Dogs and humans have a shared history that dates back thousands of years. In fact, research has determined that our species have a unique relationship developed through a process of co-evolution. Because of this close relationship with humans, for better or worse, domestic dogs are subject to many of the same modern foods we eat and lifestyle choices we make, including eating processed and denatured foods.
Although we continue to expand our understanding about nutrition through scientific research, there is a lot about canine (and human!) food, wellness, and health that we don’t yet fully understand. What we do know is that domestic dogs thrived on whole food diets provided to them by their human families for centuries before commercial pet foods were invented. Unfortunately, modern dogs now suffer many of the same health problems that humans experience, which are associated with eating commercially processed foods.
This explains why so many people are moving away from feeding kibble or canned processed foods and preparing fresh foods for their dogs. If you want to make the switch, consider that the best diet for your individual dog must:
- Be prepared with a variety of real, whole-food ingredients (either raw or cooked)
- Promote the best state of health for the individual animal
- Be within your comfort zone regarding the foods used in the diet
- Be practical for your lifestyle and affordable for your budget
The healthiest diet for your dog is based on local, seasonal, responsibly/humanely produced, unprocessed, unadulterated, non-fortified, non-enriched, and fresh foods. The diet must be meat-based for optimum canine health –dogs are by nature opportunistic carnivores with no nutritional requirements for vegetable matter.
While it is not overly complicated to feed non-human animals healthy, home-prepared meals, there are critical nutritional considerations that must be understood before you start preparing meals for your pets.
The National Research Council (NRC) of the US National Academy of Sciences and the Association of American Feed Control Officers (AAFCO) are the two most influential bodies when it comes to feeding domestic cats and dogs in the United Stated. The AAFCO establishes regulatory guidelines for the feed industry in the US, including standards for the nutritional adequacy of commercial products. The NRC produces research-based reports on a variety of topics. You can download its report entitled “Your Dog’s Nutritional Needs: A Science-Based Guide for Pet Owners.”
Whether you use a spreadsheet to formulate a diet based on the NRC/AAFCO nutritional standards, follow a “balance over time” meal plan developed by a natural diet guru, or feed a commercially prepared raw diet, there is a certain amount of time and attention required to get it right. What and how you feed the animal members of your family is a learning process that evolves over time and with practice.
That said, there are certain essentials you must get right from the start. The calcium and phosphorous ratio (Ca:P) in the total diet must remain within a safe range of 1:1 to 2:1 for dogs (ideal: 1.2:1 and 1.3:1). All foods and supplements being fed should be taken into consideration when determining this critical ratio.
Below is a simple breakdown of the essential components of a balanced home-prepared raw or cooked diet. Percentages of these components will differ somewhat depending on the diet you choose to follow, but in general your dog’s diet for the week should look like this:
- 75% variety of boneless muscle meats;
- 5% heart, kidney, spleen, sweetbreads, gizzards, and/or other offal;
- 5% liver;
- 10% edible bone or other source of adequate calcium; and
- 5% other whole foods.
In place of the raw bone, you could use dried, finely ground eggshell powder as a calcium supplement (1/2 teaspoon eggshell powder per 16 ounces of meat-based food). Any grains included in the diet must be well-cooked and vegetable matter must be either well-cooked or finely pureed in a food processor or blender to enhance digestability.
If your dog is ever diagnosed with a serious health condition such as renal failure, cancer, or pancreatitis, additional dietary changes or restrictions may need to be considered. But with the help of a veterinarian who has studied fresh food diets and clinical animal nutrition, a qualified animal nutritionist, or by seeking out reliable advice from qualified sources, you can make the best dietary choices for an animal with a serious health problem and continue to feed a fresh foods diet.
If your canine companion has normal and reliable elimination habits, a strong appetite, an odor-free and richly colored coat that does not shed excessively, clean teeth and ears bright eyes and good vision, excellent muscle tone and energy, a sound temperament, and is free of disease, you are feeding him the right diet. If your pet is not this ideal picture of health, you may want to consider switching to a wholesome, fresh foods diet to improve your his health and well-being.
Be sure to confirm that what you are feeding is balanced and safe, and work closely with your holistic veterinarian to make sure you are adequately addressing/treating any health issues or possible nutrition imbalances.
High-risk Raw Feeding Mistakes
These common mistakes put your dog at high risk for nutritional imbalances that can lead to serious health problems. Absolutely avoid these errors:
- Feeding an all meat diet
- Feeding only bones
- Feeding cooked bones (exception: properly pressure-cooked diets)
- Not feeding enough fully consumable raw bones or an alternate source of elemental calcium to keep the calcium:phosphorus ratio of the total diet between 1:1 (minimum) and 2:1 (maximum)
- Feeding far too much calcium (supplementing an already balanced diet with additional calcium)
- Feeding the same thing every day (no variety)
- Feeding offal/organs for more than 30% of the diet
- Feeding vegetable matter for more than 50% of the diet
- Never feeding liver (or the nutritional equivalent to meet NRC standards)
- Never feeding heart (or the nutritional equivalent to meet NRC standards)
- Feeding too much fat to an animal prone to pancreatitis (keep diet below 8% fat)
- Exceeding 30% fat content in the diet
- Overfeeding puppies. Raw-fed puppies should stay lean during the growing phase, which ends at 18 months for most dogs; 24-36 months for giants.
- Other Risky Raw-Feeding Behaviors
If you are doing any of the following, carefully review what you are feeding to make sure the diet is balanced and safe:
- Feeding a diet without doing the necessary research and calculations to determine that it is balanced and safe for your dog
- Starting to feed your dog “raw foods” without following a published diet plan.
- Feeding weight-bearing bones (femur, marrow, knuckle, etc.) from beef or other large herbivores – otherwise known as “wreck” bones; they can fracture teeth, become obstructed in the mouth or GI tract, and are difficult to digest.
- Feeding bones that are stripped of meat; bones should be fed with meat-on or with other bulk.
- Feeding one type of meat, grain, or vegetable all the time, unless recommended by your veterinarian.
- Using a commercial pre-mix or commercial diet in a way that is not recommended on the product literature or label; always follow directions on the packaging.
Refrain from incorporating the following foods that are toxic or dangerous to dogs
- Walnuts and macadamia nuts
- Raisins and grapes
- Raw salmon or trout
- Raw pork (unless it has been frozen for three weeks)
- Active yeast (raw dough)
- Hops and alcohol
- Corn on the cob and any pit-containing fruits
- Avocado pits
Kasie Maxwell has been feeding home-prepared raw diets to her animals since 1989 and founded the San Francisco Raw Feeders (SFRAW) in 2003. The SFRAW warehouse is located at 250 Napoleon Street, Unit G, in San Francisco and is open to the public every Thursday through Sunday. Visit sfraw.com for more information.