Want to Feed Raw? - Start Here
Many people considering raw feeding are currently feeding kibble, so to start here is a quick comparison between raw and kibble.
Raw Vs Kibble
Raw food is mainly water. The meat itself contains mainly protein and fat.
Kibble food has a high percentage of carbohydrate - a very rough average is 50% carbohydrate, although this varies greatly and can be less or significantly more. Some kibbles are grain free, but this does not necessarily mean that they are lower in carbohydrates. Carbohydrate is necessary to form the kibble.
Vitamins and minerals
Raw food contains natural vitamins and minerals - these are readily available to the dog and are found with their corresponding partners in nutrition.
Kibble is often enhanced with synthetic vitamins and minerals, many of which are not as bioavailable to the dog.
Raw food starts its digestion in the stomach, where protein and fat start to be broken down, and bones are ground down into small pieces. This is achieved through a combination of the acidity of the stomach (about 1-2pH) and the grinding motion of the stomach walls.
Kibble is not digested as much in the stomach - the protein amylase is needed to digest carbohydrate and this is secreted by the pancreas into the small intestine. The stomach has a much more sedate role when feeding kibble.
When feeding kibble you are advised to only feed one make / variety of kibble, and if you wish to change then do this gradually over the course of around 5 days. The kibble itself is meant to provide all the nutrients that the dog needs in every meal.
When feeding raw food, variety is the key. The current advice is to feed at least 6 different proteins, about half from ruminants and half from poultry, and there is no issue in switching between proteins, and even between different manufacturers. Each protein source contains different nutrients in different amounts, so by having a variety of proteins all nutrients should be covered.
Frequency of feeding
Kibble fed dogs are generally fed twice a day once they reach maturity. Kibble is a dry food and dogs need to drink a fair amount of water to rehydrate the food and keep themselves hydrated. For this reason it is not good to feed only one meal a day.
Raw fed dogs can be fed either once or twice a day, and different frequencies work better for different dogs. The grinding process of the stomach and the secretion of digestive enzymes work better when the stomach is fuller, so a dog can feel more satisfied on one meal a day. However, if too much bile is produced between meals then this can lead to 'hunger pukes', which are reduced / relieved by feeding more frequently. When first transitioning to raw, it is better to continue to feed twice a day, but in time the dog may prefer one larger meal a day - let your dog decide what works best for him.
The description of 'complete' in the pet food industry just means that the food can be fed on its own to form a meal - it contrasts with 'complementary', when the food is designed to be mixed with something else. It does not mean that the food is nutritionally complete.
Kibbles are generally nutritionally complete (as nutritionally complete as a kibble can be), as you are meant to feed the same food every meal, every day, so any deficiency would build up over time.
Raw food is described as complete when it can form a meal on it's own, but it is not necessarily nutritionally balanced - foods which contain too much / too little bone or little / no offal can still be described as complete. If you are looking to feed a food that contains everything your dog needs, then look for one that confirms it follows the 80/10/10 (or 80/10/5/5) rule - this means that it contains 80% meat, 10% bone and 10% offal (secreting organs) - of which 5% should be liver.
How Much Should I Feed?
A puppy will need different amounts of food, and guidance should be sought for the correct amount to be feeding for at least the first 12 months of the puppy's life. Additionally puppies need more calcium whilst their bones are developing. The below guidance is for an adult dog that has reached maturity.
The guide for feeding a raw diet is that the dog should be fed between 2-3% of his ideal body weight - this is the body weight that he should be, not necessarily that he currently is. To reduce weight or for more sedate lifestyles feed on the lower end of the scale, and to increase weight or for active lifestyles feed on the higher end. This is only a guide - different proteins have different calorific values (for example, lamb is known for adding weight, whilst rabbit is a lean meat), and learn to recognise how much your dog needs based on his body condition score. If there are no weigh issues when starting out, then around 2.5% is a good starting guide.
Balancing the Raw Diet
The raw diet should be based around the following:
10% offal (secreting organs, not heart), of which 5% should be liver and 5% other organ.
Meat is largely water, so across the meal the ideal is for 20% protein and 10% fat. Too much fat and the meal can become deficient in nutrients.
It is also good to balance across the different types of meat - so ideally feed 50% ruminant meat (beef, lamb, deer, etc) and 50% poultry meat. It is also worth feeding a little fish - the recommended amount is 1 ounce of fish for each pound of meat.
If feeding fish then ideally use the fish at the lower end of the food chain - sprats, sardines, etc. Tuna, being at the higher end of the food chain, can contain too much mercury. Also consider feeding phytoplankton as this contains many of the nutrients found in fish. Fish oil is not ideal, as it tends to oxidise too easily - it's much better to feed fish itself.
With raw feeding there is no need to balance every meal - a balance over time is perfectly acceptable. Some balance over the course of a month, but it's normally easier to balance over the course of a week. There is no harm in feeding a heavy bone meal one day, with bone-free either side. My own personal preference is to balance the bone across the meals as much as possible, and balance the meals (offal, different proteins) over a few days.
DIY or Complete Meals?
In the UK there are a number of raw food manufacturers that now produce nutritionally balanced minces - 80% meat (single or multiple proteins), 10% bone and 10% offal. This makes it easy for those who are nervous about balancing meals themselves, those who are just starting out and need a little more help, or those who do not like to handle raw meat for whatever reason. There is nothing wrong with using nutritionally balanced meals as the stable diet if this is what suits you and the dog.
There are, however, two main benefits that I see to doing at least partial DIY:
dogs like to chew, and chewing releases endorphins that relax the dog
chewing bones helps to clean the dog's teeth
It is easy to buy a low-bone or boneless mince and give the occasional bone for your dog to chew on.
I you do decide to feed DIY (so you source the meat, bones and offal individually), then you do need to balance the meat, bone and offal content. Whilst you don't need to be feeding the exact 80/10/10 ratio, you should be roughly in line with this to ensure the correct nutrition for your dog.
What bones should I feed?
Firstly, you should always supervise the feeding of bones - even a seasoned bone-eater can chew off too large a piece of bone in his eagerness to eat it, so never leave a dog alone with a bone. Also never feed any cooked bones - cooked bones dry out and tend to splinter.
When feeding bones you are looking for the softer bones found in the various animals, for example:
chicken necks, wings and legs
duck necks, wings and legs
turkey necks, wings and legs
lamb, beef and venison ribs
beef and lamb trachea
any bones from a rabbit
Do not feed weight bearing bones of larger animals (eg legs of cows, lambs, deer) as these are too strong.
When starting to feed bones, do not feed ones of a size that they can be swallowed whole, and considering holding the end of the bone to ensure that the dog chews it. If the dog doesn't know what to do with the bone, then you might need to cut some of the meat open to bring out the smell, but most dogs will take to them once they've realised that it is food.
Some people feed recreational bones - bones that are so large that they cannot be eaten (eg weight bearing bones), with the idea that the dog strips the meat off the bone, and hence cleans their teeth that way. If you decide not to feed actual bone but want to utilise the teeth-cleaning ability of bones then this could be an option. However, ensure that you supervise your dog, and remove the bone before he starts eating it.
What About Rice, Pasta, ....?
In a single word, No!
Carbohydrates are not an essential part of a dog's diet. Carbohydrates only provide energy, whereas protein builds tissues and fat builds cell membranes as well as providing energy. Dogs haven't been proven to have any dietary need for carbohydrates. Additionally, carbohydrate digestibility decreases with age.
Carbohydrates cause a spike in insulin, which in turn causes glucose to be converted into fat and stored in the body. The speed of carbohydrate digestion is reduced in the presence of protein and fat.
The dog's body is much better prepared to raise blood sugar when carbohydrate is scarce than it is to lower it when carbohydrate is consumed.
Should I Feed Fruit and Vegetables?
Raw feeders often don't agree on whether fruit and vegetables should be fed. Some argue that in the wild a prey's stomach would naturally contain fruit and vegetable remains, that wolves eat fruit and berries, and that early dogs were scavengers and ate fruit and vegetables that had been thrown out. Others argue that dogs do not require anything other than meat, and that the stomach contents are the last part of a carcass that is eaten in the wild, and is often left. Make your own mind up as to whether you want to include fruit and vegetables in the diet, and if you do then remember that any fruit and vegetables that are provided are in addition to the meat quantity that you feed, not part of the daily allowance.
Dogs cannot break down the cellulose wall of plants (fruit and vegetables), so if you do decide to feed these you will need to pre-digest the plants for the dogs - this can be done by either blitzing the fruit and vegetables in a food processor or by partially cooking. Also remember that certain fruits and vegetables (such as banana and carrot) contain sugars which can feed yeast.
If you do feed plants, then these can make up to 5-10% of the diet, with ideally at least 50% being leafy greens. Some vets recommend feeding plants either an hour before or two hours after feeding raw meats and bones as the grinding action of the stomach can cause the plants to start to ferment. This is more important if feeding bones rather than complete minces.
Different Life Stages / Breeds / Illnesses
Many kibble manufacturers produce different foods for the different life stages (puppy, adult, senior), different breeds and different illnesses. There is some belief that the different life stages and breeds were introduced to make kibble more attractive as a food, tailoring it to your dog's requirements. With raw feeding there isn't the same life stage / breed / illness options available. The puppy mince that is supplied by some manufacturers tends to be the same mince as the adult one, just ground finer and many people put their puppies straight onto adult minces.
With raw feeding it is much easier to adjust the base diet according to the dog's need - a bit more bone for puppies, more glucosamine and chondroitin for older or active dogs (eg chicken feet), lower fat diets for those with pancreatitis, adding more heart (taurine) for dogs with heart problems. If you are looking for a diet for a specific condition then it's definitely worth talking to a nutritionist to see what they advise.
Transitioning to the Raw Diet
There are mixed views on how best to transition to the raw diet - some people say do it gradually, the same as when changing to any other food, whilst others say go 'cold turkey' - feed the last kibble meal, and then at the next meal feed all raw. My preference is the 'cold turkey' approach, even though this may lead to a couple of not-so-ideal stools.
The longer a dog has been on kibble, the harder the transition will be for him. A puppy that has only been on kibble a few weeks can pretty much transition straight onto raw without issue, and start to build up the different proteins after a few days. For older dogs, the speed of transition should be determined by the health of the dog - and this can be gauged by the stools.
Start with one protein source, most start with chicken or turkey providing there are no known allergies. Feed that protein for a couple of weeks and then start introducing a second protein until you can alternate between the two proteins without issue. Then introduce a third protein, and continue.
Don't add organ meats and fatty meats until the stools are consistently solid, and don't feed bones for at least 2 weeks to allow the stomach acidity to drop to the correct pH. However, it is OK to start with nutritionally complete minces (includes offal and bone) as the bone is already ground sufficiently small.
Add apple cider vinegar to the meal for the first two weeks to lower the pH in the stomach - this will make the food safer to digest and allow the dog to absorb more minerals from the diet.
Introducing Offal and Fish
Some dogs do not eat offal or fish the first time they are introduced, but there are a few tips to get them eating these.
Offal - try mincing the offal and mixing in with the meat, give it dried (although not as good nutritionally) or flash fry it and gradually reduce the amount of time you fry it for.
Fish - feed fish in small quantities to being with, and if the dog doesn't like the texture then try feeding it frozen or partially frozen.
Feeding Raw and Kibble
There are mixed views on whether it is OK to feed both raw and kibble. Some people say you should never mix, feed only one of the other; some people say it's fine to feed both as long as they are fed in different meals; and others say that it's fine to mix within the same meal. Knowing how the digestive system needs to work differently for both raw food and kibble my advice would definitely be not to feed in the same meal, and ideally not to mix at all. However, if you do decide that feeding a mix is best for you and your dogs, just be aware that the stomach might not be as acidic as on a purely raw diet so the digestion of bones may not be optimal. Ideally avoid physical bones, or at least the harder ones, and consider feeding apple cider vinegar in the same meal as the bones to help the stomach be more acidic.
Some people comment that their dogs are physically sick when dogs are on raw food. Obviously, it is not good for a dog to be sick, but it is important to understand the different reasons why a dog may be 'sick':
Physically being sick
When a dog is sick, he brings up the contents of his stomach, including partially digested food. Generally the dog is not interested in the sick (contrast this to regurgitation below). This is a sign that the dog is ill, and needs to be observed or taken to a vet.
Excessive bile in the stomach can be forced out of the body in the same way as when a dog is sick. Bile is a yellow foamy substance that will irritate the stomach if it is empty. It normally does not include any food particles, and most frequently occurs early in the morning or late at night, depending on when your dog is fed. It also appears to occur more frequently in dogs that are new to raw feeding. Feeding a little food can prevent these 'hunger pukes' and often a treat before bed will prevent this from happening.
Dogs have a natural regurgitation instinct which allowed them to spit out food that has not been processed correctly, and then to re-swallow it. If a dog eats something too quickly, swallowing too large a piece, he will often bring it back up, chew it further and then re-swallow. This is perfectly natural for the dog, and contrasts with a dog being physically sick, where the food has been in the stomach for a while and is partially digested. A dog will also bring up pieces of bone which have not been broken down sufficiently by the stomach, often hours later. Whilst the stomach regains its acidity and grinding function this regurgitation of bone may occur more frequently, but even a seasoned raw fed dog can still do this.
The Story of Poo
As a raw feeder, a dog's poo can tell you a lot about how their digestive system is working. The consistency of the dog's poo should be 'formed and kickable'. It should not be white and crumbly when it is produced, or black and tar-like.
Different proteins will produce poo of a different colour, so don't worry about this - chicken will tend to result in a light, tan-coloured poo, whilst beef will produce a much darker poo. What is more important is the consistency of the poo itself. A white, crumbly poo indicates that too much bone is being fed (NB, this is on production of the poo, not poo that has been left in the garden to dry), whilst a dark, tar-like poo will indicate too much offal, or possibly the presence of blood early in the digestive system.
Learn to read your dog's poo - you have to pick it up after all!
Anal glands should be emptied naturally as part of the defecation process. The pressure of firm stools on the anal glands will cause them to empty. However, some raw fed dogs produce stools that are too small to apply sufficient pressure on the anal glands, particularly if there is any issue in the placing or state of the glands. Stool quantity can be increased by feeding ground pumpkin seeds or psyllium husk.