The Evolution of the Raw Dog Food Diet
Raw food really IS good for dogs – but there are exceptions to every rule.
We have established, over the course of five years’ worth of articles, that we really do think that homemade, fresh food is best for dogs – with very few exceptions. Commercial food has its uses, as we thoroughly outlined in, “Commercial Dog Food or Homemade?” in the July 2002 issue. But if you really want to know what your dog is eating, and you really want it to be fresh and nutritious, you really have to buy the ingredients and prepare the food yourself.
But what, exactly, does “preparing your dog’s food" entail?
For some purists, it means chopping, dicing, or pureeing various combinations of raw vegetables, fruits, sprouted grains, meat (or meaty bones), and/or supplements, and feeding this to their dogs – yes, raw, and only raw. The cornerstone of the “raw feeders” philosophy is the fact that dogs have eaten raw foods for thousands of years and are still here to tell the tale.
Other purists only cook for their dogs. They steam vegetables, cook grains, roast or boil meats, and/or add supplements. They are quick to thank cooking for the fact their dogs have not yet succumbed to bacterial threats, and they point to the increased digestibility of many cooked foods.
Then there are the “fusion” thinkers: People who mix and match food preparation techniques. They may use raw or lightly cooked vegetables, raw or cooked meats, and either raw sprouted or cooked grains in addition to the raw fruits and supplements. These people say, “Why not be flexible?”
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Whose dogs are healthiest?
Before we attempt to answer those questions, let’s look a little closer at each “school” of canine diet preparation.
Raw Diets for Dogs
Even the most rabid opponents of raw foods can’t deny that dogs wouldn’t even be here today if they couldn’t thrive on an uncooked diet. Canines have eaten raw for a whole lot longer than they’ve eaten cooked foods! It’s difficult for us to understand, in the face of this one fact, how any dog guardians (much less thousands of veterinarians) could deny that raw food diets are healthful for dogs.
But people are quick to forget history, especially events that occurred more than 50 years ago. Many people have a hard time remembering that, before the commercial pet food industry, people fed dogs raw meaty bones and other food scraps. It took a veterinarian who was uniquely positioned in time and place to witness, firsthand, how raw-fed dogs actually decline on commercial foods, and to start a campaign for a return to common sense, raw feeding.
The commercial pet food industry developed in Australia several decades behind the industry in the U.S. American dog owners in the 1950s and 1960s were already well converted to commercial dog food; many Australians in the 1960s still fed their dogs raw bones and other household scraps. So it was that Australian Ian Billinghurst grew up in a society that fed its dogs raw foods, but was suddenly converted to commercial foods when he entered graduate school seeking a veterinary doctorate in the early 1970s.
In “vet school,” Billinghurst learned that a scientifically designed commercial diet was “best for dogs.” After earning his veterinary degree, he went into practice, advocating commercial foods and feeding them to his own dogs. But he experienced continual doubts; why were the dogs he saw every day in his practice – and his own dogs – so unhealthy? And why did he remember the dogs of his youth as so robust, untouched by the maladies he saw so frequently in veterinary practice: skin problems and itches; runny eyes; scurfy, smelly coats; sore ears; bad breath and dental problems; problems with anal sacs; and worms. He began to think it had something to do with what the dogs ate.
Over a period of a few years, Dr. Billinghurst began experimenting with his own dogs, feeding them what he remembered most people feeding dogs when he was a kid: raw, meaty bones and household scraps. He saw an immediate difference. As he writes in his groundbreaking 1993 book, Give Your Dog a Bone, “No more skin problems, dental problems, eye problems, growth problems, reproductive problems, etc. etc. Less need for worming. Their feces were less smelly and there were less of them. Their breath became pleasant. Feeding them was cheaper, both in the cost of the food, and because they no longer needed expensive drugs or dentistry.”
As he observed the success of his “new” diet, Dr. Billinghurst began suggesting that clients try it on their dogs. Again, he saw nothing but success, which fanned his interest in the subject of raw feeding into an obsession. He studied nutrition, compared information and case studies with colleagues, and eventually wrote Give Your Dog a Bone. Today, the book is considered a primer for anyone interested in home-prepared diets for dogs, and numerous raw-food advocates credit it with inspiring their own interest in the subject. In it, among other things, Dr. Billinghurst coined a phrase for his suggested diet plan (BARF, for “bones and raw food”) that has been thoroughly co-opted and adapted at will by raw food advocates. (Frequently, you will hear “BARF” decoded as “biologically appropriate raw foods.” Note that the “raw foods” part stays intact.)
Raw is Almost Always Better
Dr. Billinghurst’s diet plan and opinions regarding different supplements or food ingredients have shifted a little since publication of his first book, as close readers of his next books (Grow Your Pups With Bones, 1998, and The BARF Diet, 2001) will attest. His main themes, however, remain consistent. We previously discussed his most controversial tenet – that dogs thrive on a diet that includes raw, meaty bones (see “Feeding Bones or Raw Food to Puppies,” WDJ September 2000). But another rock-solid cornerstone of his canine diet philosophy is that a dog’s food should absolutely not be cooked.
We recently asked Dr. Billinghurst, “Are there any dogs whom you prefer to receive a cooked homemade diet rather than a raw one? If so, what dogs and why?” His response was that the only times he recommended a cooked diet was when the dog’s owner could not or would not feed raw.
“I suspect the expected answer to that question is that I would prefer an immune-compromised animal to receive cooked food because of the potential danger of an opportunistic infection,” says Dr. Billinghurst. “In fact, the only times I have recommended cooked over raw in that particular situation was when the owner was particularly concerned. In other words, the recommendation is always as a concession to the deep concerns of the particular dog owner, rather than from any conviction that there is any genuine necessity to cook the food.
“It has long been my experience that with immune-compromised animals, the raw food simply speeds the return to a more normally functioning immune system. That, of course, is one of the many reasons I wrote Give Your Dog a Bone, which started this whole raw movement.
“Looking back at my real life experiences as a vet who has recommended raw foods for dogs for a very long time, I have to say that there have been and there will continue to be instances where I am constrained to prefer that a dog receives a cooked homemade diet, but rarely is it ‘rather than’ a raw one.
“For example, with food contaminated by parasites such as hydatid tapeworms – where that is the only food available and the alternative is no food, starvation, and death – then I would prefer that the dog receive that food as cooked food. Or, if a dog has a severe reaction to raw food and is healthier with cooked food, then so be it; feed the dog cooked food. If the owner will not feed raw, and will only choose between cooked and kibble – and this does happen, particularly where the dog has trained the owner not to feed raw, then cooked it must be.
“Other than that, I always recommend raw.”
Disaggreements on Raw Feeding
Not everyone who has walked along Dr. Billinghurst’s path is still convinced that raw diets are always best. Many people who are completely convinced that home-prepared diets are the only way to guarantee that a dog is getting the best possible nutrition have come to believe that cooking offers some legitimate advantages for certain dogs.
As Dr. Billinghurst hinted, the most prevalent “break” from his theories has to do with immune-compromised dogs. Many holistic veterinarians suggest cooked foods (especially meats) for weak or immune-suppressed dogs, in order to eliminate the potential threat of bacterial infection.
Jean Hofve, DVM, is a holistic veterinarian practicing in Englewood, Colorado, and a frequent contributor to WDJ. In her opinion, dogs with a compromised immune system, “leaky gut” problems (inflammatory bowel disease), or who are extremely debilitated should not be given raw meats. “One consideration is whether the dog is healthy enough to handle a moderate bacterial burden,” she says. Dr. Hofve further extends that concern to other members of the household. “Is there anyone in the home who should not handle raw meat, or get hold of it in some way, such as a toddler exploring the dog bowl? So many kids these days have asthma and other immune-mediated diseases, and many are on immunosuppressive drugs. I don’t think I’d want raw meat anywhere around that.”
In response to our query, Susan Wynn, DVM, a holistic veterinarian who practices in Marietta, Georgia, also mentioned concerns about weak or debilitated dogs. Her list of dogs that she would prefer to see eating cooked food includes “very old dogs, dogs who are weak with chronic illness, dogs with severe bouts of pancreatitis, and dogs with TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) ‘dampness’ conditions.”
Mark Newkirk, VMD, has a holistic veterinary practice in Margate, New Jersey. An ardent fan of raw home-prepared diets, his main concern has to do with dogs who have severe bowel problems. Dr. Newkirk suggests feeding those dogs cooked food, but only for a short period.
Switching to Raw Dog Food
If you spend much time talking to dog guardians who make their dogs’ food, or lurking on Internet discussion lists devoted to the topic, you will quickly understand that the “raw vs. cooked” controversy also rages on the front lines. With untold thousands of people feeding hundreds of different breeds of dogs different types of home-prepared diets, you can count on the fact that some people do experience problems feeding raw food to some dogs. (To be fair, many dogs have problems eating cooked food, and many more have problems eating commercial food!)
Fortunately, you will probably also learn easy, practical solutions for any problem you experience with your dog. For example, while many people report their dogs being crazy about “going raw,” some guardians have found it difficult to transition middle-aged dogs to raw foods after a lifetime of kibble. More experienced raw feeders can tell you to start out by lightly cooking your dog’s home-prepared meats, vegetables, and grains (bones are never cooked), and then gradually cooking the food less and less, transitioning the dog’s palate from “well-done,” to “rare,” to raw.
Newcomers to BARF-type diets will naturally have a lot of questions about bones, safe meat handling, whether or not to include grains in the diet, how to prepare vegetables, and which supplements their dogs may need. Fortunately, many people are using these diets today, and most of them are more than willing to help; just ask.
What's Best for YOUR Dog?
As you have probably guessed, we tend to belong to the group of fusion thinkers. We rarely find ourselves advocating that all dog guardians strictly adhere to any specific dog care practice, because there exceptions to every rule.
We do strongly believe that complete and balanced raw diets are most likely to produce and maintain health in the majority of the canine population. However, there will always be some individual dogs who cannot tolerate some raw foods. In our humble opinion, it’s sheer stupidity to persist in feeding raw foods to raw-intolerant dogs, even in the face of physical evidence that the dog is not thriving, and may even by declining in health, simply because one feels that “raw is best for all dogs.” Don’t let the Emperor’s tailor convince you otherwise!
The decision really ought to be based on what your dog “says” about his diet. If, after a fair trial (perhaps three months?) on a complete and balanced raw diet, he’s got more health and/or behavior problems than he did before the trial, a smart owner should start a new trial including cooked foods.
Similarly, there is no use denying that some humans cannot bring themselves to prepare and feed raw foods. It doesn’t really matter why they can’t or won’t, because if they don’t believe in what they are doing, and feel really good about it, their dogs are bound to experience trouble with the diet. And nothing good will result from trying to make them feel bad about their decision, or attempting to force or guilt them into a different course of action.
In our opinion, true holistic care for dogs is, by definition, tailored for the individual – and that’s the individual dog and guardian. We strongly encourage guardians to think for themselves and do what they think is best: feed raw, cook, or do both; to observe their own dogs with open minds, staying alert to any improvement or decline in their dogs’ condition; and to remain flexible and willing to change their approach in response to the evidence in front of them.
For a discussion of three prominent home-prepared diet advocates and their diet plans, see “Comparing the Best Raw Dog Food Diet Plans,” WDJ June 2001. For advice about feeding raw foods to puppies, see “Raw-Fed Puppies,” December 2000. To address concerns about bacterial contamination of raw meat, see “When Feeding a Raw Diet Use Safe Meat Handling Practices,” August 2000. And for advice on preparing vegetables for raw-fed dogs, see “It’s all In How You Make It: Traditional Food Preparation,” March 2001, and “Feed Your Dog Vegetables,” October 1998.
Nancy Kerns is Editor of WDJ.