a raw diet for almost 13 years to multiple cats & to dogs ranging from 9 pounds to over 100 pounds. My oldest dogs are 14 years old & since I breed, I occasionally have baby pups around as well. I must say, the diet presented in this article is hardly the ideal. All that grinding! It's a complete waste of effort. Dogs have TEETH, after all. I'm glad people are becoming more aware of the value of raw diets, as when I first started people thought I was insane giving my dogs raw meat. But "better" does not equal "best" & I would truly hope anyone learning about raw would strive to do the very best they can, not just settle for "better than kibble". Get rid of the grinders, skip the meatless, heavy, inedible bones & work towards achieving a whole prey model diet. The less processed & cut up, the better. Most people feed WAY too much bone & nowhere near enough red meat, & they fuss over silly stuff like vegetables & supplements which are expensive & completely unnecessary. Dogs need meat, bone, & organs, period, in a ratio of about 80/10/10 (but no need to try to adhere religiously to that. It's not an exact science, regardless of what pet food companies would have you think). And WHOLE, or as close to whole as possible.

If you have access to good red meat, bone, & organs from a farmer or a butcher, GREAT! But PLEASE tell him not to waste his time & your money grinding it up! Maybe have him quarter it into more manageable chunks, but at least keep the pieces bigger than your dog's head! It makes me cringe to see all that good, complicated food that a dog has to really work his mind & body to eat being processed down into unidentifiable mush that is consumed in seconds. Ugh, what a waste!

Posted by: CASDOG1 | January 2, 2013 1:06 PM    Report this comment

This article is great Denise. I wish more breeders fed raw diets to their dogs and not that breed specific commercial kibble. My pomeranian eats raw and it's the best thing I ever did for him, he used to eat home cooked food. I saw changes immediately his sheds less, his stools were small and firm, his energy level went up, and he has more muscle tone(he's firmer and leaner). I also feed a lot of raw meaty bones and his teeth are pearly white!

Posted by: Viki B | March 30, 2012 5:45 AM    Report this comment

Very good article. I started feeding a raw diet to my two German Shorthair pointers in January of this year. The reason I started it was because my 21 month old male pointer, Jake, was diagnosed with demodectic mange and was put on long term ivermectin by mouth and rounds and rounds of antibiotics. It was clear that Jake's immune system was off so the rationale for the pesticide my vet ordered and the continual rounds of antibiotics was very puzzling to me!! Why put dogs with compromised immune systems on pesticides! I stopped all the pesticides and antibiotics, switched him to "Bravo Complete". This dog's skin turned around in two weeks. I added vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc to his diet at the beginning to help boost his immune system. I also used homeopathic remedies to treat the infection. In two weeks of feeding the raw diet, Jake's inflammation and infection subsided. All of his hair has grown back and he is BEAUTIFUL! My other pointer, a very small female, was a rescue with absolutely NO appetite until I put her on the raw diet. She has gained 4 pounds and is in beautiful condition and she sits and waits with a wagging tail everytime she hears me pick up her metal bowl. Both of my dogs hunt and they are in incredible shape, with plenty of stamina now. My veterinarian almost had a coronary when I told him I switched over to a raw diet... he told me over and over how his vet friends have lost many patients (dogs) from botulism from feeding raw diet. I just smiled and told him I appreciated the information. I am meticulous with my dogs and I understand the importance of handwashing and the right way to handle raw meat. I have been very impressed at the Bravo diet. It is expensive but it is complete with all necessary vitamins and minerals my dogs need. My pointers are very important members of my family and I choose to make that a part of my budget. I want my dogs to live as long as possible and I believe that Jake's immune system will be healthier and we'll have less "battles" to fight to keep him healthy.

Posted by: Kim T | March 2, 2011 5:55 PM    Report this comment

Thank you for writing this article. I am new to feeding a raw diet to my dog. I feed her a raw lamb meat diet thats freeze dried from New Zealand. It's called K9 Natural. It's new to the US. I also feed a raw meaty bone every other day. My dog is looking, smelling and acting wonderful! She's seven years old and I have never seen her eat so well and be so active. I also can;t believe how easy it was to make the change from kibble. I know understand all the benefits of feeding a canine species specific diet. It's wonderful. Has anyone else heard about K9 Natural Food?

Posted by: allpointsbill | December 3, 2010 11:05 PM    Report this comment

All I can say is that I hope you aren't paying extra for that "hormone free" chicken - using hormones in chicken production is illegal and has been for decades. An inaccuracy as basic as this undermines the credibility of the author and the entire article, in my opinion. And to the Editors, I expect you to know this or at least fact-check and correct such inaccuracies. Also, I found the caption under the photo misleading: yes, a raw diet has not harmed her children, but she chose not to feed a raw diet for two years when her children were most vulnerable. I'm not pro- or anti-raw diet, I'm pro-informed-decision-making and that can only happen with objective, accurate information, which I expected from Whole Dog Journal but now question.

Posted by: JULIE D | November 16, 2010 1:11 PM    Report this comment

I am new to feeding raw food. Is there a Do's and Don'ts article someone can recommend. I am nervous about starting this, for health safety and time constraints. I'm not a breeder and work 2 jobs, so I just don't have the time to make a special dinner for my dog or the money. He's a year old schnauzer and I love him dearly and want him healthy and happy for a long time. Are there some on line sources for buying high quality frozen or dehydrated raw foods. Is it even feasible for me to try this, given my time constraints and money worries? Any answers would be appreciated...

Thanks

Posted by: DoggoneDaddy | November 15, 2010 11:30 AM    Report this comment

I started feeding a raw diet to my Standard Poodles 15 yrs ago. I had 2 babies and sometimes had to make economical alterations at that time. Needless to say, our original 2 Poodles passed on this last year. Abbie was 18 yrs old and was diagnosed with kidney failure at 14 yrs. I tweaked the her diet then and she actually had normal kidney function values until she was 17. Bubba's immune system was always compromised which was the original reason for starting my journal with raw feeding. He was diagnosed with cancer at 11 yrs old. Though he had several surgeries throughout his years, he was very happy and active until a few days before he passed. I truly believe that they both would have lived much shorter lives. Bubba was from a litter of 12, Abbie's litter, they both outlived all of them that were kibble fed.

Posted by: Valeria C | November 14, 2010 9:36 PM    Report this comment

I have been feeding my german shepherd dogs raw for over 10 years & have raised several litters on it starting at 3 weeks of age. They all thrive. Outside of visits for the core vaccination & hip Xrays, I have not been to the vet for health issues in all that time.

Posted by: SUSAN D | October 30, 2010 5:54 AM    Report this comment

Good arguments, Denise! We are wolfhound breeders in Ireland and have been feeding raw, fresh green tripe and muscle meat for thrity years now. We invested in an industrial mincer because the idea of raw minced dog food would not be appealing to the butchers here. We source the tripe and meat locally,directly from the slaughterhouse. Here beef for the home, independent butcher market are young heifers which are mostly grass-fed and although not reared wholistically, they have not been bombarded with too many drugs etc. in their short life In our experience, we can only concur with your experience :-) Ika Peiler, Knocknarea Irish Wolfhounds

Posted by: IKA & ULLI P | October 27, 2010 9:40 AM    Report this comment

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