Is a Raw Puppy Food Diet Right for Your Pet?
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If you’re new to raw feeding and thinking about making it your puppy’s nutritional regimen, it’s important to do your homework. In this article, you’ll learn what a raw diet is all about, the benefits and risks, when and how to start feeding raw puppy food, and if and when you may need to add supplements. To get the facts, we consulted with Dr. Jacqueline Sehn who heads MercyVet, a full service holistic veterinary hospital in the Puget Sound region.
What Is a Raw Diet for Puppies?
A raw food diet for puppies is what it sounds like: uncooked protein, grains, vegetables, and fruits fed to dogs before they reach maturity. The raw feeding movement is driven by the idea that fresh food supports health and conforms to the origins of domesticated canines. The form the diet takes varies and gets its cue from the raw food diet movement that’s become popular for adult dogs.
What Is a Raw Food Diet? Approaches from PMR to BARF to the Ancestral Diet
Feeding raw food to pets has become more popular among pet parents since the 2000s. The diet’s popularity can be correlated with the rise of the organic food movement in humans and the concept that raw is the most authentic, natural and healthy way to feed dogs based on their biology.
All three of the most popular raw diet approaches recommend feeding puppies raw food soon after weaning, which usually begins when puppy teeth come in about a month after they’re born. These temporary teeth fall out when puppies are between three and seven months old and are replaced with 42 adult teeth. At the stage when suckling irritates or hurts the mother, it’s time to introduce food to the puppies.
That’s how the timing works, but what do these versions of raw diets look like? There are three main variations on raw diets and the percentage of recommended meat:
Biologically Appropriate Raw Food Diet (BARF): As described by Dr. Billinghurst, BARF is a modified homemade diet consisting primarily of food that has been ground up. Some dog owners choose to leave bones out and feed them separately, while others grind the bone up along with the other food.
- BARF Guidelines: 70% muscle meat, 10% raw edible bone, 5% liver, 5% other secreting organ, and 10% vegetables and fruit.
Prey Model Raw (PMR): The originator of this version of raw feeding is unknown, but its popularity is growing. This raw diet is based on the idea that canines are carnivores who would seek out and consume whole prey in the wild, including muscle meat, bone, and internal organs that provide additional vegetative nutrients.
- PMR Guidelines: 80% meat, 10% bone, and 10% organ meat, with 5% of organ meats fed as liver.
Ancestral Diet: Formulated by pet nutrition expert Steve Brown, the Ancestral Diet is a research-based model focused on the animal and plant material that a canine’s ancestors once hunted and foraged. Ancestral Diet food is high in protein, contains balanced fats, and features at least some fresh food.
- Ancestral Diet Guidelines: 75% meat, 25% fresh vegetables, and some trace minerals.
The raw feeding movement took hold due to the influence of various veterinarians and holistic food experts, most notably Dr. Ian Billinghurst, who authored Give Your Dog a Bone, the book that set out the essential tenets of BARF, and The BARF Diet. Other influencers include Dr. Juliette de Bairacli Levy, an author and blogger many breeders look to for information about natural pet rearing, and pet food authority Wendy Volhard, author of the Holistic Guide for a Healthy Dog.
The Pros, Cons, and Definitions of Raw Meat Bones and Your Puppy
Dr. Sehn, a raw food expert, supports the argument that raw food is the most natural way to nourish your puppy based on her canine ancestry. “Wolves eat prey animals along with other foraged foods when necessary, such as grains, grasses, vegetables, and fruits. Before domestication, dogs lived similarly to wolves, and even after domestication, dogs ate the raw meat and scraps humans provided. Dogs have a lot in common with their carnivorous wolf ancestors—jaws, teeth, and digestive systems. To holistic vets, adhering to a more natural way of feeding simply makes sense.”
When it comes to puppies, “In nature, wolf cubs or puppies belong to a pack,” explains Dr. Sehn. “The males of the pack hunt, and usually travel many miles to hunt food. The puppies are fed this regurgitated food until they can eat raw [food] on their own. Once they have fully developed teeth, the cubs participate in killing and eating raw.”
There are three key con arguments against feeding raw to puppies (and adult dogs). Opponents cite the potential for nutritional imbalance because owners don’t strictly follow recipes, which can lead to a lack of needed vitamins. Food safety is another concern, contamination can cause bacterial or parasitic exposure in a puppy or adult dog. Similarly, food safety poses a zoonotic risk to owners because of indirect or direct exposure to pathogens in the raw meat or pet stools. The third con argument focuses on feeding raw meaty bones (RMB), which are an essential part of two of the raw diets.
For BARF and PMR feeders, the use of raw meaty bone (RMB) is a crucial part of the diet. Edible and covered in muscle meat and connective tissues, RMBs are soft enough to be eaten without causing damage to the teeth, mouth, or digestive system. RMBs provide minerals like calcium, phosphorus, and other nutrients, which create bulk for firmer stools. Many puppy and dog owners grind RMBs before feeding.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) suggests introducing raw meaty bones to puppies at around 12 weeks of age, when permanent teeth are erupting. They also believe that chewing bones can prevent teething issues and support dental and gum health. Introducing bones should be done gradually, and the bone should be large enough so that it can’t be swallowed whole. They suggest that one raw bone a week under supervision is best. Avoid cooked, smoked, or dehydrated bones since they are prone to splintering. RSPCA recommends that you feed only human grade bones to your puppy.
There are many opinions about the type of raw meaty bones to feed puppies and dogs. In general, edible bones are non-weight-bearing bones. Here are some RMBs to consider:
Despite the benefits, some vets advise puppy and dog owners to proceed with caution and consider the teeth, size, and health of your dog before feeding raw meaty bones, ground or unground.
Traditional veterinary associations, such as The American Veterinary Medical Association, Canadian Veterinary Association and the British Veterinary Association, are not advocates for raw diets. They state that according to their research (often funded by commercial dog food companies) that there is no scientific evidence to support the benefits of raw food claimed by advocates like Dr. Sehn.
Feeding Puppies Raw Food: How, When, and How Much
Dr. Sehn has some simple guidelines on raw food for puppies after weaning. “Puppies eat a lot when they are very young in small amounts, very often, usually four times a day. If you’re training and using treats, you might cut back to three meals a day. Between four and six months, three meals a day, and after six months, you can cut full meals down to two times a day.”
General feeding guidelines use age and body weight percentages to determine the amount of food to provide:
Fat and Thin Puppy Feeding: Puppies who eat raw rarely become fat and are much more likely to stop when they are full. Do a visual check and weigh the puppy on a regular basis. If your pup plumps up, cut back on food quantities for a few days or train with fewer treats. If your puppy is too thin, despite being fed raw on a good schedule, she may suffer from intestinal worms, which is easy for your vet to check. For all puppies who need to gain or lose weight, use the feeding chart guidelines and then subtract or add food. Not sure if your dog is too fat or too thin for his age and breed? Regular checkups that include a stop on the scale will make it clear.
Feeding Extra-Large Puppies: There are some differences to note in how large dogs such as the Great Dane, Mastiff, or Saint Bernard should be fed, cautions Dr. Sehn. “I don’t advocate raw exclusively for extremely large breed dogs until we have evidence-based testing. There’s a risk until seven months of age because these dogs have a ridiculous growth rate and their bones grow quickly. I usually recommend up to 50 percent of the diet to be raw to avoid growth errors.”
Prepping and Feeding How-To’s: When creating a raw diet for your puppy, it’s important to make sure they are receiving balanced meals. You may want to check with your vet, to make sure your puppy is getting all the nutrients they need. Here are some general tips for prepping and feeding raw food to most puppies:
- Schedules: Your puppy will need more frequent, smaller meals than grown dogs.
- Preparation: Start with one protein source and gradually add in others once you know your pup can tolerate specific foods, except in the case of extra-large breeds.
- Food Sources: Use fresh, natural ingredients, including human grade, organic meats and organic vegetables and fruits.
- Portions: Small pieces, just big enough to chew, are best.
- Cutting: Use a grinder if the raw diet you follow requires it, or clean knives.
- Equipment Needed: Use the sharpest possible knives and dedicated cutting boards. For storage, use covered plastic or glass containers and Ziplock bags.
- Temperature: Serve food at body temperature and freeze any uneaten food.
- Balance: Balance calcium and phosphorous ratios based on your vet’s advice, and balance feeding based on the raw diet model you follow.
- Monitoring: Observe how much your puppy eats and if they leave food in their bowl (which is fine). While you need to keep an eye on your puppy, don’t stand over him while he’s eating, since that can create issues around guarding. Raw food can’t be kept out for long amounts of time, so free feeding isn’t an option. Keep an eye on your dog’s consumption, and if she doesn’t eat the food right away, cover the feed bowl and put the food back in the refrigerator and serve it later that day.
Going further into the monitoring issue, Dr. Sehn stresses, “Every puppy and dog is an individual. By carefully observing their habits, you can understand how much food is the right amount, whether you need to switch food, and if your dog requires variety. Also, if you have, say, a Boston Terrier, they can’t eat giant bones because of their jaw and tooth structure.”
Dr. Sehn adds this thought about feeding raw: “In general, if your puppy’s breed anatomically looks like a wolf, you can go natural in your feeding regimen.”
Being flexible and realistic is essential when following a raw food diet for puppies. Dr. Sehn stresses, “While raw is optimal, pet parents may not be able to afford or be able to monitor going all-out raw. We’re all leading busy lives, when monitoring and complex preparation may not be possible at all times. It’s smart to incorporate flexibility and to simplify life. Again, it’s about the individual—some dogs are not tolerant of kibble and some not of raw. You need to adjust based on all the evidence and advice of your clinician.”
The Benefits of a Raw Diet for Puppies
Dr. Sehn notes that in addition to following what nature intended, there’s another positive aspect to feeding your pup raw food. “An advantage is the elimination of chemicals and preservatives in the diet. Feeding unnatural ingredients to puppies at a tender age, just as their guts are forming, isn’t the path to optimal health: The emerging immune system makes them more susceptible to health problems and the toxins in many standard commercial pet foods.”
Here are some of the other reported benefits attributed to feeding your puppy raw vs. standard commercial foods:
- Easier Digestion: Canine digestive systems process meat and bones through specific mechanical and enzymatic actions. This digestive process is designed for foods that more closely match the Ancestral Diet.
- Fewer Allergic Reactions: Diets high in carbohydrates can cause yeast overgrowth. Grains are often a culprit, but other starches can also be to blame. Explore the topic further in “Dog Skin Allergies and Conditions.”
- Healthier Skin and Coat: Dogs that consume Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids in the proper balance have healthy skin and shiny fur.
- Stronger Teeth and Gums: High-protein intake supports bone health and reverses some age-related changes in skeletal muscles in senior dogs.
- Improved Stools: Stools are smaller, less smelly, and degrade faster.
- More Comfortable Teething: Chewing action stimulates tooth growth and relieves the gum discomfort that comes from teething.
- Chewing Enjoyment: Puppies are less likely to destroy belongings, suffer from anxiety, or be bored thanks to endorphins released by the act of chewing.
- Robust Immune Health: Easier digestion can lead to greater absorption of naturally occurring nutrients and enzymes in raw meat, organs, and bones. Feeding puppies raw food can also help prevent ear and bladder infections and build disease resistance.
- Greater Muscle Mass: Animal protein is superior to that found in plant sources for building and maintaining lean muscle.
- Boosted Bone Strength: Stronger skeletal bones prevent hip dysplasia and othercommon bone-related ailments, especially in larger breeds.
- Higher Energy: With better general health, a dog’s pep naturally improves. For this reason, working and racing dogs are fed raw.
- Decreased Doggy Breath: Tearing at raw meat and bones increases saliva production, which helps prevent tooth decay and gum disease.
- Higher Quality Nutrition: With careful selection for freshness, naturalness, and proper sourcing, you can be confident you’re providing the best nourishment for your pup.
Many commercial pet foods are produced using meat from dead, diseased, dying, or downed animals (called 3D or 4D meats) but are still found to be edible as animal feed according to USDA standards. While this may be good for pet food producers who want to make a profit, your poor puppy will realize no benefit from eating substandard “food.” Learn more by taking a look at “The Hidden Dimension in Pet Food: 3D and 4D Meats.”
The Potential Risks of a Raw Diet for Puppies
When we asked Dr. Sehn about the risks to raw feeding for pups or adult dogs, she was very clear: “Risks to raw feeding? I don’t see any.” Her statement is made based on her education, experience, and the results pet owners see when they follow safe handling and nutritional balance practices as part of feeding a raw food diet to their dogs.
Despite the growing numbers of raw food proponents and owners who see improved canine health, some government entities and vegetarian or vegan organizations cite what they believe to be risks, including:
- Dogs Aren’t Wolves: Since domesticated dogs have become human companions over thousands of years, they’ve evolved and have different nutritional needs than their wild canine cousins. However, as Dr. Sehn notes, modern canines have much in common with their wild ancestors from teeth to digestive systems.
- Contamination Concerns: Foodborne pathogens such as salmonella, listeria, and E. coli are sometimes present in raw foods, which can create illness in both animals and humans. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and The U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA-CVM) advise against raw diets. Follow the prepping and feeding suggestions in this article, to avoid contamination issues.
- Lack of Regulation: The argument is that raw, home-prepared raw meals, aren’t covered by the rules and regulations of regular commercial pet foods and can lead to contamination. Following commonsense best practices and vet’s advice is the answer to that concern.
- Ethical Issues: Vegetarians, vegans, and organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) argue that animal lovers shouldn’t be feeding animals to their pets. There is also a concern about environmental sustainability—animal farming uses more land and energy to produce food than vegetables, grains, and fruits.
- Dental Damage: Bones may damage teeth, particularly in puppies whose teeth are not yet fully formed. Follow the timing guidelines in this article and those of your veterinarian to avoid damage to delicate puppy teeth.
- Balance Problems: Homemade raw diets can lack the correct nutrient contents—which is why pet owners must follow recipes when preparing homemade pet food. Balancing calcium and phosphorus is important—growing dogs need a ratio of 1:1 to maintain proper skeletal structure and strength.
- Detox Issues: For puppies and dogs who didn’t start on a raw diet, there may be a period of adjustment that causes some gastrointestinal problems including diarrhea and vomiting. Any dietary change can cause stomach upset in puppies or adult dogs.
Some foods are also unsafe for puppies and adult dogs. Here’s a chart with some information to help you follow raw feeding best practices:
These foods are known to cause health risks for dogs in general, but your puppy may have a genetic predisposition for allergies to specific foods, from beef to eggs to dairy. The easiest way to identify the culprit is by feeding only one type of food at a time.
Puppy Teeth and Raw Feeding
Pups have teeth specifically designed to chew raw meat and bones. The incisors are perfect for nibbling small pieces of meat from the bone. The canines at the top and bottoms grip and tear meat, and the molars are well-suited to crush and grind. Correct chewing massages gums, and raw feeding will help your pup maintain a healthy mouth and clean, powerful adult teeth.
For regular-sized dogs (not large dogs like the Saint Bernard or Great Dane), Dr. Sehn suggests caution, depending on the dog’s age. “Between two and four months when the puppy has immature teeth, I’d suggest no big chunks of meat and no bones. They’re not able to chew or crunch adequately at an early age.”
Can Puppies Eat Raw Chicken?
The best puppy food is fresh, whatever kind of food it may be. Raw chicken is an excellent protein source for puppies and adult dogs. Make sure to check for freshness, and never serve cooked chicken bones since they can splinter and cause tooth, mouth, and digestive tract damage. Serve raw chicken in its natural state or ground.
Carbs and the Raw Food Diet
Puppies and dogs can’t live by meat alone, according to Dr. Sehn. “A restricted amount of organic veggies work well because that’s what puppies and adult canines would naturally eat as part of their diet.” Vegetables and other carbs would be ingested as prey stomach contents or from foraging in the wild. Most raw diets for canines advise including 10 to 25 percent vegetables, to provide essential nutrients and fiber that benefit digestion and gut health.
A high percentage of carbohydrates in puppy and dog diets can produce bad breath because of the lack of amylase, an enzyme in saliva which breaks down plant foods. Tartar build-up on a dog’s teeth begins with plaque, similar to the plaque humans develop. Both are bacterial-rich cultures that thrive and grow on sugar-rich foods. Wild dogs, wolves, and coyotes never have tartar build-up issues.
Most dry commercial kibble has a high carbohydrate content, which stimulates the bacterial cultures in plaque. When puppies or adult dogs eat kibble, the plaque increases and traps food particles, debris, and bacteria, which in turn accumulates even more tartar. The harmful bacteria and resulting gum and tooth disease then cause bad breath.
What Age Should Your Puppy Start Eating Raw Food?
A good start in life can begin before your puppy comes into the world. If you’re working with a breeder, you may want to check that the pup’s mom is also being fed raw to ensure the best possible start.
Once they’re born, that cute puppy phase doesn’t last long. “Puppies are puppies for only a short period,” notes Dr. Sehn. “From the age of two months to six weeks, mother’s milk is what puppies should consume. However, if you have a big litter and the mother doesn’t have sufficient milk for all the pups, you may need to introduce ‘non-mom foods’ like cow’s milk with egg yolk. In general, between six to eight weeks the mother dog is usually done nursing because of the irritation of baby teeth.”
Transitioning to raw feeding by starting with one food is generally recommended.If your puppy was not weaned-to-raw and you are transitioning from kibble to raw food, use a four-day transition plan. On the first day, feed 75% current food and nursing, 25% raw. On day two, split the meal in half with 50% current food and raw daily ration for the other half. On the third day, flip to the opposite of day one – 25% current food and 75% raw – and on the fourth day, feed 100% raw.
For more suggestions and information, check out “Raw for Kittens and Puppies.”
The Long-Term Benefits of Slow Growth Raw Feeding for Large Breed Puppies
Giant breeds like Saint Bernard, Great Pyrenees, Great Danes, Mastiffs, and Irish Wolfhounds, have an alarmingly quick growth rate as puppies. The large size can exacerbate health problems, including hip and elbow dysplasia, osteoarthritis, heart problems and more. Feeding for slow growth and steady weight gain is preferred to fend off these issues, many of which are life-threatening. To manage extra-fast growth rates for large or giant breed dogs, carefully monitor fat, calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D intake based on your vet’s advice.
Other Considerations in Raw Puppy Diet Regimen
You need more than just food to make life enjoyable for you and your pup. Here are a few other important factors to consider:
- Clean, Non-Chlorinated Water: Provide water to your puppy at all times. Dog dehydration can happen to any puppy very quickly, particularly in summer. The bowl you use should be strong, difficult to tip over, and able to withstand the daily use of your pet (including chewing). Make sure it’s suitable for whatever conditions you are dealing with, such as freezing weather, travel, or outdoor use.
- Fresh Air and Play: Take your puppy outside so his lungs and legs can get a workout.Take it easy until bones have hardened in growing pups. Most of your puppy’s growth, when bones and skeleton form, happens between the ages of four and eight months, so keep sessions short, frequent and gentle. Challenge your dog physically and mentally to maintain good behavior in the home and develop agility and strength.
- Supplements: Adding non-foods to your pup’s raw diet is an area open to question. Many raw food proponents say that supplementation isn’t necessary. Consider your dog’s individual needs and recommendations from your vet when deciding whether to supplement.
Support for Raw Diets for Puppies
To get started in your raw feeding adventure, ask your vet for help, and connect with an experienced raw-feeding mentor or chat group. You can find online groups like San Francisco Raw, which provides a free mentoring program, or you join the Raw Feeding Community on Facebook. Alternatively, take advantage of a free, personal consultation by contacting a Darwin’s Pet Food Advisor.
Commercial Raw Dog Food Options for Your Pup
Dr. Sehn emphasizes that, “Raw feeding isn’t a cookie cutter decision.” The raw feeding model you use and the decision to use commercial raw food depend on your dog and personal situation. Selecting the right food for your pup with the correct nutritional balance can eliminate any health risks. Frozen raw food provides a convenient option for pup parents who are short on time but want to deliver the benefits of raw.
One item to consider is processing. High-Pressure Processing or Pasteurization (HPP) is a method of eliminating microbes in raw food. The process is described as natural by the USDA, but many raw feeders believe HPP modifies whole living food, and that it shouldn’t be confused with unadulterated raw food. Immune or gastrointestinally compromised puppies and dogs may benefit from HPP-treated raw food. To help you make the right decision for your puppy’s raw food diet, take a look at All About Raw Dog Food which includes further expert insights, a checklist, and brand comparison chart.
Darwin’s Raw Food Solution for Healthy, Happy Puppies
Darwin’s all-raw dog foods are complete and balanced, carefully sourced, and delivered frozen to your door to preserve nutrients and make life more convenient.
In keeping with the Ancestral Diet, Darwin’s meals are 75 percent real meat and 25 percent fresh vegetables with a small amount of nutrient mix that delivers essential trace minerals. The formulas are grain, gluten, steroid, hormone, and antibiotic free. They also contain moderate fat and have a careful balance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids, plus essential minerals from natural or organic compounds to exceed the guidelines of both AAFCO and the National Research Council for canine nutrition.
At Darwin’s Pet Products, our number one goal is to help keep your pets healthy and active for as long as possible. To help accomplish this goal, we provide a library of articles in the hope of providing consumers with useful information to help their pets. And, primarily, we produce affordable, high-quality raw dog and cat meals which we ship directly to consumers, so they are as fresh and convenient as possible. Our meals are high in protein, gluten-free, wheat free, and are created to provide complete and balanced nutrition. We encourage you to learn more about our meals for dogs and meals for cats.
The menu consultants at Darwin’s are always available to answer any questions you have about your puppy’s best raw food options and meals. Why not take advantage of a Free Menu Consultation? Or, if you think you might want a trial of Darwin’s (at an introductory price), we would love to send you our meals and hear how much your dog or cat loves them.