“Hi, my name is Ren and I am a raw feeder. It has been two and a half years since I last bought commercial pet food.”
I first became aware of the raw feeding method through my friends in the Australian dog breeding and showing community. I moderate a pedigree bull breeds dog forum and I have friends there who have been breeding, showing and feeding their dogs raw food for decades.
After feeding Max, my first Staffordshire Bull Terrier, on expensive kibble for years (recommended by my vet, no less) and struggling to manage his weight, teeth, breath and gastrointestinal health until the day he died, I knew that I wanted to give raw feeding a shot with my second dog.
I have fed my three year old Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Tayla (Supasound Chase That Feeling), a raw diet since she was six months old, because I believe it is the best way to keep her happy and healthy.
Once I kicked the commercial food habit, I never looked back.
So what is raw feeding?
The thinking behind raw feeding is that canines should be fed what they are biologically designed to eat. The Canis lupis familiaris (domestic dog) is a sub-species of the Canis lupis, or grey wolf. Despite approximately 15,000 years of domestication and selective breeding, it has been argued that the nutritional needs of the canine have changed very little.
Have a look at the typical diet of a wolf! It mostly consists of raw, whole prey (including the odd fish!), with occasional small amounts of plant matter (usually berries or fruit).
Raw feeders believe that this kind of diet is what our domesticated canine companions require for optimum health and wellbeing. Compare a raw diet for dogs to a Paleo diet for humans and you’ll get an idea of where raw feeders are coming from!
There are a few different raw feeding methods you can choose from, and they are mostly dependent on what you can buy locally and seasonally, what you are comfortable with feeding, and of course, your dog’s own food preferences and requirements. The three most common raw feeding methods are BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food), Prey Model (which can vary widely from whole, intact carcasses to a ‘franken-prey’ of bits and pieces) and RMB (Raw Meaty Bones). I started as a BARF feeder, moved on to RMB feeding within the first year, then eventually settled on a loose version of the Prey Model diet, which is how I feed Tayla now.
There is a lot of ground to cover when one talks about raw feeding. This is just the first post in a series I am writing on the subject! I hope to answer some of the burning questions I had I was a raw feeding newbie, like:
- Is it really safe to be giving whole bones?
- Won’t raw meat make my dog sick? Won’t handling raw meat make me sick?
- How much raw food do I feed per day?
- What kind of meat can I use?
- What kind of bones should I be feeding?
- Which parts are safe to eat? Which parts should I avoid?
- How should my dog be eating it? How do I know if something’s gone wrong?
- What do I do if my dog isn’t interested in eating raw food?
- Where do I buy it?
- How do I prepare it? What equipment will I need?
- Can I feed other types of food too? Should I be giving supplements as well?
- Should I be fasting my dog one day a week, to simulate living in the wild?
- My vet/groomer/trainer/whoever thinks all dogs should be eating dry/tinned food. How do I explain my choice to raw feed?
I want to kick this series off by talking about some basic principles for raw feeding and my initial experience with it. I’ll put it out there right now that I am NOT a veterinarian and I have no formal training in canine health or nutrition. I am, however, a qualified lawyer, which means that I am a skilled and thorough researcher.
At the end of 2009, Max, my first dog, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly from cancer. He was 13 and a half. I was grieving for him and looking at getting a Staffordshire Bull Terrier puppy to ease the pain and loneliness.
I’d never had a puppy of my own before. Max had come to me as a fairly mellow nine year old retiree. Naturally, I was researching breeders like a fiend and asking people lots of questions about how they raise their dogs. All the talk of puppies got my forum friends interested and we began discussing nutrition.
A few weeks later, a friend of mine offered me Tayla, a sweet, cuddly six month old pup who needed a pet home. It was love at first sight and I took her home with me a week later.
I knew that I wanted to transition to a completely raw diet with Tayla. I spent a solid week researching, compiling information and pestering experienced raw feeders for their recipes. I read a lot of advice that told me I had to make the switch immediately, lest Tayla’s digestive system become ‘confused’ about the signals it was getting from mixed kibble and raw food.
But, I found that I couldn’t go cold turkey. I had to do it in stages for the sake of Tayla’s gastrointestinal health (and my delicate nerves!). I didn’t yet know if Tayla had allergies, or a sensitive stomach, or if she couldn’t tolerate a particular type of meat. I also didn’t know if she would want to eat raw food. Some dogs don’t! And that is okay.
The choice is yours. My two cents: if you’re switching over from a dry and/or wet food diet, be kind to your pooch and do it gradually, especially if you plan on feeding a lot of red meat. Red meat is rich and heavy, which can upset your dog’s stomach if they are unaccustomed to it. Imagine living on a diet of, say, pork sausages and mash your entire life, and then one day all you’re getting is hot lamb curry. Wouldn’t it be easier for you to get used to the curry if it was included with your sausages and mash in small amounts, over time?
I started by reducing Tayla’s regular meal by a quarter portion and replacing it with homemade BARF mix, prepared using a recipe shared with me by a BARF feeding Staffordshire Bull Terrier breeder (I will share it with you in my next post!). After a week, I was feeding half and half, the next week, three quarters BARF to kibble and then by week four, I was feeding all BARF. Tayla’s initial reaction was to gulp down the moist, smelly mix of kangaroo mince and shredded fruit and veg like it was the finest gourmet food she’d ever tasted. I paced the backyard like a professional helicopter parent during potty-time and was relieved to discover that there were no upset stomach issues. Relief!
This meant it was time to implement Phase Two: The Introduction of Raw Meaty Bones. I wanted to make sure Tayla’s teeth were kept nice and clean. But what kind of bone to start with? I was worried about her teeth getting fractured or broken. I was worried about the bones splintering, or her choking. I was worried about intestinal punctures. All my reading pointed to poultry as the safest start. White meat is easier on a dog’s stomach and the bones are generally softer and more flexible than red meat bones. I liked the sound of turkey necks – bendy and segmented (less chance of getting stuck!), meaty enough to be worth the trouble and softer than other poultry bones (like legs or wings).
So I went to the supermarket, bought a nice fat turkey neck and made the victorious trip home.
Now, to say I was nervous about giving that first raw bone to Tayla was the understatement of the year. I was TERRIFIED. How could this possibly be safe? She would surely swallow the damn thing whole and choke to death! (Despite all of my research and preparation, at the end of the day, I am still a fretful mother.)
I presented it to Tayla and waited to see how she would react. Her face lit up like it was Christmas. MEATY BONE! FOR ME! She was a little uncertain at first, having never eaten a turkey neck before, but she sure knew it was food and there was a lot of sniffing and licking going on. All it took was a little bit of encouragement from Mum (me holding the neck and offering it until she was confident enough to start biting and chewing it) and she was off and running. Er, eating.
And so we were indoctrinated into the Order of Raw.
Still To Come
Over the next few weeks, we will explore these topics in depth:
- The different models of raw feeding,
- How to budget for, buy and store raw food,
- Health benefits and hazards of raw feeding,
- Combining different feeding methods; and
- How to discuss your raw feeding choices without feeling pressured or judged by others.
A Word on Safety!
There are a few important things you should know about raw feeding, just in case you get excited and jump in before I do a nice long post about safety!
- Do not, under any circumstances, feed cooked bones. Cooked bones can splinter or shatter and become lodged in your dog’s throat (causing a choking hazard) or perforate their intestines. If you feed cooked meat, remove the bones!
- Be very, VERY careful about what kind of bones you are feeding. Large, weight-bearing bones such as femurs, vertebrae and knuckles can cause fractures and broken teeth. Avoid them if you can, or feed for short periods under close supervision.
- Do not feed rotten or ‘off’ meat. Dogs get food poisoning, gastroenteritis and stomach upsets the same as humans do. Experienced raw feeders know when meat is good to feed and when it is borderline, but if you are new to raw feeding, err on the side of caution!
- Do not freeze, thaw and then refreeze your raw food. You wouldn’t do it for your own food would you? Treat your dog’s food the same way you would treat your own.
- Heart is best fed in small amounts, particularly when it is new to your dog’s diet. Ox heart in particular is extremely rich and can cause digestive upset.
- If you are going to be making your own BARF mix, be sure to avoid foods that are toxic for dogs, such as garlic, onion, leek, chives, dried fruit, avocado and macadamia. A good rule of thumb is to research every ingredient before you add it to make sure it is safe for dogs.
- When feeding fish, be choosy. Avoid salmon if you live in the US or Canada. Ocean fish are generally safe, but research what types of local fish are safe for canine consumption.
- Freeze raw pork for a minimum of two weeks before feeding, or cook it (and de-bone it!) first. This will kill any harmful t spiralis trichonosis larvae that may be present in the meat. Raw pork is best left for when you’re a little more experienced and confident.
- Be cautious when feeding liver. A major function of the liver is to detoxify the body. The raw feeding rule of thumb is that liver should make up no more then 5% of your dog’s diet.
One last thing!
If you only take one piece of advice from this post, it should be this: only you can decide whether raw feeding is right for your dog. As Rebecca mentioned in her post ‘The Beauty of No: Being Your Dog’s Advocate’, being an advocate for your dog means being informed. I encourage people to read, research, talk to other dog owners and to your vet before you make the jump to raw feeding.
Raw feeding is an educational journey that never truly ends. I am still learning and making changes to my own feeding methods two and a half years down the track, and I expect I will continue to do so for a long time yet! The way I see it, if you’re going to make such a big decision about your dog’s health, it needs to be the one that you have thought through and are prepared to keep working on!
Coming soon! Part 2 of Naked Lunch: Common Raw-Feeding Methods and Where to Find Them. There will be more photos! More links! Possibly even some amateur video!