It seems like all of my best friends are trying new diets lately – Ketogenic, Paleo, Alkaline. The drive to eat better for our minds and bodies doesn’t stop at people. The raw diet for dogs is surging in popularity lately.
As a major dog lover who wants the best for my best friend, I must say I’m intrigued by the raw dog food movement. Kibble is a pretty weird way to feed your dog, if you think about it. Convenient, yes – but I can’t help but wonder if this homogenous, crunchy food of mysterious origins is really the best thing to be feeding my dog.
So what’s the raw diet? Should I switch my dog to the raw diet? Let’s discuss.
What Exactly is Raw Dog Food?
A raw diet for dogs is based off of meaty raw bones, organs, and (usually) some produce.
The original raw diet is commonly known as the BARF diet, which stands for Bones and Raw Food or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food Proposed by veterinarian Dr. Ian Billinghurst in 1993, it’s meant to mimic what dogs would eat pre-domestication.
There are several other models of raw food besides the BARF format, including the “prey model” raw food. This version of the raw diet doesn’t include as many fruits and vegetables – there’s a raging debate in the raw dog food arena over if and how many fruits and veggies to give your dog.
I’m usually skeptical of diets that aim to turn back the evolutionary clock, human or canine. Dogs and humans have changed enormously over the thousands of years since then, and their diets might have changed as well.
That said, kibble is a very recent invention (1930s or so) and dog food as a commercial product didn’t even exist until the 1800s. So it’s not like we’re trying to turn the clock back thousands of years with this diet!
Sled dogs and racing greyhounds ate raw diets before it was even cool (those Husky hipsters) – so there’s some weight to the raw argument.
How to Feed Your Dog a Raw Diet
There are a variety of different ways to feed your dog a raw diet. With the increasing popularity of raw diets comes more options.
Homemade Raw Diet
Homemade raw diets are a lot of work until you get a system down. It’s hard to create a fast and balanced diet of bones, meat, vegetables, organs, fruits, eggs, and supplements or herbs.
Many veterinarians recommend against homemade raw diets due to the risk of contamination and nutritional imbalance. Opponents of raw diets cite parasites and contagion as big risks.
Frozen Raw Diet
Frozen raw diets are mushy logs of dog food. They’re soft, smelly, and easily cut into easy serving sizes.
I don’t have much freezer space, so I avoid frozen raw diets. That said, I often use them as treats to roll up into meatballs for dogs. They’re a convenient, fast option.
Freeze-Dried Raw Diet
Freeze-dried or dehydrated raw diets often have few ingredients with sexy, superfood-like ingredient lists (think free-range turkey, sweet potato, kale, kelp, and spirulina).
Scoop out the food, rehydrate it with water, and serve it up. Since I’m so darn busy, this is the option that I’ve gravitated towards. Barley gets some of these freeze-dried options frozen in Kongs daily.
There are myriad of raw feeding options available in any form you’d like. Many of these small, US-based companies will even deliver raw doggy diets right to your door!
However, if you’re planning on feeding just raw and nothing else, be sure to consult with your vet about dietary completeness. This is mandatory and not optional – you need to work with your vet to make sure your dog is getting the nutrients they need. Depending on your dog, certain supplements may be essential for your canine’s health, so talk to your vet!
What’s Wrong With My Kibble?
Many commercial dog kibbles are downright awful. They’re full of fillers like corn, preservatives, and other cheap ingredients. The long, slow cooking process that sanitizes kibble and makes it safe also leaches kibble of much of its nutrition and moisture for even high quality kibble.
That said, many dogs thrive on kibble! My 14 year old Labrador hasn’t been sick a day in her life, has a lovely coat, and is still playing fetch. Some people are able to make it into their 90s when they eat junk and smoke every day – so it’s no surprise that many dogs thrive on whatever we feed them.
While there are definitely quality kibbles on the market, raw does have a certain magic associated with it. I’ve heard hundreds of stories of dogs that had medical or behavioral concerns evaporate seemingly overnight after the switch from kibble to raw food.
As just one example, read about Sarah Stremming’s dog Kelso. Kelso had terrible digestive concerns until she switched to a raw diet. Sarah’s other dog had a dull coat and struggled to keep weight on – until she started eating a raw diet.
The dog world is full of miracle stories like this. It’s pretty much just anecdata. But when you combine enough anecdotes of miracle stories, it’s worth paying attention!
Despite The Majority of Outright Awful Kibble, There’s Plenty of Good Stuff Too
Our obsession with what our dogs eat hasn’t gone unnoticed. With the general increased focus on health and wellness for both humans and canines, some kibble manufacturers are finally wising up and beginning to manufacture healthier, more wholesome kibble.
Increasingly more companies are striving to come up with excellent, easy-to-feed, (relatively) affordable dog food that’s slowly baked (to retain moisture and nutrients) and made with high-quality ingredients and no grains.
If you’re feeding one of these foods, you’re probably doing very well. There might be absolutely nothing wrong with your kibble.
It’s worth investigating feeding your dog a better food with wholesome ingredients and high moisture content even if you don’t want to try raw food! Sometimes a change in diet – regardless of this means going raw or switching to a better quality kibble – can result in huge improvement for your pooch.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Going Raw
We’ll focus specifically on the pros and cons of a home-prepared raw diet. If you’re purchasing a premade (frozen or freeze-dried) raw diet, the calculus may shift somewhat.
Advantages of Going Raw
1. you know exactly what’s in your dog’s food
For the conscientious owner, it’s hard to beat a homemade diet for your dogs. You can source out free-range organic venison if you’d like.
There’s no guesswork as far as what you’re feeding your dog. This is great for dogs with allergies, medical issues affected by diet, food intolerances, or owners who have ethical concerns about different food types.
2. it’s easy to customize
Since you’re making your own food, it’s easy to make adjustments to your dog’s nutritional intake.
This means that if you know what you’re doing, you could increase different macronutrients to prepare for a sporting event or winter. However, this level of knowledge about canine nutrition soars above most of our heads!
3. there are physical & mental benefits
This is the biggest draw of the raw diet for many.
It’s hard to ignore the tales of cancer cures, shiny coats, cured aggression, improved eyesight, and shy dogs made confident. If you believe everything you’ve ever read about raw diets, you’d think that feeding your dog raw meat was the canine equivalent of the fountain of youth.
As I said before, I take these miracle stories with a grain of salt – but there sure are a lot of these inspiring tales!
It’s best to use a combination of training, diet change, and environmental setup to deal with concerning physical or behavioral patterns. Relying on a simple diet change as a silver bullet is naive.
Disadvantages of Going Raw
1. it’s expensive
Feeding your dog raw food is expensive.
Even with frozen or freeze-dried options, it was hard to keep up feeding Barley raw food. I’d personally rather spend my money on herding lessons and midday dog walks.
If you’ve got an excellent network of farmers, hunters, and/or butchers, it’s possible to make raw comparable to kibble in price – but even then, it’s nowhere near as convenient.
It’s hard to admit, but we all have to decide what the time and financial limitations for our pets are. That balance of cost, energy, and benefit will fall differently for everyone.
2. there’s a significant risk of contagion
Raw meat contains bacteria and parasites. I’m talking salmonella, listeria, and more. That harmful bacteria is a big concern if you or anyone around you is very young, very old, or otherwise immunocompromised.
That said, you can also find E. Coli in plenty of processed dog foods, and you likely prepare and handle raw meat at home on a weekly basis!
My best friend has late-stage Lyme disease, and I frequently work with young, unvaccinated puppies. The risk of contagion is a big concern for me. This statement from the American Veterinary Medicine Association links to several scientific articles about contagion in raw food and why these dangers are no joke.
3. it’s easy to end up with a nutritional imbalance
Nutritional imbalance is a potential concern for any homemade dog food, including homemade raw diets. You’re not a canine nutritionist and therefore anything that you procure at home is likely not as balanced as something that’s being produced commercially.
Getting enough calcium or phosphorous is challenging with a raw diet. Even if you’ve got that right, it’s difficult to ensure that the nutrients will be absorbed properly. Biochemistry is hard!
Manufactured dog foods have problems, but they are obligated by law to hit certain nutritional benchmarks that ensure your dog is getting everything he needs to function and thrive. If you’re going to get into DIY dog food, you’ll need to do TONS of reading and become a part time scientist to do it right.
If you do raw or homemade food wrong, you can easily do more damage to your dog than any good.
4. preparing the food is time consuming
All this preparation, disinfecting, and research on proper raw diet feeding is majorly time consuming.
If you don’t have time to become a part-time canine nutritionist and clean your dog’s space like a commercial kitchen, home-prepared raw food might not be for you. The research alone could be a full time job, and the jury is still out on many key details!
5. you need tons of freezer space
For those of us who live in tiny apartments, freezer space is a hot commodity. I live in a 700 square foot apartment with a boyfriend, a border collie, and two parrots. There’s really nowhere for me to put a chest freezer or other freezer space.
From what I can tell, one of the best ways to make raw more affordable is sourcing huge quantities of meat from butchers or hunters in single purchases. That means you’ve got to be able to prep and store all of that meat somewhere.
If you’ve got a basement with two chest freezers (like my father, who both farms and hunts in northern Wisconsin), this might not be an issue after all! But for many folks, the freezer space required to do raw affordable and effectively isn’t easy to come by.
Is Going Raw Worth It? Probably Not For Most Owners, But Ultimately…It Depends!
Raw diets may provide some benefits, but the cost (financial, time, and contagion risk) is very high. Switching to raw might be worth a try if your dog has certain medical issues but for most families, a cooked, manufactured dog food diet will be a better choice.
Even if traditional dog food is giving your dog tummy troubles, we’d say try a homemade cooked diet before committing to raw.
There are also plenty of other changes you can make to help a dog with digestive issues. Just switching to a different kind of kibble or protein source may be the fix your dog needs.
Or – instead of switching to raw – consider adding wet food or supplements like fish oil to your dog’s kibble. Adjustments like these are much more feasible for most owners, and can provide many of the same benefits often associated with a raw diet.
Ultimately, we all want what is best for our dogs. But true commitment to a healthy canine isn’t just about diving headfirst into every dog food fad. Instead, owners need to test different approaches and assess the results, just as a scientist might do in a research study. It’s a lot of work, but if you’re considering raw in the first place, you no doubt feel that your dog deserves the best. Finding out the “best” for your dog requires time, research, and quite a bit of effort.
Best Raw Dog Food Diets: Our Top Picks
If you still want to try raw food and have gotten to go-ahead from your vet, here are some of the favorites from K9 of Mine. I’ve personally tried all of these with Barley and loved them all – but ultimately left them due to cost.
1. Nom Nom Now
I’m about to get a free trial of Wag’s new raw delivery service through Nom Nom. They collect info on your dog and create a personalize meal plan for Fido! Freshly cooked, pre-portioned meals (based on their in-house veterinarian nutritionist’s suggestions) are then delivered to your doorstep.
It’s an awesome service, but it ain’t cheap. This one’s probably only a long-term solution if you have a hefty dog food budget.
HOT DEAL: You can actually get 50% off your first Nom Nom order, so it’s definitely worth a try if you’re curious!
2. Stella & Chewy’s
Stella & Chewy’s is an excellent option. I love how many different forms of raw they offer – frozen patties or morsels, dehydrated, raw coated kibble, raw mixed kibble, raw to mix in with your kibble, you name it! Their wide variety of fancy flavors won’t disappoint, either!
If you’re looking for a variety of options to try, you’ll love Stella & Chewy’s. I currently use their raw coated kibble as a big part of Barley’s meals.
- Only the good stuff! Dogs naturally crave meat, much like they ate in the wild. That's why every...
- Made in the USA - Stella’s Super Beef Dinner Patties’ all-natural recipe is crafted with care in...
- Minimally processed and all natural. Because the closer foods stay to their natural state, the...
- Raw nutrition and convenience - your pet deserves to thrive on real, raw meat. Now, Stella and...
3. Honest Kitchen
Honest Kitchen was my first introduction to dehydrated raw food. While it’s not cheap, this option is readily available online or in many stores. I can even find it at my local grocery store!
Their dehydrated mix is pretty nasty-smelling, but it’s got exemplary ingredients, and I find their ultra-short ingredient list intriguing. The upside of dehydrated food is the massive amount of food you can get by re-hydrating!
- Grain Free Dog Food With Cage-Free Turkey
- Higher Calories And Protein, For Puppies And Active Adult Dogs Of All Breeds & Sizes
- Minimally Processed Dehydrated Whole Food Ingredients
- 100% Human Grade Dog Food From Farm To Bowl
4. I and Love and You
I and Love and You is a Boulder, CO company. As a Coloradoan, I’m pretty loyal to this brand. I feed their kibble as Barley’s main staple meal, and their dehydrated raw food is what stuffs Barley’s Kongs.
Even if you’re not in Colorado, you can get I and Love and You from Amazon or Chewy! Their eco-conscious, local vibe definitely keeps me interested. They also strive to include probiotics and prebiotics in their food.
Even better, I and Love and You is purchased at most Colorado grocery stores! Hard to beat high-quality convenience like that.
Raw Alternatives: Other Ways to Improve Your Dog’s Diet
You can get many of the benefits that raw provides without the time, cost, and contagion risks. For example, shiny coats often come from high fat diets. You can either feed a high fat diet or use supplements to get a similar result.
Some other ways to potentially get the benefits of raw like super shiny coats and reduced digestive issues include:
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different supplement options out there. Having an idea of what your goal is with the supplements is key. You’ll want different supplements if your goal is a shinier coat versus increased joint strength versus firmer stool for Fido.
As with everything, talk to a pet health professional about your dog’s needs and goals before diving into this diet change for your dog.
Canned Wet Food
Feeding more wet food can increase the moisture content of your food. Be sure to look out for any canned foods that have high BPAs, as this is a big concern.
Increased moisture content means that your dog won’t need so much extra water!
Whole Food Supplements
Mixing in carrots, peas, eggs, coconut oil, lean ground beef, chicken breast, or venison is a great way to spice up your dog’s diet!
These fresh ingredients give lots of nutrients that kibble might miss, plus they’re around your home! I mix in healthy table scraps with many of Barley’s meals.
Home Cooked Diets
Homecooked diets are another option, though they run into many of the same nutritional balance and time-consuming issues as a raw diet.
Home cooked diets dramatically reduce the risk of contagion, but are fairly labor and knowledge intensive. If you’re worried about your dog getting enough of this nutrient or that mineral, talk to a specialist about supplements to consider.
What Do I Feed My Dog, Barley?
To be perfectly honest, I asked to write this piece because I wanted to learn more about what to feed my dog. I’ve ended up more confused than when I started! So, for now, Barley gets a varied diet:
- He’s fed a mixture of high-quality kibbles (like Stella & Chewy’s, Instinct, Taste of the Wild, and Pure Vita) for his main meal. I buy small bags of kibble and change the brand each bag.
- I mix in some salmon oil or sardines and a few bits of produce if we’re not using his kibble as a training reward. He eats some carrots and apples and other produce scraps.
- He gets 2-3 frozen Kongs per day that are filled with either Costco’s brand of wet dog food or a dehydrated raw food.
- I hide some chewy things around the house every day for him to find. He gets antlers, pig’s ears, and bully sticks. And every so often, he gets a big meaty raw bone to gnaw on.
That’s just what works for us. I don’t have the time, money, or freezer space to make Barley homemade meals. I don’t like dehydrated raw foods or the raw food rolls because I like feeding his kibble out of puzzle toys and as training rewards. While I’m at work, I leave him with the Kongs and other chewies hidden around the house.
What works for you? Tell us about your feeding system, especially if you feed some or all raw food!