More and more dog owners and professionals are taking a second look at what they feed their family dogs. The majority of puppies are fed on dried dog food to get them eating and growing.
As they get older the dried food changes to the same adult variety and this has long been the way that owners have fed their dogs.
However, the concern is mounting over what ingredients actually make up the average dog food, so the manufactured brands are fast being pushed out over the growing popularity of the Raw food diet or BARF as it is also known.
BARF stands for Bones and Raw Food and this is primarily what you would feed your dog on, no dried dog biscuits, no cooked chicken or sausages but a huge variety of uncooked meats and pureed vegetables.
Elizabeth Roberts explores why more dog owners are taking their pet's diets back to nature.
The Raw food diet is not a new phenomenon; it has been around for centuries. Dogs in the wild would live off whole carcasses including organs, which ensured that they got the right vitamins and nutrients to survive.
The philosophy behind natural raw food is that the best way to feed your dog is by giving them a diet that they have evolved to eat – natural raw meat and bones.
But why are dog owners turning their back on the kibble and going Raw? Well, many Raw – converts have reported a huge change in their dog’s health, appearance and smell since being fed a raw diet.
Tracey Knock started feeding her Golden Retriever bitch, Jasmine on a Raw diet at 6 months old. “Jasmine had a rash that the vet couldn’t explain, and I put it down to the Pedigree Junior Kibble that we were feeding her on.
I also noticed that the food would affect her behaviour – she would have highs and lows like a kid after a fizzy drink!" After reading up on the Raw diet, Tracey decided to give it a go, and so out went the Kibble and in came Raw Meaty Bones. (RMB)
“I really wanted to give her a natural meaty diet which didn’t have added salt, flavourings and colourings.”
Remembering Jasmine’s reaction to finding two meaty chicken wings in her bowl, Tracey says that she was quite confused, “she looked into the bowl, then back at me with a very quizzical expression and then back at the bowl, but it didn’t take her long to tuck in.”
Tracey feeds Jasmine on mince such as chicken, beef, turkey or green tripe, muscle meat such as Oxheart and then a RMB. Jasmine also occasionally gets a banana and non-bio yoghurt or a raw egg with the shell on.
“Her favourite treat is pig’s trotters – she would run through the house showing everybody her prize!” recalls Tracey.
Generally, feeding a Raw diet means buying the meat either in bulk from specialised companies or going to your local butcher and asking for leftovers. You can then freeze the meat keeping it fresh and take out what you need for each day allowing it to defrost.
You can then decide on the amount to feed your dog depending on their size and energy levels. Slightly more work than just opening the bag of dog food and pouring it into their bowl, but the results are amazing.
The Raw food diet consists of muscle meat, raw meaty bones and offal. Muscle can be minced or ground meat, breast meat, diced meat, heart and pretty much anything without a bone.
You should feed your dog on muscle meat for one of their daily meals, the other meal should be a Raw Meaty Bone. This is just an edible bone covered in meat; for instance chicken wings, thighs, legs, whole chickens, lamb ribs, chops, necks and whole rabbit.
Raw fish is also good for your dog to eat but some dogs may turn their nose up at it.
Many dog owners freeze the meat and then allow it to defrost before giving it to their dogs, but this is not just for convenience, freezing Raw meat actually kills the Neosporun Caninum form of bacteria which can be harmful to dogs and so when it has thawed, the meat is nothing but good for them.
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On a regular dog food diet, the commercial food must be complete and balanced so that the dog can get sufficient vitamins. The Raw diet which offers variety in the different foods that the dog can eat should contain enough variation in vitamins and minerals.
However, some dog owners like to add vitamin boosters to the diet such as oil capsules, vitamin E and A and calcium carbonate tablets so that they have the right amount of vitamins and nutrients.
However, this is not a necessity for a Raw fed dog as they should be getting enough vitamins from the variety of different meats and bones.
In the end, your dog will guide you better than anyone else so just see what they like and how they respond to different meats.
The dog owners we spoke to who opt for a Raw diet all reported similar findings, the overall health of dogs has improved, persistent skin irritations have disappeared, dogs look forward to their food and energy levels have rocketed.
As the dog takes a lot longer to eat a meaty bone, it gives the stomach time to get the acids moving which means the food is easily digested.
By having to put more effort into gnawing at a bone the dog's teeth are getting cleaned and the gums stimulated, this eliminates the need to visit the vet for dental work, it also means that owners no longer have to fight with their dogs to brush their teeth; the teeth are getting brushed naturally.
The added effort builds up muscle in the dog’s neck, back and shoulders which means that the body is leaner and stronger. The diet also seems to rid dogs of the doggy odour that comes with them and the breath is clean and sweet-smelling.
Gill Lucas who runs her own dog walking and sitting services used to have a pet shop selling her own BARF food and would make and sell her own vitamin supplements.
She has two Alaskan Malamutes and two Labradors which she has fed on a Raw diet since day one and sticks by the mantra – “I’d rather put needles through my eyes than feed them kibble!”
Gill got her first Malamute, Indigo four years ago and fed him on raw chicken wings, chicken carcases and tripe, which she says he loved. “I was scared at first to try him on raw meat but after I saw how much he loved it, I knew there was no going back".
Gill reports seeing the amount of energy it gave her dogs as the first indicator that natural is best. “I also add pureed vegetables, ginger, garlic, eggs, oils and sunflower seeds to meals which they consume in seconds.”
Gill also says that she has seen her dogs grow in a more natural consistent way. She says that they don’t have growth spurts and therefore stay as puppies for longer, she puts this down to feeding them their evolutionary diet.
Regular pet foods contain a huge amount of grain and cereals and carbohydrates which a dog’s digestive stream cannot deal with, grain is also the source of many allergies in dogs which just means more trips to the vet.
However with a raw diet, your dog is getting all the vitamins, minerals and protein that they need from muscle meat and bones, and with no grain, insight the vet bills stay down.
The Raw diet is not only for large dogs, Kirsty Carrot made the transition to the raw diet six months ago with her West Highland White Terrier, Hamish.
“Hamish had a bad rash on his belly, after reading that commercial dog foods contain ingredients that dogs are commonly allergic to, I decided to try Raw. Within a month of his new diet, his skin has improved massively.”
Kirsty opted to feed Hamish a diet of raw meaty bones, offal, tripe, oily fish and live yoghurt.
“Hamish now has brilliant, white strong teeth and doesn’t ever have bad breath, his coat doesn’t have a bad odour to it and it has thickened considerably. I also find that he has consistent energy levels, and he is an all-around, happier dog.” Says Kirsty.
The philosophy of taking your dog back to its natural, evolutionary diet seems to scream benefits and advantages, but what about the other side of the spectrum, are there any disadvantages?
Well, it would seem that you have to be dedicated to the raw diet which could mean buying your dog its own freezer to store all the meat, also many raw feeders say that the smell of the meat can sometimes be overwhelming.
Kirsty says that she feels the diet is time-consuming as she doesn’t like to leave Hamish alone with a RMB and so has to keep an eye on him making sure he doesn’t eat it on the sofa!
Dog owners who want to feed their dog on the Raw food diet should try and start off slowly, easing them into getting a taste for meat.
Try cutting a raw chicken wing in half and holding one end so your dog can taste the blood and bone.
If they are still a little wary, and they might be, if it is not what they are used to, then you can try putting some raw meat in a very hot frying pan and quickly warming the skin on each side so that it seals in the flavour.
The skin is cooked but the meat and bone are still raw. It is also advised to introduce a new meat to your dog each week, try them on chicken wings first and see how they respond, if they are ok then you can try different meat such as minced beef.
This will help you see what meats are best for your dog by their reaction.
There are a few things that should definitely be avoided when feeding your dog. Cooked bones should never be given to dogs, they can splinter and become lodged in their throats, raw bones on the other hand will never splinter.
Whilst most vegetables are good for dogs if they are pureed, onions should never be included, they contain chemicals that can oxidise the dog's red blood cells which can cause haemolytic anaemia. Grapes and raisins should also be avoided as dogs find it difficult to digest them.
Julie Lovall feeds her German Shephard Logan on a Raw diet which she says he got used to very quickly. “I started Logan with a lamb rib, he took it from me rather gingerly and went off into the garden with it trying to work out what to do with it!"
"But he soon worked it out and started chomping on it. For his next meal, I gave him minced beef and tripe, he was very keen and ate all 2lb of it straight away and came to me tail wagging and gave me a big thank you!” Julie sticks by her decision to try Logan on Raw and says the benefits outweigh any drawbacks.
“The health benefits to my dog and my bank balance are the main things. It costs about £14-16 per month. It's the best thing I have ever done for Logan.” Julie did say that she has had to buy a freezer just for Logan’s food but says that not been a problem.
Julie decided to try Logan on Raw food because she couldn’t bear for him to eat the same thing for the rest of his life. She says that sometimes he wouldn’t even bother to sniff the kibble, and he was just so disinterested in his food.
Julie did a lot of research before making the switch however which helped her to realise that Raw was best.
“Before I started to feed Raw I did months of research online, reading BARF books and talking to many people who feed Raw themselves.
Only when I felt I knew enough about it and getting the nutritional balance right, did I take the plunge. And because of all the research done I have not had any problems and it has been much easier to feed Raw than I imagined.” Says Julie.
As with anything, the raw food diet has its opponents. Pet food manufacturers say that the food is already balanced for the stage of life and health condition of your pet and trying to decide on the right balance yourself could lead to nutritional deficiency.
This however has been disputed by Raw food enthusiasts who say that the BARF diet is the most natural food you can give your dog, the bones contain the natural source of calcium and meat is packed with nutrients and vitamins.
There is also added concern about the bacteria raw meat contains and the notion that bones can splinter and become lodged in dog’s throats. This carries many myths; it is actually cooked bones that can splinter not raw bones.
A dog’s digestive system is designed to withstand bacteria unlike a human's, and the stomach acid is exceptionally strong so destroys any bacteria from the raw meat.
There is no hiding the facts, more and more dog owners are opting to feed their beloved dogs the raw food that they have evolved to eat.
The natural way can only be the better way and as Jessica with Jasmine and Gill with her Malamutes and Labs say, the proof is the pudding. Their dogs are healthier, leaner, energetic and generally happier.
The Science Of The Raw Food Diet
The whole point of a raw diet is to mimic the feeding habits of dogs in the wild. Whilst humans have evolved to use cutlery and heating devices, a dog's digestive system is best suited to raw, unprocessed food.
It's not just the nutritional content of the raw food which brings the benefits. The actual texture, if you include bones, feathers and skin, provides friction which helps dogs to keep their teeth clean.
Raw food feeding also stimulates and promotes a more healthy attitude to food from the dog's point. Food that is soft and served in a bowl, don't naturally 'feel' like food to a dog.
Over time, a dog will come to accept what it is given as food and it will become natural to them, but when given raw food, dogs will feed in a more wild and natural way.
Dogs will gorge on raw food, the ways they do in the wild. Whilst humans have taught dogs to eat measured portions in the way that we do, dogs in the wild will eat everything they can - they don't know where the next meal is coming from.
This is healthy for a dog as it mimics the wild approach to feeding. It is particularly beneficial for dogs that live in groups or packs as it helps them to reinforce their pack hierarchy.
Dominant dogs feed first and leave what they don't need for the rest of the pack. In human terms, this doesn't equate to having a good diet, but in canine terms, it is entirely natural and healthy.
For quite a long time, people have doubted the validity of feeding dogs canned, soft food that promises to deliver optimum nutrition in each and every meal.
Research suggests that dogs do not need to receive measure, quantifiable nutrition in every meal and that they will develop a balanced diet over a period of time that is more effective. By eating raw food such as butcher's scraps, a dog may get more iron one day, and more protein the next.
Whilst commercial, 'balanced' food attempts to deliver a small measure of nutrition in each portion.
Studies carried out at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Science points to the raw method delivering more nutritional value over time, when compared to balanced, shop-bought food.
The studies, which examined the general health and stools of the participants reported that the first two signs that raw food was more beneficial than commercial food were that coat quality improved and stools were firmer from a younger age.
The main risks associated with raw feeding are linked with parasites and bacteria. One benefit claimed by food manufacturers is that their cooking process destroys all bacteria and parasites.
It is also true that the heat used in the preparation process diminishes the nutritional content of any raw products used.
Whilst it is more likely for raw food to contain bacteria and parasites compared to commercial, dogs that are fed on raw food are better able to deal with parasites and bacteria due to stomach enzymes which are promoted by the raw diet.
Have you tried the raw food diet? How did your dog get on? Let us know - we'd love to hear your own stories or tips!