Raw feeding is one sector of the pet food market that has seen enormous growth of late, and more and more people are becoming interested in the benefits of feeding their pets a natural, healthy, biologically appropriate diet.
BUT – where does one start? I am frequently asked, with the benefit of hindsight (not to mention years of experience from running raw pet food companies and talking to probably thousands of pet owners), what advice would I give those about to embark upon feeding as Mother Nature intended?
So I have compiled a short list of my top tips:
1. Don’t assume your pet will take to raw feeding straight away – if at all. Although we all believe there is nothing more natural than a dog with a bone, some dogs really do think that a bone is just too much hard work. They’ll look at you eagerly proffering the dismembered limb of some animal with a slightly puzzled expression which clearly says “You want me to do what with that?” Some may even tentatively take it in their mouths whilst backing away slowly – eager to please as you’ve clearly gone to some effort to secure this somewhat smelly offering – only to then hide it from you in the obvious hope that you’ll think they’ve eaten it. Owning four dogs of all different temperaments and attitudes to food, it has become almost routine to check in my bed and under my pillow at night, as I’ve often been surprised by the bloody treats hidden there. Imagine that scene from The Godfather – but instead of a horse’s head, one discovers one is sharing a bed with various beef bones and a day old chicken carcass.
2. Size the bone to suit the dog. It should go without saying, but always make sure any bone is of an appropriate size for the dog to be fed. Giving a 120 lb Ridgeback a two inch marrow bone is a gulping accident waiting to happen. Obviously large bones can be fed to smaller dogs, but the only likely accident I can think of is a Chihuahua throwing its back out by trying to drag a beef shank four times its size in to bed. They’re determined little dogs, and mine will fight all potential bone pirates of any breed when defending her dinner, even if it means dragging her prize up two flights of stairs.
3. If you’re going to go down the “whole prey” route of raw feeding, you might want to warn the neighbors. Whilst a front yard littered with stripped bones may deter most burglars (and postmen), those living on either side of you probably deserve at least fair warning that your dog may be spending the day with the odd lamb head or half pig. Those of us of a squeamish disposition do not generally want to look out of our windows in the morning with our first cup of coffee to see something resembling the set of True Blood or the Zombie Apocalypse. It’s the quickest way I know to find oneself removed from next door’s Christmas card list. You may also discover that your post has been left in the hedge.
4. If feeding bones, always supervise your dog! Accidents, although rare, do unfortunately happen, and should anything go awry with your dog and his bone at least you are on hand to ensure action is taken immediately. If feeding a bone for the first time, you may want to hold on to it whilst your dog gets used to eating. Unless taught by their mothers when young, many dogs have no idea how to eat a bone properly and will view a chicken wing as something to be gulped in haste – before you realize your mistake in offering this wonderful treat, and take it away again. I know one lady who was very nervous about feeding her dog his first chicken wing, and she didn’t want to lose a finger whilst holding it for him. So she thought she’d be clever and tied a piece of string to one end of the wing whilst offering the other end to her dog. You can imagine what happened – the dog swallowed the wing whole leaving the lady holding a piece of sting leading down in to his stomach… After an unpleasant tug of war, the wing was recovered, the dog was fine and the lady recovered from the shock eventually!
5. Don’t be overly enthusiastic about what raw foods you feed your dog when starting out. A common mistake is to think that your dog can change immediately from a processed food to eating all sorts of meat, offal and other goodies when in fact this is often the worse thing you can do. A bowl piled high with chicken wings, turkey necks and organ meats, garnished with a dead rabbit and drizzled with coconut oil may look your idea of a gourmet raw dog’s dinner, but if your dog hasn’t eaten raw before you could find you need to invest in a carpet cleaner. There is a good chance that the healthy stomach bacteria with which the dog was born (and which are intended to help process a raw diet) may be depleted if the dog has not experienced anything but processed foods before, and introducing too many new things in a diet without proper preparation can lead to upset tummies and stressed owners. Start with just one new protein, and save the Cordon Bleu presentation until you know your dog can cope! And whilst I remember: do not ever, EVER, try to defrost tripe in the microwave. If the smell doesn’t cause you to pass out immediately, you and all your neighbors will probably have to evacuate for 48 hours and hole up in someone’s shed until the odor dissipates. How to describe the smell? It’s like something died behind a hot radiator – but not before it was rolled in manure, left in the sun to dry, and then sprayed by a skunk. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
6. To ensure a smooth transition to a new, raw, diet I often suggest adding a spoonful of natural probiotic yoghurt to your dog’s dinner for a few days. A strawberry yoghurt left over in the fridge from the children’s lunch will not suffice! Natural yoghurt is full of good bacteria which will help fortify the dog’s gut and assist the digestion of the food.
7. Hold off on introducing bones to the diet too soon. Just as it may take a while for the dog to get used to new proteins, wait before throwing your dog a bone. Ensure the dog is settled to his new food before introducing a raw meaty bone as an occasional meal replacement.
8. Some people like to feed raw fruits and vegetables with their dog’s dinner. There are no hard or fast rules about what do feed, and many like the idea of providing their pets with sources of valuable nutrition, vitamins and minerals other than those found in meat, bones and offal. There are numerous health benefits to be found in many raw produce so do your research and explore what your garden can offer.
9. Learn what NOT to feed. The flip side of making your dog’s dinner yourself and having the freedom to feed what ever you wish is that you should also be aware of what you must not feed. It is too easy to get carried away and complacent if you’ve been successfully feeding raw for some time, and erroneously assume that anything raw will go down just fine. Most will know that offal should make up a small percentage of your dog’s diet, but many are not aware that too much liver can be extremely toxic and cause an overdose of Vitamin A. This Vitamin is stored in the liver, so whilst it is ok to do without for a period, too much over too short a period can be life threatening. A dog requires around 50 IU (International Units) per day per kg of body weight, although the optimal level is 100-200 IU – that’s the equivalent of 1000 to 2000 IU for a 22 lb dog or 3000-6000 IU for a 60-70 lb Golden Retriever. It has been calculated that a Goldie only needs to eat 300g of beef liver daily for two months before dangerous levels of Vitamin A are accumulated. Other things to watch out for are the seemingly innocent fruits and veg we might eat every day, such as avocado (causes vomiting and diarrhea), raisins (cause kidney failure), and walnuts and macadamias (nervous system damage) amongst others. So when you’re next preparing dinner and your dog is practicing that well known canine super power of mind control (“if I stare at my human long enough I can make him give me his food….”), think twice before succumbing. Fight the urge, however strong the force is in your friend, and think twice about tossing him those scraps.
10. Don’t forget, many others have navigated the same path before you – if in doubt, just ask! There are numerous forums and chat rooms online where you can ask the collective for their considered opinion – and no question is too dumb. We all had to start somewhere. Here’s a few queries I’ve had to deal with in my time:
Q: How much does 1kg of frozen food weigh once defrosted? A: It’s still 1kg….
Q: I’ve been feeding my dog 2% of his body weight but he’s losing weight. What can I do? A: Feed him some more… (The response to which was: “Am I allowed to do that?”!)
Q: If I feed my dog a 3 lb bone for one meal and two chicken wings with four slices of turkey meat and some beef heart for another, how much breakfast should I give him? A: Relax! The beauty of raw feeding is that you do not need to feed a balanced complete meal for every meal – we don’t eat like that and your dog doesn’t have to either. It’s over a period of time that counts, so just as you wouldn’t eat a Big Mac for every meal (or at least you shouldn’t!) don’t deny your dog a treat meal every now and then. Just make up for anything that might be missing in the diet over the next week or so.
Lastly, take pleasure in what you do! In my view, feeding your dog or cat a raw diet should not be a chore but a labor of love. They offer you a lifetime of unconditional love, loyalty and kisses. The least you can do is give them food they’ll enjoy!