Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Why do I feed raw?

This is a question that I get all the time on forums and in real life, and I'm sure even members of my family aren't all aware of why I chose to feed my animals raw food. I'm not going to quote studies or books, although I will mention some, as there are plenty of resources available with a simple Google search if someone is interested. Instead I will focus on why we chose to feed raw, why we use the supplements we do, and what benefits I believe the dogs (and ourselves) reap from this choice.

Why do I feed raw?
The first and simple answer is "because Jadzia will eat it." When we brought her home, one of her many issues was that she did not want to eat very much - kibble, wet food, it didn't matter. We went through multiple high-quality pet foods (Canidae, Innova, Wellness, etc.), and found that only by mixing her food with copious quantities of Parmesan cheese could we get her to eat at all. Soon after we brought Curzon home as a puppy, I went to a dog show and visited the Darwin's Pet Food booth where Gary Tashjian gave me a 1-lb sample of their chicken-and-veggie raw food. I took it home, offered it to Jadzia, and she vacuumed it up in record time and was looking for more - and we were sold. A few weeks later we had arranged to get home delivery from Darwin's, and we have fed raw to our animals ever since.

I am also very interested in eating foods that are as natural as possible, and this mentality carries over to my animals as well. While I am not always successful in my own diet (mini Milky Ways, anyone?), I can ensure that my dogs have food that I can identify that is fresh and healthful. I do strive for that in my own food, and as such we no longer buy items such as chicken nuggets, instead choosing to buy cut-up chicken to cook on its own and french fries made with nothing more than organic potatoes and sea salt. Eating "clean" and eating well is important for health, in my opinion, and so I feed my dogs the way that I feed myself.

What benefits do the dogs get from eating raw?
Our dogs are border collies (3) and a jack russell terrier, which are all high-energy, high-intelligence, high-drive dogs. We play flyball competitively year-round, and also dabble in multiple other dog sports including agility, rally-o, sheep herding, frisbee, and dock diving. We often go camping or hiking with the dogs, and in the summer we've been known to take them biking or rollerblading. Regular kibble bought at the store will not do these dogs justice, and even high-quality kibble such as Innova Evo is only going to be "good enough." Raw food provides our dogs with the best quality protein that they can get, which is what they turn into those fast flyball times and flashy tricks. They have soft coats, clear eyes, few tummy upsets, few incidents of pickiness, and leave very little waste behind in the yard. And of course, they have boundless energy and weight management is very simple due to the high protein diet.

Jadzia and Phoebe are the ones we have seen change from kibble to raw, as Curzon was only four months old when he went to raw and Ezri was weaned straight onto raw. Both of the adult girls showed improvements in coat, muscle tone, and attitude towards food once they were fed appropriate amounts of raw food. And as stated before, just seeing Jadzia happy to eat was benefit enough.

What supplements do you use?
Right now we use three supplements regularly - salmon oil, liquid glucosamine/chondroitin, and digestive enzymes. Jadzia and Curzon get the first two, Ezri gets just the oil, and Phoebe gets the last two. The oil provides additional fatty acids that the raw meat lacks, as well as a pleasing taste (and not-so-pleasing aroma). The glucosamine/chondroitin is for joint protection as flyball and other jumping sports can be very hard on both the hips and shoulders. The digestive enzymes are a new addition, and they are helping Phoebe's system handle the protein diet without causing a flareup of pancreatitis.

The dogs will intermittently get other additions to their food, ranging from cottage cheese to canned pumpkin to eggs.

But what about bacteria? And aren't poultry bones bad for animals?
In general, the digestive tracts of both cats and dogs are hotter, shorter, and more acidic than those of humans. This means that should they eat a contaminated meal, the bacteria won't have much of a chance to grow up to colonies large enough to cause problems. Raw food is digested much more quickly than kibble, which can also be seen in how human runners "carb-load" before a race because those carbs take longer to digest and provide more energy later on. It is the sugars in carbs that provide food for the bacteria, so a low-carb diet is further protection against bacterial overgrowth. Finally, we take the same precautions with the dog food as we do with our own - it is kept frozen, thawed in the refrigerator, used promptly, and all dishes and utensils are cleaned in hot soapy water between uses.

Cooked poultry bones will be brittle and can splinter easily, which can be very dangerous and even fatal if a dog eats these cooked bones. Raw bones, however, are still flexible and chewy and simply crunch up into smaller pieces when eaten, thus causing no issues with digestion. Anyone can test this for themselves by simply taking one raw and one cooked chicken wing and whacking them with mallets - the cooked one will show splintered shards of bone, while the raw one will just be a little more squished.

What about the cats?
Our two cats also eat raw food, although it took a bit of convincing to get Onyx to eat it at first - but now she knocks her brother out of the way when it is meal time! Cats are obligate carnivores, which means that biologically they are required to eat meat because they cannot synthesize the amino acid taurine like omnivores can, so they must get it from meat. The perfect meal for a cat is a mouse - it has meat and bones, with a little bit of organ meat, partially digested vegetable matter from the stomach, and roughage from the fur. My cats must make do with premade raw or the occasional chicken wing, however, as I don't think bringing home mice for them to eat would be taken kindly by my husband.

Where did you get your information from?
There are several books you can read, including those by Ian Billinghurst and Ann Martin, which are two authors whose books I recommend. I have also talked extensively with other raw feeders, including my vet Dr. Jackie Obando at Mercy Vet, as well as read a great deal of information on the internet. Information on supplements varies all over the place, so I have simply considered what works well for my animals and keep an eye on them to be ready to change out anything that is no longer useful or is causing problems. Examples of this include Jadzia and Curzon being allergic to a new formulation of Missing Link last fall, and taking salmon oil out of Phoebe's meals to protect her pancreas. Many of my friends also feed raw, and we often trade information (and sometimes raw goodies too) to ensure that we keep all of our dogs safe.

If you want to feed your animals raw food.....
First, please educate yourself - just reading this post is not enough, you need to read books and peruse raw-feeding groups as well. Next, talk to your vet and be sure they support what you want to do and are willing to help you out with it. Not all vets are receptive to raw feeding, for various reasons although I believe the biggest one is due to much of their nutritional schooling coming from Purina and Science Diet. Third, determine if raw will fit into your lifestyle and budget - it can be much more expensive, or take much more effort, than kibble or canned food takes. Some people prefer to just supplement kibble with other fresh foods, and that is a good option as long as simple precautions are taken. Fourth, find a reliable supplier of good-quality raw food, as you do not want to be buying grade-D meat as that completely defeats the purpose. Finally, switch your pets over to raw, being alert to all issues and nuances of their behavior during the transition.

I hope this has been helpful in explaining why we feed raw. I am not a professional animal nutritionist or animal trainer, although I do consider myself well informed in both areas. I am always open to questions about our dogs, so if you have further questions please feel free to ask.

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