Our Dogs' Diet
Raw Diet Overview
This article is designed to be an overview and description of how we feed a raw diet to our own dogs. It is not intended to be a complete raw feeding manual. There are many excellent books and websites that go into far more detail on raw feeding, and we encourage those interested in learning more about this diet to look into those resources. Networking with other local raw feeders can also be an excellent way to not just become more knowledgeable and proficient with raw feeding, but also to use the bulk purchasing power that a group can provide to obtain food items at lower cost.
Raw feeding is not difficult, but it's not easy either. It is certainly less convenient than opening a bag of kibble, however we feel the benefits of a good, balanced raw diet are more than worth it. We have been feeding all of our dogs a raw diet for several years now, and haven't looked back once. Not only do we feel it is better nutrition for our dogs, but we also feel that it is safer given the number of recalls on even the top quality kibbles in recent years.
There are essentially two ways to feed raw: premade diets and the do-it-yourself variety. Each has its pros and cons, which ultimately boil down into whether the individual has the time and effort to do it themselves or would rather pay someone else to go to the trouble. There are a variety of good premade diets available from several different companies, and these offer good, balanced nutrition with the proper meat:bone:organ ratios and sufficient variety. Everything is ground up and packaged neatly, making for quick and easy purchase, storage and feeding. These premade diets have the same neatness and convenience as other commercial dog food, but they can also be quite expensive.
DIY raw is far more affordable and can easily be done for the price of a good quality kibble, or even less. But it requires the owner to spend some significant time and effort locating sources, buying food, storing it, and preparing meals. At first this can seem daunting, but it really didn't take long to get the hang of it. Every raw feeder has to come up with the system that works best for him and once that is accomplished it gets easy and becomes second nature. Still not as quick and easy as opening some kibble, but certainly not hugely time consuming or inconvenient either.
Storage space is often the biggest hurdle, particularly for homes with multiple dogs. We have two full sized freezers dedicated to our dogs. Being able to purchase in bulk, sometimes a couple hundred pounds at one time, allows us to stock up when we find a good deal. Being able to purchase in large enough volume to make it worth their while can lead to some very mutually beneficial arrangements with butchers and meat packers allowing us to obtain great food at much lower cost than we would pay at a grocery store.
Raw Diet Basics
Understanding the principles of raw is imperative to making this diet successful. While a well researched, balanced raw diet with good quality ingredients and good variety is in our opinion the best, most healthy diet there is for dogs, a poorly planned raw diet can be a disaster. It's also important to note that no one thing works well for all dogs, and this applies to a raw diet too. While most dogs thrive on this diet, some do not. Even amongst that majority who do, raw feeders will find that some individual dogs will do better with a slightly different mix of ingredients than other dogs. It can take some trial and error to find what works best for an individual dog, but the same applies to feeding commercial food and one of the benefits of raw is that since the owner is completely in control of the ingredients, it does allow for more customization of the diet to find what works best for an individual dog. This is especially true of dogs who do better on limited ingredient diets or who have allergies or sensitivities to some of the ingredients or preservatives that are often found in commercial dog food.
The three primary ingredients of a raw diet are Raw Meaty Bones (RMB), Muscle Meat (MM) and Organ Meat (OM). Raw meaty bones are cuts of meat with the bone included. Examples would be chicken thighs, turkey necks, pork feet, and ribs. Muscle meat is just what it sounds like; pure meat without the bone. The sort of stuff we humans typically have for dinner like burger, roast, steak, tenderloin, and chicken breast. The organ meat component should be comprised roughly of half liver, with the other half being other secreting organs like kidney, spleen, pancreas, etc.... It is important to note here that tongue and heart are NOT organ meat, but are in fact muscle meat. It's a different type of muscle structure, but it's still muscle and as such does not contain the unique nutrients and enzymes that true organ meats have and which make them an important part of the diet.
Most raw diets consist of a ratio of 40-50% RMB, 40-50% MM and 5-10% OM and ours falls within this range too. These percentages aren't arbitrary, but rather are designed to most closely mimic the natural diet of canids. When hunting smaller game such as birds, squirrels and rabbits, they would consume the entire carcass, bone, fur and organs included. When hunting larger game such as deer, elk and bison, they would eat large amounts of muscle and organ, but relatively small amounts of bone as most of the bone in these larger animals is too large and dense to be fully consumed. Again, each individual dog is different. Some will get diarrhea on more than 5% organ, some do fine with 10% or even higher. Some will get constipated on 50% RMB, and do better with 40%, while others will have soft stools on 40% RMB and perfect stools with a bit more bone adding bulk. Overall the same general range of meat to bone to organ holds true for all dogs, with only slight variation, but there is plenty of room for owners to tweak the diet a bit to fit what is best for their dogs.
With raw feeding, variety is important. A wild canid wouldn't eat the same prey animal every day. He would eat whatever he could catch or find along the roadside, and this would naturally involve a lot of variety. This simple fact of life for a predator is also important for overall health. Each protein source has different nutrient profiles. A narrow range of prey would equate to a narrow range of nutrients, so a variety of protein sources are essential to make sure our dogs are getting the full range of nutrients they need. This is particularly true today as most farm raised meat animals are eating restricted diets of mostly commercial feed without a lot of variety in it. Since those food animals don't have the variety in their diet, they don't carry in their meat the same wide range of nutrients that can be found in wildlife and true free ranging livestock who themselves are eating a more varied diet.
A dog will not be able obtain sufficient, balanced nutrition from just a couple of items. A narrow diet of beef and chicken for example does not make for a good raw diet, and without sufficient variety over the long haul malnutrition and health problems related to that can occur. As responsible raw feeders we have to make sure that our dogs do get sufficient variety, and that comes in the form of utilizing a range of different animal sources. Our own dogs typically get beef, venison, and chicken every week and then most weeks we also add a meal or two of other protein sources as well. Of course it does happen sometimes that we run out of something or forget to thaw something and they may go a few days, or even a week, eating just one or two items. That occasional span of time with a narrow diet isn't a big deal, provided there is plenty of variety overall in the diet.
When first starting a raw diet with a dog who is not accustomed to it, it is best to go slow and keep variety to a minimum at first. Start with just one or two protein sources and gradually add in others over time as the dog gets acclimated to each new item. Especially when first starting out, taking a few weeks, or even months, to fully round out the diet with sufficient variety isn't harmful. Variety doesn't have to be achieved in every meal, or even every day or every week, but over time.
Wildhaus Diet and Sample Menu
Again, I have to throw in the obligatory disclaimer: this is not intended to be a complete raw diet menu to be copied item for item. Rather, this is just to give a detailed example of raw feeding by illustrating what we have found works well for us and our dogs.
We feed our dogs twice a day, morning and evening. Typically, breakfast is their RMB meal and dinner is their MM meal. OM and the other additional items we feed are spread out between the two. We also supplement our dogs daily with Nupro, an excellent all around supplement, and fish oil. Since processing oils, including that fish oil, depletes a dog's natural supply of vitamin E, we use either an oil formulated for dogs that includes vitamin E (SeaPet and Snappies are our favorites) or when using human fish oil capsules we will also add a vitamin E capsule a couple times a week to replenish their E supply. Since our dogs are active working dogs, we also start adding joint supplements (glucosamine, chondritin, MSM) to their daily diet once they reach adulthood. Even though they all have sound joints, these supplements can help maintain joint health and reduce the long term effects of that natural wear and tear that occurs from essentially being canine athletes. They get their supplements each night with dinner and when water is added the Nupro powder makes a tasty liver flavored gravy and that helps all those supplements go down.
Examples of Typical Breakfasts
Our RMBs of choice are smaller poultry items. Chicken leg quarters and turkey necks have long been our RMB staples. A couple years ago upon finding a reliable and affordable supplier we added duck necks to the regular menu. We do occasionally feed other items as well. It all depends on what we find on sale, or what is discovered in the back of a friends' freezer. When whole chickens or turkeys are on sale we will often stock up on those and then chop them up into meal sized bits ourselves. Thanks to hunter friends, farmers and raw supplier sales we have been able to use things like pheasant, quail, rabbit, squirrel, and goose on occasion.
We try to feed RMBs with a good amount of meat on them. Chicken leg quarters are meaty necks are excellent, balanced RMBs in terms of bone to meat ratio. On the occasion where we feed very bony RMBs without a lot of meat on them, like wings or backs, we will typically add a small amount of ground MM to balance out the meat to bone ratio and also provide sufficient padding for the bones as they digest.
We prefer poultry and other small critters, like rabbit, for RMBs because these bones are small and soft and thus easy for our dogs to crunch up and digest. We have on occasion used smaller bones from larger animals, such as pig feet, lamb trotters, pork and lamb necks, and beef and pork ribs. We use these sparingly though as even these small bones from larger animals are large and dense, and thus more prone to splintering or to the dogs swallowing large chunks of bone. Weight bearing bones from large animals, such as femurs and knuckles, are for recreational chewing only and are not a part of the diet.
Our MM staples are ground venison and ground beef and we feed each of these for dinner 2 to 3 times per week. The beef we feed is actually a mix of muscle and organ that we get from a local meat processor. It is a custom grind that is 80% hamburger (80/20 content) made from the lean scrap cuttings left over from butchering cattle, and 20% organs obtained from those same butchered cattle. On the rare occasion he gets some hogs to butcher, he throws that in too. Our venison comes from locally hunted wild herds. We also include pork once or twice a week. The pork is usually loin or shoulder roast as these go on sale frequently at our local grocery stores.
Since variety is so important, on top of their usual beef, venison and pork we try to add at least one additional meat source every week or two. What that is again depends on what we were able to obtain for a reasonable price either from farmers, hunters, raw supplier sales or the discount "managers special" rack at the grocery store meat department. Lamb hearts, which we can special order for a reasonable price through a local butcher are our most common additional meat variety since we always have access to them. We can occasionally get other cuts of lamb/mutton or goat from local farms as well and on rare occasions we've been able to score such oddities as bison, ostrich, emu and kangaroo. One thing that seems to be common amongst all raw feeders is getting quite a thrill from obtaining weird variety for an affordable cost. It's akin to finding a $20 bill in the parking lot or some treasure at the local flea market.
Examples of Typical Dinners
The majority of our organ meat comes from the custom MM/OM beef grind we get from our meat processor, which includes most of the organs found in whole cattle. We also add some additional liver, usually chicken livers, a couple times a week, and beef kidney every week or two. And of course when we purchase whole chickens or turkeys to cut up, one lucky dog gets the contents of the little bag stuffed inside.
The Other Stuff
In addition to the RMBs, MM and OM, we add some other items to our dogs' diet to provide the maximum range of nutrition. These items include eggs, green tripe, fish, yogurt, apple cider vinegar and fruit/veggie mush. Green tripe is the stomach of cattle that has not been cleaned or rinsed, unlike white/bleached tripe for human consumption found in many ethnic markets. As it's not been cleaned it includes many of the stomach contents of the cattle and thus is an excellent source of unique vitamins, minerals and enzymes. It isn't fun stuff for people to deal with as it smells BAD, but the dogs love it and it is an excellent regular addition to a raw diet.
Whole raw eggs are great additions too. We used to feed eggs 2-3 times per week but as we now have our own flock of chickens who happily provide us with a pretty much unlimited supply of fresh, free range eggs, we now feed eggs on a daily basis.
For fish, while we will use fresh or frozen fish on the rare occasion that we can find safe fish at an affordable price, most of our fish comes in the form of canned sardines or mackerel. While not quite as good as raw fish, this is more easily obtained and also in many cases safer as there are some parasites that can live in raw fish, such as flukes present in fish from the pacific northwest, that can be dangerous to dogs. So when using raw fish, extra research into the source and safety of the fish must be done.
Altogether these additional items don't make up a significant enough portion of the diet to make it worthwhile to figure them into the overall RMB:MM:OM ratio, but they do provide some good additional nutritional benefits, as well as beneficial enzymes and bacteria.
A word on fruit/veggie mush.
Whether or not this should be included in a raw diet is a hot topic of debate amongst raw feeders. Some feel it is imperative. Others feel it is completely unnecessary. Science hasn't answered that question yet. We do know that wild canids not only consume some of the vegetation in the stomach contents of their prey but will also occasionally graze on grass or other vegetation, gobble up fallen fruit or vegetables, and snack on the manure of herbivores. Our domestic dogs do the same thing of course and I'm sure we've all had dogs who loved carrots or broccoli or apples or any number of non-carnivorous items.
While we know that both wild and domestic canines will eat these things, we also know that they do not possess the ability to fully digest raw vegetation because they lack the proper enzymes to break down the cellulose. They may love carrots, but the carrots tend to come out the back end looking the same as they did going in and clearly the dog didn't obtain any actual nutrition from them. If the plant material has already started to break down, either by being partially pre-digested by the prey animal or having started to rot, then the dog can obtain nutrition from it. Light cooking or pureeing in a blender can accomplish this too, breaking down the cellulose enough for the dog to be able to digest the plant material.
So we know they will eat it, and we know if it's already somewhat broken down they can digest it. What science hasn't answered yet is if dogs need it. And that leads to the debate amongst raw feeders.
Ground green tripe is probably the best and most natural method of getting digestible plant material into a dog's diet, but it isn't very cost effective to feed regularly in significant amounts. So in addition to green tripe a couple times a week, we also use fruit and veggie mush. We don't know if it's necessary, but we do know it doesn't hurt and they seem to like it. Plus we always seem to have some extra fruits and veggies sitting around long enough to get a bit past the point where we want to eat them ourselves. Either we can't keep up with what our garden is producing no matter how many veggies we have with dinner, those bananas are getting too soft and there's no time to make bread, we found some carrots and a bag of salad that got forgotten in the back of the fridge, or any number of other reasons it seems every week or two we've got more than enough goodies on hand to make up a batch of veggie mush and we'd rather feed it to the dogs than throw it out. We do make sure that a significant portion of the mush is dark green leafy vegetables like romaine or kale, so sometimes a quick run to the grocery store to grab the greens is necessary, but the rest of it is whatever happened to be sitting around a bit too long for us to eat. Of course we don't include things that are toxic to dogs like grapes, tomatoes or onions, and we also avoid items like potatoes that can be dangerous (solanine poisoning) when they are starting to decay.
Raising Pups on Raw
For several years before going to an all raw diet, we fed our dogs a diet of half raw, half kibble. The raw portion was a slightly scaled down version of what we feed now, and for kibble we used the best commercially available grain free foods we could find. Since 2007 our own dogs have been fed a complete raw diet, though we do still keep kibble on hand and feed them a meal of kibble once every week or two in order to keep them acclimated to it just in case. We tend to rotate brands and formulas, with our favorites being Wellness Core, Orijen, Acana, Fromm, Merrick and Nature's Variety Instinct.
We raise our puppies from weaning until they go home on a 50/50 raw and kibble diet. The main reason for this is that while we feel that raw is the best way to feed and we highly recommend it, we are not such raw fanatics that we believe it is the only good and responsible way to feed a dog. We certainly don't expect everyone to feed this way or require it of our customers. Truth is that for any number of reasons not everyone can, or should, feed a raw diet. Naturally some of our customers are going to feed commercial food, and thus we want to make sure that our puppies are acclimated to both ways of feeding so that they can more easily transition to whichever diet their new owner chooses.
When introducing pups to raw, we do so in much the same way any dog should be introduced to this new diet; slowly. We start with just chicken and then after a week we add in some beef, and later beef MM/OM mix, gradually adding new protein sources every week or two until over time the pup is eating the same variety as our adult dogs. The tricky part with feeding young pups raw is getting the bone into their diet. In the wild, this would be accomplished by the adults regurgitating pre-chewed and partially digested food for the pups. The bones would be crunched up into small, puppy sized bits by the adult before the puppies got to them.
With the wild version of tackling this problem not being feasible, we opted for a commercial meat grinder that is heavy duty enough to handle poultry bones. Their first solid food, starting between 3 and 4 weeks old, is a mixture of whole chicken leg quarters, bone and all, ground up into a burger consistency and mixed with goat's milk. Within just a day or two they are eating solid food well enough that we can eliminate the goat's milk and feed just the ground chicken, and then start slowly adding other meats. They continue getting their bone in this manner for several weeks, while slowly learning how to properly chew up their own bone starting with small items like mini-drummies and wings, and gradually moving up to necks, thighs and other RMBs.