However, in spite of this many pet owners are turning their backs on commercial pet foods and opting for natural home made diets.
The Vital Pet Health experts have investigated these home made diets in order to give you the facts. This article takes an impartial look at such diets and explores the reasons why they are becoming more popular. It expels myths about natural food diets and explores the concepts behind them. We also investigate the potential dangers of such diets when fed improperly.
The concept of a natural food diet
In the human world there is becoming an increasing trend to move away from processed foods which contain artificial ingredients. Food labels are becoming increasingly scrutinized for flavourings, colourings and preservatives. Many people are avoiding these synthetic substances in favour of natural foods which are deemed to be more healthy.
The concept of a balanced diet has long been the gold standard of nutritionists throughout the world. Obtaining food from a variety of dietary sources to obtain the full range of vitamins, minerals and other essential dietary requirements.
In the pet food world some see commercial pet foods as balanced, nutritious, healthy and of course convenient. Others see these processed foods as responsible for causing increases in diseases such as obesity, skin and dental problems.
A natural food diet for dogs would be one that most closely mimics the diet that dogs would eat in the wild. In other words, feeding a diet that dogs are naturally adapted to eat, a species appropriate diet.
Dogs in the wild
Many would argue that studying the natural diet of dogs in the wild has little relevance to our domestic companion’s dietary needs. However, the digestive system of dogs has evolved over thousands of years, much longer than the time that they have been domesticated.
Many commercial pet food companies will study the diets of wild species and use them as a basis for the diets of their domestic counterparts. Diets in the wild therefore are of extreme importance when determining dietary needs.
Dogs in the wild are scavengers and will have an immensely varied diet. As well as hunting prey they will feed off the carcasses of dead animals and other animal matter. They ingest a proportion of vegetable and plant matter, both directly by eating whole plants, fruits and vegetables, but also indirectly by eating semi-digested plant matter from the intestinal tract of animals they eat.
Dogs will generally eat the whole carcass of a small prey animal including viscera but also including bones. Bones are living tissue and provide a complex source of a wide variety of nutrients to the dog. Minerals are embedded in bone proteins. The marrow is a great source of fat soluble vitamins, iron and anti-oxidants.
The crunching of bones acts as a natural mechanism to scrape and clear debris from the teeth so there isn’t a build up of tartar and associated dental disease. Domestic pets fed on commercial food don’t have this natural teeth cleaning mechanism and some believe this is the reason that dental disease is so prevalent today.
Natural foods suitable for dogs
The basic elements of a natural food diet comprise of the following:
- Raw meaty bones
- Whole carcasses
- Raw vegetables
Raw Meaty Bones
Examples of some suitable types of bones are: Chicken and turkey carcasses, after the meat has been removed for human consumption. Chicken wings and poultry by-products, whole fish and fish heads. Larger bones should be chopped into smaller pieces. Other by-products include pig’s trotters and heads, brisket and tail bones.
Having meat on the bones provides protein, fat and essential fatty acids, water, vitamins and minerals.
NEVER FEED COOKED BONES TO A DOG!!
These will splinter and cause potentially life threatening bowel obstructions and perforations when swallowed.
Examples of these are chickens, rabbits, fish and quail. Generally small animals whose bones are relatively soft and can be crunched into smaller pieces.
Tripe is an example of offal commonly obtained from a butcher as part of a natural food diet. Green tripe refers to part of the stomach of a cow or other ruminant; this contains a diverse profile of living nutrients including enzymes, omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, probiotics and phytonutrients.
Other organs commonly fed are liver, lungs, heart and kidneys. These organs are a concentrated source of many nutrients and so are not required in huge amounts. Many natural food diets incorporate these organs occasionally during the week rather than every day.
Liver is a very concentrated source of vitamin A so should be fed regularly but in small quantities. It also contains vitamins E, D and K in substantial quantities along with all the B vitamins. It is abundant in the minerals zinc, manganese, selenium and iron in addition to high levels of protein and essential fatty acids.
Kidneys also supply a great deal of nutrients, similar to the liver. The heart is also a good source of taurine.
The vegetables fed as part of natural diets are raw and often roughly chopped in a blender. Most vegetables are suitable except onions. It is recommended in many diets to include some leafy green vegetables as well as root vegetables.
Many people also add nuts and seeds to the mixture. Mixing the vegetables with minced meat can often increase palatability.
Vegetables are fed in this way to mimic those eaten in the wild in the intestinal tract of killed prey. The short digestive tract of the dog is incapable of digesting tough cellulose plant cell walls. However once a rabbit or other prey animal has chopped the plant matter into small pieces the dog can obtain nutrients more easily.
It must be noted that vegetables prepared in this way soon lose their nutrients and so they should be freshly prepared for each meal or prepared and frozen in portions.
As well as the food stuffs mentioned above, some people add in whole eggs to the diet occasionally. Eggs are regarded as a whole food and an excellent source of protein. If the shells are included (as they would be in the wild) then the egg provides a full range of minerals, all the vitamins apart from vitamin C, and a range of high quality saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Eggs can be added whole to vegetables or meat before blending. The shells provide an additional source of calcium.
Quantity to feed with natural food diets
When feeding a natural food diet it is very difficult to determine the nutritive and calorific content of the various food stuffs you are giving to your dog. Without the benefit of food labels to provide nutritional information this task would be almost impossible. Some people would use this problem as an argument against feeding these natural diets to your pet.
However, if we consider the means by which we control the food intake of our own and our family’s diets then we can apply the same principals. We do not measure out our daily food intake according to food consumption charts and so it should be possible to quantify our pet’s diet using the same logic.
Attention should be paid to activity levels, appetite and body condition score. Young, active and growing dogs obviously have a greater calorie requirement than older more sedentary animals.
It is useful to regularly assess your dog’s body condition score. The ribs should be easily felt when running the hands lightly along the chest. If they are not easily felt then this is an indication that there is an accumulation of body fat. The abdomen should tuck up nicely from the rib cage to the hips, rounded bellies are another indication of excess body fat.
If you assess your animal as overweight then you should reduce the amount of food given.
As a very rough guide to the amount of food required, owners should consider feeding 15-20% of their dogs body weight of carcasses and meaty bones per week. A 25kg dog therefore could require up to 5kg of carcasses and raw meaty bones per week. Some people advocate a fasting day where no food is given. This situation often occurs in the wild when food is scarce.
Feeding puppies a natural diet
From about three weeks of age puppies will start to take an interest in what their mother is eating. By six weeks of age puppies will eat chicken carcasses rabbits and fish of their own accord.
In the wild a canine mother will regurgitate part- digested food for her pups. To imitate this and stimulate appetite for solid food, meat and bone can be minced together for pups too young to eat carcasses themselves. People use this technique to introduce young pups to a natural food diet.
Potential Problems with Natural Food Diets
- It is almost impossible to know the exact nutritional composition of a home made diet. Anything other than careful food selection can result in your pets nutritional needs not being met.
- Inappropriate feeding can lead to dietary excesses and deficiencies. For example if too much liver is fed then an excess of vitamin A can result which can lead to skeletal problems. An excess of fat in the diet can lead to obesity. See our full list in vitamins and minerals.
- Some components of the diet may interfere with the availability of other nutrients in the food. For example some types of fibre can reduce the digestibility of some nutrients.
- Because of the variability of natural food diets, it is very difficult to conduct feeding trials in order to assess any signs of deficiency or disease. It is difficult to establish a “standard” against which the diets can be compared.
- Foods of the same type can still vary greatly. For example the same vegetable can vary in its nutritional content since this can depend on numerous factors such as region grown, soil content, stage of ripeness etc.
- The menu of a natural food diet may vary according to foods that are available at the time. The diet may therefore not always be balanced.
- The relative amount of some ingredients to each other is very important and can potentially cause serious problems. For example a balanced diet should contain proportionally more calcium than phosphorous. If the diet contains more phosphorus in relation to calcium then skeletal problems can occur even if the food contains more than the minimum amount of each mineral.
- One of the greatest problems with natural food diets is that the content of the diet is often based upon unqualified people’s opinions of what is good or bad. Feeding fads can result with potentially unhealthy consequences. For example, feeding an all meat ration is very dangerous for the animals health. Similarly a home made vegetarian diet for cats would almost certainly be fatal.
- Adding supplements to “complete” food can cause excesses of dietary components.
- Never feed cooked bones!! These are extremely dangerous since they can splinter and cause bowel obstructions and perforations.
Top Tips for Natural Food diets
Find a good supplier of raw foods. Strike up good relations with local butchers to provide the ingredients of the diet. Some mobile companies exist which deliver raw meaty bones and raw veg to the door.
Free up some freezer space!! Many people with animals on raw food diets require whole freezers to store the ingredients of the diet. Plan the meals carefully. Raw veg can be chopped and frozen into portions to use when fresh veg isn’t available.
If you find that one day the cupboard is bare, don’t be tempted to buy commercial pet food to tide you over until raw food is available. With dogs it is better to starve them for a day until you source their next meal. Being starved is a natural occurrence in the wild when food is scarce.
Billinghurst, Ian: (2001) The Barf diet: for Cats and Dogs
Lonsdale, Tom: (2001) Raw Meaty Bones: Promote Health, Rivetco pty Ltd.
Strombeck, Donald R DVM PHD: (1999) Home prepared Dog and Cat Diets, Iowa state university press.