What Is “Raw” – And Why Does It Matter?

If you search “dog food” or “canine nutrition” on any internet forum, you will find a plethora of posts about raw feeding.  Apart from being the fastest growing sector of the general pet food market (the raw food market is expected to increase by 25% this year alone), this subject is virtually guaranteed to fire up passionate discussion amongst not only those who do feed their dogs a raw diet, but also among those who don’t.  No other topic seems to come close to stirring the passions of dog owners, and whilst this is partly because there is still a huge debate about the benefits of raw compared to processed dog foods, this is also because there is no one definition of “raw feeding” when it comes to our pets.

So, What Is Raw?Unknown

At the most basic level, the dictionary definition of “raw” food is: uncooked or fresh. In terms of raw feeding most will agree that this could be defined as feeding any diet based on raw meat.  Many raw feeders, from those who purchase a commercially produced raw diet to those who “DIY”, sit somewhere on a scale between believing that kibble is simply biologically inappropriate food for canines right up to the firmly held belief that it is downright dangerous to feed dried or highly processed foods.

However, even amongst those who do feed raw, there are still a wide range of feeding options, any one of which will have firm advocates or vehement dissenters.  Let’s take a look at the main options:

1. The BARF Diet:

The most basic “raw” feeding option is that based on what is commonly known as the BARF diet – for those unfamiliar with this peculiar acronym, it stands for either Bones and Raw Food Diet, or Biologically Appropriate Raw Diet, depending on who you ask.  Although the idea of feeding dogs anything other than kibble was not a new idea at the time, a book published by an Australian vet called Dr Billinghurst in 1993 called “Give Your Dog a Bone” certainly gave impetus to the idea of feeding as Mother Nature intended.  It went back to basics and looked at feeding dogs what they were effectively designed to eat.  According to Dr Billinghurst’s research, dogs are carnivores, vegetarians, scavengers, hunters and opportunists – so a diet of raw, meat, bones and offal was the ideal food for our companion canines, as this is what they would naturally eat in the wild – despite the fact that dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years.

In nature, many hunting animals tend to eat virtually all of their kill, including fur, and some stomach contents.  This “whole carcass” method of feeding is not for the squeamish, or those who live in an apartment, but biologically and physiologically dogs have not changed a great deal over time, and are not sufficiently dissimilar to their present wild cousins so as to require a different diet just because they live in our homes rather than in the natural world around us.  Some people however struggle to source the food suggested by Dr Billinghurst (his book favors pig carcasses and kangaroos!)

Those who feed their dogs parts from a number of different animal sources will maintain that these supply all necessary proteins, minerals and vitamins, as well as promoting healthy teeth, gums, joints and digestion, and many thousands of dog owners still revere “Give Your Dog a Bone” as the bible for raw feeding.

Since the original publication of “Give Your Dog a Bone”, however, Dr Billinghurst has slightly revised his feeding model to include 20% crushed vegetable matter and fruit.  It is original absence of these additions which historically set the next method of feeding apart from the BARF diet:

raw meaty bones2. The Raw Meaty Bones Diet:

Another major advocate of the raw diet, Dr Tom Lonsdale, in his book “Raw Meaty Bones” bases his diet on just those three words – raw, meaty, bones.  Whilst not opposed to dogs eating fruit and vegetables, most of the people who follow this diet will agree that the benefits of digesting fruit and vegetables can be obtained from other sources, and recommend feeding a “whole prey diet” – which would include tripe and smaller animals containing pre-digested vegetable matter.  Contrary to popular belief, Dr Lonsdale’s suggested diet contains up to a maximum of one third vegetation – much higher than that now recommended by Dr Billinghurst.  The differences between these two feeding camps is therefore very little, and often only exists in the minds of the supporters of each author.

The diet of wolves in the wild is regularly cited as an example to be followed by both those who feed BARF or raw meaty bones, and yet Dr David Mech (a recognized expert on wolves) has been quoted as saying wolves in fact are not strict carnivores, but carnivores that also eat omnivore foods, further blurring the definitions.

turmeric3. The Supplemented BARF Diet

The third example of a raw diet is similar to a BARF or raw meaty bones diet but with added extras, such as supplements like coconut oil or turmeric.  Dr Lonsdale does not recommend supplements, but Dr Billinghurst believes they are sometimes required.  These days many raw feeders believe that the addition of these “extras” to the diet can only be beneficial to the dog – after all, we all want our pets to live long and healthy lives, so why not feed them other foods with known health benefits?  This subject, perhaps more than any other, is one which is argued about the most passionately on every raw feeding internet site.  People fall in to either of two camps – those that do add extras which can include vegetables and fruit that the animal may not normally eat in the wild, and those who do not –  and each will argue the merits of their case until the internet explodes.  Those against the addition of vegetables, for example, will argue that the dog does not nutritionally require anything other than meat, bones and offal (as fed by the BARF people) in order to thrive, and would not eat these if left to its own devices.  The arguments raised are usually based on the belief that dogs are carnivores, not vegetarians or even omnivores, and therefore have no need of the nutrients and vitamins found in fruit and veg; but as seen above, even the experts are unable to fully agree.  The other side, those who do add carrots, kale, sweet potato and a wide range of other ingredients to their dog’s diet, will argue that these are all excellent sources of additional nutrients and vitamins, with known heath boosting properties, so why would one not feed them to one’s dog, even if the dog would not normally eat them in the wild?

4. The Commercial Raw Diet

Finally, there is always the option of feeding a commercially prepared raw food.  Over the last few years, numerous companies have started producing complete and supplementary raw foods, and although a few companies follow one of the above models exclusively, many others offer a wide range of different feeding styles, proteins, and packaging to suit every dog (and budget!).  Over 13% of US pet owners currently feed a fresh raw diet, and one third are actively interested in switching their present pet food for something more natural.  As more and more people are becoming aware of what they eat, this is gradually filtering in to the pet food market, with pet owners giving more thought to their pet food choices, and becoming more attuned to the ingredients of pet food, as well as the health benefits of feeding a more species appropriate diet.

Does Raw Matter?  And If So, Why?

So why does raw matter – and what is it about this subject that inspires such passion in its advocates – be they prey feeders, the raw meaty bones brigade or the BARFers?  Despite their differences these people will generally stand together against the one issue upon which they all agree – our dogs should not be fed dried processed foods.  (That is not to say there are no quality dried foods available –  but most will agree, where ever possible these should not be fed when a raw diet is a viable alternative.)

UnknownThe Emergence Of Common Canine Illnesses:

As stated above, dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, and for the vast majority of that time they ate what was naturally available to them – either from the woods around their homes or from our tables.  Processed pet foods such as kibble were not invented until the late 1800’s, when the first dried biscuit was marketed, so a dog’s diet probably consisted of any prey it could catch and scraps and bones supplied (or stolen from) it’s owner.  Commercial pet foods began to appear around sixty years ago, and were designed primarily for the convenience of the owner rather than the benefit of the dog.  I believe it is no coincidence that around the same time many common present day canine problems began to emerge – cancers, yeast infections, joint issues, blood disorders and so on.  Sixty years ago, it was virtually unheard of for a dog to die of cancer.  Whilst this is partly due to the extent of veterinary knowledge at the time, today more and more dogs are diagnosed with diabetes, cancers and tumors even at a very early age.  Similarly, more dogs suffer joint displacement in their early years than ever before.  Many believe these illnesses, and numerous others, are due to the fact that for the last sixty years, our dogs have been fed a highly processed, biologically inappropriate diet – that is to say, one which they were not designed to eat.

KibbleThe Avoidance Of Overly Processed Foods:

It is also becoming widely known and accepted that we humans should try and eat more fresh, natural foods and avoid those which are highly processed.  Although humans have evolved to be able to obtain their energy from fats and carbohydrates, meaning both are a requirement for a healthy human diet, dogs obtain their energy primarily from fats.  A canine diet high in carbohydrates (grains, cereals, rice) can lead to a number of health issues, such as yeast infections and digestion problems, as a dog’s digestive system is not equipped to process these ingredients in any large quantity; and yet, some dried dog foods can contain as much as 70 carbohydrates.  This goes totally against the ancestral, traditional dog’s diet which is believed to have contained as much as 90% meat – as little as 100 years ago.

The Benefits Of Feeding As Mother Nature Intended:

In my years of feeding my dogs a raw diet and running a number of raw pet food companies, I have spoken to probably thousands of concerned dog owners about the health of their pets.  Many have come to me as a last resort because their dog is suffering from a chronic health problem (itching, yeast infections, hot spots etc) which their vet was unable resolve – and in some cases, unable to even diagnose correctly.  Most vets have almost no training in nutrition, and unfortunately as a result often fail to consider a change in diet when confronted by many common illnesses.  By going back to basics, and feeding the dog a diet which it is able to process, containing all the elements which Mother Nature intended the dog to ingest, it is frequently possible to alleviate, if not eliminate entirely, these often distressing conditions. Occasionally some medication will be required for the more serious cases, but I have lost count of the number of people who have told me that the change to a raw diet saved their dog’s life.

My first dog, Maggie, was misdiagnosed for many years by numerous vets.  She was prescribed medicated shampoos and steroids for life, so that even at the age of two, her quality of life was virtually non-existent.  Her coat had turned gray, she was bloated, and we were advised to feed her a well known prescription diet.  Eventually, due to the chronic nature of her illness, this resulted in the loss of an ear. After her operation, someone (not a vet) suggested a change to a more natural diet and so after a period of intense research we started feeding her a home made raw diet.  Within three days, the change in Maggie was nothing short of miraculous.  Her coat started to come back, she lost weight, and we were able to stop the steroids.  We had our puppy back!

Knowing The Ingredients

One of the major benefits of feeding a home made natural diet is that you truly know each and every ingredient you are feeding to your pet.  This is extremely important to many people, given the dubious press recently about what really goes in to the foods produced by some of the major kibble companies.  Always check the ingredients list before feeding any prepared foods to your dog, and make sure you know not only what you are feeding but from where it was sourced.

In Conclusion:

Like many raw feeders, having made the transition from feeding my dogs a commercial processed dried food to giving them meat, bones, offal, veg and supplements, and seeing the wonderful changes in my dogs’ health, skin, coat and teeth as a result, I have become somewhat evangelical on the subject of raw feeding.  However, correct raw feeding can often be a challenge and it is sometimes difficult to ensure the appropriate balance of proteins, nutrients and vitamins for your dog’s optimum health.  For those wishing to make the change, I firmly suggest starting with a quality commercially prepared raw food, such as Allprovide.  Like a number of other companies, they have basically done all the hard work for you, and use only quality ingredients similar to those you’d feed the rest of your family.

Finally, if you need further persuasion as to why a natural diet matters, consider this: if you fed your children a Big Mac for every meal, not only would this be considered abuse, but they would be far from healthy.  Feeding your dog a highly processed unnatural food is exactly the same.  So, if you don’t already feed your dog a raw diet, why not give it a go? Your dog will thank you for it!

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