This webpage is designed for our clients who have already met with one of our veterinarians and discussed the appropriateness of raw diets for their pets. Because our office visits are unusually long, our veterinarians have ample time to get to know you, your pets, and your family. If we recommend feeding raw foods to your pets, it is because we have determined that the benefits to your pets are great, and the risks involved in feeding this diet are minimal to non-existent. If you would like to discuss the benefits of raw diets for your pet, please schedule an appointment with Dr. Epstein.
The emergence of raw diets has created a bit of a controversy (see Concerns section below). Because raw diets are still considered alternative and not mainstream, and because like anything else in this world, risks are involved (just as risks are involved with feeding kibble, for example).,we are forced to state the following disclaimer:
Wilmington Animal Hospital, its owner, assigns, heirs, and employees shall not have liability or responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any loss or damage caused, or alleged to have been caused, directly or indirectly, by the information contained on this webpage.
Now relax and read on!
For thousands of millennia, our canine and feline companions have subsisted on diets of raw meats and human dinner scraps. In the mid-Twentieth Century pet foods began growing in popularity, supplanting the more natural diets of our dogs and cats. The past fifteen years, however, have seen a rise in the raw food diets, often called “BARF” diets for bones and raw foods or biologically appropriate raw foods.
Feeding these diets is relatively simple. Most pet owners notice improvements in one or more qualities of their companions.
These improvements include shinier hair coat, better body muscle to fat ratios, cleaner teeth and breath, decreased itching, normalized energy levels, improved urinary tract health, better resistance to infections, increased mobility with a decrease in arthritis pain, decreased allergy symptoms, and little to no hairballs in cats.
Many people have concerns for feeding raw meats to their pets. The number one concern is food-borne illnesses such as those caused by Salmonella and E. coli, and spread of these zoonotic pathogens to humans (zoonotic means a disease that can be transmitted from animals to people). Raw food can also harbor other potentially toxic organisms, like Toxoplasma gondii. Other concerns include choking on bones and perforation of the stomach or intestines from bones. Feeding raw foods to sick or debilitated pets is another concern. Most risks associated with the feeding of raw diets can be significantly decreased by using commercially prepared raw diets.
In our experience, when feeding these diets to our patients, illness in dogs and cats resulting from ingesting raw meats potentially tainted with Salmonella and E. coli is a rare occurrence. The gastrointestinal tracts of our patients are designed for handling and digesting raw meats. When raw meat is ingested, the stomach pH goes to a highly acidic pH of 1, making it very difficult for these organisms to survive. Furthermore, the short digestive tract of a carnivore enables the food to be digested, packaged, and ready to go (as feces) within six hours. It is not until hours later that E. coli begins to multiply significantly. If you are concerned about infecting your pet with Salmonella or E. coli, we recommend feeding only commercially available brands of raw foods that take measures to control against the presence of these organisms. The commercially prepared raw diets provide the most safeguards for those interested in feeding raw to their pets.
Regarding public health and the spread of Salmonella and E. coli to humans, these are real concerns which make the feeding of raw foods an undertaking that should be handled prudently and only when the people in contact with the dog (and some cats) are in good health. The main method of transmission of these pathogens is fecal-oral. In dogs and cats, this would occur when cleaning up feces followed by inadvertent contact of the hands to the mouth. Since feces can carry many other harmful organisms, including worm eggs and larva as well as toxoplasma oocysts (in cats) that can infect people, humans should always wash their hands thoroughly after cleaning litter boxes and picking up outside after their dogs. (And a special note here: humans should ALWAYS pick up their dogs’ feces outside!)
A theoretical concern is for the transmission of pathogens from the animal’s saliva to the humans in contact with them. No one has thoroughly studied the survival time of zoonotic pathogens in the animals’ mouths. Some speculate that factors like washout by saliva (dilution and swallowing) might serve to remove the pathogens within minutes. In any case, it is prudent to minimize your pet’s licking of humans. We do not recommend feeding raw foods in households with small children and with immune-compromised contact individuals (for example, those with AIDs, those undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy, those taking immunosuppressive drugs, and those in general poor health). If all humans in contact with your pet are healthy, and you want to feed raw foods but are concerned about feeding raw foods containing Salmonella and E. coli, we recommend feeding only commercial brands of raw foods that take measures to control against the presence of these organisms.
Raw meats can also harbor Toxoplasma gondii and Neosporum caninum. While problems related to ingesting meats infected with these organisms are uncommon, they are still possible. Freezing of the meats at zero degrees Fahrenheit (normal freezer temperatures) for at least a few days will kill these organisms. Since commercial raw diets are already deep-frozen for longer than this, these diets do not put your pet at risk for these organisms. If you purchase your own raw meats, you should always freeze them for a week or longer before feeding them to your pets. Neosporum is not present in high quality commercial raw diets as the protozoan resides in aborted fetuses which are not included in diets using meat fit for human consumption. Note that the main source of toxoplasmosis for cats is small creatures that are hunted and eaten. Once exposed, the cat goes through a once-in-a-lifetime shedding period of one to two weeks, during which time the feces, if left in the box for more than 48 hours, can be infective to people. Other non-raw meat sources of toxoplasmosis include cockroaches and potting soil.
Regarding choking on bones and perforation of the stomach and small intestines, while these events are rare, they are still possible. Most dogs and cats know what to do with chicken and other meats containing bones. However, some dogs and cats still manage to eat raw bones and choke on them, usually by eating them too quickly. To circumvent this concern, the owner may first elect to chop up the bones into small pieces or purchase a meat grinder to do the work. Likewise, numerous commercial raw diets are now available that contain the bones in finely chopped form. When cats are fed raw meat with bones, the food should always be chopped up into very small pieces, 1/8 inch or smaller. Never feed cats whole chicken necks.
If your pet is sick or debilitated, we advise you to first have one of our doctors examine your pet before you embark on feeding it a raw diet. In actuality, feeding raw diets can be one of the best ways to rebuild the health of some pets. Contrary to popular medical opinion, in our practice we have seen raw diets contribute to the improvement of cats in kidney failure, cats suffering from Feline Leukemia Virus and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, and dogs with food allergies
Converting Dogs to Raw Diets
Most dogs need no transition period. Simply introduce the meal at hand and allow them to eat!
If the dog has a history of a sensitive stomach, then gradual conversion might be in order. Begin with a small portion of the diet. If feeding actual chicken with bones, chop up a small portion containing both meat and bones (50/50) and feed it.
If using a commercial diet, simply offer a small portion of the defrosted diet. Then, if your dog shows no reaction, (diarrhea, vomiting), continue to introduce a higher volume each day until you have reached the intended amount.
Be patient—some dogs with sensitive systems can take months before they can handle raw diets! Other dogs will never be able to change their diets to raw. Quite often these are dogs that have historically shown a sensitivity to any changes in diet, even from one brand of commercial dog food to another.
Other dogs might show an initial aversion to raw foods. You might have to make them hungry first. Then, lightly braze the food in a frying pan (no or little oil, then heat) to stimulate their appetites by making the food smell a bit more like table foods. Always feed the raw meat meal separately from the dry or canned food meal.
Converting Cats to Raw Diets
By 6-12 months of age, cats become fixated on whatever foods they have eaten to date. This means that if a cat has been eating only dry food, it will continue to eat only dry food. If a cat has been eating only canned fish varieties of cat food, it will continue to eat only canned fish varieties of cat food. In other words, adult cats that have not been introduced to raw foods as kittens might present a challenge!
The easiest way to circumvent this problem is to introduce your cat to raw foods when it is a kitten. Most kittens will eat any food placed in front of them, as they still maintain their instinct for raw foods. This is the time to begin feeding chopped up chicken (buffalo wings are easiest; chicken backs, ribs, and thighs are cheapest) using a large knife and a kitchen scissors.
For adult cats that have never been introduced to raw foods, hiding the raw meat in canned food often is the easiest option. Simply mix a tiny amount, like a pinch, of commercial raw patties (Nature’s Variety Instinct raw bites or medallions, Bravo! patties or chubs, etc.) or your own turkey burger or hamburger in with the canned food– and don’t tell your cat. Then, each day, gradually increase the amount of raw in the diet until your cat is eating 100% raw.
Some cats will constantly reject any attempts to add raw foods to their canned foods. In these cases, even though we advise against feeding dry foods to cats, you can try to add a small amount of crumbled freeze-dried commercial raw food onto the dry foods. If you are lucky, at a later date your cat will allow you to rehydrate the freeze-dried food a little bit before adding it to the dry foods.
Another trick is to mush some raw chicken liver into the canned foods. It is safe to feed a small amount of raw liver every day to your cat. Often the cat that will reject burger meat in its food will accept raw chicken liver in its food.
For more information on feeding cats, visit catinfo.org
Raw Diets for Dogs
First of all, keep it simple. If you want to get complicated, surf the Web!
There are many commercial diets out there now. Many now meet the AAFCO standards for being nutritionally complete and balanced for all life stages. It is very economical to exclusively feed these diets to small dogs, and the health benefits for all size dogs likely make these diets economically worthwhile.
For larger breeds of dogs, these commercial raw diets can be fed as one meal a day, or even just a few times a week to supplement your dog’s regular meals. There are brands available that are made from uncommon meat sources such as rabbit, venison, buffalo, emu, kangaroo, and others. Most companies use beef, turkey, and chicken and many use organic and/or grass-fed meat sources. These diets tend to contain ground bones, organ meats, and other ingredients like yogurt, beets, vegetables, fish rich in omega 3 fish oils, and many other food items. Contents and principle meat sources vary from brand to brand.
If you are going to prepare raw food on your own, simply make sure you feed from four principal food groups:
- Organ meats
- Fruits and vegetables
It is easiest to feed chicken as the meat and bone source if you are preparing the meat fresh. Chicken backs, ribs, and thighs are cheapest. As discussed in the “Concerns” section, you can chop up or grind the chicken before feeding it to your dog. After purchasing the chicken, wrap each piece individually and freeze it. Defrost it overnight, and then chop it up in the morning. Defrosting the chicken for approximately 9 hours allows it to become slightly soft, but not rubbery, and therefore easiest to chop.
Varying the meat sources from time to time is a healthy, natural way to provide a variety of nutrients to your dog. The easiest way to do this is to purchase commercial raw diets and feed these from time to time. These generally cost about 2-3 times as much as your home-prepared chicken, but they contain the chopped up meats, bones, organs, vegetables, and other ingredients- in other words, you’re paying for someone else to do all the work!
Once a week, a meal of organ meats can be fed. Organ meats include chicken livers, hearts and gizzards, often packaged together for purchase; and beef hearts and kidneys. You can, of course, feed a small amount of organ meats daily, but, we are trying to keep this simple! Feeding chicken livers alone can cause the runs in some dogs, so consider offering a variety of organ meats at one time. Buy a few types of organs, and package a mix in freezer bags. Expect your dog’s stool to be softer after eating an all-organ meat meal.
Five to 20 percent of the diet can come from fruits and vegetables. These can be anything your dog will eat. Some dogs will eat raw carrots; others will only eat broccoli if it is steamed. Grating vegetables or putting them in a blender works for some dogs and actually makes them easier to digest. Frozen vegetables are fine to use. Note that corn is a grain, not a vegetable.. Avoid canned vegetables and fruits. Fruits should be very ripe because in the wild, the dog is most likely to eat the rotting apple that has fallen from the tree. Variety is also important for some fruits and vegetables- don’t feed the same ones day in and day out. By varying the fruits and vegetables, you will be introducing a wide variety of nutrients including all sorts of antioxidants, and you will be less likely to contribute to nutrient excesses in breeds predisposed to bladder stones, for example. Avoid onions, leeks, grapes, raisins, and macadamia nuts which have all been associated with toxicities in dogs and cats.
Other foods and supplements that are recommended are:
- Raw green grass-fed tripe. Darwin’s makes a bison tripe which is grass-fed/grass-finished (the highest quality). This provides probiotics, healthy fats, and many other nutrients.
- Fish oils for omega 3 fatty acids. We recommend VRS’s Canine Omega Benefits. This has to be purchased initially from your veterinarian, then you can purchase future bottles directly from the manufacturer with discounts.
- Probiotics. We recommend VRS’s EnteroTruBenefits which contains pre- and probiotics for the gut and mouth. Refills can be purchased directly from the manufacturer with discounts.
- Occasional seaweed, like kelp, dulce, nori, etc. Small quantities of this provide trace minerals.
Some dogs will decide to eat from only certain food groups above. If this is the case, contact us so that we can determine what supplements your dog will need to make up for the deficiencies in diet.
Determining Quantities to Feed Dogs
There is no formula for this! As a general guideline, you can feed one pound of meat per 50 pounds of dog. Rapidly growing dogs and active dogs tend to need more; older dogs and inactive dogs tend to need less. If your dog gains weight on this amount then decrease it; if your dog loses weight on this amount, then increase it!
Meats that are lower in fat include: turkey, buffalo, ostrich, venison, and rabbit. Meats that are higher in fat and help put weight on include: beef, lamb, duck, and pork.
Raw Diets for Cats
In the wild, cats eat mice, moles, and baby birds. Feeding raw diets at home does not have to be more complicated! The good news is that there are many commercial diets out there now. Many have passed AAFCO’s standards for balance and completeness. Most, in our opinion, are far superior to canned and dry processed cat foods. They often contain many whole foods that supply trace minerals, antioxidants, omega 3 fatty acids, and other nutrients. And because you are feeding such small quantities, they are economical, especially when compared to the highest quality canned foods. We recommend these readily-available commercial raw diets.
If you still want to do this on your own, the simplest food to feed is chopped up chicken. One buffalo wing, chopped up so that no piece is larger than 1/8 inch in any direction or ground up in a meat grinder, is one meal! Vary the cuts – backs, thighs, and ribs are cheapest – and add organs – hearts, gizzards, and livers – a few times a week. Offer other meats in raw form – venison, beef, and turkey are most available.
If you are preparing your own raw food, we recommend these foods and supplements:
Fish oils for omega 3 fatty acids. We recommend VRS’s Feline Omega Benefits. This has to be purchased initially from your veterinarian, then you can get refills directly from the manufacturer with discounts.
Probiotics. We recommend VRS’s EnteroTruBenefits which contains pre- and probiotics for the gut and mouth. Refills can be purchased directly from the manufacturer with discounts.
Once weekly small quantities of seaweed, like kelp, dulce, nori, etc. These provide trace minerals. Because of the iodine content, these should not be given daily.
To learn more about what pet foods are made of, read Ann Martin’s landmark book Food Pets Die For, available from all major booksellers.
For more information on feline nutrition, including how to read a pet food label, visit: http://catinfo.org
Cooking a Stew for Your Dog
For one reason or another, you may elect to cook for your dog rather than offer raw food. The good news is that dogs are not very discerning restaurant patrons. In other words, they’ll eat just about anything you put in front of them! As long as you get the basic ingredients and approximate ratios, your dog will appreciate the finished product.
Here are suggested ingredients for a stew:
- 40-70% of any or all of these boneless meats: chicken, turkey, duck, rabbit, beef, pork, venison. Try to add some fish for the omega 3 fish oils. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon and wild-caught Pacific halibut are recommended. (see Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch for more information on safe fish to eat)
- 20% organ meats: chicken or beef hearts, chicken or beef/calf liver, gizzards
- 5-20% vegetables: anything except onions and leeks. Safe bets are broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, squash, zucchini. Rotate spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables like kale, arugula and dandelion. It is important to rotate all veggies. Use fresh or frozen, never canned. Go for color! Avoid onions, leeks, scallions and garlic which have all been associated with toxicities in dogs.
- 5-10% grain if your dog can’t hold its weight: oats, barley, quinoa
- Mushrooms: shiitake, crimini, maitake, bell
- Spring or filtered water
- Cook in a stew pot or crock pot. Then place feeding portions in freezer bags or containers and freeze. Defrost portion in refrigerator overnight.
This is not a 100 percent nutritionally complete diet. We recommend the following supplements and foods:
- Call of the Wild by Wysong (available at Wilmington Animal Hospital). This contains most of the missing nutrients, like calcium and certain vitamins, and adds whole foods for other benefits. This can be added to the entire stew after it’s cooled down or to each portion when it is fed.
- Fish oils for omega 3 fatty acids if you are not using fish in the stew. We recommend VRS’s Canine Omega Benefits. This has to be purchased initially from your veterinarian, then you can get refills directly from the manufacturer with discounts.
- Probiotics. We recommend VRS’s EnteroTruBenefits which contains pre- and probiotics for the gut and mouth. Refills can be purchased directly from the manufacturer with discounts.
- Once weekly small quantities of seaweed, like kelp, dulce, nori, etc. These provide trace minerals. Because of the iodine content, these should not be given daily.