Raw Food Diet for Dogs: a Primal Feeding Practice

raw feeding food diet for dogsDogs, like people, are animals. The dietary requirements of dogs, like the dietary requirements of people, are subject to the forces of natural selection. Just like Big Macs and French fries and white bread aren’t optimal food for humans, kibble isn’t optimal food for dogs.

If you accept that biologically-appropriate diets exist for humans, and those diets should be informed by evolutionary history and anthropology, then you must accept that dog diets deserve the same treatment.

One leading brand of kibble has listed as ingredients:

  • Chicken
  • Corn meal
  • Sorghum
  • Chicken by-product meal
  • Beet pulp
  • Natural flavor
  • Flaxseed
  • Egg product
  • Chicken fat
  • Caramel color
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Carrot
  • Choline
  • Fiber

You know, this isn’t even that “bad” on paper. It looks like a decent list of ingredients if you were putting together shelf-stable MRE for pure survival to sock away in a bunker somewhere. It could be a lot worse—it could be full of plant protein, soybean oil, wheat, and other junk a dog has no business eating. But it’s clearly substandard. These are dogs we’re talking about. Canines. Descendants of wolves. Man’s best friend. “Not that bad” isn’t good enough.

And although that dog will probably get by eating standard kibble—after all, millions of dogs do, just like millions of humans “get by” eating the Standard American junk food diet—he or she won’t thrive.

How does a dog thrive?

Assuming you’re providing daily exercise, lots of chest scritches, love, and affection, and all the other pre-requisites, it is my opinion that a dog thrives eating a species-appropriate diet of raw meat, edible bones and connective tissue, organs, seafood, and supplemental foods.


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Why Raw Feeding is Best

Canines for the majority of their formative development consumed raw rather than cooked meat. It’s what they’re meant to eat. It’s what they love. And because dogs by and large have not had their food reward and appetites corrupted by the modern food system, you can trust that their cravings and predilections are representative of their physiological requirements.

Put a bowl of ground beef and beef liver in front of a dog and it’ll go for the liver first, every time.

Let a dog choose between beef marrow and corn oil and it’ll go for the marrow first, every time.

Dogs know.

Humans have been cooking meat for hundreds of thousands of years. We’ve developed innate antioxidant systems designed to detoxify the compounds formed during cooking. We can tolerate some level of heat-damaged fatty acids and cholesterol. We can handle some smoke (though inhaling it directly is still a bad idea).

Dogs have not. Dogs split off from wolves at most 30000 years ago. That’s time enough for a small amount of adaptation to cooked foods, but just like humans exhibit some level of adaptation to agricultural foods but do better on a Primal, ancestral way of eating, dogs still look, feel, and perform better on raw meat.

Ok, so how do you do it?

You follow a Prey Model diet.

It’d be great to feed whole animals to your dogs, but that’s tough for most people to pull off. The Prey Model allows you to construct a “whole animal” out of constituent parts. Here’s how it breaks down, roughly:

  • 80% muscle meat and connective tissue
  • 10% organs
  • 10% edible bones

All those percentages are by weight.

A dog should eat between 1.5-3% of its ideal body weight in food per day. Older and more sedentary dogs can do the lower end, younger and more active dogs the higher end. If a dog needs to lose weight, drop the food volume a bit. If a dog needs to gain weight or isn’t as energetic as it should be, increase the food a bit. Every dog is different, so consider these guidelines, not laws.

If you’re feeding a puppy, you’ll want to feed between 5-10% of their bodyweight spread through 2-3 meals.

This is the model that makes the most intuitive sense to me because it’s how canines eat in the wild.

80% Muscle Meat

Muscle meat provides protein, fat, energy, vitamins and minerals. It’s the basis of the diet—the unsexy workhorse. Muscle meat includes:

  • Ground meat
  • Stew meat
  • Trim (random bits of meat)
  • Heart (actually an organ, but it doesn’t contain any micronutrients that need to be limited so you can treat it like muscle meat)
  • Poultry thighs and legs (also contain edible bone)

Favor ruminant meat over poultry meat, simply for the nutrient density and fatty acid composition (more saturated, less polyunsaturated).

10% Edible Bones

Edible bones provide calcium and micronutrients, keep their teeth clean, and provide a productive outlet for their chewing urges.

As a general rule, do not give your dog an edible bone he or she can swallow whole. It should be something the dog has to work for.

Bones must always be raw, or else they risk splintering and getting lodged in the throat. No cooked bones.

  • Poultry necks
  • Poultry backs
  • Poultry feet
  • Poultry wings
  • Fish heads
  • Ribs
  • Lamb or pork necks
  • Tails

If your dog is just learning to eat edible bones, monitor them as they eat. Be ready to leap in and prevent choking. Another way you can actually show a dog how to eat a bone properly is to gradually hand feed it, slowly revealing more of the bone once they’ve chewed the first part. Works well with turkey necks.

You can also give “recreational bones”: beef and pork feet, big beef joints, legs, marrow bones. These are bones that the dog can’t actually eat. They don’t contribute to the 10%. Just for chewing (and marrow and cartilage).

Connective Tissue

This provides collagen and glycine for the dog, helping to balance out the muscle meats in the diet and improve joint health and function, as well as sleep. I’ve also noticed that giving chicken feet for the nighttime meal leads to deeper sleep and more doggie dreaming. Connective tissue sources include:

  • Tendons
  • Cartilage
  • Trachea
  • Feet (which also count as bones)
  • Tails (also bones)
  • Ears

There is no strict connective tissue requirement, but it should be fed regularly or even daily for best outcomes.

10% Organs

Organs are the multivitamins of a dog’s raw diet. They are essential, but easy to overdo. Keep organ meat to 10% of the diet by weight, and feed as broad a variety as you can.

  • Liver (half of the organ meat you feed should be liver)
  • Kidney
  • Spleen
  • Brain
  • Glands
  • Testes

Seafood

A great source of omega-3s and minerals, seafood can usually be counted as muscle meat and sometimes as edible bones, depending on what you’re feeding.

  • Whole sardines
  • Whole mackerel
  • Salmon heads, fins, and frames

IMPORTANT NOTE ON SALMON: salmonids, which include salmon, trout, char, and a few others, can carry a deadly parasite that can kill dogs.1 Only salmonids from the Pacific Northwest (California, Oregon, and Washington) are potential carriers; as of now, Alaskan salmonids are not said to be carriers. Still, it’s a good idea to deep freeze any salmon for 2 weeks before feeding to eliminate potential parasites.

Supplemental Foods

These are foods that provide micronutrients more than calories. Feed regularly but don’t try to build an entire diet based off of them.

  • Eggs (or just egg yolks)—Eggs are good for dogs like they’re good for us; throw the entire thing, shell and all, into the blender for a handy calcium-rich snack
  • Kelp meal—Great source of iodine and other minerals
  • Bone meal/eggshell meal—If you’re having trouble incorporating or finding edible bones, you can add a teaspoon (3 grams) of bone or eggshell meal for every 1000 calories of muscle meat for adults and a tablespoon (10 grams) for every 1000 calories of muscle meat for puppies to maintain the proper calcium:phosphorus ratios
  • Oysters and mussels—Great sources of manganese, iron, zinc, and omega-3s; feeding frozen or canned is easiest and cheapest
  • Yogurt, kefir, or raw milk—Nice source of calcium and probiotics
  • Red palm oil—Nice source of vitamin E and CoQ10, a way to increase calories if you have a very active dog and very lean meat

Raw Feeding Tips

Heed the calcium:phosphorus ratio: You want a 1:1 to 2:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus in the diet. In general, hitting that 80/10/10 ratio of meat/organs/bone will get you the right C:P ratio. Don’t neglect either ratio!

Minimum protein intake: A dog needs at least 1 gram of protein per ideal pound of bodyweight per day from muscle and organ meat (connective tissue protein is important but doesn’t count toward the total). So if you’ve got a big fat dog who’s trying to slim down, use the weight he should be to determine how much protein to feed. Going over the minimum protein intake is fine.

Fatty acid composition: Limit omega-6s. Favor ruminants like lamb and beef over higher-PUFA meats like poultry. The bulk of a dog’s dietary fat should come from saturated and monounsaturated animal fats, along with omega-3s from fatty fish and whatever omega-6s you get from incidentals. Sounds familiar, eh?

Try to remove some or all the visible fat and skin when feeding poultry to your dog. Most poultry these days is just loaded with linoleic acid and it adds up quickly.

Fasting: Adult dogs tolerate fasting very well. And although there aren’t any “long term clinical trials” on the safety and efficacy of fasting in dogs, I suspect it will make them healthier and possibly extend their lives.

Feed once a day, and don’t be afraid to skip a day or two from time to time. If your dog is very active or a working animal, two meals are a good option. But even in a working dog one big meal will usually do the trick.

Carbohydrates: They’re unnecessary in a dog’s diet. In studies where dogs are given ad libitum access to foods of different macronutrient ratios, they always minimize carbohydrate intake and emphasize fat and protein intake. The average “self selected” macro ratio of dogs was 30% protein, 63% fat, and 7% carbs.2 Note that all the food choices contained some carbohydrate, so it’s possible that dogs would choose not to eat any carbs if there were 100% carnivore options available.

What do I feed?

Let me say this: I don’t feed my dogs this way anymore. I researched this heavily back in the day, and even did it for awhile (and got great results, the dogs loved it!), but nowadays I simply don’t have the time to make it work. Too many days on the road means I’d be inconsistent with it and relying on someone else trying to do it. No go on that.

So what I do these days is feed Orijen. It’s a “kibble,” but it’s the best I’ve found. Loaded with a range of raw or gently-cooked meats and seafood and completely grain-free.

I also add some turkey or beef to the meal. For treats, I’ll give raw egg yolks, chicken feet, marrow bones, and dried minnows. Maybe a beef knuckle from time to time. Maybe some liver or the juice from a can of sardines.

So don’t think that just because I wrote this article you need to switch your dog over to a raw diet. I recommend exploring that option if it appeals to you, but it’s not necessary.

Do any of you feed your dogs a raw diet? If so, what model do you follow? If not, do you think you’ll give it a try?

Let me know down below!

TAGS:  pets

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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27 thoughts on “Raw Food Diet for Dogs: a Primal Feeding Practice”

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  1. My dog won’t eat “on demand” and I don’t want raw meat left sitting in her bowl for hours on end, sometimes until the next day. Also, I’ve known people whose dogs got extremely sick on a raw diet. To each his own, but I prefer to feed her lightly cooked meats of all types, including organ meats, along with a bit of species-appropriate veggies and a sprinkle of canine vitamins. No commercial dogfood at all. She’s 7 years old and very healthy.

    1. I’m betting that the food wouldn’t sit there for very long if you gave your dog it’s natural diet and weren’t over feeding it.

  2. I was on board with pretty much everything until I got to “I feed kibble now because it’s too much work.” Siiiigh.
    So to be fair, making up frankenprey meals by butchering, weighing, measuring individual ingredients bought from a grocery store is a lot of work, though you can spend an afternoon at it and end up with a month or two worth of food in your freezer in perfectly portioned bags. But you can also buy and feed whole animals or ground, premixed foods from online retailers that cater to reptile owners and zoos. I get whole chickens, quail, and rabbits from rodentpro and it’s been a godsend as a time saver. Add in some mice for the cat. If I want variety I’ll head over to MyPetCarnivore for some ground beaver, lamb, duck, or tripe. Even my husband can handle measuring out 9oz of ground beaver for the dog and 1.8 ounces for the cat.
    Whole sardines can generally be found intact at the grocery store. These days the only frankenprey I make is when I get my 1/4 cow from the local farm or score myself a deer in hunting season. Then I use the organs and some of the less desirable cuts and/or a bag of cubed goat meat from the grocery store until I’ve made use of all the parts.
    Larger animals are cheaper than baby animals though, so I do save money by buying chickens or rabbits that are big enough for about 2 days worth of meals, thaw them out and quarter them as I use them.
    My point is it doesn’t have to be hard.

  3. Great article and I’m glad you wrote! I was looking into raw diet for my dog but also found it to be a bit too much tracking to fit my schedule as well. Once in a while as a treat, sure, but not on a daily basis.

    I started out with Orijen kibble but my dog decided she preferred wet food so she’s been eating Merrick grain-free canned.

    My vet keeps harping on the dangers of grain free with the whole canine DCM hullabaloo, although from what I can tell there’s no clear correlation – were the affected dogs obese (like MANY) or no exercised enough, etc.

    What’s your take on the “DANGERS” of grain-free for dogs?

    Funny side note – after ranting about how I’m endangering my dog, the vet also remarks how amazing her teeth and gums look. Gee – no grain (sugar) = better chompers? Who knew lol!

    1. It’s not the “grain free” bit, it’s the fact that they replace the grains with legumes or other starches to meet necessary carbohydrate levels for AAFCO standards, and there’s an issue with these starches resulting in a taurine deficiency. I don’t remember the details, but that was the gist of it.

      My recommendation if you want to feed a packaged food that is as close to raw as possible, either go with a dehydrated raw food, or go with a high quality canned food that calls itself 90% protein and says it’s “intended for supplemental feeding only” because it doesn’t meet AAFCO standards for carbs (which is the dog version of the 5-11 servings of grains on the food pyramid)
      Canned tripe is also good. Green tripe actually contains everything necessary for a complete and balanced diet.

  4. I feed my dog (mini-schnauzer / 20 lbs) a raw diet – going on about 5 years now, and I fed him Orijen prior to discovering the raw diet. I agree it is a little more work than kibble and can be more expensive, but totally worth it, especially from a dental health standpoint. Living in San Francisco makes this way easier as we have an amazing raw dog food co-op (SF Raw) that sources local, pastured product for everything from prey-model to premixed “formulas” that have the proper mix of muscle meat, organs, bone and vegie/sardine mix. Definitely worth it from the standpoint of giving your dog as many quality years as possible, and my dog LOVES it!

  5. I appreciate your transparency that now you feed a high quality kibble (although I’m curious to know your thoughts on grain-free dog foods replacing grains with legumes). I’ve spent the last year researching raw or even just homemade cooked food for my dog, but as an adult small breed rescue, I’ve wondered if it’s too much for his system or if he’d be getting the appropriate amount of nutrients. He gets a limited ingredient kibble plus a smattering of fresh veggies, eggs, a little rice, probiotics, maybe a little yogurt. I feel like he’s halfway there, but jumping fully info raw or homemade feels daunting!

  6. I’ve watched as numerous friends fed their dogs and cats the standard grain-based foods, often resulting in overweight animals that developed metabolic diseases and then died too young. I asked my (well known low-carb) doctor in Seattle what he feeds his dogs, and he said “I feed them only meat”.

  7. I would love to do this but frankly, not able to fit it in. Love my dog and try to find the best type available. However, I do give her lovely bits of burger and meats before I cook them. I may go buy a few bones and not cook them first for fun for her, maybe pick up a bit of chicken liver for treats once a week. Thanks for the article. Always thought I “should” feed her fresh…..

  8. I fed my dogs fresh meat bought from the supermarket. Animal consumption quality only horse meat, throw in a few of the cheapest sardines, bones on weekends. Super easy, they also love a few mouthfuls of nice soft grass bought from the garden center herb section or lemon grass works. People always comment on there healthy coats and how they don’t smell even thou the only bath they get is a swim in the creek while out walking.

  9. Raw feeder here: Many raw feeders find prey model diets lacking in nutrients over time.
    A BARF model diet is safer from a nutritional standpoint.
    Dogs don’t have a biological need for carbohydrates but that doesn’t mean they can’t eat any or shouldn’t. Plant matter gives gut health benefits as well as nutrients if they’ve been properly prepared to be bioavailable.
    The ideal canine diet is exactly same as the primal diet – a wide variety of plants and animals (mostly animals) and supplement with nutritional powerhouses like eggs and fermented dairy etc…
    Here in Australia we have access to many commercial brands of BARF model raw food and it’s as easy to plop a patty in a bowl as it is to throw a cup of kibble in it.

  10. What a disappointing article.

    If you can’t do a homemade raw diet (I never tried it), at least buy a commercial raw food like Nature’s Variety.

    My rescue came to me with periodontal disease and couldn’t really do bones. I rotated protein sources of Instinct and she lived to 15. I only ever resorted to kibble a few times when hurricanes knocked out power.

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    1. Same basic formula for cats as for dogs, as far as percent of body weight to feed and percentage of meat vs bone vs organs. If you feed whole animals, such as mice, chicks, or ground whole larger animals, you don’t need to worry about the organ makeup, as it is naturally complete. If you are feeding frankenprey (mixing bits and pieces, for example turkey breast, chicken liver, and beef kidney) make sure to include heat on a regular basis to ensure they get enough taurine.

  12. We have been on board for feeding our dogs properly for decades. “K9” lamb (raw meat and veg) seems popular as is the daily chunk of brisket bone. There doesn’t seem to be any complaints about the raw hare they sometimes find as their daily meal. Always ready for a big walk up hill or to push the cattle into the next paddock. We had to put down our last kelpie at 17 years as she was becoming demented and her workmate at 16 (the farm protector) dragged a possum from the woodshed and killed it in her last week of life. Dogs are as good as a friend can be… treat them right.

  13. My GSD was fed raw as a puppy before I picked him up at 3 months old. He gets raw ground meat mixed with a small amount of Grandma Lucy’s freeze dried mix (adds vitamins and fiber) mixed with salmon oil, probiotic powder and kelp (for plaque control) and two raw chicken drumsticks “for dessert.” I make his food in batches and freeze individual servings–everything is weighed and measured. He gets an appropriate exercise for an 8-yr old, treats in the form of offal I buy from store, homemade chicken jerky, and the occasional ox tail, pork necks, marrow bones, wild elk (from friends who hunt) or whatever other meat I can get. He will not eat any raw fish, so I cook up yellowfin or bluefin tuna for him that I catch and keep in my freezer all year long. He’s lean, but not skinny, and he’s not spoiled–he just gets what I think a dog should eat.

  14. I have always fed my dog raw meat, never any carbs. I get the pet burger, which includes organ meat, and ground chicken backs, both from US Wellness meats. Dogs live a lot longer, are overall much healthier, their teeth are bright white and clean, no bad breath, and she has TONS of energy. She gets some sardine when I’m having it and some raw egg. Any kind of “kibble ” is usually 50% sugar, even the grain free ones, which is devastating to a dogs health. They end up with the same health problems as humans who eat carbs and sugar.

  15. I really enjoyed this UNTIL the Orijen part. Champion Pet Foods are part of a class action suit for misrepresenting who produces the animals in their products and grain free is not carbohydrate free. This company used BSE infected cattle in their kibble and spend more money on marketing than on what goes into their product. It is too bad you sold yourself to this company. I really did admire you.

  16. I read this article with great enthusiasm as my family were first Paleo and then Keto, and much healthier because of you. I have also been down the ‘kibble, vaccinations, disease and almost death’ with a dog. I saved his life by educating myself, raw feeding him and doing a gut biome transplant, he is completely recovered after years of hell now.
    I do not oppose product endorsements but wonder as to your thoughts regarding the high temperatures used to process kibble and the effect that has on the nutritional content of the kibble ( not good) and also the spurious advice to mix kibble and raw…..stomach ph and all that. I am always learning, so would love to hear your take on these two points. Thank you.

  17. I buy BARF diet raw food for my dogs. It’s supposed to be balanced to the correct ratios for them so there is no lengthy meal prep.
    I have a German Shepherd/Chow mix who is 16 and super healthy, and English pointer mix, who is 10 and also super healthy.

  18. We have never tried raw meat for our dog but she does get stuff like grass fed beef and liver, egg yolks, things that are far healthier than the crappy grocery store options supposedly meant for dogs.

  19. I’ve been feeding my dogs 80% raw ground chicken parts and 20% seasonal produce for 7 years. Two dogs and only one minor vet visit. Get a meat grinder and a freezer. Costs me $67 for two months for one German shepherd and one lab mix. Yes it’s a bit of work, but worth it.

  20. Appreciate all you do for human aspect of diet, exercise and longevity. Crossing over to pets….hmmm. Just some things to keep in mind after reading this write up. Although some commercial foods (to sell more) say they are, dogs are not wolves. They share common ancestors, just like us with great apes. Because they’ve been living with us for over “30000 years”, eating our cooked leftovers, their GI tracts (digestion, biome, etc) are now more aligned to ours not wolves. As far as preferences to food, yes given a choice i’m going to choose the fattier foods – that’s evolution to choose the most nutrient dense food to prepare for famine. I’m not going to be eating a salad if a big chunk of fat/protein dense food is sitting next to it. Not sure what the big issue with a well balanced, scientifically based commercial diet is. As humans, we’d probably do much better on a formulation that was the same every day – the Matrix diet. However our own psychology and brain chemistry (ie endorphan release from things like sugar) has prevented this. What is the different in the large companies that study food science vs the small companies that use anecdotal evidence. If we are going with anecdotal evidence (in this article and in the comments) – I’ve had and seen numerous pets on a well balanced, scientifically made, commercial dry diets live over 16-20 years. Majority of our dogs are also not wolves in their activity, therefore their protein/fat/calorie needs are very different. Probably only 5% of the dog population out there expends the energy of a wolf. These dogs being ones that work for a living ie Border Collies running around all day herding livestock. The majority of pets are lucky to get a short walk outside a couple times a week. Most get up, sniff around outside to do their business, go to the food bowl, then sleep for 8-10 hours before their owners come back to repeat activities similar to the morning. Then maybe once a week, get a longer walk on the weekend. Definitely not a need for high calorie meals. In fact, majority of the pets out there, like people, are overweight to obese. Unlike the human media, showing rail thin or buff models, the pet models are generally 10-20% overweight (great for their psychie, but not as a model of what normal weight is). I hope all are using caution with any of the raw or BARF diets; especially if they have little kids or immunocompromised. There are NUMEROUS studies from everywhere showing that these diets can harbor some nasty bacteria – salmonella, E.coli, campylobacter, etc – that may not pose a threat to the pet, but are passed in feces where the family can become infected!

  21. We have a 3 year old female Standard Poodle, and she HAD digestive issues.
    It was so bad, she couldn’t go more than 4-5 days without having a stomach problem, like not eating, being listless, having severe stomach noises, and throwing up bile. She was also scratching herself excessively.

    We tried many different foods, and ended up putting her on a prescribed diet (kibble) from a veterinarian. That helped with the scratching, but not with the stomach issues.
    We took her to another vet about 3 weeks ago, and he recommended we put her on a RAW diet. He said all of his dogs were doing wonderfully eating raw.
    He thinks ANY kibble is not good for dogs.

    We learned of a local, raw dog food, co-op, which distributes it frozen. We got some samples from them and found our pooch snarfed them up.. She’s been eating raw only for 2 weeks, and now seems to have normal digestion, a great appetite, nice stools, no issues!, a miraculous turnaround in my book! I can hardly believe it!, I’m so happy and relieved for her.