Dogs effectively share a symbiotic relationship with mankind. Having evolved with us over thousands of years, they are highly attuned to our needs, wants, and social cues. A dog that spends time with people who acknowledge this is a happy dog. Sharing such a close relationship with another species puts us in position to effectively decide every aspect of their quality of life—and just as our quality of life starts with what we consume, so does theirs.
The vast majority of pet food companies today take advantage of the consumer’s lack of education, supplying our animals with overcooked, dehydrated waste products of the industrial food market. Take a look at the ingredient lists in your pet food aisle and you will find that nearly every dog food’s first ingredient is some variety of “meal”: ground up animal parts and little bones that humans won’t eat. If it’s a really nice brand, they may even list one or two other types of meal before filling the rest out with grain.
While there are some (expensive) kibble brands that make an effort to source whole muscles and organs from healthy livestock and fish, they are so seldom bought that they are often considered “specialty.” It’s no wonder so many American dog owners end up in a cycle of vet visits and their beloved pets getting in the garbage—these animals are effectively on a steady diet of doggy McDonald’s.
Shannon Hasson, who has bred and shown Staffordshire Bull Terriers for twenty six years, said that she fully made the switch to raw food when her dog Rebel became stuck in a series of vet visits for genetic gastrointestinal issues. After going through a number of medications that didn’t fix the problem, Hasson’s long conversation with the owner of the champion dog Black Tusker brought her to the conclusion of feeding raw.
“I picked his brain until 4:30 am,” she says, “I found out that in the UK and Europe the majority of breeders used raw, species appropriate diets.” This means that these dogs were fed lean muscle, organ meat, raw bones, and some plant matter—everything their ancestors had been eating for the history of dogkind. Rebel got started on his raw diet complete with plenty of green tripe (for digestive enzymes), and within a year he was completely healthy and off of all medications. Since then, Hasson has carefully sourced and fed a raw diet to all of her dogs. Today, she happily runs a hundred acre farm of dogs and horses with seven year old blue heeler Gunter and the extremely lively twelve year old pitbull Dixie. “There’s not a time when I’m not surrounded by an animal,” Hasson muses.
BENEFITS OF FEEDING RAW
The absolute best you can do for man’s best friend starts with that raw diet. While there is little funding for official research studies on the benefits of raw diets (most of the money in the dog food industry comes from kibble) there are many anecdotes to be found from those who have carefully curated balanced raw diets for their pets. Raw dog food advocates like Hasson will say that the diet has increased the long term vitality of their dogs, promoted healthy teeth, and given them thick, shiny coats. Hasson’s dog Gunter once injured his shoulder, and spent weeks in and out of vet appointments and physical therapy. Ultimately, she says, some plain old cow trachea fixed him up in a matter of days due to bioavailable glucosamine. As the popularity of this feeding method grows from a grassroots angle, some studies have cropped up.
One small scale study in 2021 found that a carefully assembled raw diet will meet every nutritional requirement for a dog’s health, maintaining weight and red blood cell count without negative side effects. The study was funded by a small raw pet food provider who had had enough of the common myth that a raw diet cannot provide adequate nutrition.
The main appeal of raw feeding is the increased bioavailability due to digestive enzymes found in raw foods. One study in 2017 analyzed this through the study of fecal samples in healthy Boxers fed raw meat versus those who were not. It concluded that the dogs who were given a raw diet benefitted from “a more balanced growth of bacterial communities and a positive change in the readouts of healthy gut functions.” The same year, another study conducted by a completely separate group found that gut microbiota is “significantly affected by diet,” and raw-fed dogs have much more diverse and balanced gut biomes. The researchers went so far as to suggest that raw diets “might therefore play a key role in animal health by affecting the gut microbiota.”
Feeding dogs raw bones is a great way to stimulate them mentally while maintaining their oral health. A study on eight beagle dogs in 2016 found that the daily feeding of raw beef bones reduced dental calculus—staining and hardened plaque—significantly (by about 75% over 12 days) with no complications.
Anecdotally, I can say that my own dog has been enjoying an at least 50% raw diet supplemented by Orijen Six-Fish Blend for about ten years now. He is an eleven year old labrador mix and will happily wrestle a puppy or take a two hour hike through the woods. My very favorite health moment with him was fairly recent, when a veterinarian suggested I neuter my dog “while he is still young.” The sheer delight I felt at his panicked flipping through papers when I told him my dog’s age is now a core memory. We didn’t see that vet again, though.
TREATING YOUR DOG RIGHT
Throughout my conversation with Hasson, the subject often turned to the ethical treatment of dogs and the effect it will have on their behavior. In her many years working as a breeder and trainer, Hasson noticed that there were many who adopted puppies and refused to put in the work needed to train them effectively or feed them a healthy diet.
“You have these breeders making XL pitbull types, compromising everything in this dog,” she states, explaining that many breeders even within the AKC will sacrifice a dog’s health physically and mentally in order to achieve a marketable aesthetic. This, she says, sets the animals and owners up for misery from the get go. “Then these shitty diets are throwing fuel to the fire, and making ill-mannered dogs.”
It isn’t just nature, and it isn’t just nurture, Hasson declares, causing the problems in dogs that we hear of on the news. Both those who declare all of them dangerous, and those who put the burden completely on the owner are incorrect. She says most media isn’t offering anyone the truth regarding this, stating “that’s not what television is made for” and recounted a story of a training client. The client had gotten their puppy from a breeder that Hasson knew had problems with behavior. “I told her, take that dog everywhere. Socialize her to everything. Feed her raw,” Hasson says. When the client didn’t listen, Hasson got a call years later about the dog snapping on a regular daily walk. Both the irresponsible breeder and the owner had failed the animal, and now somebody had gotten hurt.
In my own experience training dogs professionally for seven years, every single dog can be worked with and the owner-dog pair can be made happy, as long as necessary effort is put in. Poor breeding can cause some to require more effort than others, but I haven’t found one to be hopeless—as long as the owner does the right stuff. Just as with the physical and mental health of people, the physical and mental health of our pets starts with diet and exercise. Beyond that, time and effort is necessary. Adopting a dog is taking complete responsibility for the quality of that dog’s life, and we would all do well to act like it.
HOW TO FEED RAW
Feeding your dog raw can be as simple as mixing up some locally butchered (or online ordered) affordable animal parts and storing portions in the freezer once a week. If that’s not what you want to spend time on, Hasson recommends Oma’s Pride for a premixed raw food provider. From there, the right bioavailable blend varies between dogs.
Generally, a good stepping off point is in ratios by weight: 70% lean muscle, 10% raw edible bone, 10% vegetables and fruit, 5% liver, and 5% other secreting organs. From here, all one has to do is create a little variety in their sources: swap different kinds of animal protein, swap out different kinds of bone, swap out different dog-safe fruits and veggies. One simple mistake in raw feeding is to mix in a vegetable that dogs shouldn’t eat, such as onion, avocado, or tomato. Better options are pumpkin, spinach, berries, carrots, broccoli, and apples. It’s also important—whether through fish or supplementation—to make sure your dog is getting enough omega-3s. Hasson likes to use hemp seed oil for that purpose.
Hasson doesn’t do plant matter often, and when she does it’s largely spinach. The rest of her dogs’ diets are a massive variety of well sourced meats and organs with a careful regimen. Hasson’s dogs enjoy kidney, liver, eggs, trachea, and raw chicken wings with regularity. She tries to include some fish every week, and sometimes gives them a bit of turmeric if they suffer from joint pain. Once a week, her dogs will go 24 hours with nothing but a big bison bone. For a bit of supplementation from time to time or for a treat during work, they do get a bit of kibble—but 75% or more of their diet has to be raw.
Transitioning your dogs to a more raw diet takes that touch of careful planning alongside the one crazy trick of paying attention. Of course, it starts with introducing raw food in small amounts at a time, slowly increasing the ratio of raw food to kibble as it is enjoyable and comfortable for both of you. Generally, if their stool looks a bit too runny, that means they are likely getting too many organs and not enough bone. If it looks too dry and white, too much bone and not enough organ meat. It’s all fairly simple and finding the right methods and diet for you and your dog will take a bit of time and effort like any big change, but will be well worth it in the end. All our dogs want in the world is for us to be as happy as possible. Let’s return the sentiment.