Dogs, 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 by-product meal
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.
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.
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% 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:
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.
Lamb or pork necks
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).
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:
Feet (which also count as bones)
Tails (also bones)
There is no strict connective tissue requirement, but it should be fed regularly or even daily for best outcomes.
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)
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.
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.
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?
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.