By Max Tuck, veterinary surgeon
It’s obvious really isn’t it? We know that wild dogs, cats, birds, horses, rodents and rabbits all eat raw food in their natural habitat.
And it really isn’t that long ago that we started to domesticate these species for our own pleasure and companionship; certainly not long enough ago for them to have “adapted” to eat cooked food.
It’s therefore a bit odd, isn’t it, to generally accept that the “natural” diet for a dog or cat must be a dried one, found in a variety of bag sizes at the local pet store or in the aisles of the supermarket. After all, we don’t find complete, dried “adult human” food in bags in the supermarkets do we? The closest thing we get to that is the ubiquitous “infant formula” nonsense that has also become an accepted part of the “how to feed a young human” dogma.
One of the reasons put forward for why our pet animals are now living longer is that they are better fed, and the pet food companies take a lot of credit for themselves on this point.
In some ways they are actually right, odd as it might appear for me to say so. In the past, there were many unknowns regarding the nutritional requirements of the juvenile, adult and senior pets and pet owners 20 or 30 years ago were feeding a consistently suboptimal diet in a lot of instances. Much recent research has been performed and has been responsible for the changing formulations we see in the pet food industry today.
So, does feeding a heat treated, commercially formulated pet food, whether premium brand or run of the mill, help your pet to live longer? It certainly can do if the alternative is table scraps and an inappropriate selection of imbalanced junk.
But in my opinion, nothing of course can beat a correctly formulated, species-specific raw food diet. It is very important to state at the outset that the term “species-specific” needs to be adhered to rigorously. I know of people, for example, who have tried to make their cats eat a vegan diet because they do not want to buy raw meat to feed to them.
Please, do not do this under any circumstances. If you are an ultra-strict vegan and will not consider supporting the meat industry by buying their products for a pet, I absolutely caution against inviting a pet carnivore to share your home. In this situation, if you want to keep an animal friend, please choose a rabbit or guinea pig instead, but be aware that they also have unique nutritional requirements.
I do know of “vegan” dogs, but I do not personally believe that they thrive on such a diet. In the wild, dogs are characteristically omnivorous and will eat much plant material, but they have a highly developed chase instinct and this tells us of course that they are designed to hunt down prey species.
Additionally, one only has to look at the mouth, with its wide-opening hinge jaw, highly developed large canine teeth and specially proportioned carnassials to appreciate that this is a mouth well adapted for gripping and tearing flesh.
The same applies to cats, but even more so. The canine teeth of a cat are relatively even longer than those of a dog, and by examining a cat skull with the jaws clamped shut, it is easy to see that there is absolutely no means of escape for any prey, no matter how small.
What, then, would a cat eat in its natural state? Of course, this is a fairly arbitrary question since the domestic cat is in a far from natural state, but we can learn a lot by observing the Scottish wild cat, or, indeed, farm or stable cats that do not receive supplementary feeding from the farmer or yard owner.
The answer appears to come back loud and clear – approximately 16 mice a day. And of course as we know from the information above regarding lions, the entire mouse will be eaten, with the exception of the skull, but inclusive of the gut, internal organs and glands.
Likewise, when a dog hunts down a rabbit, it will eat almost all of the body, internal organs included. This may sound a little gruesome, and I apologise if this has in any way caused offence to anyone of a sensitive disposition.
Pets do still retain some of their wild instincts (some breeds to a greater extent than others), no matter how much we as humans mess with their genetics. All dogs have a chase instinct to a greater or lesser extent, and all cats would love to hunt, given the chance. Again, if you do not like these traits, dog or cat ownership is perhaps not for you.
However, few things come close to the joy of animal companionship, so let’s think about how we can feed our animal friends a raw food diet so that they can thrive and look forward to a long and healthy life, free from disease and suffering.
Cats, as I have described, are obligate carnivores. Their ideal diet is, effectively, the same as the composition of a mouse’s body: 47% fat, 50% protein and 3% carbohydrate.
This therefore has to raise concerns when one looks at the protein, fat and carbohydrate percentages in a bag of dried cat food. I have seen the carbohydrate percentage as high as 45% in some brands, which leads me on to pondering the connection with such diets and the rapidly increasing incidences of both obesity and diabetes in this species.
A simple solution for feeding a cat is to ensure that he has a mixture of raw meat and bone together. This is absolutely essential, since meat is very highly acidic and high in phosphorus, and needs to be balanced by the bone which is rich in the alkaline minerals calcium and magnesium. One can get creative and buy small organic chicken wings, rabbit legs etc, or alternatively look into using some of the “raw convenience” pre-packaged foods from companies such as Prize Choice or Natural Instinct (I have no commercial ties to either of these companies).
Of course, if frozen, defrosting them in a microwave is not appropriate… Such diets are excellent because they take the guesswork out of producing a tailored, healthy menu. Remember to feed the food at room, or better still, body, temperature. Cats hate cold food straight out of the fridge! Just as in people, it takes energy to warm cold food up to body temperature, and likewise takes energy to cool it down to body temperature if it is eaten when too hot.
Cats benefit from eating organ meats too, and liver, kidneys, heart and lung can all be fed. However, liver should be restricted to once a week only. Otherwise, the risk of hypervitaminosis A (vitamin A overdose) increases dramatically. This causes a variety of signs including lethargy, weakness, abnormal sitting position etc., and in young animals it can even produce incredibly painful and irreversible changes in spinal bone. Cod liver oil, because of its high vitamin A content, not to mention its likely contamination with organophosphates and mercury due to widespread pollution of our oceans, should never be given to pets.
I very much like the idea of providing the “grass soup” that would be obtained by eating the intestine of the herbivore that the cat would catch in the wild. We can do this by fast-blending or pureeing vegetables, and hoping that the cat will eat this with the rest of the food (they are notoriously fussy eaters!), or preferably, via supplementation. To this end I highly recommend an excellent supplement designed by a colleague of mine, Suzi McIntyre, a well-respected veterinary dentist. It is called Pet Plus, and is available in both dog and cat versions via her website www.petplusvet.com. This is also an excellent website for general information about raw feeding.
Young cats, up to 4 or 5 months of age, benefit from raw milk. Ideally that milk would come from another cat, but of course this is not likely to be possible, so probably the best alternative is from that delightful farmyard animal the goat, rather than a cow.
I am well known for my dislike of the dairy industry, but we’re talking the health and wellbeing of our pets here, so find a local farm with a few goats and see if you can go and join in with milking them. This can be a very pleasurable experience and it supports local business. Just make sure that no pasteurisation is involved. After the age of 5 months, and throughout the remainder of life, milk is unnecessary and potentially harmful. Remember that in nature milk is a baby food. It should remain so.
Aside from these issues, cats, ideally, should have to work hard for their food, rather than it just suddenly appearing in a bowl in front of them.
It’s just the same for humans – imagine how much exercise we would get if we had to plant, grow, forage and harvest everything that we ate on a daily basis! To replicate this, it would be great if we could all live rurally and let our cat outside to hunt until his appetite is satisfied. But what about our friend the city cat that lives in a high-rise building and never gets the chance to go outside? I have a great feeling of sadness for cats in this situation, since it is so very far from natural.
The city cat needs to be played with! He regularly needs things to chase and catch, as if they were prey species, and places to hide at a variety of different levels. In this way he receives the exercise that he is being denied by not having outdoor access, and not being able to hunt for his meals. This will also reduce the likelihood of boredom or stress-related issues such as inappropriate toileting behaviour.
As carnivores with omnivore-like tendencies, dogs benefit greatly from variety. Considering the vast range of plant and animal species available to a dog in nature, they could potentially have access to over 100 different types of food. This is very unlikely to be achievable in the domestic environment, but we can of course do our best.
As with cats, dogs should have raw meat and bone, together, as the basis for their diet. Other animal products, such as raw eggs, are also fine to feed (make sure they are certified Salmonella-free). Additionally, organ meats can be used, and glands if available, such as the thyroid, thymus, adrenals etc.
Make friends with your local butcher for “proper” dog bones. Dogs love to chew on bones and also bury them and subsequently dig them up again. Watching them as they do this is a source of great pleasure and entertainment. It is fantastic exercise for the dog’s jaw and is considered to reduce the likelihood of dental calculus.
If you have an old, small-breed dog then please ensure that you get his jaw strength checked out if you have never fed him a raw bone before. Young, healthy dogs with good teeth can cope with an appropriately-sized bone to chew on, but old dogs, particularly if one of the small breeds, very frequently suffer from such advanced dental disease and fragile jaw bone structure that the jaw could suddenly fracture if exposed to a hard object to chew on.
Professional dental treatment under full anaesthesia is often needed, not only to treat existing disease and determine jawbone integrity, but also to assess the suitability of particular raw diets in older dogs.
Much of my surgical time is taken up with treating advanced dental disease in dogs and cats, largely as a result of non-raw, non-species specific feeding. If your dog has received the all clear from your vet regarding raw bone feeding, then do ensure that you choose a size that’s appropriate for your dog’s mouth. Bones come in all shapes and sizes, as do dogs, and a miniature dog is absolutely not going to be able to cope with a beef bone!
As I mentioned above for cats, young dogs can benefit from raw milk, up to the age of 5 months. Raw bitch milk may be slightly easier to come by if you know of a foster bitch in your area, but usually you will not easily find it, so back to our friend the goat for this.
Do you juice? If you’re anything like me, the pulp may currently go in the compost bin, but there is nothing to stop you from feeding it to your dog.
Some dogs will turn up their noses at this and give you an expression of disdain that only someone trying to poison them would deserve, but many will wolf it down happily, as if they just know that the fibre provided by this pulp will work wonders in their digestive system. There are a couple of points to note for anyone wishing their dog to take the place of a compost heap.
Dogs are scavengers and many will eat practically anything (those readers who own a Labrador will know exactly what I mean here!), which explains why they are the main species that vets see when dealing with cases of poisoning.
There are a few foods we may think of as healthy that are not appropriate for dogs.
Garlic and onions, for example, are toxic, as are raisins. Probably the raw food to have been most widely touted as, on the one hand, superfood by some, and stimulatory poison by others in our community, is raw chocolate. Whichever standpoint you take, raw chocolate is incredibly toxic to dogs, and should never be given unless you want a large vet bill and a potentially dead dog.
I’m totally serious. Do not, whatever you do, feed Theobroma cacao to your dog.
The same applies to blue green algae in any of its forms; it is likewise highly toxic to dogs and I have personally been involved with at least two deaths in which owners had used human supplement quality algae and fed it to their dog.
Some other things you won’t want to feed your dog are:
- Sweetcorn cobs. I have lost count of the number of these that I have had to surgically remove from pets that have swallowed them. They are incredibly dangerous. Don’t let your dog anywhere near a discarded corn cob!
- Bones that are too large. These can lodge in the oesophagus and not actually reach the stomach. This creates a surgical emergency and a high risk of a dead dog. Removing oesophageal foreign bodies is never easy, even in the hands of the most skilled of surgeons. Even if the surgery is successful, the oesophagus can scar and constrict postoperatively. Prevent it from happening in the first place!
- Finally, cooked bones. A raw food aficionado would not consider incorporating cooked bones into any dog meal plan, but I mention it for completeness. On the whole, it isn’t considered to be at all dangerous to give raw bones to a dog (but see above comment regarding size), but cooked bones are structurally altered and become very brittle, splintering easily. I have personally dealt with 3 dogs that have died after eating cooked bones, and I know of countless others that have suffered the same fate. Chicken bones are the worst offenders and must be avoided at all costs.
Just as for humans, the pet supplement industry is alive, kicking and highly profitable. And as with the human market, probably 95% of the products are synthetic junk with absolutely no scientific validity to justify their use. Do I, therefore, recommend supplementation?
The answer is, absolutely, yes. However, just as with people, it has to be minimally processed, whole-food based, and preferably with scientific studies published in regard of the efficacy. After all, there’s no point in using anything that isn’t bioavailable! So, check your labels. Call the manufacturers and ask how it is processed.
This is easy because synthetic supplements list things like Vitamins A to K, selenium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, etc. Avoid these! You want ingredients such as flax seed, wheatgrass juice, enzymes….So far, the aforementioned Pet Plus is the best one I have come across, and I’m always being bombarded by people wanting me to sell the “latest and best” thing.
The main reason I recommend food supplementation is that, even if you begin raw feeding for your pets, you will never manage to cram in the variety that they would receive if living naturally. Sorry, you just can’t.
Additionally, dogs have now been inbred to such a degree, and from such a tiny genetic pool, that they have ended up with very weak immune systems. We need to do everything we can to support our pets’ immune systems, and supplementation with bioavailable whole superfoods enables us to do just that. (But always bear in mind the need to avoid the toxic “superfoods” mentioned above.)
It would take 3 to 4 generations of optimal raw food feeding to get our pets back to the level of health that they should ideally enjoy. Even if you start raw feeding a newly-acquired puppy or kitten, its level of health is going to be partially affected by its cooked-fed parents and grandparents. Let’s give our pets the best chance possible of optimal health.
Max Tuck BVetMed, MRCVS is a qualified veterinary surgeon, Hippocrates Health Educator, author, athlete, long-term living foods vegan and creator of the Raw Food Scientist website. She arranges private and group consultations in the living foods lifestyle, and is available nationally as a motivational and inspiring speaker on the raw food diet and human health. She regrets that she cannot enter into individual correspondence regarding pet health, and recommends talking to your own vet.
Disclaimer: I do hope that you have found this article useful for guidance on raw feeding of dogs and cats. It is not meant as a substitute for veterinary advice. Always seek professional veterinary help with any aspect of your pet’s health and wellbeing. This article is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease. Max Tuck BVetMed,MRCVS will not be held responsible for any adverse effects to humans or pets by following any of the advice herein given.