The natural raw dog food diet was pioneered by Dr. Ian Billinghurst as the BARF diet. BARF stands for Biologically Appropriate Raw Food or the Bone and Raw Food diet. The aim of raw feeding is to simulate the way dogs, or wolves, would eat naturally in the wild.
Many an online battle has been started on the subject of the BARF diet, with both believers and non-believers being practically militant in their views.
The truth is, there are a significant number of arguments for and against this diet. What’s more, there’s no one size fits all approach for all dogs.
This is because Dalmatians struggle to break down purines and can develop kidney and liver problems from the same diet.
As with anything that may affect your dog’s health, or yours, it’s best to be as educated as possible on the subject.
The benefits and risks of a raw food diet
Owners who feed their dogs the raw food diet generally cite the following benefits:
- Cleaner teeth
- Shinier coats
- Fewer allergies
- Fewer ear and skin infections
- Smaller, less smelly stools
Many advocates of the BARF diet also talk about the commercial pet industry’s issues as one reason they prefer to make their dog’s food at home. These include a lack of regulation, misleading labels, high grain contents in food, frequent food recalls, and the dark side of pet food recycling.
On the other hand, the risks cited against the raw food diet include:
- Bones presenting a choking hazard and potentially damaging teeth and the intestinal tract.
- The dangers of bacteria, such as Salmonella, to both people in the home and the dog.
- The risk of nutritional imbalances and deficiencies from an improperly formulated diet.
- The risks to dogs with specific nutritional needs such as growing puppies, or dogs with pancreatitis, liver shunts, kidney or bladder stone problems. These dogs may need prescription diets.
Do vets recommend a raw diet?
On the whole, vets do not recommend the raw diet, citing the reasons listed above, such as nutritional imbalances, pathogens, and the dangers of bones.
Furthermore, organizations like the American Animal Hospital Association are often explicitly against it.
However, more and more vets are coming around, provided the diets are correctly formulated. Arguably the tide is turning due to consumer command. And, board-certified veterinary nutritionists are increasingly helping dog and pet owners come up with healthy homemade meals.
What does the research say?
At this point, the research is mixed when it comes to the BARF diet.
Arguably, advocates for or against the diet cherry-pick studies that specifically support their point of view.
To create a balanced picture, we will look at what the science says on both sides of the argument.
A study by the Center for Veterinary Medicine found that a high percentage of raw food diets tested positive for harmful pathogens such as Listeria and Salmonella.
Furthermore, another study found that dogs can become carriers of Salmonella from this diet. Also, the strain of bacteria that they carry is more resistant to antibiotics.
Besides, there is the argument that dogs' digestive system has evolved sufficiently away from wolves to handle a diet high in starch and carbohydrates.
All of this sounds pretty damning, but before you toss out all your dog’s raw chicken and go looking for kibble, let’s take a look at some of the research on the other side.
Unfortunately, until recently, there simply was not that much real investigation done into the raw diet. But that does seem to be changing as owners increasingly stick to their all-natural guns, and some evidence suggests that a raw food diet can be good for dogs.
One study on eight Beagles showed that dogs fed on a raw and roasted diet showed lower blood triglycerides and a change in the micro gut bacteria. Both raw and roasted diets were also proved to be more digestible than kibble.
Another interesting point concerns teeth. Dental issues in dogs can lead to much more severe health concerns such as heart and liver problems.
A similar study on Beagles given raw beef bones found that the bones caused no teeth fractures or digestive issues for the duration of the study. Even better, the dental plaque was reduced by between 70 and 88% after only 12 days.
In addition, a year-long investigation into raw food found that the species-appropriate (BARF) diet can meet the highest nutritional standards for dogs set by the European Pet Food Industry when adequately supervised.
There is also talk of a study by Dr. Anna Hielm-Björkman from the University of Helsinki. Apparently, her research showed that dogs fed the raw food diet had ten times lower the amount of homocysteine in their blood.
Homocysteine is seen as a marker of possible disease. However, no links to this study could be found, so we can’t verify its findings at this point.
So taking all this into account, what’s the verdict? To feed or not to feed? Raw, that is.
Ultimately it is up to you, the owner, to decide, as more research on this topic is needed to say conclusively.
But if you do decide to feed raw, be sure to follow these general guidelines.
- Consult a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to make sure your dog’s diet is balanced correctly.
- Use only fresh produce.
- Only feed a healthy adult dog raw food. Beware of any ailments such as pancreatitis or liver shunts that require a prescription diet.
- Remember that certain breeds like the Dalmatian struggle to break down purines, so it is recommended that they stay away from red and organ meat.
- Freeze fish and wild prey for two weeks to kill parasites.
- Use safe food handling practices when dealing with raw meat. Make sure to sterilize all surfaces, bowls, and utensils the meat comes into contact with. Handle the meat with gloves and wash both gloves and your hands afterward.
- Deworm your dog regularly.
- Don’t let your dog lick you or kiss your face.
- Supervise your dog when eating bones and remove the bone once they have worn it down enough to swallow.
- Do not feed brittle bones that splinters like turkey or cooked chicken.
- Have your dog regularly tested for mineral and vitamin deficiencies by your vet.
How to get your dog started on a raw food diet?
Having decided on a BARF diet and spoken to a veterinarian nutritionist, you then need to begin transitioning your dog to raw food. This should never be done all at once. Here are some excellent guidelines to follow.
- Introduce new food slowly over two weeks.
- In the first three days, 80 % of your dog’s food should be the regular kibble. Add 20% raw food.
- Between days 4 and 6, transition to 60 % kibble and 40 % raw.
- Between days 7 and 9, transition to 40 % kibble and 60 % raw.
- From day 9, feed 80 % raw food.
- Between day 10 and 12, your dog should be fine on a 100% raw food diet.
What raw food should I feed my dog?
And now the big question, what exactly goes into a raw diet?
Typically, the raw diet tries to mimic what dogs would eat in the wild. This is often great for Spitz breeds, who up until recently mostly only ate meat like fish and reindeer and arguably have the lowest tolerance for starch and grains.
This kind of diet also overlaps with the whole food diet, trying to recreate a prey animal’s carcass.
Up to 80 % Meat (Lean Protein)
This should be made up of various muscle meat. Good sources are wild prey like deer, poultry, beef, or mutton. Opt for sources that are not spiced or salted. It could be:
- Green Tripe
- Fish and Egg (2 -3 times a week)
Keep in mind, some dogs need a diet low in purines, proteins, phosphorus, or copper for medical reasons. In these cases, better protein sources may include egg whites, cottage cheese, or yogurt.
In the case of Dalmatians, protein may need to be as low as 15 %, so be sure to check your dog’s diet with your vet.
Remember that although too much salt is bad for dogs, about 0.25 – 1.5 g per 100 grams of food is necessary for your dog’s health.
Finally, keep an eye out for black, soft poop. That’s usually a sign that there is too much organ or offal meat in the diet.
10 % Bones
Always avoid cooked or smoked bones. Options include:
- Raw chicken carcass bones
- Large Beef bones
- Chicken feet
- Pigs trotters
- Bone broth
- Bone meal
Too many bones may create a surplus of calcium, which can be a problem for growing dogs. It can also cause constipation and block the absorption of iron.
Your dog’s stools will become hard, white, and crumbly if they are getting too much bone or calcium in their diet.
Since bones inhibit iron absorption, try feeding your dog twice a day and only adding bones to one meal. This way, they have an “iron” meal and a “calcium” meal.
10 % organs
Organ meat may include:
While the liver is highly nutritious for dogs, it also contains too much vitamin A to be fed too often. Too much liver can cause vitamin A poisoning in dogs. Never feed more than 5 % liver per meal and avoid feeding it with every meal.
Fruit and veg:
The following can be added to your dog’s diet in varying quantities according to what your dog’s nutritionist prescribes.
- Berries (Blackberries, raspberries, or strawberries)
- Apple slices
- Chopped Carrots
Although most diets don’t recommend starch, it’s good to remember that studies show that dogs have evolved the ability to digest carbohydrates. Therefore, it’s not out of the question to add some low-allergen carbs to your dog’s diet, such as:
- White rice
- Sweet Potatoes
Beware of veg that is too high in vitamin A though. The Association of American Feed Control Officials recommends 5,000 IU of vitamin A per kg of diet. A 100 g of sweet potato can contain three times that amount!
If you are uncertain, keep track of your dog’s macro and micronutrient intake with an App like MyFitnessPal.
Myths about feeding plants to dogs
The BARF diet typically keeps plant material to a minimum, and people who feed their dogs a vegan diet get a ton of backlash, perhaps rightly.
However, several points are commonly misunderstood about plant matter in dog food. To keep things brief, we will mention a few common ones.
- Dogs are perfectly able to break down starch from plants. Their pancreas does produce the enzymes necessary to do this.
- It’s true neither dogs nor humans can break down cellulose in plants. Still, neither fruits nor veggies have enough to cause either people or canines any digestive issues.
- Dogs have lower amino acid requirements than wolves, and they can utilize vitamins from plant sources perfectly fine.
This is not to say that dogs should be fed vegan diets; only that many fruits and veg are okay to add to your dog’s diet. Remember, any diet formulated for any dog must be carefully evaluated by a professional to suit them and some may have a higher plant content than others.
Of course, there are always exceptions to what you can feed.
Foods you should never feed your dog:
- chocolate or cocoa powder
- raisins or grapes
- Alliums (leeks, onions, garlic, or chives)
- Overly salty foods
- Any seeds or pits
- Green tomatoes
- Xylitol sweetener
Also, dogs are sometimes allergic to grains often found in many dog foods, including barley, wheat, corn, and oatmeal.
Supplements and fats
A few supplements never go amiss, no matter what diet your dog is on. Here are some of the best to add to your dog’s daily meals:
- A joint support complex containing chondroitin, MSM, glucosamine, vitamin C, collagen, and green-lipped mussel extract.
- Vitamin E
Fats are also a necessary part of a dog’s diet. Your veterinary nutritionist may recommend anything from 5 to 25 % of total calories in fats.
However, a low-fat diet may be necessary to avoid conditions like pancreatitis or ulcers in some cases.
Regardless, every dog’s diet needs a balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. There is some disagreement over the exact ratio, but most agree on 5 – 1 to 10 – 1.
Flaxseed oil, fish oil, and krill oil are excellent sources of omega-3. Krill oil is perhaps the best out of the three since it is the most bioavailable and may have fewer pollutants.
For omega-6, you can speak to your butcher about chicken fat or some simple soybean oil.
How much raw food should you feed?
Speak to your vet to determine your dog’s ideal body weight.
In general, they should get about 2 – 3 % of their ideal body weight in food per day. But dogs are individuals, and allowances need to be made for lifestyle and metabolism. An active working dog can eat three times as much as a couch potato.
Therefore, it’s best to keep an eye on your dog’s weight to know how much to feed her. If her hip bones begin to stick out and you can count the ribs, provide more. But if you can’t feel the ribs anymore with a bit of prodding, gradually feed less.
Frozen Raw Food vs. Freeze-Dried Dog food
Quite a new option for pet owners is freeze-dried dog food. The idea here is to remove the moisture from the food, but not the nutrients.
There are some benefits to freeze-dried food. Firstly, it helps stop the growth of mold and bacteria, and secondly, it can increase the shelf life.
It only depends on how much time you have for food prep and your storage space.
Can raw dog food cause your dog to vomit?
Transitioning too quickly to the raw food diet, feeding meat that has gone off, or overfeeding might cause your dog to vomit. However, if all the proper precautions are taken mentioned above, there is no reason it should upset your dog’s stomach.
Nevertheless, if the vomiting is chronic, or comes with other symptoms, consult your vet immediately.
Make sure the vomiting is definitely diet-related and not because of a disease. If it is because of the diet, remove the ingredients one-by-one from each meal to isolate any one component that may upset your dog’s stomach.
Affordability: How do I feed my dog a raw diet on a budget?
All the ingredients in a raw diet can add up. So, a quality raw diet may end up costing quite a bit more than a decent brand of kibble.
Still, there are a few things you can do to bring the cost down.
- Shop around. Visit your local butchers, farmer’s market, or slaughterhouse and ask for any offcuts or types of meat that they may sell you cheaper than at a store.
- Ask hunters. Hunting may be controversial for animal lovers, but if you know somebody who loves to shoot deer, they may have plenty of excess meat for you.
- Feed half raw and half kibble.
- Add low-cost veggies and grains to the meat, such as boiled rice and mashed potato.
When it comes to our pets' health, it is always better to use common sense and expert advice. An adequately managed raw diet can be beneficial for dogs. In fact, many owners who have tried it are never looking back. But that doesn’t mean the risks should be ignored or overlooked. If you have any thoughts on the BARF diet, let us know. We would love to hear from you.
Center for Veterinary Medicine. “Get the Facts! Raw Pet Food Diets Can Be Dangerous to You and Your Pet.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 22 Feb. 2018, www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/get-facts-raw-pet-food-diets-can-be-dangerous-you-and-your-pet.
Lee, Elizabeth. “Raw Dog Food: Dietary Concerns, Benefits, and Risks.” WebMD, 29 June 2009, pets.webmd.com/dogs/guide/raw-dog-food-dietary-concerns-benefits-and-risks#1
“Fresh and Raw Diets for Dogs May Have Health Benefits, Study Says.” ScienceDaily, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/08/180823171030.htm. Accessed 7 Jan. 2021.
Marx, F. “Raw Beef Bones as Chewing Items to Reduce Dental Calculus in Beagle Dogs.” PubMed, 2016, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26814157/.
McCaul, Katie, et al. RAW Proof: The Results of a 24-Month Research Investigation Into a Species-Appropriate Diet for Dogs. Pewsey, The Darling Experiment Limited t/a Honey’s Real Dog Food, 2018.
National Research Council. 2006. Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/10668.
Schlesinger, Daniel P, and Daniel J Joffe. “Raw food diets in companion animals: a critical review.” The Canadian veterinary journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne vol. 52,1 (2011): 50-4.