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It’s a long-held belief that “you are what you eat”, so why wouldn’t the same principle apply to our furry friends?
While there are a range of diets you can follow to ensure your dog receives all the valuable nutrition it needs, the potential benefits offered by a raw diet are making it an increasingly popular option for dog lovers across the globe.
If you’ve made the switch or are considering moving your pooch to a raw menu, here’s everything you need to know to help you develop the best raw dog food diet.
What is a raw dog food diet?
The raw dog food movement was initiated in the 1980s by Australian Veterinarian Dr Ian Billinghurst, when his research into the relationship between what his dog and cat patients ate and their state of health convinced him that an Evolutionary Diet (a diet which is as close as possible to what an animal’s wild ancestors would have eaten) was the only nutritional program able to promote and sustain genuine health.
Following from his research, Dr Billinghurst developed the BARF diet which is possibly the most well-known raw dog food diet. BARF (which stands for Biologically Appropriate Raw Food or Bones and Raw Food) is an omnivorous diet, consisting of fresh raw foods including raw animal protein (meat, bones and offal), as well as raw vegetables, raw eggs, yoghurt, kelp and herbs.
Another popular raw dog food diet is the Raw Meat Based Diet (RMBD) or the Prey-Model, which is based on the belief that dogs are true carnivores. This diet solely includes raw animal-based ingredients (or whole prey if following the Prey-Model) including organs, muscles and bones, without the addition of any grains, fruits, vegetables or processed foods.
What’s included in a complete and balanced raw food diet?
The key concern for dog owners who adopt a raw food diet is how to ensure they provide a diet that is complete and balanced, including all the necessary nutrients in the correct ratios based on the life stage of the dog.
To ensure your dog can maintain good health, its diet needs to include the following essential nutrients:
- water for hydration
- proteins to build and repair body tissue
- fats (including Linoleic acid, Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids) to provide energy and keep your dog’s skin and hair healthy
- carbohydrates to power the tissues in your dog's body and keep their intestines healthy, and
- vitamins and minerals (including Vitamins A, D, E and K, B-complex Vitamins, Calcium and Phosphorus) which are required for various reasons, including building their bones and keeping them strong.
The best raw dog food diets will avoid starch or simple carbohydrates. While dogs may be able to tolerate these ingredients in very small quantities, they trigger the production of the insulin hormone which can cause them to gain weight and can also lead to insulin resistance and diabetes.
To help you develop a healthy feeding plan, here’s a general guide you can use to ensure your dog will receive enough of these nutrients in the right proportions:
- approximately 50% of their diet should consist of lean muscle meats which are a good source of protein, fat, vitamins and minerals
the other 50% can be broken down between the following three categories:
- uncooked meaty bones like chicken wings, necks, legs or thighs, beef tail bones, lamb necks or ribs, whole fish and whole eggs which are a good source of calcium and phosphorus
- organ meats such as liver, kidney and offal to provide important vitamins and key nutrients
- fruits and vegetables to provide other valuable vitamins and fibre.
While some dog owners prefer to adopt a completely natural diet, many also incorporate synthetic supplements to fill any nutritional gaps.
If you’re preparing the diet yourself, it can be difficult to ensure you provide all the required nutrients in the correct ratios. If you’re unsure if your dog’s raw food diet is complete and balanced, you should seek advice from your veterinarian. Alternatively, sticking to pre-prepared raw meals is an easy and convenient way to follow a raw diet while ensuring your dog receives adequate nutrition.
The benefits of a raw dog food diet
The main benefit of a raw diet is that they will receive a completely natural diet which is free from artificial additives, flavours, colours or preservatives.
The quality of the food is also superior—as the food is served raw, no enzymes or vitamins are lost during the cooking process. The inclusion of fruits and vegetables also provides your dog with additional valuable antioxidants.
Supporters of raw food diets for dogs also report a range of benefits which include:
- healthier skin
- shinier coat
- more energy
- healthier teeth and improved breath
- healthier gut, and
- reduced stool volume and improved odour.
The risks of a raw dog food diet
It’s important to know what the potential risks are before transitioning your dog to any new diet. When following a raw food diet, the potential risks are:
- Raw foods are more likely to carry certain types of bacteria like Salmonella and E-coli compared to cooked foods.
- An unbalanced diet or a diet which lacks certain nutrients could be detrimental to your dog’s health if served for an extended period. For example, a calcium and phosphorus deficiency could result in bone fractures and dental problems, while a surplus of vitamin A could lead to vitamin A toxicity.
- Whole bones could be a choking hazard, damage teeth or cause an internal puncture.
While it’s important to be aware of the risks of following a raw dog food diet, you can greatly minimise these risks by following safe food handling practices, seeking advice from your veterinarian to understand the nutritional requirements of your dog and serving bones which are appropriate to the size of your dog.
Is a raw diet suitable for all dogs?
A raw diet can be suitable for all dogs, however, some dogs will have additional nutritional needs beyond what a raw diet can provide on its own.
While puppies can follow a raw diet, they’ll require additional supplements to ensure they receive adequate nutrition to support their growth and development. Similarly, dogs with various immunosuppressive diseases will require additional nutritional support. For dogs with medical conditions like late-stage kidney or severe liver failure, a diet which is very high in protein won’t be suitable.
Before starting your dog on a raw diet, it’s important to seek the advice of your veterinarian about the most suitable nutrition plan for your dog.
How to transition your dog to a raw food diet
There are two main strategies you can adopt to introduce your dog to a raw diet:
- a hard cut-over, or
- a phased gradual approach.
Most young and healthy dogs will be able to handle a hard cut-over approach (i.e. you immediately stop feeding them their current diet and start exclusively following a raw diet), however some dogs may experience diarrhoea or gastrointestinal upset.
For this reason, many dog owners prefer to adopt a more gradual transition to a raw diet. Following this method, you would gradually increase the volume of raw food you are providing to your dog over a matter of days or weeks, offered in combination with the foods they currently consume. This allows time for their digestive system to adjust to the new foods.
Here are some tips if you decide to transition to a raw diet using a phased approach:
- Initially try introducing a very small amount of raw meat as ‘treats’ to help your dog develop a positive association with raw foods.
- If your dog is not interested in the raw foods you are offering, try mixing them with foods your dog currently consumes and enjoys, before gradually reducing the volume of cooked foods while increasing the quantity of raw foods.
- Once your dog is used to consuming some raw foods, try replacing one whole meal exclusively with raw foods.
- Limit the introduction of new ingredients to one new ingredient per day. This will make it easier to identify any ingredients your dog is not reacting well to.
- When calculating how much food to provide your dog, most dogs need to consume approximately 2-3% of their adult weight in food each day. For example, a 20kg dog generally needs to consume between 400-600 grams per day, separated over two or more meals.
- Monitor your dog’s stools each day to see how their body is reacting to the new diet. Wet or sloppy stools could indicate they’re experiencing digestive difficulties.
- For dogs with chronic illness or other health issues who are used to a cooked diet, it could help to initially cook the foods (or a portion of the foods) that will be included in their raw diet to allow them time to build up their stomach flora and PH.
- You could opt for pre-prepared raw meals that will ensure your dog receives a complete and balanced diet that will meet all their nutritional needs. You can view the Petzo range of pre-prepared raw meal plans here.