Raw Data: The Basics of Feeding a Raw Diet
Cook's Corner column by Mary Straus, published in Dog World Magazine, June 2010.
When discussing homemade diets, most people think of cooked diets, but another option is a diet based on raw meaty bones (parts that are at least half meat), where the bone is fully consumed. This method of feeding is meant to mimic the natural diet of the wolf.
Benefits of a raw diet
In 1993, Ian Billinghurst, an Australian veterinarian, published his book Give Your Dog a Bone, which extolled the virtues of feeding dogs raw meaty bones and helped introduce the concept to dog owners around the world.
Raw meaty bones, or RMBs, provide dogs chewing pleasure and exercise, helping to keep teeth clean and remove tartar. Other reported benefits include improved digestive health, fewer skin problems, more lean muscle, and optimized energy levels. Many raw feeders say that couch-potato dogs become more active, and hyperactive dogs calm down. Even seizures are sometimes reduced or eliminated when dogs are switched to a raw diet.
What to feed
Chicken parts are the most commonly used RMBs. They'rere inexpensive and readily available, and the bones are relatively soft. Necks and backs have the smallest and softest bones, but you can also feed wings and leg quarters.
Turkey necks are often fed to large dogs.
We’ve all been told never to feed chicken bones to dogs, but this warning applies to cooked bones, which are dry and splintery; it does not apply to raw bones, which rarely cause intestinal problems.
Lamb and pork necks and breast bones (riblets) are also good RMB options. Other bones from these animals are too hard and not recommended.
Balancing the diet
Most raw feeders feed two meals a day: one meal of RMBs, and one that contains muscle meat, organs, eggs, dairy, vegetables and fruit. RMBs should mak up anywhere from one-third to one-half of the total diet.
The majority of raw feeders choose not to feed grains, but you can include these inexpensive calorie sources as a small percentage of the diet (no more than around 20 percent) as long as they don’t cause problems for your dogs. Grains are often blamed for certain health problems in dogs. I usually suggest removing grains from the diet for dogs with allergies, digestive disorders, skin problems or arthritis to see if it helps. If there's no improvement, you don't have to continue to avoid grains. Suitable grains include rice, oatmeal, pasta and quinoa.
Some raw feeders choose not to feed vegetables, although I believe veggies are beneficial. Remember, you must purée raw vegetables in a food processor, blender or juicer to break down the cell walls and make their nutrients available to dogs.
If the RMB portion of the diet is mostly chicken or turkey, also feed beef, lamb and pork, either ground or in chunks, to provide variety. Heart (nutritionally a muscle meat) is a relatively inexpensive option. Feed about one ounce of liver per pound of other meat. Eggs are an excellent addition to the diet. There's no limit on the amount of eggs you feed as long as the diet provides enough variety overall.
Canned fish with bones, such as jack mackerel, pink salmon and sardines, should also be included in the diet, Feed one or two meals of canned fish a week, in place of RMBs. The bones they contain have been pressure-cooked to softness, so they are safe to feed even though they're cooked.
Adult dogs generally eat 2 to 3 percent of their body weight daily, but this varies depending on your dog’s activity level and metabolism, and the amount of fat in the diet. Watch your dog’s weight and adjust the amount you feed if needed.
Dangers of raw diets?
Although many dogs thrive on raw diets, some experience problems. If your dog develops diarrhea or vomits, discontinue the new diet and return to what you were previously feeding until your dog is back to normal. You can then try reintroducing the diet more slowly, feeding only one new food at a time and waiting to see your dog's reaction before introducing the next item. If problems continue despite a slow introduction, consider feeding a homemade, cooked diet (without bones) instead.
Broken teeth occur occasionally, although recreational bones, such as rib and marrow bones, cause more problems than the softer RMBs.
Many people worry about the bacteria in raw food, but the dog’s short, simple intestinal tract is designed to deal with bacteria, allowing dogs to eat uncooked food without problems. Dogs eat things that are long dead and even eat poop with no problems. Although food-borne bacteria can cause illness, it's unusual for healthy dogs to be affected.
Smaller, softer RMBs, such as chicken necks and backs, rarely cause digestive problems. Larger, harder bones are more likely to lead to vomiting or constipation, as are diets that are high in bone. Dogs fed diets made up of more than 50 percent RMBs are more likely to experience problems, such as constipation or vomiting bone fragments. RMBs should not be combined with kibble in the same meal because some dogs have problems digesting bones and kibble simultaneously.
RMBs can cause choking, especially for smaller dogs, and for those that gulp their food rather than chewing pieces off before swallowing. Because of their size and shape, turkey necks are the parts most likely to cause choking in large dogs; chicken necks may be a problem for small dogs.
If you're not comfortable feeding whole bones, or if your dog experiences problems with them, cut RMBs into pieces with Joyce Chen utility scissors (which work better than poultry shears) or feed ground meat with bones instead.
Ground meat and bone products can be purchased from a number of companies, such as Bravo! and Primal Pet Foods, which make complete raw diets and mixtures that include meat, bone and organs, and, sometimes, veggies. You can also buy a grinder and grind your own, but most grinders can handle only small parts, such as chicken necks and backs. Stainless-steel grinders can also handle turkey necks and chicken leg quarters, if they fit down the chute.
I’ve fed a raw diet to my own dogs since 1998. Each has thrived and lived well beyond the typical life span for the breed. One dog became completely allergy-free on a raw diet; another with allergies improved, but continued to experience some problems. A third dog was able to discontinue arthritis medication for several years after switching to raw. There is no one right way to feed dogs, but a raw diet is a great option for many owners.
Also see these related articles:
- Raw Food Resources
- Homemade Diets for Dogs
- Homemade Diet Resources: Books, Web Sites and Email Groups
You can contact me if you have any comments, but I regret to say that I can no longer respond to questions about individual dogs. See my Contact page for more information. My name is Mary Straus and you can email me at either or