While everybody agrees that correct nutrition is hugely important for our dog’s health, not everybody can agree on just what is “correct”. One of the most controversial differences of opinion is whether dogs should
be fed a commercial pet food or a home-made diet based on raw meaty bones, commonly known as the “BARF” diet (Bones and Raw Food or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food) or the slightly different RMB
(Raw Meaty Bones). There are countless books, articles and websites on this subject and advocates of each type of feeding are often equally evangelical about their method, making it very difficult for the pet owner to
form their own balanced opinion. The aim of this article is not to convince the reader about any particular method, but simply to offer the facts about raw feeding in such a way that the reader can form their own
opinion and decide which method is best for them and their dog.
What is a “complete” food?
The term “complete” is a legal definition. If this term is used to describe a dog food, it means that the food contains all the nutrients that your dog needs to support its daily life. The essential nutrients a dog needs are
water, protein, fat, carbohydrate and a variety of vitamins and minerals. Requirements for each nutrient vary, but any excess or deficiency over a period of time will lead to problems for the dog. By feeding a “complete”
food, we can be assured that we are giving our pet all the nutrients that he needs.
Or can we? In Dr Ian Billingshurst’s book The Barf Diet, he writes a whole chapter on “complete and
balanced”. In summary, Dr Billingshurst believes that the legal term of “complete and balanced” is based onthe pet food industry’s current thinking. He believes that it is impossible to claim that any food is complete
and balanced and instead claims that a feeding plan shou ld be “nutritionally sound and nutritionally adequate”. He also claims that the legal definition of complete and balanced can mean that a food contains certain
nutrients which may not actually be available to the animal (for example, cooking can make some nutrients indigestible).
So, is a BARF diet the best way to provide all the nutrients a dog needs? Maybe… Feeding meat and bones as a “whole” food may very well mean that the dog can take certain nutrients from the food that may not be
available in a cooked processed food, as cooking destroys the quality of some enzymes. (Incidentally, freezing also degrades and destroys some enzymes, so technically, a raw diet should be fed fresh, not frozen).
However, as a pet owner choosing to feed with this method, we must take responsibility for providing enough variety in this diet to ensure that our dog gets all the nutrients he requires. “The Barf Diet” is a useful guide to
feeding a raw diet, but it is also an indicator of just how difficult it can be. In various sections of the book, Dr Billingshurst recommends vitamin supplements, kelp, alfalfa, salmon oil, cod liver oil, flaxseed oil, slippery
elm bark powder and more. By feeding a commercial food, we hope that the pet food manufacturer takes care of this for us. On the Pet Food Manufacturers Association website, there is a link to the FEDIAF (European
Pet Food Industry Federation) Nutrition Guidelines. It is heavy reading, but it is a good indication of the amount of research which goes in to pet food manufacture, and also of just how complicated it can be to
provide a complete diet for our dogs, however we define it.
“The Evolutionary Diet”
Raw food advocates believe that their feeding methods work because they replicate the dog’s wild, evolution- ary diet, but this is not as straightforward as it seems. While some still believe that dogs and wolves evolved
separately from a common ancestor, most scientific evidence now confirms that dogs are a direct descendant of the Grey Wolf. Physiologically, dogs are certainly similar to wolves and are “built” to eat predominantly
meat. Dogs have teeth which are designed for shredding meat and do not have the large, flat molars which true plant eaters have. Dogs have powerful jaw and neck muscles and their jaws move up and down in a chopping
motion, unlike animals which chew vegetable matter, such as cows whose jaws move from side to side. They also have a relatively short digestive system and an acidic stomach, both designed to cope with raw meat.
However, dogs are not wolves. Most modern dog training methods are no longer based on the “alpha/pack leader” idea and perhaps we should also consider domestic dogs different to wolves in terms of their nutrition
as well. The domestic dog’s lifestyle and requirements are very different to their wild cousins. Most domestic dogs live in heated homes, and while enjoying exercise, do not need to travel miles in search of food. As dog’s
energy requirements have changed, so too have their nutritional needs.
When dogs originally evolved from the wolf, it is believed that certain individuals would have hung around human settlements, where both the dogs and the humans began to use each other to their advantage, until over
many generations, dogs were “domesticated”. It is likely that these early domesticated dogs would have scavenged scraps of leftover food from the humans. This may have been raw bones, but it may also have
included scraps from burnt out fires, which would have been effectively cooked. Indeed, it may have been the cooking of the meat which attracted the dogs to the human settlement in the first place. (It is thought by some
scientists that it was the aroma of animal carcasses being accidentally “cooked” on a fire that first encouraged humans to begin cooking our food). Domestic dogs continued to exist on scraps until quite recently when dog
food as we know it began being produced in the 19th century. However, meat, even leftover meat, would have been very valuable to humans, so it is possible that a large part of the early domestic dog’s diet was in fact
things like stale bread – cooked grain, which we shall discuss later!
As domestic dogs have continued to evolve, they are moving further and further from their wild cousin. Selective breeding by humans has produced dogs of all shapes and sizes, and in some cases, it is clear to see
how these changes could affect their ability to eat certain types of food. Some dog food manufacturers now produce food designed for different breeds such as specially shaped kibbles for dogs like bulldogs with shorter
jaws. Of course, how much humans have selectively modified the shape of certain breeds is a matter of much debate, but it is clear that some breeds are very different to their wild ancestor. There is also evidence of
internal changes as well. Some of the enzymes required to digest raw meat are no longer present in some modern domesticated dogs, or they have been “switched off”. It is likely that as dogs continue to have no raw
meat in their diet, they will lose some of these enzymes altogether. Is this because we are depriving them of their natural diet, or is it simply a case of evolution in action…?
The Raw Food Diet
Raw food diets are based essentially on raw, meaty bones, with some added supplements. The inclusion of carbohydrates is something of debate even among raw feeders, but most would agree that the percentage of
carbohydrates in most commercial foods is too high. Carbohydrates are converted into glucose which the body uses as energy. Dogs can produce glucose themselves, so carbohydrates are considered a non-essential
nutrient, however by providing it, we can give them a little helping hand, freeing up the enzymes in their body to do other things. This is one view. Another view is that they are totally unnecessary. Dog’s saliva does not
contain an enzyme called amylase which in other animals begins the process of breaking down carbohydrates. In dogs, this process does not begin until further in the digestive system, which indicates that dogs require
little, if any carbohydrate in their diet. If they do consume carbohydrates in the wild, most of it would come via the vegetable matter in their prey’s stomach. Some BARF’ers include up to a third of the diet as vegetables,
heavily liquidised to replicate the stomach content of the prey. However, other raw feeders do not include any vegetables at all.
As a dog’s saliva cannot break down carbohydrates, inevitably some of these sugars will build up between the dog’s teeth and turn in to plaque and eventually tartar, leading to some possibly serious dental problems. This
is one reason why if feeding a commercial diet, it is important to choose a good quality one, as any poor ingredients, additives etc will also accumulate between the teeth. One of the main benefits of a raw food diet
is the dog’s dental health, partly because the raw food diet contains little or no carbohydrates, but also because the gnawing and grinding action of eating raw bones helps to keep the gaps around the teeth clean and free of
debris. However, there are other natural products available which can have the same effect on the teeth, without the possible concerns of feeding raw bones. It should be noted here that raw feeders would never
suggest feeding cooked bones, and are also clear that the size of any raw bones should be carefully considered and suitable for the particular dog.
Many people are discouraged from feeding raw food to their dog because of concerns regarding parasites and bacteria. This is actually more likely to be a problem for us than our dogs, whose stomachs are much more
acidic and better equipped to deal with nasty bacteria than ours. Of course, we should use appropriate precautions when dealing with any raw meat products. So, assuming we can feed raw meat safely, there are
actually strong arguments for and against cooking. Cooking destroys some enzymes so feeding raw food provides our dog with more naturally accessible nutrients, however cooking also makes other ingredient
more digestible. Of course, if we have to cook an ingredient for it to become digestible, should we really be feeding it at all? It is often stated that wild dogs are not seen running through cornfields eating the crop. But,
neither are humans! We cook the grain to make it more digestible to us, and some scientists believe the ability to grow and cook grain was hugely influential in the advance of the human race. (However, an internet search
will quickly reveal that there are many people around the world who believe that humans should eat a raw-food only diet!)
Commercial Dog Food
If we are going to compare raw feeding methods with commercial dog food fairly, we must ensure that we compare the raw food diet with a good quality dog food. By feeding a raw meaty bones diet, we know exactly
what we are feeding our dog (a very important point, particularly if our dog develops any allergies or intolerances) and it is often claimed that we do not really know what is in our processed dog food. This is
certainly the case with some products, but, thankfully, not all. The term “meat and animal derivatives” can cover a wide variety of meat, from a range of different sources. Even if it is labelled as “beef” flavour, it need
only contain 4% beef in the ingredients. By using this term on their packaging, some manufacturers can vary the ingredients from one batch to another. We could buy the same dog food a month apart, and it could actually
have different meat in it, which is a scary thought, when we consider dogs with dietary intolerances. So, it is absolutely right that we should look for a dog food which states exactly what meat is in it, and the meat (as
well as other ingredients) should be of a high quality and quantity. One of the benefits often seen when changing to a raw diet is the absence of symptoms related to allergies. When feeding a good quality
commercial food with one protein source and no artificial additives, we can achieve the same effect.
Taking a look at the website of a good quality brand of dog food reveals that the meat that goes in to their dog food is actually of really good quality, and not the “heads, feet, and feathers” of the scaremongers. The same
is true of the carbohydrate source. While wheat is often used in lower quality products as it is cheaper, most reputable companies now realise that it can contribute to dietary sensitivities and so use better quality sources,
such as rice or potato. Equally, any additives or preservatives should be stated (cranberry extract, and rosemary extract are common natural ingredients) and not listed as “EEC permitted additives”, which again
can cover a whole range of, sometimes, unpleasant things.
It is in the pet food manufacturer’s interest to produce food which keeps dogs happy and healthy for many years, with their owners continuing to buy the product and recommending it to others. Some raw food
enthusiasts claim that all sorts of “modern” diseases are caused by commercial dog food, and this may be partly the case for some poor quality brands. But, the fact that so many more diseases are being diagnosed
could equally be a result of advances in scientific knowledge, and because our dogs are living longer, due to better nutrition and general care.
It is often suggested that the opinion of vets regarding nutrition is swayed by their allegiance to certain pet food providers. It is true that many vets make money from selling dog food, and it is also true that much of
the nutrition training offered to vets and their staff is provided for by pet food manufacturers. However, any vet offering anything less than sound nutritional advice will quickly lose customers and their reputation, so it
is in their interest to offer the best advice they can. Unfortunately for pet owners trying to make decisions, vets cannot agree on the right type of diet either! The letters pages in some of the veterinary press frequently have
correspondence from vets with differing opinions on raw food diets. Whichever method a pet owner decides, it is useful to find a good vet who has similar ideas or is open-minded and knowledgeable enough to offer
suitable, unbiased advice.
The purpose of this article was not to convince one way or the other, but to offer a balanced opinion of raw food diets and commercially produced dog food to hopefully enable the dog owner to decide which is best for
them and their pet. The conclusion is that feeding a diet based on raw meaty bones, with appropriate supplements can eliminate many health problems and can offer a completely natural, healthy alternative to
a commercial brand of dog food. However, if the dog owner does not have the time, knowledge and confidence to provide everything a dog needs in it’s diet, there are reputable pet food companies which spend
time and money researching and producing high quality products containing everything that the dog needs for a long, and healthy life.
Typing “raw food for dogs” in to an internet search engine reveals over five million results, but here are a few websites which I have found to be particularly useful;
The following dog food manufacturers all have informative websites;
Arden Grange www.ardengrange.com
James Wellbeloved www.wellbeloved.com
Nature Diet www.naturediet.co.uk
Natures Menu www.naturesmenu.co.uk
The Pet Food Manufacturers Association website also has some useful information regarding the ingredientsand production of commercial dog food. www.pfma.org.uk
There are many books on the subject of animal nutrition. These are a few which I referred to while writing this
Small Animal Nutrition Sandie Agar
The Holistic Dog Holly Mash
The Barf Diet Dr Ian Billingshurst
Fat Dog Thin David Alderton