I receive many questions regarding raw feeding. Raw feeding is becoming more and more common. I am a strong supporter of feeding a raw diet; my own dogs were weaned to raw, all my cats have been on raw since kittens, and I encourage clients to consider feeding a raw diet to their animals. Most animals will do very well on a raw diet of meat, bone, organ meat, and vegetables. However, there are significant important considerations in transitioning to and feeding a raw diet.
1 – Support is crucial. If your vet is not supportive, you need to educate yourself about balancing a raw diet and the possible issues involved in a transition to raw feeding. There are books and support groups; in addition, many raw food manufacturers have extensive information on their websites. The Carnivora site is particularly good as is Feline Nutrition. If your vet is not supportive, raw feeding will be blamed for every illness and digestive upset, and you will be pressured to use treatments which actually upset the balance of the digestive system, such as antibiotics and metronidazole. If your dog has a chronic disease, I would not suggest switching to raw without the support of a vet. You need to feel comfortable with what you are doing, and dealing with a chronic disease requires additional considerations.
2 – Diets must be varied. A single protein source is not a good idea, as different meats have different nutrient profiles. The raw diet should contain meat, bone, fat, and muscle meat in the proportions found in a lean animal. This can be a bit hard to determine, as our commercially bred meat animals are much fatter than prey animals would be. If you chose to assemble a raw diet from animal parts, it is ideal to work with a holistic vet or nutritionist to ensure that the diet, over time, will be balanced. This is one of the main criticisms of raw diets by most vets; all too often people are feeding one type of meat part as the major (or only) diet component. I feed a complete and balanced ground raw diet, rotating between three different protein sources, plus occasional whole animal parts.
3 – Calcium to phosphorus ratio must be maintained in an appropriate range. People can, and do, create serious problems in growing pups and kittens by over supplementing or under supplementing calcium in home prepared diets. Adult dogs and cats are less affected by calcium:phosphorus imbalances, but over time adults can develop problems as well, so do pay attention to this aspect of the diet.
4 – Transition should be gradual. It is understandable to want to get your animal switched to the best possible diet as quickly as possible. However, animals that have been eating kibble or canned food have adjusted to digesting those foods. In general, you have to switch slowly, introducing the raw food in small meals separate from the processed diet. You will gradually increase the size of the raw meal while decreasing the size of the other meals, eventually replacing the processed food meals, one at a time, with raw food meals, then eliminating the extra meal.
5 – Some animals need help to digest raw. Processing begins the digestion process, so processed foods require less enzymatic action from the dog for digestion. Of course, processed foods also contain more inflammatory free radicals because of processing, so there is a negative side to their predigested state! Some dogs and cats will digest their food better if digestive enzymes are added to the food, or if the food is lightly cooked. Of course, food with bones should not be cooked. Over time, most animals will increase their digestive enzyme production, and be able to digest raw. However, old or convalescent animals sometimes develop an aversion to raw, or lose weight eating raw. In such cases, addition of enzymes, or gentle cooking, will often help sort out the problem.
Digestive enzymes: As discussed above, digestive enzymes may be helpful in the transition period. Some animals maintain condition and appetite better if they receive digestive enzymes in their food at every meal.
Probiotics: Probiotics help maintain a normal balance of bacteria in the digestive tract. All animals that receive antimicrobials should receive probiotics during treatment and for a week after treatment. Please try not to give antimicrobials for digestive upsets. Of course an animal with loose stools has abnormal bacteria – that doesn’t mean that the answer is to kill off all the bacteria, normal and abnormal. That approach increases the growth of resistant organisms, and has high potential for side effects. You want to work with the body to restore health, not use drugs with a list of side effects as long as your arm. The process of diet change can also unbalance the normal intestinal bacteria, so I suggest probiotics and digestive enzymes for all animals transitioning to raw.
Herbs: Soothing herbs, such as slippery elm, marshmallow root and peppermint, may be helpful during the raw transition as well.
Omega fatty acids: Many raw diets are low in omega fatty acids such as are found in salmon ad krill oil. I recommend supplementing all diets with a fish-based omega-3 oil at least a few times a week.
Vitamin and mineral supplements: The nutrient content of food is related to the way it was raised. If you are feeding only organically raised animals and vegetables, raised on soils that are sustainably supplemented with trace minerals, you have no concerns. Most animals will benefit from a whole foods supplement formulated to complement raw diets. It is important to avoid synthetic supplements, as they are not utilized well and can actually be pro-inflammatory. The whole foods supplements are more expensive, but well worth it.
7 – Vegetables may be helpful. There is some controversy among the raw feeding community as to whether vegetables are an appropriate part of a raw diet. Some claim that canids in the wild do not eat the stomach contents of their prey, so vegetables are inappropriate. While it is probably true that wolves do not the entire contents of large herbivore stomachs, research has shown that foxes and wolves eat mice and rabbits in their entirety. In addition, these prey animals are much less fatty than the commercially raised meat we provide. Vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, allow us to manipulate the fat and protein content of the diet, as well as introducing a good source of natural vitamins and minerals. As a rule, cats, who are obligate carnivores, will need less vegetables than dogs.
8 – Animals with specific health concerns can be fed a raw diet.
Puppies and kittens: Puppies and kittens can be weaned to a ground raw diet suitable for adults. These babes can receive a raw diet based on animal parts as well, taking care to ensure that there is variety in the diet, and that the calcium:phosphorus ratio is appropriate. If you have support from an experienced naturally rearing breeder as regards rearing a pup or kitten on animal parts, go for it. Otherwise, I would choose one of the balanced ground raw diets to ensure an appropriate Ca:P ratio.
Kidney disease: Most dogs and cats with kidney disease can continue to eat a raw diet. In kidney disease, a moderate decrease in the protein may be helpful; this can be done by introducing shredded or steamed leafy vegetables to the diet.
Pancreatitis: Many dogs and cats with pancreatitis can be successfully switched to raw. Ideally, consult with a holistic vet or veterinary nutritionist to ensure that the fat level is appropriate for your dog. In most cases, a combination of lean meats and increased leafy vegetables can create an appropriate diet.
9 – Homeopathy can help. There are many remedies that can be useful for digestive upsets. If symptomatic treatment is not helpful, your animal would likely benefit from a constitutional approach with a veterinary homeopath, to choose the most appropriate remedy for them.
As you transition to raw feeding, you will notice remarkable changes in your dog or cat.
Drinking: Most dogs and cats drink a lot less; some rarely drink at all. If your animal is elderly, you may want to add extra water to the raw meals to ensure that they take in enough water.
Stools: Usually, if you have transitioned gradually, and supported the digestive tract with supplemental enzymes, probiotics, and soothing herbs, you will see a much firmer stool. If your diet is very high in bone, the stool may be white or ashy looking, and may be very hard. This probably means that you are feeding a little too much bone. I know this sounds disgusting, but you can learn a lot by prodding apart your pet’s stool, to see if it is too hard. Very hard stools can be uncomfortable to pass. If your dog or cat routinely produces very hard stools, you should increase their fluid intake and evaluate the quantity of bone in their diet. Fiber can be helpful to regulate stool quality; both stools that are too soft and too hard will respond to the addition of fiber in the diet. Pumpkin is a good source of fiber; the dose ranges from ½ teaspoon to ¼ cup per meal depending on the animal’s size.
Energy: Dogs and cats that are eating raw food seem to have better focus as well as more energy.
Skin and Coat: Most skin problems decrease, and coat quality improves.
However, raw food is not a cure all! If your dog or cat still has skin and coat problems or other health issues, you should pursue their cause and treatment with a holistic vet.
I hope this helps address some of the concerns about raw feeding.
Best of luck! Franchesca