by Diana Bocco
Raw food diets might be the oldest form of pet food; after all, they are very close to what ancient dogs used to eat. As more people become aware of the benefits of raw food diets for humans, more pet owners are switching their dogs to raw diets, as well, for a variety of reasons.
“As pet owners investigate what builds their own good health, they realize good food applies to the whole family—including the four-legged family,” explains Dr. Cathy Alinovi, DVM, a holistic veterinarian who is also certified in Veterinary Food Therapy and Chinese Herbal Therapy.
In fact, many dog owners switch to a raw diet because their dogs have health problems. This is exactly why dog owner Jessica Winstead put both her Chihuahua mixes on a diet of raw food mixed with canned pumpkin and sweet potato, even though the diet has had different, though positive, effects on the dogs.
“My older dog moved in along with my boyfriend about five years ago and he was slightly overweight, but the raw diet leaned him out,” Winstead says. “He also seems to have more energy.”
Her other dog, a four-year old rescue, went on a raw diet to address hair issues. “He was missing hair on the back of his spine and was slightly underweight, but since he's been on the raw diet his hair has evened out and he even gained a little weight,” Winstead says.
“Our older chi-mix weighs about five pounds more, so we feed him a half portion more than our other mix—but he still leaned out and our smaller guy still gained weight!”
Switching to a raw diet, however, is not always that simple. Here are five common mistakes owners often make when switching their dogs to a raw diet.
Mistake #1: Not Understanding the Basics of Nutrition
In simple words, a raw diet consists of uncooked meals. In reality, though, it's a bit more complicated than that.
“Some pet owners consider throwing a pound of raw hamburger in the bowl as being a raw diet,” says Dr. Judy Morgan, DVM, who is certified in Acupuncture and food therapy and is a member of the Botanical Veterinary Medical Association. This type of feeding, however, doesn't provide complete nutrition and can lead to health problems later on.
Ideally, a raw diet consists of uncooked meat plus what Alinovi calls additives.
“The additives range from bone to organ meat to vegetables and supplements,” Alinovi says. In addition, raw diets can also include some cooked grains or veggies. “And many people combine freeze dried products (base mixes of veggies, vitamins, and minerals) with raw meats,” explains Morgan.
The one problem with raw diets, according to Alinovi, is that there are no vitamin/mineral standards established for them.
“The 2006 NRC (National Research Council) guidelines are based on a dry dog food diet,” Alinovi says. “The possibility exists that supplementing a raw diet to meet NRC standards for kibble may provide excessive, possibly dangerously so, nutrients that may build up in the dog's body.”
What exactly does that mean for pet owners? It means that owners who are interested in raw diets should talk to a professional rather than just feeding their dogs uncooked meat.
“The difference is not so much in how a nutritionist and an owner define raw, the difference is more in what is considered balanced,” Alinovi says. For example, some dogs lose too much weight on raw food diets and might need the help of a nutritionist to figure out what to add to the mix (such as cooked grains or additional fat) to solve the problem.
Next: Raw is More than Meat
Mistake #2: Thinking a Raw Diet is All About Raw Meat
While raw diets do contain a large amount of meat, they are often complemented by other ingredients. For example, Morgan says she likes to see muscle meat, organs, bones, eggs, veggies, and sea creatures (cooked mussels or oysters) in a raw diet.
“It takes variety to cover all vitamins and minerals that are needed and to get the proper balance of omega 3:6,” Morgan explains.
Even commercially manufactured raw diets contain “extras.” The most famous example is BARF (Biologically Active Raw Food), a diet pioneered by Dr. Ian Billinghurst. According to Alinovi, a BARF-based meat patty is 50% raw meat, with an assortment of additions making up the other 50% of the ingredients.
“These additions may include eggs (raw), cheese, kelp, liver, vegetables (minced, raw), cod liver oil, and salt,” Alinovi says. “Obviously, the cheese in the BARF diet is processed.”
Other variations of a raw diet may include cooked vegetables.
“Vegetables are more difficult for dogs to digest than for humans,” Alinovi says. “Therefore, vegetables should be minced, juiced, or cooked to aid digestion.”
Next: Importance of Fruits
Mistake #3: Forgetting Fruits
Fruit can be a great addition to a raw diet for a number of reasons. For example, Morgan likes to add berries to raw diets because of their antioxidant content, while Alinovi uses large chunks of apple or watermelon as chew treats. “Fruit provides fiber, vitamins, flavor and variety,” Alinovi says.
Fruit can be added to a raw diet whole (after removing the pits), diced, puréed, stewed, or any other preparation method.
“Like vegetables, it's best to keep under 30% fruit as the majority of a dog's nutrition comes from meat,” says Alinovi. “Do not feed grapes or raisins as they can cause kidney damage, and avoid fruits canned with sugar.”
Next: Do You Need Supplements?
Mistake #4: Ignoring the Potential Need for Supplements
While not all dogs eating raw food diets will need supplements, some will.
“Calcium is probably the most important nutrient to be sure there is enough of in a raw diet,” according to Alinovi.
Fortunately, calcium is quite easy to add to the diet.
“For those who purchase commercially prepared raw diets, the calcium is already balanced,” Alinovi says. “For those preparing raw food at home, ground egg shell or oyster shell can provide the dietary boost in calcium that is needed beyond what is provided in bone.”
Dogs on raw diets can also benefit from a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil or flax seed oil. “Both of these oils are known for their anti-inflammatory benefits,” says Alinovi.
Most other supplements are based on owner preference and the dog's individual needs, according to Morgan, although she recommends the addition of kelp and seaweeds, as they are rich in trace minerals.
“Depending on the pet and the problems, additional joint supplements, vitamins, or minerals might be necessary,” says Morgan. “It's very individual, at least in my hands.”
Next: Safety Issues
Mistake #5: Letting Safety Issues Scare You
The FDA warns about potential risks of feeding and handling raw meats, as they can be contaminated with Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli.
“The concern is not only that animals will become ill from contaminated food, but, more importantly, humans will become ill from handling the food,” says Alinovi.
However, these dangers might be exaggerated.
“With good handling practices, raw dog food diets are no more dangerous than handling raw hamburger meat before cooking it on the grill,” says Alinovi. “Good hygiene, frequent hand washing, and using food in a reasonable time period prevent human (and dog) illness.”
Still worried? Purchasing meat from a reputable source and using thawed meat within three days will keep bacterial levels low, according to Alinovi.
“Minimal bacterial levels do not present health issues for most dogs,” says Alinovi. However, she adds, “for the owner of a dog with a compromised immune system, raw feeding may be inappropriate.”
One thing to keep in mind: Some dogs do develop gastrointestinal issues—including diarrhea—when first switched to a raw diet. This is especially true of dogs with a sensitive intestinal tract, although the problem is usually not permanent.
“In some cases, the owner will need to add one new ingredient at a time to the diet until the dog can handle a full formula raw food meal,” Alinovi says. “In other cases, adding digestive enzymes or slightly cooking the food for a few days will help sensitive dogs transition to the new food.”
This article was verified for accuracy by Katie Grzyb, DVM