There's lots to consider when starting a raw food diet for your pets. Here’s what you should know.
As pet owners, we strive to give our animals everything they need for a good life. Our desire to see them happy and healthy involves decisions about what’s best for our dogs and cats. Raw food diets are gaining popularity among pet owners due to changing views on animal nutrition and a desire to feed our animals in a more naturalistic way.
If you’ve considered changing your pet’s diet to a raw-based one, the most important thing to remember is to do the proper research. Just like people, every pet’s body is a little different, and getting the full picture of your pet’s health is essential to that decision. This means talking with a vet, reading up on specific protein sources and diets, and understanding your pet’s metabolism. Here is an overview of a raw food diet, what it means for your pet’s nutrition, as well as the types of raw pet foods you can find at the co-op.
Whether or not dogs and cats should be classified as omnivores or carnivores is something debated in veterinary science. Classification of any animal as a carnivore depends on their digestive processes, such as the length of their intestine, and the specialization of their teeth.
The reason why people classify dogs as omnivores is due to observation of their wolf ancestors sometimes eating and digesting plant matter in the wild, reflected in when dogs occasionally munch on grass. Furthermore, the American Veterinary Medical Association cites the genome differences between gray wolves and dogs to be mostly expressed in their digestive abilities*.
Others, especially holistic veterinarians, classify dogs as carnivores due to their lack of omnivorous features, such as a long intestine and molars for grinding plant matter*. Cats are more readily classified as being carnivores due to their wild ancestors’ diet being entirely meat-based.
Humans, by contrast, are omnivores* and so are adapted to handle a wider range of foods than our pets. Our organs are structured to handle the long digestion times of plant matter and we have both molars and canines for a variety of different food sources.
But the biggest difference between a human diet and a pet’s is simple: humans get to choose what we eat, and when we eat it. Pets do not! They rely entirely on you to manage their menu, which is why it's not only important to consider what they need, but also what they like. It’s plain to any dog owner that dogs strongly prefer meat. So if they can stay healthy eating what they like, it’s a pretty good deal. Just like how a lot of humans prefer vegetarian diets and can stay very healthy eating only plant-based meals, dogs and cats can do the same with meat.
Lots of commercial pet food such as dry kibble contain corn, wheat, soy, or legumes as their main ingredient. Many proponents of raw food diets cite these pet foods as the major cause of health issues, such as skin diseases, obesity, heart disease, and vitamin deficiency. Kibble and canned pet food is typically fortified with vitamins and minerals due to the low naturally-occuring amount in these grain-based foods. Even grain-free dog food has been potentially linked to heart issues in some dogs*.
Raw food diets are supposed to contain all the vitamins and minerals a carnivore needs that can be sourced from different areas of a prey animal, such as the organs and bones. Basically, if it’s found in the natural diet of our pet’s wild ancestor, it has a place in your pet’s diet. Pet food companies such as Acana even incorporate that notion into their product development (WholePrey).
There are lots of reasons why a pet might do better on a raw diet. Some have food sensitivities to grain-based diets, other breeds are prone to health problems that make it harder to digest a processed diet. Pet owners may even elect to source their own raw meat ingredients and calculate the nutritional value of each portion they’re feeding their pet. This is extremely hard to do without the guidance of a veterinarian, as it requires a full profile of your pet’s nutritional levels and needs. Portions with uneven nutritional value over time can lead to deficits or overabundance of vitamins and nutrients, which will impact a pet’s health.
Frozen raw food is definitely a good choice for those who want the most minimally processed diet for their pet. Looking in our freezers one can find frozen patties, marrow bones, and bite-sized hunks, making portioning simple for each meal. These also come in combinations of meat and vegetable ingredients for nutritional balance. Another benefit to these raw frozen options is that it can be fed either thawed or frozen, or as a base with other ingredients or on its own just like freeze-dried raw food. Again, proper food handling safety cannot be overstated when preparing raw frozen food for your pet. Our freezers stock meals from Stella and Chewy’s, Primal, Bones & Co, OpenFarm, and Vital Essentials.
Now let’s take a look at freeze-dried raw foods. The freeze-drying process works by reducing the temperature of a food in a special chamber, then slowly increasing the temperature*. This creates a vacuum effect that removes much of the water content from the food. This process preserves most of the nutrients in the meat, while rendering it shelf-stable (in a sealed package), so freeze-dried pet foods are a great option if fridge and freezer space is an issue for you. Freeze-dried pet foods come in many different styles. There are freeze dried patties, such as the Stella and Chewy’s line, nuggets from Primal and nibs from Bixbi, and kibble like those from Open Farm and Instinct. These can be a mix of grain and raw freeze-dried meats, or entirely grain-free. In addition, pet owners can choose from a variety of different protein sources and combinations of meats.
Both types of raw food products have their pros and cons, not just for nutritional value but also in terms of convenience. For example, freeze-dried kibble can be stored at room temperature and is more convenient to travel with. Another great thing about freeze-dried raw food is its versatility when it comes to meal planning. It can usually be served on its own as a complete meal or mixed with other types of foods, according to the feeding guides on the packages. Rehydrating is recommended, but not essential. Not to mention the freeze-drying process does remove a small amount of nutritional value (though it is still more nutritious than regular kibble), as opposed to raw frozen pet food, which is as fresh as food can get.
The biggest risk associated with a raw diet is bacterial contamination*, which is due to the nature of uncooked meat. Handling raw pet food does put you at higher risk of contracting foodborne illnesses associated with raw meat, so your household’s food prep should have just as strict sanitary guidelines as preparing any meat in your kitchen. The only difference is that the meat on your pet’s plate is uncooked, while the meat on your plate is! Food safety is always important, but especially so when it comes to handling your pet’s raw meals. This goes for both frozen and freeze-dried varieties of raw diets. In terms of dietary standards however, both methods of raw food packaging can be considered minimally processed.
If you’ve been feeding your pet a specific brand of kibble, and are looking into incorporating raw food into their diet, you might find something made by the same brand you’ve already been using. Of the pet food brands we carry at the Co-Op, many have raw options both freeze-dried and frozen. Ask our employees on the shop floor to help you find the brand you’re looking for.
Never before have there been so many different options and guides to consider when it comes to pet nutrition. Many find it difficult to decide what’s best for their pet, and worry about making responsible choices when it comes to their diet. To avoid misinformation and misunderstandings that can occur when doing your own research, all your plans should be discussed with a trusted veterinarian. There’s also no such thing as too much research. As the keeper of your pet’s health, knowledge is power.