Going From Commercial to Raw Foods For The Health of Your Pet
By: Cate Burnette
BARF is an acronym for Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. This feeding program is focused on nourishing your pets responsibly and properly to maximize health, longevity and reduce allergies and vet bills. The diet is based on human-grade whole foods including raw meat, finely ground bones, offal and other healthy ingredients such as fruit and vegetables.
Why feed a raw diet?
It is a scientifically proven fact that cooking food robs it of heat-sensitive vitamins, amino acids and trace minerals, deforms needed proteins in meat enzymes, and changes the molecular structure of lipids (fats). For those pet parents wanting to give their animals the best possible value in their food, moving from a traditional, cooked commercial pet food to a raw diet may be the best solution to this nutritional dilemma.
Veterinary studies over the years have proven that feeding a raw diet benefits pets in numerous ways including:
- increases overall health
- reduces obesity
- lessens the chance of certain diseases including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes an improves the temperament and energy levels of domesticated animals
Animals fed raw bones typically suffer fewer incidences of gingivitis and gum infection, have fresher breath, and reduced digestive problems.
Additionally, commercial food products and treats are manufactured with additives and chemicals that preserve shelf life by binding the ingredients into a more stable form, artificially color the food, and add synthetic flavor. Animal Digest, the most commonly used flavoring in store-bought foods, is a cooked-down liquid made of parts of unspecified animals.
According to the USDA, those animals can include “4-D animals” (dead, diseased, disabled, or dying prior to slaughter), rats, goats, horses, pigs, animals euthanized at shelters, miscellaneous roadkill, supermarket and restaurant refuse, and so on. While many of these additives have not been shown to be toxic to pets, others are suspected of causing thyroid, liver, and kidney diseases including some cancers.
What is a raw diet?
Raw diets typically consist of ingredients that are fresh, raw, and raised organically, without exposure to chemicals, pesticides, antibiotics, and/or synthetic hormones. The main 6 components of the BARF diet consist of meat and dairy proteins, whole-grain carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits, and the natural fats, minerals and vitamins from various seeds.
- Protein sources commonly include raw beef, chicken, turkey, lamb and small amounts of organ meats, such as beef heart, chicken liver, calves liver, and sweetbreads. Some pet owners choose to feed very fresh – or lightly cooked – fish or shellfish. The occasional raw egg is another good source of natural, organic protein. **Please note: If you choose to feed your dog or cat raw or lightly cooked fish, you need to ensure the meat is free of parasites.
- Dairy proteins can consist of raw milk and raw cheese, yogurt, and cottage cheese treated with lactase enzymes to avoid digestive upset.
- For a mix of proteins with high-value carbohydrates, you can feed small quantities of lightly cooked beans, brown rice, quinoa, or other whole grains. Oatmeal or other grain cereals soaked in raw milk, yogurt, or raw vegetable juice (carrot juice is a good choice here) can add variety to your pet’s diet. When feeding foods high in carbs, many holistic veterinarians recommend adding an enzyme powder containing amylase, which helps your pet digest carbohydrates and may prevent an upset tummy.
- Dogs and cats can eat all types of vegetables on this program. Finely grated carrots, parsnips, cucumbers, zucchini, peas, sweet potatoes, sprouts, wheat grass, sweet bell peppers, and herbs can be added to proteins or used as natural treat foods. Small pieces of raw carrot or sweet potato, in particular, can serve as a sweet, tasty treat while also helping your pet’s teeth to stay clean and breath smelling fresh.
- Some proponents of a raw diet suggest that you may not need to feed raw fruit if you’re heavily into the vegetables, but, if you choose to give your pet fruit, apples, blueberries, bananas, watermelon, cantaloupe, pears, dates, and mangoes can be a good source of Vitamins A, C, and E as well as necessary antioxidants. You can also juice these fruits and add to a meal as a way to introduce extra moisture when needed. **Please note: Feeding grapes, raisins, onions, large amounts of garlic, and avocado has been shown to be toxic to some canines and is not recommended by the veterinary community.
- Sunflower seeds, chia seeds, Brazil nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts all provide natural oils, vitamins, and minerals to your pet’s diet. They can be served chopped, grated, or ground and mixed with the regular meal. A bit of almond butter on a baby carrot makes a great, all-natural treat for your dog or cat.
Special Needs for Feline Raw Diets
As obligate carnivores (animals that must eat mainly meat for survival), cats need:
- Protein from meat or fish
- Amino acids like taurine and arginine (from meat or fish)
- Fatty acids
Taurine and arginine are essential amino acids necessary to your cat’s diet found in raw meat and fish. Without taurine, the retinal cells of the eyes will eventually degenerate, impairing vision. Deficiency of taurine will also lead to a weakening of the muscle cells in the heart, causing a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy. Additionally, a lack of taurine may cause digestive disturbances.
Without arginine, a cat cannot fully process normal food proteins, resulting in high ammonia levels in the blood. Severe signs such as salivation, vocalization, ataxia, and even death can result from the high ammonia levels.
Dependent on the amount and quality of meat or fish you feed your cat, either of these amino acids may be wanting, and supplementation of both taurine and arginine may be necessary.
Holistic veterinarians often recommend adding psyllium (a plant fiber) to your cat’s raw diet during the transition phase to aid in any possible digestive upset.
The following recipe, developed by Lisa Pierson, a veterinarian in Lomita, California, yields enough food for 10-14 days for the average cat. For more guidelines in making this food, go to www.catinfo.org.
- 3 pounds of whole fowl or rabbit, including bones, organs, and skin
- 1 cup water
- 2 eggs (use raw yolks, and lightly cook the whites)
- 2000 mg wild salmon oil
- 400 IU vitamin E (powdered E in capsule form works)
- 100 mg vitamin B-complex (start with a smaller amount when beginning a raw meat diet; the vitamin has a strong odor)
- 2000 mg taurine, powdered
- ¾ tsp. lite salt with iodine (when using chicken parts)
- Liver (add 4 oz. if the meat you are using does not include organs)
- Psyllium (add when first introducing the raw meat diet to your cat.)
How do I transition my pet from commercial to a raw diet?
Veterinarians are of two schools of thought when it comes to changing your animal’s meals from a commercial product to fresh, raw foods – going cold turkey and introducing the new foods all at once, or making a gradual transition over a period of a week to 10 days. Most will agree that this decision should be made on an individual basis depending on the age, health, and breed of your pet.
On her website The Whole Dog, holistic veterinarian Dr. Jeannie Thomason recommends fasting your dog from solid food for at least 12 hours before feeding her the first raw meal. This allows her digestive system to clear itself of any leftover commercial product that might interfere with the digestion of the new material. During the fast, your dog should always have access to free choice water. By allowing the body to clear itself of any commercial additives or toxins, the nutrients in the raw diet are able to be ingested and used without causing stomach upset when going “cold turkey.” **Please note: Veterinaries DO NOT recommend fasting any animal under one year of age.
She also suggests staying with one meat protein source – preferably easily digestible chicken – for the first couple of months, allowing your dog’s body to cleanse and detoxify. As you gradually begin to add in different proteins, you’ll be able to tell which foods best suit your dog without creating additional problems.
However, there is one caveat to Dr. Thomason’s recommendation; for senior dogs or animals coping with an illness, transitioning to the new food over a period of time may be the best way to avoid intestinal problems.
Dr. C J Puotinen, author of “The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care,” advises using the transitional method of switching foods. He suggests keeping your pet on her traditional food during the switch and gradually adding in increasing amounts of the raw diet over a period of 10 days to 2 weeks. Simultaneously, you’ll want to decrease the amount of the old food during the same time period.
This type of transition works best for seniors who have lived their lives on commercially produced food, animals with sensitive stomachs or prior incidences of diarrhea and/or pancreatitis, and pets with chronic illnesses.
If you choose the transitional method, we recommend feeding the commercial food and the raw food out of separate dishes to avoid any hint of contamination.
How much raw food does my pet need?
Because your dog or cat will be able to more easily assimilate the nutrients in raw foods, you’ll be able to feed less food daily than you have when using commercial products. We suggest using the 2- to 3% rule, meaning you feed 2- to 3% of your pet’s weight daily. Based on a ratio of 2.5% to maintain the optimal weight of a healthy, active animal, those proportions allow a 20-pound dog to eat approximately 2.7 pounds of raw meat weekly, or around ¾ of a cup of food daily. If you’re feeding twice a day, you would half that proportion at every meal.
These figures would, of course, change depending on the weight of your dog or cat and your pet’s age, activity level, metabolism, and breed. A good food calculator can be found on the Primal Pet Foods website.
What are some signs of digestive upset and what do I do about it?
You need to consult your holistic veterinarian if your pet has diarrhea for more than 48 hours, becomes lethargic, runs a fever, has blood in the stool, or begins to vomit large amounts of liquid.
By giving your dog or cat the raw diet she would eat in the wild, you’re returning her body to its natural source of nutrients, removing the toxins and chemicals found in today’s commercial foods, and giving her the best shot at living a long, healthy, and happy life.
Cate Burnette is a semi-retired registered veterinary technician with clinical experience in small and large animal medicine. With 30-plus years of journalism experience, she went back to school after 9/11 to work with her first love: animals. The pet parent of four cats, three dogs and one ex-racehorse, Cate is a certified rescue volunteer with the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services and served with the group in New Orleans doing animal search and rescue after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a horse safety and horse management expert, and has volunteered with US Pony Clubs as a district commissioner and horse management judge.