Tips for Choosing Commercial Raw Dog Food
This article was updated February, 2020, with additional tips and content.
"You are what you eat" has never been more true for ourselves or our dogs. Raw dog food is one of the fastest growing areas of the pet industry, and if the number of freezers in pet supply stores is any indication, this is a 'trend' that shows no signs of slowing down.
Feeding a fresh, nutritionally complete raw diet is one best things we can do for the health of our dogs. At the moment, though, the demand for raw dog food is outpacing the knowledge among many producers about how to correctly formulate raw dog.
In an ideal situation, each dog would have several individually formulated diets to ensure optimal nutrition, but that isn't reality for the majority of pet owners who are simply looking for a healthy alternative to kibble.
Pet parents are left to trust that raw dog food manufacturers have formulated their food to meet our dogs' nutritional requirements - and unfortunately, that is not often the case. Of the raw diets I have analyzed, many do not provide detailed nutritional information, and based on the ingredients list many of these products are deficient in a number of nutrients - even if they claim to be 'complete'.
Be aware of raw dog food that claims to be 'complete'...
Raw dog manufacturers in Canada are not properly regulated. In fact, anyone can throw together meat and bones (and sometimes no bones, and no source of calcium) and call it "raw dog food". Just because a brand of raw dog food is professionally packaged and labeled, it doesn't mean it has been formulated correctly and according to standards.
Brands that claim their raw dog food is "complete and balanced", in fact, may not be complete and balanced at all. 80-10-10, or 70-10-10-10, or variations on those ratios are not complete. These type of diets are typically low or deficient in iodine, manganese, vitamin D3, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, thiamine, and zinc. Dogs don't suddenly stop needing these nutrients just because they are eating raw food.
It's not uncommon for pet parents to think that because kibble is all-in-one complete nutrition commercial raw dog food should be the same - and that is not the case. Unfortunately it is up to the pet parent to determine which nutrients are missing or provided in excess in their dog's commercial raw diet. A dog nutrition professional can analyze your dog's diet and make recommendations to to fill nutritional holes.
Most commercial raw dog food products should be considered a base to which additional fresh food and/or supplements (kelp or fatty fish, for example) must be added in order to meet the nutritional requirements of a dog.
There are a number of ways of reporting the nutritional composition of raw dog - and unfortunately, again, there are no regulations or requirements in Canada for how this should be done when it comes to raw food. The nutritional information, or guaranteed analysis, on the label can be confusing and difficult for pet parents to interpret.
It's important to ask raw dog food manufacturers for nutritional information. Ask for details about the ingredients and the amounts of those ingredients in their products.
Choosing commercial raw dog food can be challenging. Diets based on percentages is not an accurate way of determining nutritional adequacy. Different protein sources have very different nutrient profiles. There are significant nutritional differences between 5% beef liver and 5% chicken liver, and one ounce of beef has a different nutrient profile than one ounce of turkey, for example. Different types of raw meaty bones have different levels of calcium, and so 10% of one type of edible bone may have different amounts of calcium that 10% of another type of edible bone.
This is worth repeating: Commercial raw diets should be considered a base which will require you to add other food or supplements in order to meet nutritional requirements.
This is not a guarantee of nutritional adequacy, however, here are some basic guidelines and 'rules of thumb' to help you choose commercial raw dog food for your healthy adult dog:
Tips For Choosing Commercial Raw Dog Food: The Basics
Bone Content: 10 - 15 %. Edible bone content of a commercial raw diet should be in the 10-15% overall range. This is a very general guideline to ensure the correct calcium:phosphorus ratio, and to supply the amount of calcium and some other minerals that a dog requires. In addition to the nutritional role of raw edible bones in the diet, bone controls the firmness of stool. Too much bone, and your dog's stools will be pale, crumbly and hard to pass.
Raw dog food that does not contain edible bone must have an alternate source of calcium.
Organ Content: 10 - 15 %. In the canine raw diet, organs are considered Mother Nature's multivitamins, and should be in the 10 - 15% range at a minimum.
Look for a variety of organs - liver, kidney, spleen, lung, heart, etc. Liver should make up roughly 2% - 5% of the organ content amount. (For raw dog food purposes, heart and lung are considered to be 'meat' or 'muscle meat', and are not considered 'organs' - even though they are internal organs.)
Raw green tripe can be a good addition to the diet, but I prefer it to be added in addition to the organ content percentage.
Be Aware of the Fat Content: Dogs require a certain amount of calories to maintain their weight and to support their body's job of staying alive. Calories can come from protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Protein is far more nutrient dense than fat, and while fat is important, too much of it is a problem. When too many of the diet's calories come from fat, there is less caloric room for protein - which also means fewer of the nutrients your dog needs.
This is where it gets tricky, because fatty meat is cheaper than lean meat. The price difference between 70/30 ground beef and 90/10 ground beef is significant. Raw dog food manufacturers know that customers are only willing and able to spend a certain amount of money on food for their dog, and may use higher fat meat to keep costs down. The problem is, lower cost, high fat food will contain less protein and less minerals, vitamins, and amino acids (protein is made from amino acids). This is not ideal for your dog, and it's especially not appropriate for growing puppies who have different nutritional requirements than adults.
Check the label on your commercial raw food and find the % fat, and the % protein - or the grams of protein and fat. Choose foods that have more % protein than fat. One suggestion is that the protein should be double or more the amount of fat - or close to it. *This percentage refers to the amount of protein and fat on an 'as fed' basis'.
Iodine: Raw fed dogs need a source of iodine in their diets; this is critical to support the thyroid gland. Kelp is the go-to source for iodine in the raw diet and some commercial raw dog food may contain kelp. Check the label to see if kelp is in the ingredients list, and if not, make sure to add a source of iodine to your dog's diet.
Vegetables and Fruit: Some commercial raw food contains vegetables and fruit. I prefer you to add your own vegetables and fruit; that way, you can control the variety and amounts. For brands that contain vegetables and fruit, 10% is a good amount. Look for a variety of vegetables with more leafy green vegetables than root vegetables. Berries are a very healthy choice as well (blueberries, raspberries, cranberries). You can always add more vegetables depending on your dog's tolerance and overall diet.
Important Next Steps!
Once you have chosen a commercial raw dog food, you can then begin to work on completing your dog's diet with different proteins if needed, fish or fish oil, eggs, vegetables and fruit, and any needed supplements.
You must make sure that your dog's Omega-3 (from marine sources), Vitamin D3 and Vitamin E requirements are being met. It's a good idea to have a canine nutrition professional review your dog's diet to make sure you're on the right track with feeding.