The majority of dogs are fed on a commercial processed food, but there is a growing interest in feeding dogs BARF or a completely raw diet of meat and bones.
I feed my own dogs (Labradors and cocker spaniels) an entirely raw food diet but it was not a decision I made lightly. In fact it took me over a year to take the plunge, after doing my research and being fairly confident it was the right decision.
Commercial processed dog food
There is a huge range of quality ‘all-in-one’ commercial foods to choose from, in an equally large range of prices. Most of these foods are manufactured in a pelleted form known as kibble. There may possibly be some long-term disadvantages to feeding kibble.
Kibble feeding has only been commonplace for perhaps the last fifteen to twenty years and it is becoming apparent that certain conditions may be associated with it. One of these is dental caries.
Tooth and gum infections resulting from a build up of plaque on the teeth of kibble fed dogs are considered by some vets and experienced dog owners to be a problem related to diet. Removal of plaque build up in some kibble fed dogs may be necessary on a regular basis from quite a young age. This usually involves subjecting the dog (and your wallet) to a general anaesthetic, not just once but possibly on an annual basis for the rest of his or her life. There are ‘dental cleaning’ chews etc on sale in many pet shops but I have not found them to be very effective.
Another condition that has been linked to some types of kibble (those high in fat) in some studies is bloat. An extremely painful and frequently fatal condition, ‘bloat’ is distension and (usually) twisting of the stomach. A number of websites claim that bloat it is the second biggest killer of dogs after cancer, but I haven’t seen the evidence for this claim. You can read more about bloat on this vet’s website.
It is usually found in the larger deep-chested dogs such as Weimaraners and is less common in little dogs.
Considerable numbers of experienced dog owners have changed over to raw feeding in the last few years. They are still in a minority, but the minority is growing. Initially, most vets were not in favour of raw feeding for a number of reasons which we shall look at below, but that situation is gradually changing.
The two most popular types of raw feeding are the BARF diet (biologically appropriate raw food) and the RMB (raw meaty bones) diet.
The main difference between them is that the BARF diet contains vegetables, as followers believe these are essential to replace the stomach/gut contents a wild dog would get from access to the prey animal. ‘Barfers’ grind or puree these vegetables, as dogs are not able to digest certain vegetable constituents in their natural form.
Those feeding RMB diet believe that vegetables are both unnatural and unnecessary and ensure that the dog has access to carcasses in the kind of natural proportions that would occur in the wild, including a certain amount of ‘green tripe’ (stomach that has not been completely cleaned of its contents). I feed my own dogs the RMB diet and do not feed any vegetables whatsoever.
Possible problems with raw food
There have been a number of concerns expressed about raw feeding. Perhaps the most worrying for the ‘would be raw feeder’ is that of intestinal perforation. This was my chief concern about switching to raw food. It is claimed by opponents of raw feeding that sharp pieces of ingested bone may penetrate the dog’s digestive tract during or after ingestion, causing serious injury and even death.
Another claimed risk is that of gastrointestinal infection from the bacteria, which we know are commonly found on raw meat. Parasitic infections are another concern, as are nutritional deficiencies caused by dietary imbalance. Intestinal impaction – blockage of the gut – by semi-digested bone is another possibility.
All this sounds quite horrific, and many vets are against raw feeding for these reasons. There are a number of sources, which state that the evidence to support the claims made against raw food is poorly collated and exaggerated. It is also claimed by some, that vets have a vested interest in kibble, which they often sell, and that some of the information provided on veterinary courses is biased as it is supplied by the multi-million pound pet food industry.
There are claims and counter claims largely unsubstantiated, and passionate views, on both sides of the debate.
When faced with possible death and disease on both sides of the feeding debate – which way is a dog owner to turn? Thankfully, the facts are less scary than the ‘possibilities’
The facts are these: Most dogs thrive and are well on both systems of feeding. Many thousands of dogs live full, long, and healthy lives on kibble alone. Thousands of dogs are now fed on raw meat and bones without ill effects. My own five dogs have now been eating raw meat and bones for over six years which amounts to some eleven thousand meals between them. During that time only one has needed veterinary treatment and that was for an eye injury sustained whilst hunting.
The risk of gastro-intestinal perforation may be smaller than previously thought. Impaction or intestinal blockage is unlikely if the animal is fed meat and bone in the correct proportions as part of a meal – recreational bones (ie bones fed separately from a meal) are more likely to be the culprit. I have read on a number of websites that ‘modern dogs cannot digest bone’ and I can tell you categorically that this is not true. I have watched the bone going in, and seen what comes out (see below).
Regular worming should prevent a build up of parasites, and gastro-intestinal infections are a risk a dog runs whenever it eats anything rotting or disgusting found lying on the ground. The fact is, most dogs eat foul rubbish including the faeces of other animals on a regular basis without any ill effects at all. Should you choose to do so, the food you give your dog as part of a RMB diet will hopefully be fresh reducing the risk even further.
As for nutritional imbalance, well this is the poorest argument against raw feeding. We don’t feed our children on the same identical kibble for every meal, and most of us seem to make a reasonable job of feeding them a balanced diet.
Whether or not you feel raw food is too risky is a very personal decision. Many claims for improved coat, vigour, and health, over and above that of dogs fed on kibble, are made by those that feed raw food. These claims are usually anecdotal and often very subjective. Most dogs fed on kibble are in fine condition too. In fact the almost fanatical fervour of some supporters of raw food, and their extreme claims towards kibble and kibble manufacturers may actually put others off joining them. The following advantages to raw feeding are however well documented.
Advantages of raw feeding
Dogs fed on a proper raw diet produce a greatly reduced quantity of low odour faeces. This is a particular advantage to those who have to pick it up! Raw fed dog faeces are firm and within a few hours of being passed, if broken open, will crumble into a pale dry powder. This is simply because almost all the food is tailor made to suit the dog and fully digested. What is passed is mostly powdered bone.
Kibble fed dogs produce large quantities of foul smelling soft faeces, which do not always have an effective emptying action on the dog’s anal glands. Raw fed dogs are less likely to need their anal glands emptying artificially by hand (usually your vet’s hand).
The process of crushing and grinding bones has an abrasive action on your dog’s teeth. Raw fed dogs do not usually suffer from dental caries. This means freedom from dental surgery and the risks of repeated general anaesthetics.
Raw fed dogs take a lot longer to eat their food, and gain a great deal of pleasure from their meals, the powerful chewing action required to break up bones is beneficial to the dog’s mouth generally and chewing alleviates boredom.
Advantages of kibble feeding
There are some immediate advantages to feeding kibble. It is very convenient to open a packet and just pour some food into a bowl. You know that your puppy is getting all the vitamins and minerals he needs which is reassuring, especially for a new owner, and you don’t need to get involved in any kind of messy food preparation. In addition, kibble feeding is currently widely recommended and supported by the veterinary profession, so that you are unlikely to come into conflict with your vet for feeding your puppy this way.
Making a decision
I did a lot of research before I changed to raw feeding and initially was particularly concerned about the risks of intestinal perforation. As the weeks of raw feeding turned to months, and the months to years I began to relax. I have now been feeding the RMB diet to my dogs for about six years and am very happy with the results, my dogs have sparkly white teeth and are never troubled with anal gland problems.
The RMB system is a straightforward one for me because I have almost unlimited access to whole rabbit carcasses. Not everyone is in this situation
Your decision on how to feed your dog will be a personal one based on your circumstances. If you decide to feed raw, make sure you have plenty of freezer space to store your dog food, and most importantly, read up on the different methods taking care to introduce the diet gradually one meat at a time, and to feed meat and bone in the correct proportions.
Getting it right
Whilst I am very happy with the RMB diet for my dogs, I have some concerns about the way some dog owners may be going about feeding their dogs on a raw diet.
I have recently met and spoken to, some dog owners who believe that they are feeding their dogs on a proper raw diet, when in fact they are simply feeding uncooked food. They are certainly feeding raw meat, plenty of it, but they are not feeding bone. They are feeding the sort of raw meat that you or I might happily make into a casserole. Chunks of stewing steak and chicken breasts. This is not a suitable diet for a dog.
It is really important to appreciate the role of bone, as a crucial and significant part of a raw diet.
But bones are so sharp!
Understandably people are worried that their dogs might get splintered bone in their mouths or digestive tract. Watching my dogs take a carcass apart and break up the bones, I am in awe. Even as a scientist I cannot state specifically how it is, that dogs are able to swallow terrifyingly sharp crushed and cracked raw bone splinters without any harm to themselves whatsoever. Not just once, but day after day, and year after year.
How is it that my dogs are still alive and well? Dogs certainly produce a lot of mucus and slime in their digestive tract which probably helps, and once it is in their stomach, the powerful acids dissolve bone fairly quickly, but even so, how it all passes down without damage is quite astonishing. All that I can tell you is that I watch my dogs do it every day. Whole rabbits crushed and mangled in minutes, chicken carcasses, venison backbones, whole fish and so on. All raw of course. Everything is chomped and swallowed with relish. And what is more, there are no visible bones in their faeces, just fine powdered bone.
Bones are essential
However scary it may be, if you want to feed your dogs an RMB or BARF diet, you must give them sufficient bone and it must be raw, and meaty. The proportion of bone in this diet is likely to be far higher than you might imagine, and this bone must be fed as a part of a meal. In other words, wrapped up in muscle and connective tissue “on the hoof”.
Feeding your dog a huge chunk of meat (muscle) for his dinner, and then giving him a huge bone to chew on three hours later, is not doing him any favours, the key is Raw Meaty Bones in the equivalent proportions that you would find in a small prey animal.
So what kinds of quantity of bone should I feed?
A good guide to bone quantity is to think about the proportions of bone, in the carcass of the kind of animal a medium sized predator and scavenger (like our dogs) might eat. A rabbit is an ideal example. If you gut a rabbit and feed it to a dog (don’t feed rabbit guts, they contain tapeworms), the proportion of bone is substantial. And this is the kind of natural proportion of bone you should be aiming for in a dog’s diet.
Think ‘meaty bones’ rather the ‘meat and bones’. Obviously not everyone has access to rabbits, but chickens are a similar size, and you can purchase chicken backs from a number of sources. When we have chicken portions for supper, we buy a whole chicken, cut off the legs and breasts and give the rest to the dogs. It is a cheaper way to buy chicken portions too. It may look fiddly, but once you have done it two or three times, it takes less than two minutes to quarter a chicken with a sharp knife.
In addition to rabbits, we also give our dogs a lot of by products from deer (my husband is a keen stalker) tripe, ribs, even heads, and a lot of whole fish (keen sea fisherman too!) Not everyone is in a position to feed their dogs on this ‘whole prey animal’ basis, and this is where problems can arise.
Many people will be feeding raw meat taken from much larger animals such as cattle. The bones from these animals are for the most part too large for many dogs to break down and effectively, and the temptation is to feed far too much meat in proportion to bone. If you want to feed beef, then meaty ribs is your best bet.
What about small puppies
It is probably not wise to consider rearing a litter of puppies on raw food until you have researched the subject thoroughly and had plenty of experience of feeding raw food to adult dogs. A three or four week old puppy is growing very rapidly and has specific nutritional needs that cannot be met with a few spoonfuls of minced meat.
Puppies need sufficient calcium and vitamin D to ensure strong straight bones. Sunlight is an important factor in vitamin D, and keeping puppies indoors all the time is not a good idea. Fish is another good source. Vitamin D supplements are not necessarily a good thing as too much vitamin D can cause other problems.
Breeding a litter of your own, and weaning your litter onto raw food is not an exact science, but you do need a sound understanding of nutrition and the dietary needs of a small puppy. And you do need to be unafraid to feed these tiny puppies bone. Minced meat on its own is not sufficient. Just the thought of tiny puppies devouring spiky bones is enough to put most people off raising puppies on a raw diet, and the vast majority of you will be happier feeding a pregnant bitch, and raising puppies, on kibble.
If you do want to keep your raw fed bitch on her raw diet throughout pregnancy, and raise her puppies the same way, please do your research. You will need a good supply of a wide variety of foods to ensure that the puppies grow up strong and healthy. You will need raw eggs and fish, lots of chicken wings, rabbits legs, chickens feet, green tripe and so on.
It can be done and many others have done it successfully, but you will need to arm yourself with information well in advance of mating your bitch.
Of course I cannot promise you that if you give your dog this kind of food, no harm will come to him. Nor can I promise you that he will not get salmonella or some other horrible disease. All I can do is suggest that you talk to people that feed raw “appropriately” and make your own mind as to the risks and potential benefits. It will help put your mind at rest, as well as giving you the information you need to do the job properly.
Raw feeding for dogs, is not for everyone. If you want to do it, you will need plenty of freezer space, and to be willing to gut and prepare carcasses, or have a good source of the same. It helps to have a supportive vet who won’t run for the kibble at the first tummy upset, though you may find you see very little of him/her.
Dogs fed on wild rabbit should be thoroughly wormed every six weeks or so. If you fail to do this your dogs will get burdened with tapeworms. Breeders are probably sensible to stick to kibble unless they are experienced and knowledgeable raw feeders. Gundog owners might be wise to remove fur from their dog’s dinners, to avoid any risk of the dog being tempted to bite down on fur. Having said that, for our older dogs, we often leave the fur on rabbit’s feet (yes, they eat the claws and everything!) and have found absolutely no difference in our dog’s handling of game during the retrieve.
The thing to remember is that the whole raw food versus kibble is not a matter of right versus wrong. Or of ‘safe versus unsafe’. There are pros and cons to both ways of feeding. It is a question of what suits your lifestyle and needs at this time. What is clear is that if you are going to feed raw, you need to be informed and to do it properly.
Helpful sources of information can be found below. You will be able to find lots more by googling Barf, or Raw Food for Dogs. Remember that there are extremists on all forums and newsgroups, so you will need to be objective about what you read.
Enjoy your research!