Trust me, I did not make the transition from feeding my dog kibble to raw meaty bones cold turkey as it were. What?! Raw? Bones? As many pet owners, I was scared to death. So my confidence - and his menu - evolved. First cooked meat, rice and kibble. Then raw meat mixed with pulverized vegetables. Finally, raw meat on or off the bone. Knowing now what I didn't know then, I wouldn't hesitate to make the switch, but I do understand your concerns. Let's take them one by one:
1. What do I feed my dog?
- Whole Eggs
- Beef (any parts, except dense weight-bearing bones)
- Liver (any species)
- Kidney (any species)
- Green tripe
- Heart (any species)
- Spleen (any species)
- Sweetbreads (any species)
- Lung (any species)
- Whole rabbits (or parts)
- Chicken (whole or parts)
- Turkey (whole or parts)
- Pronghorn antelope
- Whole fish (avoid fresh salmon)
- Canned fish (use sparingly)
As a rule of thumb, feed two to three percent of your dog's ideal body weight. For example, a 50 pound standard poodle eats one pound of food per day in two meals. If your animal starts to gain weight so that you can't feel his rib cage for the padding, feed less. If his rib cage becomes more pronounced or visible, feed more.
3. What ratio of meat to bone?
Visualize a whole rabbit or sheep. That's a lot of meat. This is the proportion of meat:bone:organ - a ratio of 80:10:10. This is 80 percent muscle meat, 10 percent bone and 10 percent organ meat. Many people feed this proportion at every meal. Others feed this proportion over time.
4. How do I know I'm getting it right?
Henceforth, you are on poo patrol.
First your dogs and cat will digest much more of this food than kibble; thus it will make less waste.
When your dog passes a scant, well-formed stool, the percentage of meat to bone is right. If it's hard and white, way too much bone. If it's loose, too much food, too much meat or too much organ meat. Black, tarry stool - too much fat.
The book, Raw Dog Food Make It Easy for Your Dog by Carina Beth McDonald is an excellent primer for beginners.
5. Should I add supplements?
If your menu consists of a wide variety of protein from different animals with a small amount of table scraps such as cooked vegetables and pieces of fruit, you really don't need to supplement with vitamins and minerals. That said, a good probiotic supplement and fish-oil are healthy additions to a well-balanced diet. Good for digestion as well as skin and hair.
6. How do I know that my dog is getting the appropriate nutrients?
How do you know that your family is getting all the appropriate nutrients? Despite what pet-food manufacturers would have us believe, feeding dogs like feeding ourselves is not rocket science. And just as with the human mammal, every body is different, living in different environments, with different activity levels and stresses, so is your companion animal. If your dog or cat is lean, with good muscle tone, clean teeth, sparkly eyes, good energy and is largely free of disease and parasites, the diet is nutrient rich.
7. How safe is it to be feeding raw around a (human) toddler?
I have reservations about leaving dogs loose around toddlers at any time, but they have nothing to do with hygiene. Even the best dogs can snap. Moreover, they often play with children like they play with other puppies. Chewing on an ear is not out of the question. For safety, never leave your dog and child unattended. Also do not let your child try to take away food from your dog or taunt your dog with food. Common sense, people.
As far as food safety, simply clean your kitchen as usual after preparing your dog's meals. Wash all bowls and utensils in hot, soapy water, rinse with hot water and dry. Wipe down your counter top with a clean, soapy dish cloth, rinse and dry. Anti-bacterial wipes are very handy for this procedure. The same as you do when you prepare a meat or fish meal for your skin-kids.
8. Does raw food make dogs more aggressive?
In a word? No. However, they may want to guard their food from you – even if they have never shown that behavior before. This is how Raw Dog Ranch explains it:
Think of it this way. I give you $10 and then someone tries to take it from you by force. How much of a struggle are you going to put up to keep that $10? Now, what if I gave you $1,000? You would be much more likely to fight to keep that amount of money.
It's the same for dogs. Dry treats and kibble are worth $10 and raw meat is worth $1,000. What you need to do is teach the dog that there is no REASON to try to guard the raw food from you.
I prefer a totally non-confrontational method of dealing with resource guarding because it does not increase the dogs behavior. It teaches the dog that GREAT things happen when we approach their food bowl while they are eating. My goal is to have the dog happily look up at me when I reach down towards their bowl.
9. How hard is it to source food locally, at a decent cost?
This depends on where you live and how many mouths you have to feed. But once committed to feeding raw, most dog owners get quite resourceful at sourcing and buying meat. We shop grocery store sales. We make friends with butchers. We take freezer-burned meat from family and friends. We visit slaughterhouses. We form co-operative buying clubs. We befriend hunters.We buy from goat, sheep and rabbit breeders. We haunt farmer's markets. Or we buy an extra hunk of meat when we shop for our family. Once you get the hang of it, cost varies from free to $6 a pound depending on source, cut, quality and volume.
10. Will I need a freezer?
Freezer space is always nice when you want to take advantage of bulk buying or low-priced sales. It's also great to have space to package serving-size meals. I don't eat much meat, so my condo-sized freezer was sufficient for a monthly purchase of grass-fed beef or lamb - about 30 pounds. I once mistakenly bought a case of pork butts, a total of 70 pounds of meat. I stashed them in a friend's freezer until I needed some, then defrosted one butt, cut it up into one pound packages and transferred it to my freezer. On the other hand, a freezer is not strictly necessary. When Matisse was heading into his last mile, we bought food day by day at the supermarket.
11. How do I feed while traveling with my dogs?
Frozen meals travel well in a cooler. Grocery stores exist almost everywhere. I admit that there was a bit of "ick" factor when visiting people who aren't hip to raw-feeding. They get over it.
12. Where do I feed my dogs?
Your dogs are very happy to take their meals outside if your yard is fenced. Otherwise, spread a towel on the floor in your garage, your kitchen or wherever and let him have at it. Throw the towel in the wash and clean the floor with antibacterial wipes when he's finished eating.
13. Is this a lot of work? I work, exercise the dogs and have a toddler, so I’m short on extra time.
It's what you make it. There is a learning curve, which can be taxing. But when you move past the point of seeing this as a chore and look at it more as an extension of feeding your family, it becomes second nature If you buy meat in bulk, you'll spend some time weekly or monthly sorting, slicing, bagging and freezing. Then all you have to do is pull out a meal, thaw and give it to your dog. If you're worried about bones and persnickety about percentages, sorting, slicing, grinding, measuring, bagging and freezing takes a little longer. But once you establish a routine, it's easy peasy.
14. Isn't it dangerous to feed bones to dogs?
Let's face it. Anything can be a danger to dogs. They get into the garbage. They eat socks, shoes, sticks, plastic bags. They can choke on a tennis ball. So there's no substitute for owner vigilance. But by and large, dogs are very savvy about eating bones. I once watched Matisse dissect a rack of ribs with surgical precision and tidiness. It was awesome. This comes from Myths About Raw: Are Bones Safe?
People are scared of feeding dogs bones because a) they misunderstand that raw bones are fully digestible while cooked are not, b) they want to scare you into thinking you are going to kill your dog if you give them bones, and c) bone-induced problems are blown way out of proportion in an effort to maintain the status quo of feeding kibble.
What these people forget to tell you about are the 60,000 dogs suffering from bloat each year—of which nearly 20,000 die (Burrows, C.F. and L.A. Ignaszewski. 1990. Canine gastric dilatation-volvulus. Journal of Small Animal Practice. 35:295-298. In Lonsdale, T. 2001. Raw Meaty Bones. pg 117)—or the number of dogs dying from choking on kibble—which is a more common occurrence than one hears of!
They also forget to mention the numbers of dogs that choked on or swallowed tennis balls, rocks, sticks, and a variety of other objects. These incidences FAR outweigh the numbers of dogs that have problems with raw bones. Just take a survey of veterinarians in your area and see what the most common blockage or choking culprits are in their specific practices. Do not forget to ask how many dogs they have treated (successfully and unsuccessfully) for bloat.
Yes, problems can occur with raw bones, just as problems can occur with feeding the "safer" kibble (bloat, choking, telescoping bowel, aspirated kibble leading to pneumonia, etc.). These problems typically occur in dogs that gulp their food or are fed small things like chicken wings and necks (the prime suspects of choking incidences on raw). Other culprits are the large weight-bearing bones of herbivores, things like knuckle bones, femurs, etc. These, ironically, are the kinds of bones pet food manufacturers and some vets recommend dogs receive regularly to help keep teeth clean! These bones chip or break teeth and can have pieces of bone flake off.
If you are concerned about choking or about bones getting stuck or about broken teeth, here are some things you can do:
- Feed appropriately sized pieces. Do not be feeding a dog the size of a Rottweiler a little chicken neck or wing! Feed that dog a whole chicken. Bigger pieces force the dog to slow down and chew. Also, stay away from cut bones; this includes things like cut up neck bones (where they are cut into individual vertebrae), cut ox-tail bones, and cut knuckle bones. The smaller size encourages inappropriate gulping, not to mention the rather sharp edges left over from the saw blade! Feed large MEATY bones that are in as whole condition as possible.
- Feed raw meaty bones frozen or partially frozen. The dog will have to work at it much harder and will be forced to slow down.
- Do not feed the big weight-bearing bones of large herbivores. These are well-known for chipping and cracking teeth! These include the ever popular "recreational bones" like cow femurs and soup bones. They are incredibly dense and hard, and can result in slab fractures and cracked carnassial teeth. Avoid them if you can and stick to MEATY bones that are edible.
- Feed MEATY bones that are surrounded by and wrapped up in plenty of meat. Do not feed bare bones or bones that have hardly any meat on them. Too much bone can lead to constipation, so feeding very bony parts like beef knuckle bones, chicken wings, and even some rib bones can result in some very hard "concrete-like" poops. If you do feed a bony meal like whole neck bones or a slab of beef ribs, supplement with some raw "meaty meat" on the side to compensate for the high bone content.
- If you are still worried, learn the doggy Heimlich maneuver and monitor the dog while it eats (which should be done anyway, regardless of what the dog is fed!). And always remember: more dogs die from bloat or from choking on kibble and tennis balls than from choking on raw bones.
As I said at the outside, I proceeded on this course with extreme caution. Even after I worked up the courage to feed raw chicken or turkey wings, I hacked them into pieces - removing the cartilage then slicing apart the two bones in the center piece - so there was no chance a wing would "spring open" in his throat. Again, owner vigilance. Some owners never get past this stage. They continue to grind up bone and meat so that there is no chance of an accident. It's a labor of love.
Our worst experience was the night that a piece of gristle lodged between two molars. Since I didn't have two sets of hands, I took Matisse to the emergency vet. With the aid of a vet tech, she plucked it out in two seconds. No charge.
Any change brings unfamiliar experience. That's the learning curve. Proceed with all due caution for your own peace of mind. Ask for help when you need it. But by all means, proceed.
Here are some really good resources and experienced raw feeders who are always happy to support your transition to right diet.
Tom Lonsdale's Raw Meaty Bones
Myths About Raw Feeding
Raw Feeding for Dogs and Cats - Yahoo Group
Raw Fed Dogs Recipes
Carnivore Feed Suppliers - Yahoo Group
Raw Chat - Yahoo Group
Raw Feeding Primer - Dogs Naturally Magazine
There are many, many others.