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The complete guide to a raw diet for dogs

by Amber LaRock November 29, 2020 9 min read

Dog with a steak in his mouth

Every day we discover more ways to maintain our overall health. With health and wellness trending in our own lives, it’s no wonder we are looking for new options for our canine companions as well. When diving into the pet health realm for your furry friend, you will likely come across the concept of raw food for dogs. It's also known as the BARF diet—biologically appropriate raw food for dogs.

So what is raw feeding, and how can it benefit your beloved companion? In this article we’ll discuss the details of this diet option and offer a complete guide to raw food for dogs. 

The rise in raw: Benefits of feeding a raw food diet for dogs

It’s no coincidence that some of the most well known canine athletes eat a raw diet. Sled dogs and racing greyhounds have long turned to a diet of raw food to support their active lifestyle, leading many to wonder what sets a raw diet apart from the rest. 

So what are some of the benefits of a raw food diet for dogs? Let’s dive in!

Inflammation control

Many pet owners are turning to a raw diet in dogs that struggle with inflammatory disease. With raw diets lacking in artificial ingredients and carbohydrates, they are free of many inflammatory agents that can further aggravate their conditions. 

Not only is a raw diet the most raw and unprocessed food option, it often contains higher concentrations of glucosamine and chondroitin—substances that have a direct impact on controlling inflammation within the body. 

Healthy skin and coat

Dog parents who switch to raw food notice an immense improvement in their dog’s skin and coat health. With raw diets containing a larger amount of omega fatty acids, this results in an overall improvement in their skin and coat health. Omega fatty acids help to offer immune support, regulate skin health, and even decrease allergies that can impact the skin. Due to these factors, a raw dog food diet can offer a radiant skin and coat for our furry friends. 

Allergy control

Raw diets are filled with natural and nutritious ingredients that promote overall health in our furry friends. The whole ingredients can also boost their immune system and ability to fight off allergens. While a dog with a strong immune system can still fall victim to allergies and other illnesses, a well-rounded raw diet can offer them an extra line of defense. Because of this, a raw food diet can help to decrease allergies in susceptible dogs. 

Energy levels

A well-rounded diet is filled with nutrients that can offer a steady release of energy throughout the day. Most raw diets are packed with natural and whole ingredients, all of which can help to boost your dog’s energy levels and help them feel their best. In addition to offering steady energy for your canine companion, raw food can also help to prevent obesity. Extra weight can slow our dogs down with time, and lead to them feeling sluggish throughout the day. 

Improved digestion

Most raw diets contain high amounts of fiber and easily digestible ingredients. Fiber helps to regulate a dog’s stool production, while easily digestible ingredients help to prevent any GI upset and other digestive complications. Some experts even say that raw food contains more digestive enzymes than a dry kibble diet, meaning their body does not have to work as hard to break down the food. As proponents of raw like to say, “the proof is in the poop!”

Creating a complete and balanced raw diet

As you can see, a raw dog food diet can offer a world of nutritional benefit. Though a raw diet can change your furry friend’s life, it is extremely important to make sure that it contains all the essential components of a healthy canine diet. Most complications from raw diets arise due to a lack of essential nutrients, and take away from the diet’s potential. So, what do you need in a balanced raw food diet for dogs? 

Calcium

Calcium is an essential nutrient that all dogs need in a balanced diet. Calcium plays a major role in canine bone development, dental health, nail strength, and even nervous system health. A lack of calcium can lead to serious growth complications, and even heart failure if they are deprived for long periods of time. Because of this, it’s extremely important to make sure that your raw diet is filled with ideal sources of calcium. 

Some of the best sources of calcium in raw dog food include raw meaty bones like chicken and turkey necks, dog-approved bone broth, spinach, sweet potato, and broccoli. You can slo consider adding calcium supplements to your dog’s daily diet if your veterinarian is concerned with a calcium deficiency. 

Organ meat

Organs should be a key component in every canine diet. It's one of the most nutrient-dense foods that you can offer your furry companion, as it is packed with vitamins and minerals that can improve their overall health. Organ meat contains Vitamins A, B, and D, as well as essential minerals like copper, iron, and phosphorus. Each nutrient plays a key role in canine health, and organ meat is the perfect way to offer it. 

Some of the best organ meat for a raw diet in dogs includes liver, spleen, tongue, kidney, lung, pancreas, thymus, heart, and even brain. You can offer these organs from any standard livestock animal as long as they don’t result in any GI upset in your pup. 

Muscle meat

Muscle meat is the main foundation of any raw food diet for canines. Most raw diets are 60–80% muscle meat, as it provides the lean protein that our dogs need to thrive. Not only is muscle tissue important in offering adequate protein to our dogs, but also in providing essential amino acids that assist in multiple body functions. Muscle meat can provide the building blocks of lean muscle production in dogs, and can offer a steady release of energy that they need each day. 

Some of the best muscle meat options for a raw diet in dogs include ground turkey, lean ground beef, chicken breast, pork shoulder, ground bison, ground lamb, and boneless chicken thighs. Just be sure to remove any large bones if you have a small breed dog, as this can cause complications if they are unable to break down the bones while they are consuming them. 

Fat

While we often think of fat as an ingredient that we should avoid, there are healthy fats that play a key role in canine nutrition. Some fats can help to maintain healthy brain and skin health in dogs, while others can add to unhealthy weight gain. So how do you balance fat in a healthy raw diet routine? 

First, it’s important to be mindful of where your dog’s fat content is coming from. For example, some low quality meats contain large amounts of fat that are dangerous for our furry friends and don’t contain adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals. However, items such as lean chicken and turkey contain safe amounts of fat and are still rich in other essential nutrients. You can also offer other ingredients that are rich in omega fatty acids, such as chia seeds, flaxseed, and hempseed. 

Fruits and vegetables

Our dogs may not need fruits and veggies in their raw diet, but they can certainly bring beneficial antioxidants and vitamins to the table. Protein is always the main focus of a raw diet, but fruits and veggies can offer something that meat tissue cannot. Fruits and vegetables are packed with probiotics that support gut health, antioxidants that help to detoxify the body, anti-inflammatory agents that can help with joint and skin conditions, and other minerals that promote optimal health in our furry friends. 

Some of the best fruits and veggies for dogs who eat raw food include broccoli, carrots, green beans, leafy greens, sweet potato, blueberries, apples and bananas. You can always mix these ingredients in with your dog’s regular raw diet or offer them as a treat throughout the day. 

When and how much to feed your dog

Now that you understand the components that go into a well rounded raw food diet, it’s time to discuss the ideal amount and frequency for feeding your canine companion. No matter how beneficial a diet can be for your dog, it cannot shine to its full ability if you are over or under feeding. So when and how much raw food should you feed your dog?

First, let’s discuss how often you should feed your furry friend. If you have a healthy adult dog, it’s usually recommended to offer two meals each day for breakfast and dinner. If you have a growing puppy that is 1 year of age or under, it’s best to feed them a minimum of three times a day. If you have a senior dog in your home, it’s usually best to feed them either twice or three times a day. 

Now let's dive into feeding amounts based on weight and age. The general rule of feeding a raw diet is feeding 2-3% of your dog’s body weight each day. For example:

Adult dog ages 1 and older

  • 10 pounds: 0.2–0.3 lbs (3.2–4.8 oz) per day
  • 25 pounds: 0.5–0.75 lbs (8–12 oz) per day
  • 50 pounds: 1–1.5 lbs (16–24 oz) per day
  • 75 pounds: 1.5–2.25 lbs (24–36 oz) per day
  • 100 pounds: 2–3 lbs (32–48 oz) per day

How to introduce your dog to raw diet

Puppies 6 months to 1 year of age

There are a couple ways to do this. You can feed your puppy based on their ideal adult weight. So if your puppy will grow to be approximately 50 lbs, feed based on that: 1–1.5 lbs per day. Alternatively, you can feed 2–3 times the recommended adult amount for your puppy’s current weight. So if your puppy weighs 10 lbs, you should feed approximately 0.5–0.75 lbs per day. You should also split their daily feeding into a minimum of three meals a day. 

Senior dogs

If your veterinarian approves a raw diet in your senior dog, you can generally offer them the same amount of food as an adult dog in their weight range. Be sure to speak with your vet about your plans, as they may recommend an increase or decrease of food amount based on their overall health. 

Transitioning your dog to raw food

While there are many ways to transition your dog to a new diet, it is always best to offer a gradual switch. An abrupt change in diet can result in serious gastrointestinal upset in our furry friends, and can make it challenging to determine if a new diet is the right fit for your pup. Our favorite method of diet switch is the combined gradual switch. 

The combined switch is the ideal diet switch method according to most veterinary professionals. This transition allows your dog to be exposed to a small amount of their new diet at each meal, and gradually increasing the amount of their new food as each day passes. This allows your dog to adjust to the new ingredients at their own pace, and decreases the chance of GI upset. 

You can tackle this approach by transitioning your dog to a raw diet over a span of 1–2 weeks based on your dog’s stomach sensitivity. 

  • Days 1-2: 25% raw, 75% old diet
  • Days 3–4: 50% raw, 50% old diet
  • Days 5–6: 75% raw, 25% old diet
  • Day 7: 100% raw

If you are going to transition over a 2 week period, just expand the ratio to fit a longer time period. 

Can puppies and senior dogs eat raw?

Though raw feeding is a wonderful option for so many canine companions, there are a few pups that may not benefit from this diet approach. Some dogs have very specific dietary needs that cannot be met with a raw diet, and could experience serious complications if they do so. The two main categories of dogs that may not benefit from a raw diet include young puppies and senior dogs with medical conditions.

Puppies

Puppies under 6 months of age, especially small breed dogs, need a certain amount of daily calories and nutrients to promote optimal health. Some raw diets are lacking in adequate calcium and phosphorus ratios for growing puppies and can result in serious bone deformities and growth complications. If you are firm on offering a raw diet to your growing puppy, we recommend speaking with your veterinarian about crafting a safe diet.

Seniors

Senior dogs with medical conditions such as kidney or liver failure are not a great candidate for raw feeding. Raw diets often contain high amounts of protein, which is challenging for dogs with kidney or liver complications to break down. High-protein diets can put extra stress on these organs, resulting in serious symptoms for these furry friends. If your senior dog falls into this category and you would like to stick to a raw diet, we recommend speaking with your veterinarian about crafting a safe diet.

Final thoughts on raw diets

Overall, raw feeding can offer your dog a world of benefit when following the recommended guidelines. By following safety tips and ideal raw feeding rules, your pup can have the best chance at a healthy future.


The article was written by Amber LaRock, RVT on November 29, 2020.
Amber LaRock
Amber LaRock

Amber LaRock is a Licensed Vet Tech that took her career online to spread knowledge on animal health and welfare. She graduated from the Cedar Valley Veterinary Technology Program in 2015 with an A.A.S in Veterinary Technology, and became a Licensed Veterinary Technician in Texas in 2016. Amber began her career in emergency medicine and critical care, and has now been working at an emergency animal hospital for 6 years. With the experience she gained from her time working in emergency medicine, Amber has been able to spread accurate information online in all realms of pet health. If she is not at her laptop, or back home visiting family, you can find her somewhere in the world, cuddling every furry friend that she can find!