As I said on the Why BARF? page, as it is for our horses, there are certainly enough compelling reasons to stop feeding our dogs processed food. After all, many dog food ingredients come from a chemistry lab, not nature.
An unbalanced raw diet done wrong can harm your dog, so here’s a scientific raw diet that’s easy to follow and understand.
Step 1: Protein And Fat
Protein & Fat Rule - The staple of your dog’s meal is meat. You can buy meat from the grocery store or from the butcher. The fat content should be between 10% and 20%, including any oils you add to your dog’s meals.
All of your dog’s energy requirements come from just three sources: protein, fat and carbohydrate. These macronutrients are the only source of calories (energy) for your dog.
Protein is made of building blocks called amino acids. Amino acids are important not just for energy, but to assemble the cellular tissues which make up the vital organs in the body. They also make enzymes that fire important metabolic processes.
Fat is a rich source of energy. Pound for pound, fat contains double the amount of calories as protein. So you need to watch the amount of fat that goes into your dog. But make no mistake - fat is an important nutrient, protecting the body’s cells and brain, and it’s used to make hormones and fat soluble vitamins.
Both protein and fat are essential nutrients – this means a dog will literally die without a steady supply. But carbohydrates aren’t essential … your dog will do just fine without them.
This doesn’t mean some carbohydrates aren’t valuable. Some forms of carbohydrate can boost a dog’s immune system and reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases. But not all carbohydrates carry this benefit, and we’ll get to that further on.
Getting The Fat Right
The foundation of a dog’s raw diet is protein and fat - this makes up most of the meal. It’s as simple as buying ground meat or chunks and putting them in your dog’s bowl, but … balance is important.
This means feeding a diet that’s about 10% to 20% fat total, including any fats like fish oil that you add to your dog’s raw diet. The remaining foundation of your dog’s raw meals will be protein.
It’s important to keep your fat within this range. Here’s why …
- Too Much Fat - Fat is relatively devoid of vitamins and minerals, and it contains a lot of calories. This presents a challenge if the diet is too high in fat. If your dog’s diet contains more than 20% fat, it will cannibalise his vitamins and minerals. The resulting diet can be nutritionally incomplete. This is especially important for puppies and older dogs, who need more nutrients than adult dogs.
- Too Little Fat - If the fat dips much below 10%, you’ll start to see dry, itchy skin. This is one of the first signs of fat deficiency, so try to stay within the 10-20% range most days.
Here’s a list of the typical fat percentage in common meats you can buy at the butcher or grocery store:
- Ground beef (90% lean): 10%
- Ground beef (80% lean): 20%
- Regular ground beef: 30%
- Beef liver: 4%
- Ground chicken (skinless): 8%
- Chicken necks (with skin): 25%
- Chicken leg (with skin): 16%
- Ground lamb: 21%
- Ground turkey (skinless): 8%
- Turkey neck (with skin): 6%
- Duck (skinless): 6%
- Ground pork: 21%
- Rabbit: 2%
- Deer: 9%
- Salmon: 7%
- Egg: 10%
So there we have it, finding the proteins for your dog and making sure the fat content is not too high or too low. Now we move onto minerals.
Bone is an excellent source of many minerals, so that means you need to choose some meats that have the bone in. And if you don’t, you need to find a bone replacement. On to Step 2.
Step 2: Get The Calcium And Minerals Right
Calcium Rule - 10% to 15% of your dog’s total diet needs to be bone. Puppies need at least 12% and up to 15% bone.
Your dog needs a steady supply of minerals and trace minerals. Along with enzymes from proteins, minerals are important cofactors that fire all of the metabolic processes in your dog’s body. If your dog is missing minerals, things can go very, very wrong. He can develop crippling joint disease, seizures, heart issues and more.
Before you panic, rest assured it’s easy to get this step right with bones.
Bone is about 65% minerals, including phosphorus, magnesium and zinc, and most importantly, calcium. Calcium and phosphorus work synergistically in a dog’s body to move the muscles and control all of the body functions. So, your dog needs a steady supply of these minerals.
Meat without any bone at all contains a lot of phosphorus and very little calcium. If you feed an all-meat diet without calcium, the body would naturally pull all of the calcium from its bones to get enough to move the muscles and control body processes. So, if the diet is too low in calcium, you’ll often see bone and joint disease, especially in growing puppies.
A wild dog would eat whole animals like deer and rabbits. This type of wild prey averages about 12% bone with little variation. In fact, even eggs are 12% shell (another source of calcium).
10% to 15% of your dog’s total diet needs to be bone. Puppies need at least 12% and up to 15% bone to support their skeletal growth and development of adult teeth.
TOP TIP - It’s important that your dog’s bone is raw … cooking bones will cause them to dry out and this can create dangerous sharp edges.
Raw Diet Foundation: Minerals
To keep a dog’s bone content in the 12-15% range, some of their meat must have the bone in them, easily found at your butcher or supermarket.
It’s important to make sure the bone matches the size of your dog - a Chihuahua won’t be able to chew through a beef rib bone, but a Rottweiler certainly can. If your dog can’t eat all of the bone, then it’s not a good source of minerals. Make sure your dog can completely eat the bone.
You’ll also want to stay away from pieces your dog can swallow whole. If a butcher cuts up an ox tail into 2 inch pieces, a dog may swallow them whole and might not be able to digest them, which in turn might cause an intestinal blockage.
Try to choose bones that have a lot of joints, like necks, tails and feet, as well as non-weight-bearing bones. Weight bearing bones can break teeth or get stuck in the digestive tract. Meaty bones with a lot of small bones and joints are the safest choice for your dog.
Apparently dogs have a built-in mechanism for bone safety. If a dog swallows a piece of bone that’s too large to digest, they often just throw it up for a second pass!
Typical Bone Content
Here’s the bone content of common meaty bones you can find at your butcher or local pet store:
• Whole chicken (not including the head and feet): 25%
• Leg quarter: 30%
• Split breast: 20%
• Thigh 15%
• Drumstick: 30%
• Wing: 45%
• Neck: 36%
• Back: 45%
• Feet: 60%
• Whole turkey: 21%
• Thigh: 21%
• Drumstick: 20%
• Wing: 37%
• Neck: 42%
• Back: 41%
• Whole: 28%
• Neck: 50%
• Feet: 60%
• Ribs: 52%
• Oxtails: 45% to 65% (the bone percentage goes up as the tail gets thinner and less meaty)
• Whole rabbit (fur and all): 10%
• Whole rabbit (dressed): 28%
• Rib: 27%
• Shoulder blade: 24%
• Whole shoulder (arm and blade): 21%
Remember that in order to give your dog 10% to 15% bone, you need to mix the above bone choices with his meat.
Finding the bone percentage
The simplest way to figure out how much bone is in your dog’s diet is to know the percentage of bone in the foods you feed.
For example, you’ve bought duck feet, and using the above list, you know that duck feet are 60% bone. If you feed duck feet as half your dog’s meals, the bone content would be 30% - too high! But if you halve that, your dog would get 15% bone. Perfect! So you would feed 3/4 meat and 1/4 duck feet to get to 15% bone.
This is usually all you need to do - it’s fine to estimate the bone content since you don’t have to be exact with the amount of bone to feed. If you’re a bit off, your dog will be just fine. Just make sure you have at least 12% for puppies - they need a good supply of calcium to support their growth.
If your dog is too small to consume bone or you have a dog who struggles to crunch through bone, you can give a bone substitute.
Many raw feeders use eggshell powder, but it’s missing magnesium, so it’s not a balanced choice for puppies. The best bone replacement is bone meal, calcium carbonate or seaweed calcium.
TOP TIP - If you’re using a calcium replacement, give your dog about 800 to 1,000 mg calcium per pound of food or 1/2 teaspoon ground eggshells for adult dogs.
OK, if you’ve followed the first two steps, your dog’s basic protein and mineral requirements will be met. Next, you’ll want to make sure he gets enough vitamins.
Step 3: The Organ Meats
Organ Meat Rule - Liver should be 10% of the diet. Heart should be 5% of the diet. These organs are essential. If you can also get kidney, pancreas, spleen, lung, eyes, brain, sweetbread and green tripe, these can add an additional 5-10% of the diet, if your dog can tolerate it. Bear in mind that organ meats are so rich in nutrients, they can cause digestive upset if you add too much, too soon. Start with about 5% of the diet as organs and gradually work up to 20% if your dog can tolerate it.
Not all proteins are made the same. Some are richer in vitamins and minerals than others. Enter the organ meats - Mother Nature’s multivitamins 😉
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get enough vitamins and minerals in the raw diet without organ meats. And the organ that supplies the most, pound for pound, is the liver.
Liver - Around 10% of your dog’s diet should be liver. This will supply most of the vitamins (such as B and C) and many of the other minerals such as copper and folate. The main mistake raw feeders make is only adding liver. There are many other organs you should feed your dog such as:
Heart - Heart is a major source of taurine so should be included in your dog’s raw diet. Not all dogs can make enough of this conditionally essential amino acid, so taurine must be in your dog’s raw diet. Taurine deficiency can cause heart disease. Feed about 5% of your dog’s raw diet as heart.
Kidney, Pancreas, Spleen - Feeding your dog organs isn’t just for nutrition. Glandular therapy is based on the principle that organ meats support the corresponding organ in your dog. For example, pancreas is rich in enzymes. If a dog has pancreas disease, they’ll have trouble making enzymes, so feeding pancreas will supply them with the enzymes he needs.
Another example is brain. A dog needs DHA for healthy brains and nerves, especially puppies. And brain as an organ meat is rich in DHA, so it supports healthy brains and nervous systems.
Kidney, pancreas and spleen can be about 5% of your dog’s raw diet.
If you have trouble finding these organs at a butcher, you can buy them in powdered form. Make sure your powdered organs are freeze-dried so they aren’t harmed by heat processing.
Lung, Brain, Eyes, Sweetbread, Green Tripe - These are other organ meats you can try to find, which can make up around 5% of your dog’s diet. If you buy tripe, try to get green tripe from grass-fed animals. If the animal is fed corn, then pass on the tripe, as it will be too rich in unhealthy omega-6 fats.
Step 4: Balance The Fats
Fats should be 10% to 20% of your dog’s diet. But - just as we explain in the Feeding our Horses section, not all fats are created equal 😉
There are two fat properties you need to consider in the raw diet, saturated fats and the EFA (essential fatty acid) family, omega 3 and omega 6.
There are three main types of dietary fats: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. The meats you feed your dog will have a combination of all three, but mainly saturated and polyunsaturated.
In the wild, grazing animals would normally eat grasses, while most birds would eat grasses, seeds and insects. But the food animals we feed our dogs today typically eat a different diet that’s rich in grains, and this isn’t good for a dog.
Grain-fed animals will contain more saturated fat than their grass-fed counterparts. Too much saturated fat can cause an imbalance in the dog’s gut flora or microbiome, so we need to limit the amount a dog gets.
Keep saturated fats low
To limit the saturated fats in your dog’s diet:
1. Try to source grass-fed animals.
2. If that’s not possible or affordable, mix beef and poultry. Poultry is naturally higher in polyunsaturated fat and lower in saturated fat.
3. Feed low-fat meats and add polyunsaturated oils.
There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats: omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats. Both fats help control the immune system and inflammatory response. Omega-6 fats tend to increase inflammation and omega-3 fats reduce it.
Just as grains change the amount of fatty acid in meats, they also change the omega fats, with grain-fed animals getting more of the inflammatory omega-6 fats. If the omegas aren’t balanced (omega 6 to 3 ratio of 1:4) isn’t fixed, it can cause chronic inflammation in a dog, which is a major cause of chronic disease.
Tips to balance the omega fats:
1. Trim the skin off poultry - it contains 30 times more omega-6 fat than omega-3.
2. Avoid feeding pork if it’s not grass-fed. Pork has a lot of fat in the meat and can contain large amounts of omega-6 fat.
3. Make sure you feed both poultry and ruminants (such as beef, lamb and goat).
4. Add a source of omega-3 fats.
TOP TIP - Rotating your protein sources will not only help balance the fats and nutrients, but it can help prevent protein sensitivities and allergies.
Step 5: Fruits & Veggies
Add fruits and berries as 10% of the diet and choose organic if you can afford it. Broccoli, kale and especially broccoli sprouts are a good source of cancer-fighting and anti-inflammatory polyphenols. Blueberries have a special affinity for the brain and nervous system, and cranberries add bladder and kidney benefits.
Many raw feeders stop at step 4, yet research shows that vegetables reduce the risk of cancer in both humans and dogs. This is because fruits and vegetables have important immune benefits.
All fruits and vegetables contain polyphenols, which are bioactive substances that play a role in health and immune function. Polyphenols have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and have been extensively studied for their role in preventing and treating chronic diseases. including diabetes, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. It’s important to note that these valuable polyphenols only come from plants and not from animal sources.
Their immune benefits come mainly from short-chain fatty acids, which are byproducts when bacteria consume polyphenols. So it’s important to have the right balance of fats in your dog’s microbiome, which makes it worthwhile to follow Step 4.
While fruits, berries and veggies are an important addition to the raw diet, starchy carbohydrates like grains and legumes aren’t. They feed the wrong types of gut bacteria and are linked to chronic inflammation. You’ll also want to avoid high sugar fruits and use low sugar berries only.
Step 6: Complete the balance
Micronutrients Rule - Many raw diets are deficient in two key nutrients: Vitamin D and Manganese. To boost the vitamin D content, feed whole raw fish, egg yolks, vitamin D rich mushrooms or green lipped mussels. Green lipped mussels will also increase manganese levels, as will oysters and shellfish.
If you follow steps 1-4, your raw food diet will already be reasonably balanced. This last step will make sure your dog gets enough of the two micronutrients that are most likely to be lacking in a raw diet.
A dog can’t make vitamin D from sunshine like we and our horses can … they rely entirely on their food to supply it. A further problem is that many food animals are raised indoors and might be deficient in vitamin D. So, overall we need to supplement with vit.D.
That said, we need to avoid artificial vit. D supplements because too much vit.D can damage a dog’s kidneys. Here are some more appropriate natural food sources of vitamin D:
1. Mushrooms - When mushrooms are exposed to sunshine, they produce vitamin D. It's completely safe to feed a (human grade) medicinal mushroom supplement. Personally, I use Four Sigma's Defend, which I not only give to my dogs but also stir into my morning coffee.
2. Egg yolks - Yolks from pastured hens raised in sunshine and eating a proper diet are rich in vitamin D. You can feed eggs several times a week.
3. Mussels - Green lipped mussels and other mussel species are rich in vitamin D.
4. Fatty fish - Salmon, sardines and mackerel are all rich in vitamin D, as is cod liver oil. Always try to source organic or wild sourced, as our main fishing regions’ seas are badly polluted with heavy metals, dioxins and PCBs.
Manganese is an essential trace mineral that activates important metabolic processes in the body. It also helps the body detoxify harmful free radicals. Manganese deficiency is fairly common in raw fed dogs if you’re not careful.
If a dog is deficient in manganese, it will usually show as weakened ligaments and connective tissue that can cause joint issues such as cruciate tears.
Manganese can be found in spinach, but it’s richest in mussels, followed by oysters and shellfish.
How Much Raw Food To Feed
The amount of raw food you should feed your dog each day depends on whether he’s a puppy or an adult.
As a starting point for raw foods, feed an adult dog around 2-3% of their ideal weight. If your dog is very active, you may need to feed a little more. More of a couch potato? Feed a little less. If you can feel the ribs, but not see them, your dog is at a good weight.
Puppies need to eat more to support their growth, needing more calories and nutrition than adult dogs. Puppies should eat 2-3% of their expected adult weight, or around 5-10 of their current weight.
Remember, puppies need more calcium and less fat than adult dogs too. Try to feed puppies 15% bone and less than 20% fat to make sure they get enough nutrients and minerals.
As a general guide, feed:
Puppies 2-3 months: 8-10% of body weight daily
Puppies 4-5 months: 6-8%
Puppies 6-8 months: 4-6%
Puppies 9-12 months: 3-4%