So You Want to Get Your Dog on a Raw-Foot Diet

It seems like every week a commercial pet food is outed as containing actual poison. First it was a euthanasia drug that popped up in the mass-market foods on the cheaper end of the spectrum. No surprise, I thought, rather smugly. If you feed your dog garbage, what do you expect? Then it was discovered that the stuff I was spending over $ 200 per month on contained both arsenic and BPAs in potentially harmful amounts. If even the most expensive kibbles contain poison, what are you supposed to feed your dog? 

This is how I figured out how to feed my dogs healthy raw food, and do it without going broke. 

How I Got to Raw

Late last year, Wiley (our five-year-old mutt) developed a sore next to his mouth. Convinced it was ringworm (a really nasty fungus that’s transmissible to humans), I paid the vet $ 500 for a battery of tests for both Wiley and our other dog, Bowie (our one-year-old), bought two different types of antifungal dog shampoo that I started bathing Wiley in daily, boiled my bed sheets, and scrubbed our entire house with Lysol. My girlfriend and I started showering with antifungal soap, too. We considered canceling our Christmas travel plans—a road trip to northern Montana, visiting family and friends along the way. We feared infecting someone else’s house. Turns out it was just irritated skin. 

Wiley’s always been sensitive to what’s in his diet. When he was a puppy, I started him off on Solid Gold. But that contains grain, and I think the ingredient was to blame for a spate of skin problems he had early on in puppyhood. So, we went grain-free, with Taste of the Wild. That was a lot better—he’d develop only occasional hot spots at the base of his tail. I figured those were just due to flea bites, and I’d treat them with coconut oil as they appeared. 

But that ringworm scare had come after a few months of persistent skin irritation. The exposed skin on his belly was dark red and wasn’t clearing up with oatmeal baths or topical treatments. His ears were scabbed and scaly inside. The worst part was that he was visibly uncomfortable and lacked energy. Reading online forums, I saw that a few other dog owners had reported their pets had started to suffer skin problems on Taste of the Wild, too. So just before Christmas, we switched the dogs to Acana Regionals, the most expensive grain-free kibble available at our bougie pet food store here in Hollywood. 

That seemed to do the trick. Wiley’s sore disappeared, his stomach eventually went back to its normal color, and his ears were again smooth and clean. Solid result, but he and Bowie didn’t particularly like this new food. To get them to eat it, we had to incentivize them by boiling chicken breasts, then chopping those up and mixing them into the kibble. Even then they’d still never finish a complete bowl. 

When the news about Acana broke, I decided I was done trusting other people to feed my dogs. I’d heard other dog owners rave about the positive benefits of a raw diet, so I resolved to try that.  

I’ve always given dogs raw, meaty bones as treats, but I knew enough to realize I was ignorant of how to develop a total diet on my own. So I started looking for solutions. 

The Transition

First I went to the pet food store and bought a bulk box of frozen raw patties from a West Coast company called Small Batch Dog Food. The dogs loved the ground-up mix of high-quality meat, bones, and veggies more than anything I’d ever fed them. But after taxes, the 18-pound box came out to about $ 90. And I calculated it was only enough to get us through four and a half days. At over $ 600 per month, that was more than twice what we’d previous been spending—it’s an insane amount of money for dog food, regardless of your income. 

So I started reading up on how to create a complete diet on my own, at home. A Facebook post asking for help led to a friend suggesting a book by Kymythy Schultze, Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats

Schultze details stuff I’ve always heard about dogs digestion but never fully understood. They have a short digestive tract and an acidic stomach, factors that combine to make them largely impervious to bacteria prevalent in raw foods, like E. coli and salmonella. She also explains the role that whole foods, like uncooked bones, play in a dog’s health, cleaning their teeth and providing fiber to aid in their digestion in addition to valuable vitamins, minerals, and calcium. 

Another thing I’d never understood about “biologically appropriate raw food” (or, charmingly, BARF) diets—where the idea is to feed dogs how they’d eat in the wild—is how that’s still relevant in dogs today, a species we’ve essentially created ourselves, since they were first domesticated tens of thousands of years ago. Schultze explains that commercial dog foods have only been around for about 100 years, and for the thousands of years before that, dogs of all sizes survived on scraps, refuse, and by hunting. In fact, it wasn’t common practice to feed dogs commercially made processed or even cooked foods until the mid-20th century. 

Years ago, I made the switch from eating low-quality processed food to cooking most of my own meals at home and considering the source and quality of ingredients in everything I consume. That’s made me leaner, stronger, and fitter. Everyone knows that eating well makes you healthier. So why haven’t the same people made the obvious leap to doing the same for their dogs?

Raw Food Isn’t Scary

Would you believe that a scientific analysis of commercial raw dog foods found that many contained bacteria like E. coli and salmonella?! Wait, they’re made from raw meat…

There seems to be a general opinion on the Internet that feeding dogs raw food is dangerous. I’ll spare you all the hand-wringing and simply skip ahead to the logical conclusion: wash your hands, cutting boards, knives, bowls, and counter tops. Really people, have you never made a hamburger from scratch? 

Far more telling is that a scientific analysis of processed and cooked kibble also showed that a bunch of it had listeria and salmonella in it. But that’s not a problem, largely because dogs evolved as scavengers, designed to eat both carcasses and human refuse they found laying around, of uncertain origins, and stuff they kill themselves and consume fresh. Short digestive tracts, acidic stomachs, remember? 

Of course, that’s also why raw diets work for dogs. Both cooking and processing chemically alter food. Just like we’re designed to eat healthy, natural food, dogs are designed to eat food in its natural state. Heck, they can even kill it themselves. 

The idea with BARF food is to replicate the meal a dog would get from killing and consuming a prey animal—their healthiest-possible food source. A lot of meat, little fat (these being wild animals), plenty of bones, then a few organs and whatever may have been partially digested in the prey’s stomach—a few veggies, basically. 

Note that the natural formula doesn’t include grain, soybeans, corn products, or any of the other awful garbage that most commercial dog foods are made from. The other big idea with the raw diet is to feed your dog the healthiest human-grade food you can afford. Meat and other ingredients intended for the dog food industry doesn’t have to pass the same quality or health standards present in the human-food supply chain, so is often just disgusting. Hence all the poison. 

Gizmodo reports that the euthanasia drug in all that dog food likely comes from euthanized horses winding up in the dog-food supply chain. That isn’t just gross, it’s also illegal. I’d rather be a little more vigilant about washing my hands after feeding my dogs than feed them illegally sourced poisoned food, thanks. 

Crunching the Numbers

Schultze suggests feeding dogs meat with bones in it, along with stuff she dubs “extras” that make up the rest of the nutrients dogs need. So, per-day, my dogs together are eating about four pounds of meat with bones, plus a little organ meat, cod liver oil, hemp oil, alfalfa powder, kelp powder, ascorbic acid (vitamin c), and some veggies. Maybe an egg, too. 

To make this attempt at creating an affordable, easy version of that diet as widely applicable as possible, I’m not including any wild-caught meat, or deals available from big-box discount stores like Costco. Instead all my meat has been coming from my local Ralph’s (California’s Kroger chain), and I ordered the extras on Amazon. 

Chicken seems to be working best, so using that as an example, I can buy about four pounds of wings, thighs, and drumsticks of reasonable quality for about $ 9. A week’s worth of chicken livers or assorted organs is about $ 2. All the extras cost $ 103.41, and in those amounts should last about three months. I’m going to call the veggies free, since you use so little of them—just a few tablespoons—and I just pull them from whatever meal we’re cooking for ourselves. 

So, per day, that’s $ 9 of meat, 28 cents of organs, and $ 1.15 of extras, for a total of $ 10.43. In a 30-day month, that’s $ 312.90—probably not that much more than what we were spending on kibble when you factor in all the incentives we had to provide, and half the cost of the commercial raw alternatives. It’s also a price we’re very happy paying to guarantee the health of our two dogs. 

As a caveat, I should say that a center piece of of Schultze’s advice is that you don’t need to feed your dogs precise amounts of these ingredients, or that you need to feed them the exact same thing every day. In fact, it’s healthy to introduce a variety of animal proteins to the diet. Prices also vary, as do sources. I saved some money last week when friends went out of town and gave me a Blue Apron box that was about to expire. The steaks, pork loin, and chicken breasts I pulled out of it covered one and a half meals. 

barf-diet-fridge
Portable fridge-freezers like this one by Dometic ($ 800 and up) are a big investment. But given that they last decades and allow you to reliably transport frozen food anywhere you can take a vehicle, I think they’re a more worthwhile option than high-end coolers. (Dometic)

Traveling with Raw Food

Feeding your dog healthy raw food takes a little more effort than just throwing down a bowl of kibble. Preparing their daily meal (Schultze recommends one big meal, rather than two small ones, for adults), takes me 10 to 15 minutes. And I do have to do more clean up throughout the process, and after, so I don’t get raw meat all over the kitchen. So, it’s reasonable to expect that taking your dog’s new diet on the road is going to take a little more planning, and time, too. 

When we leave the dogs at home, with a caretaker, we’ve just been buying the pre-made patties to make their lives as easy as possible. I’ve been keeping a box around just in case we’re crunched on time, having a bad day, or other real world considerations like that. 

Driving somewhere with the dogs, it’s a mix of using the premades to keep it easy while we’re on the move, then doing the whole shebang if we’re at a destination (the cabin, say), where we have the time and a kitchen. How do we keep the food frozen throughout a trip? Well, that’s just one of the reasons why I really prefer portable fridge-freezers to high-end coolers. The weight and external size-to-interior volume is actually higher with a good portable freezer. A quality item like our Dometic CFX 75DZW  has room for a week’s worth of dog food plus a couple days for us, and it can be plugged into both AC and DC power, meaning you can pull it out of the car at your destination and run it on a normal wall outlet. That will save your car’s battery charge (one night won’t run a quality battery down) and add cooling space in addition to the small fridge-freezer in your room or cabin. The Dometic also has two separate internal spaces, so you can set one to freeze (down to minus seven degrees), and one run above freezing, allowing you to defrost one meal’s worth of meat ahead of time as you travel. 

What about camping? Well, the Dometic comes along when we’re car or 4×4 camping, but for a recent backpacking trip I found premade freeze-dried patties to be an ideal solution. Just like human backpacking food, all the weight is sucked out of those, making them ideal on the trail, but they’re easily rehydrated with even cool water in camp. They’re expensive ($ 30 for about a day and a half of food for one dog), but I really appreciated the weight savings, and Wiley enjoyed eating them. 

Real-World Results

Bowie and Wiley have been eating a totally raw diet, with zero kibble, for a month now. That’s not very long, but both dogs are visibly leaner and have more energy throughout the day. The quality of both their coats has improved from already excellent to totally flawless. Most importantly, Wiley has had absolutely zero skin problems of any kind. His usual hot-spot area is fully furred and not itchy. His skin isn’t dry or flaky at all. 

One other change I was surprised to notice is that both dogs’ sporadic loose have given way to healthy, firm poops with 100 percent reliability. Wiley had a couple incidents last year where his anal glands weren’t fully expressing and instead leaked a terrible smell—no more. They also produce considerably less poop overall than before. 

The most important change, though, is that the dogs love it. Before, with kibble, you’d hand it to them and they’d look up with a look that said: “Really? This crap again?” Putting down a giant bowl brimming with healthy meat just feels a whole lot better. 

Want to learn more about creating your own healthy raw diet, tailored to your dog’s need? Want to know what vets have to say about feeding your dogs raw food? Interested in the science behind this? Schultze’s book is a quick read, but also a very powerful one. 

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