Countless dog owners have witnessed the benefits of feeding their dogs a nutritious home-prepared raw dog food diet, such as cleaner teeth, brighter eyes, thicker and glossier coats, more lean muscle and less body fat, and better energy level – hyper dogsoften become calmer, while couch potatoes may become more energetic.
In last month’s article, “Have Dinner In,” we discussed those benefits at length and introduced the fact that there are many different styles of homemade dog food diets. In this article, we’ll explain how to create a raw dog food diet that includes bones -perhaps the most commonly used “evolutionary” diet for dogs. In a later installment, we’ll discuss cooked diets.
When I first began to consider feeding my dogs a homemade diet, one of my biggest concerns was the fact that I am not comfortable in the kitchen. I don’t really cook for myself, so the thought of preparing meals for my dogs was overwhelming. Once I started, though, I was happy to discover that it was not as much trouble as I had feared – in fact, it was quite rewarding. Dogs are usually so appreciative of everything we offer that it makes meal time a real joy. I feed a great deal of variety, yet my dog Piglet tells me that each and every meal I put in front of her is her absolute favorite, and she devours it, practically licking the finish off the bowl (I call it “checking for molecules”). How can you resist something that makes your dog so happy?
Raw meaty bones
Most of us who feed a raw diet to our dogs include whole raw meaty bones (RMBs), animal parts that are at least half meat but also include bone that is fully (or mostly) consumed. This is in contrast to recreational bones, such as knuckle and marrow bones, which usually have little meat and where the bone itself is not eaten.
RMBs that are commonly fed include chicken necks, backs, and leg quarters; turkey necks; lamb breast and necks; pork breast (riblets) and necks; and canned fish with bones, such as jack mackerel, pink salmon, and sardines (preferably packed in water rather than oil). Raw fish can also be fed, though some may harbor parasites (freshwater fish are more likely to have problems than saltwater fish). Never feed raw salmon or trout from the Pacific Northwest (California to Alaska), as this can cause a fatal disease called salmon poisoning in dogs. Cooking makes salmon safe to eat; canned fish is cooked, so there’s no concern about salmon poisoning from canned salmon.
It’s not always easy to find RMBs. Ask your local meat manager or butcher; they can often order them for you, though you may have to buy a case at a time. (Most of us who feed our dogs a raw diet have purchased a separate freezer to help store the food!) Ethnic markets often have a wider selection than grocery stores do. There are a number of raw food co-ops and groups who share information and buy in quantity directly from vendors, both to lower the cost and to gain access to a wider variety of foods. If there is no group in your area, consider starting one.
You can keep costs down by buying in bulk, looking for sales, and buying meat that is close to its expiration date and marked down. It helps to develop a relationship with your suppliers, who may be willing to save bargain-priced meats for you.
RMBs should make up 30 to 50 percent (one third to one half) of the total diet, or possibly a little more if the parts you feed have a great deal more meat than bone (e.g., whole chickens or rabbits). The natural diet of the wolf in the wild contains 15 percent bone or less, based on the amount of edible bone in the large prey animals they feed upon. While a reasonable amount of raw bone won’t harm an adult dog, more than 15 percent is not needed and reduces the amount of other valuable foods that can be fed.
Too much bone can also cause constipation, and the excess calcium can block the absorption of certain minerals. The stools of raw fed dogs are naturally smaller and harder than those fed commercial foods, and often turn white and crumble to dust after a few days. If the stools come out white and crumbly, or if your dog has to strain to eliminate feces, you should reduce the amount of bone in his diet.
Most dogs do fine with raw meaty bones, but a few may have problems, including choking and (rarely) broken teeth on the hardest bones. In my experience, turkey parts are associated with the most problems, though many dogs eat them regularly with no trouble.
If you are concerned about feeding whole RMBs, you can buy them in ground form or grind them yourself. You can buy a grinder for $100 to $150 that can handle most chicken parts and possibly a few other kinds of bones. More expensive grinders may be able to handle bones that are somewhat harder, but they all have a similar chute size, which makes it difficult to fit in larger parts. Note that none of the makers of these grinders claim their products have the ability to grind bones.
Another option that I use for my older dogs, whose teeth are too worn to be able to chew bones properly, is to cut up the parts into bite-sized pieces using Joyce Chen kitchen scissors. These scissors handle chicken parts and lamb breast easily (except for the hardest end of the ribs).
For harder bones, such as turkey, pork, and lamb bones, you can use a hatchet or a cleaver that you hit with a mallet (which is safer than swinging the cleaver). While ground and cut up RMBs will not provide the same chewing pleasure or dental benefits, many people who feed ground RMBs report that their dogs’ teeth stay cleaner than when they fed packaged foods.
You can also feed larger, harder bones with a lot of meat on them; just take the bone away when your dog is done removing the meat. I have done this with beef rib and neck bones; people with large dogs use bigger bones. There is still some danger of broken teeth, but less than if you allow the dog to continue to chew on the bone after he’s eaten the meat (bones dry out and become harder over time).
Remember that if you feed a diet that includes 30 to 50 percent RMBs, there is no need to add calcium supplements.
Organs are an important part of a raw diet. Liver and kidneyin particular are nutrient-dense and provide a great deal of nutritional value. These foods should make up 5 to 10 percent of the total diet. Note that they may cause loose stools if too much is fed at one time. It’s better to feed smaller amounts daily or every other day than to feed larger amounts once or twice a week.
Heartis nutritionally more like muscle meat than organ meat, but it is rich in taurine and other nutrients. If possible, make heart another 5 to 10 percent of the diet. More can be fed; just remember that too much can lead to loose stools in some dogs.
Other organs, such as spleen, eyeballs, sweetbreads (pancreas and thymus glands), brain, etc. are nutritious and can be added to the diet in small amounts.
Muscle meat, eggs, and moreThe rest of the diet will be made up of muscle meat and eggs, along with dairy products and other healthy foods.
Muscle meatconsists of all meat that is not considered organ meat. Feed muscle meat from a variety of sources, such as beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and turkey. Muscle meat can be fed ground or in chunks. If you have difficulty feeding much variety in your raw meaty bones, you can make up for it in this category. For example, if your raw meaty bones are mostly poultry, then you can feed beef, lamb, and pork muscle meat. Never feed more than half the total diet from a single protein source, such as chicken.
Eggsare an excellent source of nutrition. They can be fed raw or cooked; cooking actually makes the whites more digestible. You can feed as many eggs as you want, as long as you still feed lots of variety.
Dairy products, such as yogurt, kefir, and cottage cheese, are well tolerated by most dogs and offer good nutritional value. Yogurt and kefir have the added advantage of providing beneficial bacteria (probiotics). Dairy fat is a source of medium-chain triglycerides, a form of fat that is easier to digest for dogs with pancreatic disorders and other forms of fat intolerance.
Green tripe, which is the stomach lining from cows and other animals, is an excellent food for dogs, but be warned that it smells awful – at least to us; dogs love it. Nutritionally, it is similar to muscle meat. Green tripe can be purchased only from sources that sell food for dogs; it cannot be sold for human consumption. The tripe that you find in your grocery store has been bleached and treated and does not provide the same nutritional value as green tripe.
It is also fine to feed healthy leftovers (food you would eat yourself, not the scraps you would throw away) to your dog as long as they are not too great a percentage of the diet – 10 to 20 percent of the diet should be okay.
Vegetables, fruits, and grains
Feeding vegetables, fruits, and grains is optional, as dogs do not require carbohydrates in their diet. Even though these foods would make up a tiny percentage of the natural diet, they provide some nutritional value, especially trace minerals and phytonutrients from leafy green vegetables.
If you feed veggies, they need to be either cooked or pureed in a food processor, juicer, or blender. Whole, raw veggies are not harmful, but their cell walls are not broken down during digestion so they provide little nutritional value to dogs. Most veggies have few calories, so they should be added on top of the amount of food you feed, rather than calculating them as a percentage of the diet.
Good veggies to feed include broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, all kinds of leafy greens, celery, cucumber, bell peppers, zucchini and other summer squashes, carrots, and more. You can mix up a large batch and then freeze them in ice cube trays or muffin tins for easy meal-sized portions.
Steaming is the best method to cook fresh or frozen veggies. You can add the water used to steam veggies to the meal, as it will contain the minerals that were leached out during cooking. Small amounts of leftover meat juices, drippings, sauces, and gravy will make this into a savory soup.
Some dogs enjoy vegetables, but others refuse to eat them no matter how they’re prepared. If your dog won’t eat vegetables, or you prefer not to feed them, you may want to add a blend of kelp and alfalfa, or a green food supplement (more on this below).
Fruitssuch as apples, bananas, papayas, mangoes, berries, and melon can be added to the diet in small amounts. Don’t feed grapes or raisins, which can cause kidney damage in some dogs.
Grains, legumes, and starchy veggies, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squashes, are a source of inexpensive calories but don’t provide as much nutritional value to dogs as foods from animal sources do. These starchy foods need to be cooked in order to be properly digested by dogs.
Many health problems can be caused or exacerbated by grains and other starchy carbohydrates. If your dog is overweight or suffers from allergies, arthritis, seizures, IBD, or other digestive disorders, you may want to try feeding a diet without these foods to see if your dog improves. If you decide to feed them, it’s best if they make up no more than 20 percent of the diet.
Potatoes (not sweet potatoes), tomatoes, peppers (all kinds), and eggplant may aggravate arthritis pain, but are otherwise fine to feed. Grains and starchy veggies may also aggravate arthritis and other forms of inflammation.
Fresh food supplements
Healthy dogs that are fed a wide variety of appropriate foods should have no need of supplements, but there are several fresh food supplements that may provide additional benefits when added in small amounts:
• Fish body oil, such as salmon oil, provides beneficial omega-3 fatty acids that help to reduce inflammation and regulate the immune system. However, you must add vitamin E to the dog’s diet whenever you supplement with oils; otherwise fish oils can induce a relative deficiency of vitamin E.
• Sea blend, green blend, or kelp/alfalfa mixture supplies trace minerals. These are especially good to add if you don’t feed green veggies.
• Organic (unpasteurized) apple cider vinegar provides some trace minerals.
• Raw honey has antibacterial properties and offers a variety of nutritional benefits.
• Fresh crushed garlic has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, as well as other benefits, and may help to repel fleas. Give no more than 1 small clove (one small portion of the bulb) per 20 pounds of body weight daily, as high doses can cause anemia.
• Ginger is good for digestion and may help with inflammation.
• Nutritional yeast is an excellent source of B vitamins, along with trace minerals.
• Dark molasses can also be used in small amounts as a source of trace minerals.
More information on supplements will be provided in the upcoming article on cooked diets.
There is a style of raw feeding called “prey model,” that advocates feeding a diet based on whole prey and excludes anything else, such as dairy, vegetables, fruit, or supplements. This is based on a desire to mimic the diet of the wolf in the wild. The true prey model involves feeding large chunks of meat along with small amounts of bone, organs, and eggs. It is certainly possible to feed a good diet using this model, but there are some factors that should be taken into consideration.
Feeding parts is not the same as feeding whole prey. When wolves in the wild eat a deer, they consume almost everything except the stomach contents and some of the hardest bones from the skull and legs. That includes not only the muscle meat, bones, liver, and heart, but the eyes, tongue, brain, blood, intestines, kidneys, lungs, and various other organs. If you are not feeding actual whole prey, you may be missing parts of the diet that include important nutrients.
In addition, whole, large, grass-fed prey such as deer, moose, and bison have different nutrient profiles than animals that are farm-raised, and smaller animals such as chickens. The nutrient content of animals raised in various ways (wild animals, grain-fed animals, animals raised on grass from depleted soils) also varies widely. Even if you feed whole rabbits or chickens, the nutrition will not match that of the large ruminants that our dogs evolved to eat.
While some people swear by prey model diets, I believe there is no benefit to be gained by leaving healthy foods such as dairy and vegetables out of the diet. The more restrictions you place on a diet and the less variety you feed, the higher the likelihood that something may be missing. I believe that adding foods and supplements not found in the natural diet of the wolf can help our dogs live the longest, healthiest lives possible.
Commercial raw diets
There are two types of commercial raw, frozen diets currently available. The first type is a complete diet, formulated to meet the nutrient levels suggested by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Examples include Prairie from Nature’s Variety, Home Made 4 Life, and Steve’s Real Food for Dogs.
These foods can be used just as you would commercial dry or canned foods, with no need to add anything else (though just as with other commercial diets, it’s best to rotate between different brands and protein sources, and it’s fine to add some fresh food as well). Complete commercial raw diets are generally quite expensive; they’re usually not an option for those who have large dogs or limited funds.
The second type of commercial raw, frozen diets provide a variety of different parts that can be combined, along with other foods, to create a complete diet. These parts may include meat, bone, organs, and vegetables, but generally nothing else. Examples of companies that offer these types of diets include Bravo!, Oma’s Pride, and an increasing number of small, independent local companies. These are great foods to include in the diet you feed your dogs, but you cannot feed them alone, without adding anything else.
When you compare the ingredients of the complete diets to those of the incomplete blends, you will notice that the complete diets add a number of foods in addition to meat, bone, and organs, including such things as eggs, kefir, tripe, kelp, alfalfa (sprouts or dried), garlic, raw honey, organic apple cider vinegar, ginger, oils (fish, flaxseed, olive, coconut, cod liver), seeds (sprouted or ground), nuts, and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. They also sometimes add specific vitamin and mineral supplements, such as vitamin E, manganese, zinc, iron, and copper, or a natural source of minerals, such as montmorillonite clay. Note that complete diets usually include more muscle and organ meat and less bone than the meat/bone/organ/veggie blends.
If you want to use incomplete blends as the basis for the diet you feed, most often you’ll want to add a bit more organ meat (particularly liver), some additional muscle meat that does not include bone, and a variety of other healthy foods, including eggs, dairy, canned fish with bones, green tripe, healthy leftovers, and some fresh food supplements. Fish oil and vitamin E would also be good additions to the diet. The fewer foods you add, the more important supplements will be.
For example, the Bravo! blends are approximately 10 percent organ meats (equal parts heart, liver, and either kidney or gizzards), 15 percent vegetables, and the rest ground meat and bones. These blends should be used as one half to two thirds of the total diet, with a mixture of the other foods listed above making up the rest of the diet. You can get some of these other foods, including muscle meat and organ meat, from Bravo! or at your grocery store.
For the most part, puppies can be fed the same diet as adult dogs, though young puppies will benefit from the addition of goat’s milk to the diet. It is even more crucial that you get the proportions correct and feed a wide variety of foods when feeding puppies. It is also imperative that you feed an appropriate amount of bone, neither too much nor too little, especially to large- and giant-breed puppies under the age of six months, when they have less ability to regulate their uptake of calcium, and both calcium deficiencies and excesses can lead to serious orthopedic problems.
Raw meaty bones should comprise around 30 to 50 percent of the diet. Be careful if you supplement with cod liver oil or another form of vitamin D. Vitamin D increases the absorption of calcium, so if you feed high amounts of bone and vitamin D, you increase the likelihood that too much calcium will be absorbed. Never add calcium to a diet that includes appropriate amounts of bone.
Remember that high-protein diets will not cause excessive growth or lead to orthopedic problems in puppies. These problems are caused by overfeeding and by improper calcium amounts (either too much or too little). In order to avoid orthopedic problems, keep your puppy lean and slow-growing by limiting the total amount fed.
Remember the rules
As a reminder, there are three basic rules to feeding a homemade diet: variety, balance over time, and calcium.
All homemade diets need to contain a variety of different foods, including different types of meat and raw meaty bones, different parts (especially organs), and different foods, such as eggs and dairy. A lot of people depend on chicken since it’s cheap, but if your dog gets nothing but chicken, even if you feed organs along with muscle meat and bone, he will not get all the nourishment that he needs. As a general rule, you should never feed one kind of food as more than half the diet, and preferably less.
When you feed a variety of different foods, every meal does not need to be “complete and balanced.” You should ensure that all of your dog’s nutritional needs are met over a period of a week or two, but that can be done by feeding different foods at different meals, and on different days; you don’t have to combine all the different foods into a single meal. It’s also fine to feed just beef, for example, for a couple of weeks, and then switch to another meat source for the next two weeks.
A raw diet that includes 30 to 50 percent raw meaty bones will supply the proper amount of calcium; there is no need to add more.
Amounts to feed
As a general rule of thumb, dogs will eat around 2 to 3 percent of their body weight in fresh food daily, but remember that each dog is an individual, and the amounts they eat can vary considerably. There will be more details on calculating amounts to feed in the article on cooked diets.
Making the switch
The first time we feed raw meaty bones to our dogs is always frightening. We’ve been told so many times to never feed bones to dogs that it’s hard to believe they won’t drop dead when we do. It’s important to remember that the warnings are about cooked bones, not raw, and that eating bones is natural for dogs.
Most raw feeders can empathize with my friend, Mindy Fenton, who says, “The first time I fed one of my dogs a raw chicken wing, I followed her around for three days, terrified that I was going to kill her, and waiting for that darned wing to come out whole because I was sure it would. Of course, she was perfectly fine, but it took some time before I became relaxed about feeding raw meaty bones.”
The choice of what to start with can vary according to your comfort level, and how likely you think your dogs are to gulp their food. Many people advocate feeding pieces that are too large to be swallowed, requiring the dog to chew on them first. This doesn’t always work, since large pieces become small pieces as the dog eats them, and he may still try to swallow pieces too large to go down easily.
I am most comfortable with feeding chicken necks and backs to my dogs; the bones are soft and easily chewed, and the pieces are small enough to be swallowed even if the dog does not chew them well (small dogs may have problems with chicken necks). Others feed chicken wings or leg quarters. If your dog is not protective of his food, you can try holding onto one end while she chews on the other, to help her learn to chew rather than gulp, but watch your fingers, and don’t try this if it makes your dog anxious.
Many people worry that their dogs may be too old to switch to a raw diet, but in my experience, older dogs do as well as younger ones with the change. My oldest dog was 13 years old when I switched him overnight to a raw diet, and he had no problems.
Most dogs do just fine when switched “cold turkey” from commercial food to a homemade diet, but a few will experience digestive upset. The longer a dog has been fed the same food with no variation, the more likely he is to have a problem if his diet is changed too quickly. Dogs that are prone to digestive upset may also benefit from a slower, more careful approach.
To make the change gradually, start by adding small amounts of fresh food to the current diet, then gradually increase. If problems develop, return to the prior diet and make the change more carefully once your dog’s digestive system is back to normal. That may include feeding the new food separately from the old (at least a few hours in between meals), or feeding only one new food at a time, to see if your dog reacts to any of the new ingredients.
The one exception to mixing foods is when you feed raw meaty bones. I find that the consumption of kibble interferes with the digestion of bones; digestive problems are more likely if you mix the two together. If you are feeding whole raw meaty bones, feed them separately from kibble, at least a few hours apart.
It’s fine to start with limited variety until you see how your dog does, but don’t feed just one food for long periods of time. Sometimes people will start with just chicken parts, for example, but this may lead to constipation if there is too much bone in the diet. While you may want to feed just chicken at the beginning, be sure to feed plenty of meat as well as bone, and don’t feed such a limited diet for more than a week or two.
If your dog has any problems with the new diet, back up and start again, making the change more slowly this time. Do not blame problems on “detox.” If your dog develops diarrhea or other forms of digestive upset, it is because his diet was changed too quickly, or because he is reacting to one or more of the ingredients in the new diet.
In that case, again, go back to what you were feeding before (or what you know your dog can tolerate without a problem), then add new foods one at a time in order to identify which one(s) are causing problems. Also, while most dogs improve when fed raw foods, a few cannot tolerate it for some reason and may need a cooked diet instead. There will be information on cooked diets in next month’s article.
Preparing your dog’s meals yourself is not as easy as simply opening a can or pouring kibble out of a bag. However, once you’ve done the initial work of devising the diet and finding sources for the products you will feed, it isn’t terribly time-consuming. The actual preparation is fairly simple; the hardest part is buying products in bulk and then splitting them up into meal-sized portions for feeding. But the rewards can make it all worthwhile.
Most people who switch their dogs to a raw diet notice improvements even in dogs who seemed to be perfectly healthy before. Feeding a homemade diet may cost a little more, but many people report a decline in vet bills. Best of all is watching the enjoyment our dogs get from their meals, and taking pride in knowing we are doing the best we can for our dogs.
Mary Straus does research on canine health and nutrition as an avocation, and is owner of the DogAware.com website.