Our parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents before them fed their dogs what was left from the table or from cooking around the fire. There were no commercial dog foods. Think back. There was also not the rampant chronic disease that is all too common today in our beloved companions, in the form of allergies, diabetes, hypothyroidism and a host of other disorders. The spike in long-term chronic disease in our cats and dogs can be traced back to the advent of commercial, processed food and the push for a myriad of annual vaccines. This article looks at these issues from the nutrition standpoint.
Dogs are carnivores. They can become what is called an “obligate omnivore”, meaning if they can’t get the meat they are supposed to have, they will eat whatever is available to survive. That doesn’t mean it is what they SHOULD eat, simply that they will if they have no other choice. It bears repeating. Dogs are carnivores. Whether it be a chihuahua or a Great Dane, the dentition and digestive system of domestic dogs is still identical to that of the wolf. Their teeth are designed for chewing raw meat and crushing raw bone. Their stomach acid is much, much stronger than ours and their intestines much, much shorter, all designed for the processing of raw meat and bone.
For optimum health, you need optimum nutrition. Your dog can survive on highly processed food, much the same as we could survive on Pop Tarts and candy but common sense tells us that is not a healthy way to eat. Our pets are at the mercy of what we feed them. Like us, fresh, real food is far more healthy than processed food, artificial flavorings, preservatives, salt, sugar, etc. Like the old dog food commercials used to say “Meat costs more than cereal”, though ironically, the makers of that food were filling it full of grains and meat by-products not fit for consumption.
Years ago, I started asking myself why we were seeing so many long-term chronic health problems in dogs, both purebred and mutt. I was breeding the best purebred dogs I could, doing health clearances on any used in my breeding program and studying canine genetics. Still, when I pulled that food out of a bag, my gut told me something was wrong with this picture. I knew several show breeders that had gone to raw feeding. Raw chicken with bones flies in the face of what we have been taught. Remember though, that vets are often taught everything they know about nutrition by a representative from Purina or Hill’s, the makers of Science Diet. Of course those companies do not want us to consider anything that doesn’t come in one of their bags! So I began to research raw feeding. The more I studied, the more convinced I became as to the value of real, fresh, raw food. Do NOT let anyone (including your vet) tell you that raw chicken with bones will kill your dog. While they may have horror stories of dogs getting pancreatitis or perforated intestines from chicken bones, invariably, those were cooked. COOKED bones splinter, raw bones do not. Cooked skin and fat can cause pancreatitis, raw skin and fat is full of those wonderful omega fatty acids that give healthy skin and coat. If raw meat and bones would kill a dog, why aren’t all the wolves dead? When you go to the zoo, you do not see them whipping out a bag of Lion Chow. They are fed species appropriate food, which in the case of almost all predators, is raw meat and bone.
Another scare tactic is salmonella. Humans are susceptible to salmonella “poisoning” because we have a lower pH stomach acid and a much, much longer intestinal tract, designed for processing fruits and vegetables. Most of the salmonella is either killed by their stomach acid or eliminated by their short gut before it can multiply and cause sickness. Dogs are not susceptible to salmonella unless they are already ill or in a weakened immune state, which in most cases, ironically, is brought on by poor nutrition in the first place.
Armed with my new information, I decided to take the plunge and start feeding raw chicken with bones to my show dogs. First, you should not feed weight-bearing bones as these can sometimes splinter, so I do not recommend legs. Best is chicken backs, which are smaller, easily crushed bones, and also include bits of offal, heart, kidney, liver, etc and they are generally inexpensive. I pay .69/lb for them which is typically less than the price of cheap, processed commercial food. When I began feeding raw chicken, several things became rapidly apparent. Dogs who’s teeth were caked with plaque and due for a teeth cleaning, within weeks of eating raw chicken, had shiny, white teeth. Dogs who, in the past, didn’t care who shared their food with them, ran off with their precious prize, shaking with excitement and fully consuming it immediately, lest someone else steal it from them. The other thing that shocked me was the bitches with puppies. I watch a lot of nature shows and have seen the footage of wolves, coyotes, lions and others eating raw meat and then regurgitating the chunks for their weaning pups. None of my bitches had EVER regurgitated processed food for her pups, however as soon as I started feeding raw chicken, this is exactly what they did. It was glaringly apparent that until then, nothing I had fed them was “worthy” of feeding to their precious young.
The other myth perpetuated by all too many makers of dog food and even many veterinarians is to keep the dog on the same food for life. If you want to CAUSE an allergy, expose the body to the same thing, day after day, year after year. I worked in a hospital lab for almost thirty years so became allergic to latex. Many people become allergic to antibiotics that they have been given repeatedly. The same is true with all living things. The idea behind proper canine nutrition is to mimic what they would get in the wild. They eat what they can catch or find, generally something different every day. It is important that we vary the protein source with our dogs. It is also a myth that they need 100% of their daily requirements in every meal. We humans don’t even eat that way! Ian Billinghurst, a vet from Australia, has written several books on raw feeding, including “Give Your Dog A Bone” and “Grow Your Pups With Bones”. I highly recommend his books. His mantra is “balance over time through variety”. Good advice for us and our pets.
Fortunately for convenience, pet food companies started realizing the market for quality food from whole, healthy ingredients. The first ingredient listed on a bag of pet food should ALWAYS be the main protein source, which should be meat, poultry or fish. The specific ingredient listed first should be the actual type, as in beef or chicken or salmon. If it just lists meat-by-products stay away from it. Also, it is a good idea to always rotate your protein source. If this bag was fish, make the next lamb, then chicken, etc. While these top shelf foods are far better than the old, cheap garbage filled kind, I still believe in adding whole fresh food, like raw chicken backs, raw eggs, yogurt, canned mackerel and table scraps. Just remember that table scraps are what is left on your plate. Never feed cooked bones or skin. You can find all these high-end foods at your local Petsmart and will also notice that they have their aisles in order of price. Stay on the high-end and don’t forget to alternate your protein source.
There is also a product made by Nature’s Variety (Instinct Raw) that my vet carries, as does our local feed store. You can find a local outlet for it online at their website. It is a wonderful variety of raw meat in the form of frozen patties, making feeding raw very easy. It is also a great way to add new protein sources that are not easy to find, like rabbit, venison and duck. This is not only healthy for them but a great way to do an elimination diet if you suspect your dog is suffering from food allergies. You need a unique protein source, something they have never had before. Keep them strictly on that and nothing else for at least two months. That means nothing else, no treats either. Then if you see improvement, you know there is a food allergy and can gradually add back in other things, one at a time, very, very slowly until you figure out what they are allergic to. The most common food allergies for dogs in here in the US is beef and wheat. In New Zealand, it is lamb. Again, it’s the result of what they were exposed to over and over again.
One final thing worth mentioning is treats. The dog food companies that produce high quality food, also produce treats to go with them, even treats intended for dogs with allergies. It’s as important that the treats be as healthy as their main source of food. Baby carrots make great treats. While dogs can easily digest meat and bone, they cannot digest rawhide and I don’t recommend its use. In fact, some rawhide produced outside of the US, is actually processed with arsenic! For recreational chewing, I recommend raw marrow bones, found in the meat department of your grocery store. They will get many hours of happy chewing and the marrow is very nutritious. Just make sure it’s raw and do NOT cook them first. In fact, we give our 6 dogs marrow bones after we freeze them. Frozen makes them last even longer, however, once they have removed all the marrow and the bone becomes dry, brittle and starts to chip, it should be discarded. Getting all the marrow out of the bone may take just a few hours for a large breed dog but may take days for a small breed. Our golden retriever can get all the marrow out and start to chip the bone in just an hour or two so we are careful to take it away from her then. On the other hand, our terriers enjoy the bones for almost a week. If you have multiple dogs you should separate them when you give them their bones to prevent any stealing and fighting. If its small dogs give them the bones in their crate and keep the bones in the crate and they will enjoy them whenever it’s time to get in the crate.
Also, avoid any edible products produced in China. The words Made in China are sometimes in very, very small print on the package but there have been multiple toxic pet products from there over the past several years.
Our mothers used to say “you are what you eat” and there is great truth in that. Just like the old “garbage in, garbage out” adage. Feeding high quality food costs more than feeding garbage but you will be rewarded with a healthy, happy dog and fewer visits to the vet.