(Those of you who have already visited my Cardigan website have seen this one, but I wanted to get it on the blog so I could post it in the resources area over there on the left. This is the handout that goes to all my puppy buyers; it is free for distribution with my name and website or blog attached.)
Healthy Feeding Practices
An Introduction to the Raw Diet
Congratulations on the fact that you are bringing a puppy into your home. We hope that you will have many happy years together.
Your breeder has done everything they can in order to lay the foundation for a long and healthy life for your puppy. Now it’s your turn. An ideal diet–not premium, not expensive, ideal–is your best defense against illness and premature death.
A raw diet is as close to ideal as human hands can make. We hope that you will find satisfaction, as we do, in providing the very best for these wonderful animals.
The raw diet is designed for all breeds and non-breeds of dogs. Here’s why:
Health and Longevity
While genetic testing can prevent some of the causes of premature lameness, illness, and demise, many of the best-bred puppies still fall victim at very young ages. There are several aspects of this phenomenon that a raw diet can help.
Cardiomyopathy and its attendant problems of heart disease and cardiac arrest claim far too many members of every breed. Fortunately, raw diets can help. Besides the benefit of being an additive-free food with healthy enzymes, raw diets offer a great deal to improve heart health. The heart is just a large smooth muscle, dependent on the adequate supply of certain amino acids in order to perform at its peak efficiency and repair its own tissue. Two of the most important amino acids for the heart are taurine and carnitine. These are present only in small amounts in kibble, but in abundant amounts in raw muscle tissue. A cornerstone of a good raw diet is the feeding of raw heart–think of each piece as a vitamin pill directed right to the heart of your dog.
Aging is obvious–a gradual slowdown in activity and ability to get around. Much of this is due to the great strain on connective tissue that is an unfortunate effect of increasing weight and lower activity. Therefore it is very important to provide the building blocks for connective tissue with every meal. A good raw diet does this, with the abundant feeding of bones, cartilage, tendons, and other raw connective tissue. Cooking the tissue changes its character and makes it either unavailable or more difficult to extract. Feeding raw means that the components of each type of tissue are extremely easy to digest and be used by the dog. Many breeders and owners have noticed a “youthening” of their older dogs after switching from a kibble diet to raw.
Autoimmune disorders (thyroid problems, blood and clotting factor diseases, and some skin diseases, just to name a few) vary by breed. Cardigans, thankfully, seem to be less affected than most. However, autoimmune disorders do seem to affect certain individuals or families. How does a raw diet address these disorders? The finest possible diet, one without preservatives or additives and in a perfect balance for the dog’s body, is the best way to both prevent the occurrence of autoimmune disorders and optimize a dog’s response to the disorder after it is diagnosed. There is no doubt that autoimmune problems are partially genetically mediated, but the genes can only transmit a predisposition; they do not guarantee the disease. A raw diet provides the ideal environment for the immune system to flourish. In addition, the raw food is high in anti-oxidants, helping to reduce the cellular damage that can lead to autoimmune diseases and cancers.
Your breeder has no doubt impressed upon you the necessity for slow, steady growth while your dog is a puppy. The reason for this is simple: tissue (muscle, tendons, ligaments) always grows at the same rate, regardless of food sources. Bones, however, are greatly variable in their growth rate depending on the nutrients, especially calories and calcium, present in the food. A bone that grows faster than the muscle and ligament it is attached to is prone to all sorts of problems, from joint diseases to actual deformation. In addition, bone that grows faster than the genetic ideal for the dog is also at a greater risk for infections (like panosteitis, an inflammation of the bone-making cells and connective tissue in the long bones of the legs) and joint problems like OCD (where the cartilage covering the head of a joint actually cracks and breaks) and HOD (a disease brought on by over-consumption of high-calorie food, which causes fever, knotty joints, and tremendous pain).
Obviously, therefore, we need to feed a diet that encourages healthy growth but not development that is faster than ideal for the dog’s own body. This can vary, of course–some dogs mature quickly and some do so very slowly–but the key is to let the puppy’s own genetics, not the food it is eating, do the talking.
Raw diets, with their ideal mixture of protein (muscle-building) and calcium/phosphorus (bone-building), encourage slow, even growth. You are not as likely to see growth “spurts” with a raw diet, but rest assured the growth will happen. Raw-fed puppies end up at exactly their genetic potential, and with a much-decreased risk of skeletal problems. All of this will mean a dog that grows older gracefully and maintains its skeletal vigor well into old age.
Always remember that you have a responsibility to keep your puppy LEAN, no matter what you are feeding him or her. In one study, puppies kept lean and exercised regularly had a greatly reduced incidence of hip dysplasia when compared to sibling puppies allowed to get cutely chubby and only walked or allowed a little yard play.
You should be able to see the outline of the ribcage when the puppy moves, and you should be able to feel his or her ribs with the FLAT of your hand (no fair digging with your fingertips!). But skinny puppies aren’t healthy either–you should not be able to see the points of the hip bones or put your fingers between ribs, and you should barely feel the points of the spine with good hard flesh and muscle surrounding each vertebra. The goal is a whip-hard bundle of energy, sleek but not fat or even pudgy.
What’s Wrong with Kibble?
There are a multitude of documents and books exploring exactly what is in kibble–a quick Web search will turn up many. However, as a brief overview it is useful to look at the four main ingredients in all kibbles–grains, meats, fillers, and vitamins.
All kibble contains grains and grain products. Partially this is because a purely meat kibble would decay so quickly, but mainly it is because grains are a much cheaper source of protein and nutrients than meat, even the very poor meat that kibble manufacturers use. When looking at the ingredients on a bag of kibble, it is important to recognize the strategies that companies use when listing the ingredients. Grain ingredients are routinely split, or listed in their components rather than in their whole. For example, a kibble could list (as one very popular one does) Lamb Meal, Brewers Rice, Brown Rice, and Rice Flour. This splitting makes it appear that the lamb is a greater quantity by weight than the rice. In fact, in all likelihood the rice is present in far greater amounts than the lamb, once all three rice components are added up. All three of these ingredients are the exact same thing–brewers rice is just the name for kernels of rice that are broken into small pieces. Brown rice is the whole kernels. Rice flour is brown rice once it has been crushed into a powder.
Much attention has been placed upon the presence or absence of meat by-products in dog foods. However, raw-feeders don’t really mind the by-products (feathers, heads, feet, and so on). As a matter of fact, we’re excited if we find a package of fresh chicken feet in the supermarket and often travel great distances for rabbit heads and other “waste” products. Dogs are designed to handle “poor” cuts of meat and in fact thrive on them. What is problematic is the way in which the meat has been prepared. Even the most expensive “human-grade” meat, like that found in super-premium foods, is cooked at very high temperatures and dried. This changes the nature of the protein chains within the meat, and destroys the enzymes that should be present in the tissue. The vast majority kibbles use what is called “meal,” which is meat that has been rendered. Rendered meat, which is gathered from all food animals not fit for human consumption, is heated to an extraordinary temperature and then flaked or powdered. What remains is hardly related to the lovely cuts of steak pictured on the outside of the bag.
Fillers are used to “bulk up” kibble, to allow the portion sizes to be what we would consider generous, and to make the dog’s stool the firm cigar shape we expect. These substances, which include beet pulp, soy, yucca fiber, and other ingredients (often just lumped under “dietary fiber” in the ingredient list) are indigestible and only serve to decrease the value of the food and possibly trigger allergies in the dog.
At the end of every kibble ingredient list is an impressively long litany of vitamins, usually expressed in their scientific terms (d-alpha tocopherol, ferrous sulfate, and so on). This is often advertised as a wonderful feature of the kibble, and is in fact a good thing–it’s the only factor that makes the kibble “100% balanced and complete” as is trumpeted on every bag. However, let’s think about what they are and why they’re there. The vitamins found in kibble are usually sprayed on the extruded kibble at the end of the manufacturing process. They’re nothing more than vitamin pills, basically, as though you could say a piece of cardboard was 100% balanced if you took it with a Flintstones.
Also, look at what the natural diet of a wolf in the wild would be. They aren’t taking a daily vitamin, and they don’t need one. All of the vitamins and minerals they need for a healthy and complete life are present in the raw whole food they are eating. If a kibble needs all those vitamins added, what does that say about the food source of the kibble? Doesn’t look all that balanced and complete, does it?
Dogs and wolves in the wild evolved to eat small and large animals, including carrion and the stomach and intestinal contents of those animals. As you can imagine, that means that a lot of what goes into a dog’s or wolf’s mouth in the wild is not exactly sterile. It’s filled with bacteria, often actually rotting, and can have a parasitic infestation. In order to take advantage of this food, wild canids developed an extremely rapid and efficient digestive system. Food goes in and is immediately dumped into a stomach with a much higher content of acid than, for example, a human stomach. From there it takes a brief trip through intestines that are shorter than our own and goes out the other end in a matter of a few hours. This has two major implications as we look at feeding raw compared to kibble.
The first is that a raw diet comprised of meaty bones, organs, and a small amount of vegetables acts like a carnivore diet should–it’s in the stomach for a very short amount of time and has its components quickly absorbed by the intestine. By the time it comes out the other end, the stool is small, dry, and almost entirely bone meal. Grain-based kibble (and remember our earlier discussion that all kibble is grain-based), by contrast, sits in the stomach for a much longer time. Since the kibble is dense and dry, it must have a huge amount of water and acid added to it in order to make the proper consistency of chyme, or slurry, to be passed to the intestine. Meanwhile the grains and the carbohydrates and fillers are sitting in the stomach, producing a large amount of gas through the process of fermentation. The same thing that happens to humans when they eat a lot of carbohydrates and starch (like baked beans) happens to dogs. Raw-fed dogs are rarely gassy.
The second consideration in the speed of digestion is that of the utilization of nutrients. Animals with digestive systems that are designed to be slow (horses and sheep are examples) have long loops of intestines. As the relatively nutrient-poor grains are passed through the intestines, the maximum goodness is extracted from them. Dogs, on the other hand, have much shorter intestines than herbivores or even omnivores. Their food needs to be nutrient-dense and easy to digest. Kibbles, with their high grain and filler content, are not. Comparing the size of the stool (poop) of a kibble-fed dog and a raw-fed dog is telling–kibble-fed dogs have large piles of soft poop, mostly undigested food and bacteria. Dogs that are raw-fed produce small amounts of dry stool that is almost entirely bone meal.
Lack of enzymes
Raw food basically digests itself–that’s the process that one sees as meat ripens and decomposes, even in the absence of bacteria or contaminants. That’s because it has an abundance of enzymes–tiny particles that help to break down the tissue in the food. Dogs need and thrive on these enzymes–not only do they make the physical job of digesting much easier, they are used by the dog’s body to further process the food. Enzymes are seen by many as one of the major keys to overall health for all dogs.
Feeding kibble does two things: One, it provides no enzymes. Enzymes are extremely fragile–heating above about 120 degrees Fahrenheit destroys them. All kibble is cooked at high temperatures, so the enzymes are no longer there by the time the meat in the kibble makes it into that crunchy little bit. Two, kibble digestion requires a certain enzyme, amylase, to digest the grains within the kibble. Dogs don’t naturally produce amylase, which means that they are not easily getting the nutrients present in the grains. In addition, the dog must produce its own enzymes to digest what goodness is there. The constant drag on the dog’s system in order to continually produce enzymes to digest what is not normally a food source leads to ill health.
Other Benefits of a Raw Diet
Raw bones are the best toothbrushes in the world for dogs. In addition, the enzymes in the meat and bones help to discourage tartar and plaque. And the lack of sugars and starches mean that plaque bacteria have nothing to feed on. Anyone who has ever had to have a dog put under general anesthesia in order to have his teeth scaled knows how wonderful it is to have piano-key white teeth from puppyhood to old age.
We’ve gone over this a little bit in previous sections, but the small dry raw-fed stool is a great advantage of the diet. You won’t have to yard-pick again–not only is the poop odorless, it turns white and powdery within days and literally dissolves with the next rain.
The raw diet is a mathematical equation with a lot of room for “fudging.” One of the great things about it is that the diet is supposed to be balanced over time, not for each meal. We would therefore suggest the following guidelines:
1. Look for balance over a week or two weeks. Try to make your amounts fall into your desired ratio of meaty bones, organs, and veggies over this amount of time.
2. Watch your dog daily for clues about how much or how little to feed. While there are some basic guidelines (2%-3% of body weight per day for adults, up to 10% of body weight per day for puppies) this is by no means a hard and fast rule. Every day, look at your dog. Is she looking a little beefier than yesterday? Feed a little less. A tiny bit gaunt? Feed a little more. Becoming attuned to these small changes will not only head off weight problems, it is an excellent way to keep track of the general health of your dog. Be aware that your puppy may eat the same amount of food for a long time–we have noted that from about three months to a year a puppy will often barely increase its intake. That’s because as their bodies increase in size, requiring more food, their growth rate decreases, so they need less. It all evens out. However, as a general rule of thumb expect males to need more than females and expect “intact” (un-spayed and un-neutered) dogs to need more than altered ones.
3. Become accustomed to the proper weight for your breed. Consult your breeder–some lines are heavier and some are lighter. As a general rule you should be able to feel the ribs easily with a flat hand against the side of the dog, but should not be able to put your fingers between them. You should be able to feel the hipbones but not see the depression between them.
Raw Meaty Bones (RMBs) and muscle meat: This should comprise the majority of the volume of the diet. Six or seven of every ten meat meals should be RMBs. RMBs are any cut of meat that is 50-75% meat and 25-50% bone. The most commonly fed RMBs are chicken backs, turkey necks and backs, thigh quarters, and the frames or carcasses (the body with breast meat, drumsticks and thighs, and wings removed) of either bird. However, there are many other options: pork neck bones, lamb neck bones, many of the rib cuts, whole rabbits, oxtail, and even exotic meats (there are several giant-breed breeders who buy ostrich and emu necks for their dogs). The bone must be of a size and texture that the dog can entirely eat–for adults this can be considerable, but for puppies it is safer to go with a softer bone like a chicken back. The remainder of the meat meals (three or four out of ten) may be muscle meat, either a bone joint that has more than 75% meat (lamb shanks would be an example) or pure muscle (pork picnics are an example, as would be shoulder steaks, stew meat, etc.). Some people feed almost entirely RMBs for the meat meals, feeding very little pure muscle (largely because of expense), which is fine as long as the dog does not become constipated. If you see him or her straining to poop or producing stool that crumbles into powder instantly, add more muscle meat.
Organ meats should be at least ten percent of the diet. We mainly feed liver and heart, and kidney if we can find it. Organ meat can be fed alone or as a part of the vegetable mix.
We generally feed one veggie meal per week, and is always fed in a liquefied form (after going through a food processor or grinder) so that the dog can utilize the goodness found inside the plant cells. Vegetable slop (often called veggie mix or veggie patties) is a slurry of many different kinds of vegetables and fruits, some healthy dairy if you want to, eggs (always with shells), etc. I usually empty my fridge into a batch of veggie mix. Dark green leafy veggies comprise the bulk of most mixes, though pumpkin-, bean-, or squash-based mixtures are also fine. A good rule of thumb is to have three to four vegetables or fruits in each mix, and to vary the mix over time. Remember, balance achieved over time is the key. The only vegetables to avoid are onions, eggplant, tomatoes in quantity, potatoes, and large amounts of spinach. Vegetable slop can and should be mixed with meat in order to increase its palatability and to get more muscle meat into the dog; up to 50% of its volume may be ground beef or other minces. Plan on making several quarts of the mix (we routinely make two or three gallons, enough for several months at a time) and freezing it in one- to two-cup containers or freezer bags. Lay it out to thaw the night before and it’s no more complicated than dumping kibble into a dish.
The remainder of the diet (usually counted as part of the veggie mix component) is supplements. These are oils (flax, olive, and cod liver are the favorites), trace mineral supplements (usually greens such as dried algae) garlic, eggs, dairy products, and specific “extras” geared to the individual dog (like glucosamine/chondroitin/MSM for arthritis). They are mixed into the veggie slop and fed as part of that meal.
The above is a description of a Billinghurst or “BARF”-style feeding regimen. I’ve used it on and off for a decade now and I think it offers a great diet. However, many raw feeders pattern their dogs’ diets after what’s called the prey model–the idea that taking in the entirety of whatever organism is being fed should be the closest to a truly ideal diet. That means you will feed very little vegetable matter, but you will feed more offal (entrails, pancreas, stomach, etc.) and you’ll be working either to find whole carcasses (lamb, calf, rabbit, etc.) or to “Frankenstein” a carcass together (the legs of a lamb, the entrails of a cow, the head of a salmon, etc.). Prey model also feeds more muscle and less bone. Prey-model feeding is best suited to those who are willing to put a lot of time and effort into raw feeding, mostly in terms of finding reliable sources for the raw carcasses. It also tends to be more expensive, because of the increased muscle meat. We feed as much prey as we possibly can here–for example, we feed beef heads and lots of tripe and pick up whole chickens whenever we can find them–so we’ll be happy to support any inclination you have in that direction, but I don’t think you have to feed only prey model for your dog to be optimally healthy.
Tripe is raw and un- or minimally washed stomach, often from a cow but any livestock species is fine. Tripe is sort of a magic food for dogs–they can eat nothing but tripe for their entire lives and be very healthy and happy. We start all of our puppies on tripe because it is incredibly digestible and contains natural enzymes and digestive juices that prime the puppies’ own stomachs for the more challenging RMBs. The benefits of tripe are many–a rubbery texture that is satisfying to chew, a perfect calcium/phosphorus balance, stringy fibers that floss the teeth as the dog eats, and a little bit of vegetable matter thrown in to balance the whole thing. The only problem with feeding tripe is finding it–stomachs are “unfit for human consumption” and so cannot legally be sold to private people. If you can find a small butchery or slaughterhouse that will set aside tripe for you and will “denature” it with charcoal (which designates the meat as non-human-grade but won’t hurt your dog at all), it can be an incredibly easy and cheap way to feed your dog a healthy diet. If you can find it elsewhere packaged specifically as dog food (there are several companies that do this) it is a wonderful addition to a raw diet. Tripe replaces both components of the raw diet, meat and vegetable.
Sample Billinghurst-Style Menu for a Cardigan Puppy
RMBs are chicken backs, ½ lb each (“strip” backs, which are mostly just the spine and some muscle meat). If you are able to buy big chicken backs with the thighs still attached, just adjust the amounts as needed.
Muscle Meals are lamb roasts or pork picnic or turkey breast or tripe, etc.–a big hunk of meat with little or no bone.
Veggie mix is 1lb kale, 2lb summer squash, 1 bunch bananas, 1 lb green beans, 12 oz cod liver oil, 6 eggs (ground with shells) 2 heads garlic, minced, 3 tablespoons algae mix (one option is Source, a horse supplement that is comprised of many dried sea algae), 12 oz cottage cheese or yogurt (or 2 cups goat milk if available), and 3-4 lb ground beef. DO NOT slavishly follow this menu. Switch it around every time. The largest ingredient should be dark green vegetables. Go light on the root veggies.
Organ meats are liver and heart. These are the two I consider essential, but the more variety the better. Lung, pancreas, kidney, intestine–it’s all good. Try to switch around as much as you can, as long as the dog gets some liver and heart every week or so.
This is a typical menu for a puppy; adults (over eighteen months) get larger amounts and are often fed only once a day instead of twice. Tiny puppies (8-16 weeks) are fed three times a day; just divide the amount per day into three meals instead of two. This week has one veggie meal and two organ meals; the next week may be different. I try to balance over two weeks, with about 60% of the diet coming from meat and bone, 20% from veggie mix (which of course has muscle in it) and 20% from organ meat.
AM: One small back or half of one large back
AM: 1 cup veggie mix
PM: One small back or half of a large one
AM: Muscle meal
PM: One small back
AM: One small back
AM: 1/8 raw beef heart (about 1/4 lb)
PM: One small back
AM: 1/4 – 1/2 lb tripe
PM: Muscle meal
AM: 1/4 lb liver (work up to this slowly–liver needs to be introduced in 1/8 lb increments) OR 1 cup veggie mix if liver is incorporated into the veggies
PM: One small back
How much is this going to cost?
Surprisingly little. Basically, you should be looking for RMBs at $.50/lb or less ($.29-.39/lb is a common price; we get chicken backs at $.20/lb and would be happy to share our source with you) and veggies as cheap as you can get them. When you compare the cost of a raw diet with the cost of a typical super-premium diet, you’ll find yourself on top almost all the time.
Where do I get this stuff?
Starting to feed raw requires a little detective work. There are sources of RMBs and cheap vegetables all over the place, but they’re not likely to be sending flyers to your mailbox. We would suggest you contact family butcheries (if they don’t have chicken necks or backs ask if they can order cases for you), get friendly with the meat department of your local supermarkets, ask produce supervisors or farmstand owners if you can have the bruised fruits and vegetables at a reduced rate, etc. If you live in New England, there is a great raw-food co-op called NERFs (New England Raw Feeders). NERFs will allow you to source anything from chicken backs to tripe to lamb necks, duck carcasses, buffalo, etc.
Help! My puppy has diarrhea!
First of all, calm down. Diarrhea is extremely common in the first few days and weeks of feeding a raw diet. As long as the puppy is eating well and seems otherwise healthy, it is nothing to worry about–just the puppy’s digestive system getting accustomed to a new way of eating. Diarrhea is also a sign of detoxification, a process whereby the dog’s body gets rid of allergens, dyes, and other nasties that were hiding in its body. If you are introducing an older dog to raw, you may see him or her “running at all ends”–weepy eyes, drooling, and diarrhea are common. Watch the whole dog, not her ends–if she’s otherwise healthy and does not have a fever, all is well. However, there are some things you can do to help the runs run their course. The first is by adding a probiotic to the food. A probiotic is a source of the beneficial bacteria that we all need in our intestines in order to digest food properly. A concentrated source of probiotic bacteria is Fastrack. This product is widely available and may be found at local feed stores or mail-ordered. It’s a good idea to have some on hand–refrigerate it to keep the cultures alive and healthy. Another source of probiotics is one you may already have on hand–plain yogurt with active cultures. While not as concentrated as a commercial probiotic, yogurt is very beneficial when added to meals on a regular basis. The second way you can streamline that digestive system is by adding enzymes to the meals. The very best way to do this is by feeding green tripe–an unwashed cow stomach. However, we realize that you might not be up to that instantly, so we suggest looking for a quality enzyme supplement for dogs. Prozyme and Dr. Goodpet are two brands that are popular, but feel free to shop around. Look for ingredients like protease, amylase, lipase, and cellulase.
If a dog who is used to a raw diet has diarrhea, try adding a can of pumpkin to the diet for a day or two. If the diarrhea persists or the dog seems genuinely ill, get thee to a vet!
Why is she throwing up?
Most likely she just literally bit off more than she could chew. Many puppies will bolt their food, and the automatic response that the very wise stomach has to a sudden influx of unchewed food is to send it right back up again. Let her clean it up–it’s just as good now as it was five minutes ago, and it will teach her to chew it better. Unless it becomes a chronic problem or is accompanied by other symptoms of sickness, it’s nothing to worry about.
Dogs commonly throw up bile (yellow foamy liquid) if their stomachs are empty and it’s past mealtime. Don’t let them get so hungry next time 🙂 and throw a snack their way in the afternoon.
My puppy’s feet are flattening!
This is not a problem solely related to the raw diet, but since it’s one of the most common nutrition-related events in a puppy’s life we thought it should be treated here. The eventual shape of a puppy’s feet is partially genetic (if mom and dad had feet that were flatter than desirable, chances are the puppy won’t have the toes of a puma) but is certainly influenced by diet. Most often, feet will go back up after teething is over, but check with your breeder to see if he or she recommends specific supplements.
Give Your Dog a Bone
Grow Your Pups with Bones–both by Ian Billinghurst.
Raw Meaty Bones–Tom Lonsdale (with both of these authors, expect to wade through some scientific stuff and deal with some unclear writing)–All three books available at Dogwise.com
Switching to Raw–Susan Johnson (available at switchingtoraw.com; this is a layman’s guide and is well and simply written)
Food Pets Die For–Ann Martin, available at Amazon.com (Ann doesn’t advise raw feeding, but she does expose what’s in commercial kibbles)