Friday, February 4, 2011

Hungry Like a Wolf

I don't plan on making posts about dog food a frequent occurrence on the blog, but the way I feed my dog is a little unusual in this country and I get a lot of questions about it. I'd like to use this space today to try and address them. There's so much information scattered around the internet and some of it gets a little preachy and weird, and a lot of it is outdated or outright wrong. This is all about raw feeding from my perspective and my experience- there are plenty of people who disagree with me, this is the internet, after all.

What do you mean, you don't feed your dog kibble? What does she eat?!
Kira is raw fed. Which means she eats a blend of raw muscle meat, fat, bone, and organs from animals as her main source of food.

Kira with a pork picnic bone/meat (foreleg of a pig) on her towel in the kitchen
Why do you choose to feed her this way? 
Like all domestic dogs, Kira is genetically a gray wolf. Do you have a Chihuahua? It's a gray wolf. Pretty badass, no?

So what do wolves eat? Raw prey that they hunt, kill and sit around a campfire cooking eat raw. Wolves eat almost every part of an animal; the bones, organs, meat and a little of whatever else they encounter (maybe their prey ate some awesome berries that are still in it's digestive system...bonus!). Dogs are carnivores, not omnivores, like us. Our teeth are omnivore teeth, pretty all purpose tools to eat whatever our environment provides us with. Dogs' teeth are carnivore teeth, take a look at your little Chihuahua's teeth- they're shaped to rip and shear meat, and crush bones. I'm feeding her what she's born to eat, so I have reason to believe she'll be healthier throughout her life.

Why don't you cook the food?
Because that's just weird. Why would you do that? Besides altering the proteins and essentially changing the food, cooking bones makes them dangerously brittle. All that you've heard about chicken bones being dangerous to dogs is true...about COOKED chicken bones.

Does she eat any vegetable matter or grains?

Raw Chicken Egg
She nibbles grass from the lawn from time to time, enjoys a nice carrot from the garden now and again, and is terribly fond of the strawberries, but I don't *feed* her those things as part of her diet. It's like candy to her. A good treat, but not a major source of nutrition. Also, she likes raw eggs for a treat- shell and all. She does get dog cookies too and they often are grain based. I even bake her treats out of peanut butter and spent grains leftover from homebrewing. As a side note, she's never fed from the table or when she's begging, and so she doesn't beg or swipe food that doesn't belong to her. It's awesome.

Where does she eat?
She eats outside in a spot she's chosen in the yard. No matter where I put down her food, she'll pick it up gingerly and bring it to that spot to eat it. I've also taught her to stay on a beach towel on the floor of the kitchen to eat. Very handy for when it's raining. She caught on pretty quickly that she needed to stay on the towel. It gets washed when I feel like it's dirty, about a week. After she's done eating inside, it gets folded up and tucked away for the next feeding.

How much does she eat?
Kira is 10 months old, 62 lbs and eats 2 lbs of food every day.

The guideline is to feed 2%-3% of your dogs IDEAL weight every day. So if your dog is overweight, talk with your vet about what your dog's healthy weight is and calculate from that number, not their actual weight. I feel like you should be able to see (if your dog has a short coat) or feel the last couple ribs on your dog. If your dog is active, aim for 3% if your dog is a couch potato, aim for 2%.

Kira's ideal adult body weight (I'm just guessing, she's still growing a little at 10 months old) is 65 lbs. and she's a very active dog, so I aim for 3% of that per day, which is 1.95 lbs. I round up to 2 pounds and break that up into 2 feedings per day. So she eats one pound in the morning and one pound at night. Easy peasy.

How do you know how much to give her of each thing?
Animals are made up of about 80% muscle meat, 10% bone, and 10% organs (half of the organ meat should be liver) and I try to mimic that in her diet, feeding this way is sometimes called the "Whole Prey Model." It's not something to get all worked up about, just make sure they're getting mostly meat, some bone and a little organ meat, mostly liver. With a little practice, you'll be able to eyeball all this pretty well.

Where do you buy her food?
Mostly at an ethnic market near me. They have great variety (whole goat legs, hooray!) and excellent prices (Chicken leg quarters (drumstick + thigh all still in one piece) are 79 cents per pound there when they're not on sale).

Sometimes the grocery store has sales that I take advantage of, too, and the grocery store is where most raw feeders that live in the city get their meat from. If you live near hunters or ranchers though, you can sometimes score beautiful meat for cheap for your dog.

Is it expensive?
I aim to feed Kira for about a dollar a pound. I feel that over her lifetime, she'll be healthier, which means fewer vi$it$ to the vet. Premium dog food, which is what she was eating before, was about the same price.

Are there any meats I should avoid feeding my dog? 
Fresh fish from the salmonid family (salmon & others). They have a parasite that is killed by freezing, so salmonids that have been frozen for a while are safe for your dog to eat.

You should also avoid meat that has been "enhanced", flavored, brined or in any way screwed around with. If it's packaged, it's often enough to check the sodium content- if it's under 100mg, you're looking at un-enhanced meat, and if it comes from the butcher counter, just ask. If you can afford hormone-free, pasture-raised, locally butchered meat for your pet, more power to you. I compromise and get her the best stuff I can afford, but it's rarely to that level of awesome.

What about all that bacteria and stuff? Won't the dog get sick? Can the dog get people sick?
Your dog is made to eat this stuff, even after days of sitting outside without refrigeration, and in fact, some dogs like their meat a little "ripe." Their digestive system can handily deal with the bacteria and most parasites found in raw meat. When Kira gets a bug, it's invariably Giardia from San Diego Bay, not her food, and it's very common around here.

I handle the raw meat for her just like I handle the rest of the raw meat in my kitchen; using normal sanitation practices and common sense.

I think that raw fed dogs' mouths are cleaner than other dogs I encounter. A lot of that has to do with having nice clean teeth from raw feeding, so there's fewer places for bacteria to cling and multiply, spreading infection. Additionally, the meat "products" in dog food is usually pretty nasty stuff from sick and dying animals, so I know what I'm giving her is a hell of a lot less contaminated than that. There's just not a lot of solid research available though, so my common sense plus all the other anecdotal evidence from the web tells me that your dog will not get you sick if it licks you or anything like that. Now, if I had a long haired dog that liked to get it's paws and face all over it's food, I'd wipe them down after each meal. Kira hates to touch her food (as you can see from her funny wide stance in all the pics where she's eating) and is immaculate when she's finished, so I've stopped stressing over it.

What should I expect when I make the switch to raw?
The Good

  • Smaller, less stinky, more compact & easier to pick up poops. You'll be AMAZED. Commercial dog food is filled with stuff your dog can't really digest properly, which means big, stinky, sloppy poop. 
  • Clean teeth & nice breath. All that chewing of bone and tearing of meat really leaves their teeth white and beautiful and healthy. You will probably never have to brush your dog's teeth again or take them to have them cleaned professionally.
  • Shinier coat & less "doggie" smell. She's definitely shinier, and though some people report having a less stinky dog, she smells about the same to me.
  • If your dog has food allergies, limiting ingredients is a great way to avoid reactions. You can start with chicken for a month or two, then introduce beef for a month or two, then introduce the next meat, and so on. You can pull whatever your dog reacts to out of the rotation and really hone in on what they're allergic to.
  • Your dog will require less water to drink because their food is now full of water, unlike dry kibble.
  • No more need to express anal glands. Gross. Your dog's new diet will take care of this naturally when they strain a little more to poop. Again, gross.

The Bad

  • During the first week or two, runny poop might be a problem. As their system adjusts, their poops might be loose and almost look like diarrhea. This happened to Kira and I started pulling the skin off of the chicken leg quarters I was feeding her and it seemed to help. Once her poops firmed up for a week, I started leaving the skin on again and she adjusted fine.
  • Raw meat and bones can take up a lot of fridge and freezer space
  • Slightly more prep work required than opening a bag of kibble (I buy 2 weeks of food at a time and portion it out when I get home from the store, which takes about 10 minutes, tops). On the other hand, no more food bowls to wash!
  • If you travel with your dog you can't just pack up some kibble. (I usually just get where I'm going, find a grocery store, and get her food then.)

Any other tips?
Don't defrost meat with bone in it in the microwave because you might accidentally cook the bones, making a nasty choking hazard. Most dogs don't care if their food is still frozen, but if you need to defrost it, just soak in warm/room temp water in a ziploc bag.

Leave the meat/ bones as whole as possible. One chicken leg quarter is better than a separate thigh and drumstick for a number of reasons. It slows their eating down so they can't gobble down little pieces, and it gives them something to work on, kinda like Sudoku. Seriously, taking apart a roast with bones and fat is stimulating for your dog. Chewing like that triggers their digestive system and tearing apart meat and crunching bone is a very enriching activity for their brains too! A big pile of ground beef doesn't have that same benefit.

Some dogs may look at you like you're nuts the first time you feed them like this. It's ok, just be persistent and don't cave. Dogs won't starve themselves to death. Thankfully, Kira took to it quickly and has only refused one food, (I eventually caved because I'm a pushover) and that was a ginormous 3lb. Tilapia with scales, fins, etc. still on.

Watch your dog when it eats. This goes for all dogs, not just raw fed dogs. Animals choke to death sometimes. It's that simple. Wouldn't you rather be there to help your dog if it needed you?

How should I get started?

Raw Feeding Day 1 - Chicken Leg Quarter
Just quit feeding kibble one day; it's that simple. Go out to the store and buy a bunch of Chicken Leg Quarters. They are a good beginner food because they are a big chunk of meat, have plenty of easy to crush bone (more than the requisite 10%) and are readily available. If your dog gets loose stool, pull off the chicken skin first. Once they seem regular again, you can leave it on.

Don't be in a rush. You can feed the same thing for a few months with no ill effects. Introducing too many new things at once is a common mistake- it may be fun for you to go pick up a buffalo head & some alligator meat, but your dog's digestive system might want to take it a little slower. I didn't start feeding organs for a month either. One new meat a month is a good guideline. And you may find the first month or two will be fine tuning how much of what you feed.

Remember: Feed mostly meat and then adjust with more bone for firmer stools, more fat for slippery stools, and more organs looser stools.

Do I need to cut up the food or anything?
Nope. Try to give your dog the amount of food it needs for a meal in as few pieces as possible. And don't panic when you hear the crunch of the first chicken bone. Everything's fine. I know they look sharp, but they get digested and turn almost rubbery by the time they make it out the other end. They'll get better and better at eating raw, so if they look confused and awkward at first, don't worry, it will pass.

Anything special I need?
A kitchen scale is helpful, especially as you get started.

My vet says this is bad for my dog! WTF?!
When a vet hears that people are raw feeding their dog its because most people cannot even be trusted to provide themselves with proper nutrition (McDonald's anyone?) and so kibble/commercial dog food at least is a known quantity for your vet. Your vet also may have been trained about pet nutrition through courses sponsored by pet food companies that want to sell pet food. It's not rocket science to see that there may be a conflict of interest there. Combine that with a fear that you may be raw feeding your dog nasty bloated roadkill you found in an alley, and your vet has every reason to be cautious.

One fact I found enlightening is that commercial dog food has only existed since the 1950s. Clearly dogs can thrive without it. I haven't told my vet my dog eats raw because we haven't seen her in ages (Kira is healthy as a horse) but if I did, I would let her know that she eats a whole prey model diet of unscrewed around with animals (you might be surprised that a pork roast at the store often has ingredients other than pork), and if she was unfamiliar with that, I'd talk to her about her meat/bone/organ percentages and her animal sources (Chicken is about 75% of Kira's diet because that's what's cheap and easy to feed here, the rest is cow, fish, pork, buffalo, goat...whatever we can get our hands on). Hopefully it will be clear that my dog gets a more ideal diet than I feed myself- I love her an awful lot and want her to live a long and healthy life.

So to sum up, my dog eats raw animals, like nature intended. She's happy, healthy, and that's all that matters to me.

Kira at 10 months at OB Pier

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