After my beloved dog Panda gained some weight (76 lbs when she should be 65!) and developed arthritis and mobility problems, (at only 5 years old, some days she could only walk a few blocks when we used to hike an hour a day) I decided I needed to radically change her diet. Something had to give other than my poor girl’s knees.
My vet recommended Hill’s Science Diet for mobility and metabolism; it had to be special ordered, and was about $40 for 9 lbs. Panda sniffed it and unenthusiastically ate it. It smelled like strongly salted beets. I researched the company and ingredients and was mortified at what I had been feeding her those few days – basically (in my opinion, I could be wrong and the vet had luck with the product) a lot of slaughterhouse, brewery and bakery floor sweepings and other cheap, GMO-laden filler; expensive literal garbage (again, in my opinion) that my dog didn’t even like–talk about insult to injury. I won’t detail the ingredients of that food and the negative reviews I read, (this is already going to be a long post) and I returned it for a refund and started researching better alternatives.
I decided to take the plunge and start making Panda’s food. NOTE (obvious warning is obvious): I am not a vet, but I have talked to my vet about this approach, and she approves, even though she initially recommended the Science Diet. Bioindividuality is as key to animals as it is to humans. What works for some dogs may not work for others due to individual tolerances, sensitivities, allergies, preferences and other factors and conditions. Some dogs can be immediately switched to raw from kibble, and some may be gradually transitioned. Though it isn’t advised to feed both in the same meal. I read some books and many online articles and forum threads and fed her this way for about six weeks, tweaking a few times a week before settling on this formula.
(There’s no delicate way to say this, but the proof is in the poop. If it is too soft and runny, you will need to add more fiber and calcium (or more meaty RAW (never cooked) bones.) If she is straining/constipated, ease up on the bones and calcium and make sure she is getting enough water and probiotics. Carefully monitor your dog for any adverse (or positive!) changes if you switch her food. You will be pleasantly surprised by much smaller and less stinky cleanup duties.)
The two books I found most helpful and highly recommend were Raw Dog Food: Make it Easy for You and Your Dog by Carina Beth MacDonald and Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats.
I decided to feed my dog mostly raw because:
- I wanted to improve her life and longevity;
- Dogs are pretty much wolves and should eat a similar diet of actual food; they didn’t evolve to eat grains or other carbs that comprise most commercial dog food. They certainly didn’t evolve to thrive on a diet made only of bizarre little overly processed pellets;
- Her teeth and jaws are designed to tear and chew meat. She has very strong stomach acids and a short digestive system that can easily handle the bacterial load of raw meat;
- Her teeth are cleaner, her breath fresher, her coat is glossier, and she has more energy when she eats this way, and she has already lost 5 lbs!;
- She LOVES meal time and literally drools on the floor while I am preparing her food and promptly “wolfs” it down;
- Grains such as corn, wheat and soy are common allergens and contribute to canine obesity and other health problems (yeasty ears, flaky skin, etc.). And I don’t have to mention how I don’t support GMO products, do I?
- Grains are filler and unnecessary. Kibble is cooked, made from low quality ingredients, (including low grade meat) with most of the nutrients, living enzymes and antioxidants cooked out and then replaced by cheap synthetic supplements, along with preservatives, excessive salt, fat stabilizers and artificial colorants. And they eat this every single meal; and
- We are admonished that fresh wholesome, varied food is best for us, and that we need to avoid processed food, but then turn around and feed our best friends 100% processed foods for every single meal. Food that has had its living enzymes and many nutrients boiled out of it and replaced by synthetic or cooked ingredients. Food that hasn’t been fresh in months if not years, even if it’s the organic “premium” kibble. It’s still unnatural boiled and baked little dry cookies.
Generally, the concept of feeding raw is to “build a prey animal” for your dog to eat – lots of raw meat, some bones, some organ meat, vegetables and fruit pulverized to simulate partially digested stomach contents of prey animals, and add variety and supplements for a wider range of nutrients or to address your dog’s particular issues.
There are three main components to each meal: Meat or other protein with occasional organ meat and bones (70%), Veggie “soup” (25%) and supplement powder (Panda Powder) and other (5%). The general rule of thumb (depending on your dog’s size, metabolism and activity level) is to feed her 2-3% of her ideal weight per day. For example, Panda should be 65 lbs. 2% of that is 1.3 lbs, I round up to about 1.5 lbs (.75 lbs per meal.) I actually feed her a bit more than this, but her veggie soup and fiber are very low calorie, and I believe it makes her feel fuller for longer.
This process might seem laborious and overwhelming at first, but I promise you once you have all of the ingredients (and containers) and have the rhythm down, you are just assembling meals twice a week. And I certainly eased into it, gradually adding more glass storage containers and different supplements to my pantry as time and money allowed.
Step One: The Protein:
Some raw foodists advocate that 50% of each of your dog’s meals should be raw meaty bones (“RMB” such as chicken backs and wings) but for Panda, this was too much (the proof is in the poop . . .) and I give her RMB just a few times a week, and supplement with calcium to make up for it. Where I live, I can find organic ground chicken pet food and chicken livers in the freezer section. I rotate packages from the freezer to my fridge to thaw every few days. Organ meats like liver and kidney are very nutritious for dogs, but add sparingly as they are quite rich. They should comprise no more than about 5% of her total meal.
For her protein, I usually feed her ground meat and a little bit of organ meat, or occasionally I will substitute the ground meat with a can of salmon (never feed raw salmon) or some sardines, or some soft boiled eggs (including the shells). It is good to have tins of sardines on hand as a treat or backup, and the bones and fish oils are quite beneficial to your pup. You can save money by talking to your local butchers, looking on Craigslist, or hitting up any hunting and farming friends for leftovers and scraps. I buy organic or sustainable when I can.
Obviously, be safe in handling raw meat and use non-porous (stainless steel) bowls for feeding.
Step Two: the Veggie Soup
Dogs can’t directly digest raw vegetables or fruits. Cooking, puréeing and freezing them break down the cell walls to make these foods more bioavailable. Dogs can eat leafy greens, (including dandelion greens and beet and carrot tops) carrots, green beans, squash and sweet potato. Toss healthy trimmings in a freezer bag for your next batch. Avoid onions, garlic, cruciferous vegetables and inflammatory nightshades (so no broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers or potatoes.) A little bit of fruit can be added (avoid grapes and raisins).
A cost effective (and low calorie) way to get these veggies into your dog’s food is to make a soup in bulk. I vary the recipe depending on what I have on hand but here is a basic recipe:
1 sweet potato, cubed
1 bag organic baby carrots
1 bag organic frozen cut green beans
1/8 bag organic frozen blueberries
3 tablespoons concentrated chicken broth (or you can make your own, but be mindful to avoid onions and excess salt)
3 quarts water
Put all of the ingredients in a large stock pot and let simmer until the carrots are softened, at least an hour. Use an immersion blender to purée the soup. (When I grow up I will get a Vitamix and just blend everything together without cooking and losing nutrients.) Ladle into mason jars or other containers and freeze most of them once cooled. I make this every 2 weeks or so, defrosting a jar a few days before the fridge jar is used up.
Carina Beth MacDonald’s recipe (she calls it “veggie glop”) includes 1-2 lbs of veggies blended with water, whole raw eggs with shells, a teaspoon of Vitamin C, a tablespoon of black strap molasses, 1/2 cup yogurt and a splash of unpasteurized apple cider vinegar for probiotics. Because I supplement with probiotics, Vitamin C, calcium and other items in my Panda Powder, I do not add these items to my soup. Some people add a little cooked white rice for filler also; this could just be added and boiled with the soup. Panda B (AKA “Sausage Dog” but much less so these days) doesn’t need the extra carbs, trust me.
Step Three: Panda Powder and Other
You can skip this step if you are confident your dog is getting enough nutrients through her varied diet, supplementing as above, in the soup. However, I make a Panda Powder every two weeks or so and add other ingredients to be on the safe side. (Alternatively, you can just start with Dr. Pitcairn’s basic Healthy Powder recipe, found at the bottom of this post.)
Panda Powder: about 3.5 tablespoons per meal/serving for a 65 lb dog
1 cup nutritional (not brewer’s) yeast – (1 TBS per serving)
1 cup dried pumpkin fiber (1 TBS per serving)
5 tablespoons calcium for dogs (1 tsp per lb of food)
5 tablespoons GMO-free lecithin (1 tsp per serving)
5 tablespoons turmeric (1 tsp per serving)
5 tablespoons spirulina or other dog safe green powder (1 tsp per serving)
2.5 tablespoons kelp (1/2 tsp per serving)
1 heaping tablespoon Vitamin C (calcium ascorbate or sodium ascorbate, not ascorbic acid (1/4 tsp per serving)
1 heaping tablespoon probiotics (1/4 tsp per serving)
Add to a mason jar and shake to mix up and store in the refrigerator.
Other additions: 1 tablespoon of fish oil or coconut oil, (1000 mg per 30 lbs) 1 teaspoon of unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, 200 IU Vitamin E, other supplements such as MSM, glucosamine and chondroitin if she has mobility issues.
(Dr. Pitcairn’s original Healthy Powder recipe: 2 c nutritional yeast, 1 c lecithin granules, 1/4 c kelp powder, 4 TBS Calcium (his book recommends bone meal, but he now recommends some alternatives like Animal Essentials brand and you can substitute with a good blend for dogs of calcium, phosphorus , Vitamin C – 2050-500 mg per 10 lbs (calcium ascorbate or sodium ascorbate, not ascorbic acid)
So that’s it! Other than making the powder and the soup every 2 weeks or so, (depending on the size of your dog(s) and you can always double up on this to make it a monthly chore) basically twice a week I make 3 days worth (plus the meal she is about to eat, in her bowl) and stack up the containers in the fridge. It just takes a few minutes to add the meat, soup, powder, fish oil and supplements to each container in the assembly line. I add hot water and mix it up right before serving so she has a yummy warm stew every meal without too much added work (or money) on my part!