Balance, Bones, & Barf, OH MY! Raw Diet for Dogs Made Simple [10 Tips]
Raw Dog Food for Beginners
Can dogs eat raw meat? What about raw bones for dogs? And when we combine the added complexity of dog size to these questions, the answers become even murkier.
If you are considering transitioning your large breed dog to a raw food diet, and are wondering how exactly to do that, you have come to the right place.
In this post, you will learn…
- How to properly balance a raw diet for your large or giant breed dog,
- Which raw meaty bones you should and SHOULD NOT feed and why,
- The difference between a BARF diet and prey model raw,
- Tips for how to tell if your dog is getting what he/she needs nutritionally,
- The best supplements to feed for optimal health of your dog, and
- My recommended tools and resources you need to get started.
- AND… a BONUS video to illustrate it all!
**This post contains affiliate links from which I may receive a small compensation. There is NO ADDED COST to you should you use these links.**
BARF Diet or Prey Model Raw?
Before we continue, I want to address one of the most common questions I get as it relates to feeding raw; what is the difference between feeding a BARF diet and prey model raw?
The easiest way to think about this distinction is that the B.A.R.F. (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food) diet includes fruits, vegetables, and supplements, whereas the prey model raw includes only meat, bone, and organ with no processed foods or vegetables.
Put another way, prey model raw mimics how a dog’s ancestors would eat in the wild – eating primarily whole, wild prey animals exclusively.
Both prey model and BARF diets are high in protein, moderate in fat, with minimal amounts of carbohydrates.
You will find in this post and video, that I am a somewhat eclectic raw feeder – most, but not all, meals follow fairly close to a BARF diet.
While I do not necessarily believe dogs NEED fruits and vegetables, I am of the opinion that they certainly don’t hurt them when fed properly and in moderation.
With essential nutrients, phytochemicals, and antioxidants, fruits and vegetables can be very beneficial for immune system support and overall health.
Now that you know the difference between the two primary raw diets for dogs, let’s dive into my top 10 tips for beginner raw feeders!
Top 10 Tips for Feeding a Raw Diet to Large Breed Dogs
While I strongly believe the word balance is misused and overused in dog nutrition circles – as evidenced by the stamp of AAFCO approval [“Complete & Balanced”] on every bag of commercial kibble – I am using the term here to describe merely the foundation of a raw food diet.
This foundation for a prey model raw diet is made up of 80% muscle meat, 10% edible bone, and 10% organ (with 5% of that coming from liver).
For comparison sake, a true BARF diet would be 70% muscle meat, 10% raw edible bone, 7% vegetable, 5% secreting organ, 5% liver, 2% seeds or nuts, and 1% fruit. (1)
Let’s take a look at each component briefly so you understand the rationale for each one:
- Muscle Meat (70-80%) is an essential source of protein, amino acids, and water-soluble vitamins. Examples in this category include boneless meat, green tripe, raw animal fat, heart, tongue, and lung.
- Raw Edible Bone (10-25%) is a source of calcium and phosphorus, among other essential nutrients. Some examples include legs, wings, necks, feet, frames, ribs, and tails.
- Secreting Organs (5%) pack a nutrient punch as they are the place in the prey animal’s body where life-sustaining biological functions occur. They provide essential minerals, like phosphorus, iron, magnesium, and selenium, and water-soluble vitamins such as your B vitamins (B1, B2, B6, folic acid, and B12). Examples of secreting organs are kidney, spleen, and pancreas. (2)
- Liver (5%) provides a concentrated source of vitamin A, as well as folic acid, B vitamins, iron, and copper. More than 5% liver in the diet is not recommended. (2)
With this foundation, you will want to ensure that you approach your meal planning with variety in mind.
More on this in a minute….
For more on the topic of what “balance” in dog nutrition is and IS NOT, read: Homemade Dog Food: Is Balance Possible (or a Pipe Dream)?
2. Calcium-t0-Phosphorus Ratio
As we discussed in Feeding Giant Breed Puppies for Dummies – The Protein Myth and More, the calcium to phosphorus ratio must be balanced for optimal growth of a large or giant breed puppy and for optimal health of our adult dogs.
For dogs, excessive levels of calcium cause OCD (osteochondrosis (OC), osteochondritis dissecans (OCD)) and other bone disorders (hypertrophic osteodystrophy (HOD), panosteitis, hip dysplasia (HD), and canine elbow dysplasia (CED)) earlier and with more severe consequences in giant puppies.
And while not all studies agree, the majority show a strong link between high calcium levels in the diet and bone problems, even when the levels of calories and other nutrients are the same.
Let’s talk about how to properly balance your calcium and phosphorus levels in a raw diet for large breed dogs.
Because calcium and phosphorus work together, we think about them as a team. A ratio.
When one is too high or low, it throws off the ratio leading to an imbalance.
Large and giant breed dogs should be fed a diet with 1% calcium and 0.8% phosphorus on a dry matter basis. Or in other words, a calcium-to-phosphorus ratio of 1.2:1.
With a raw food diet, generally speaking as long as your edible bone content is at least 10%, and the rest of the meal is balanced as outlined above, your calcium-to-phosphorus ratio should be very close to that 1.2:1.
But let’s take a look at a quick mathematical example to illustrate how this works. In this example, I am just including the muscle meat and bone portions of the meal as they are the primary contributors to the balance of calcium and phosphorus.
Use this guide from Dog’s Naturally Magazine or this one from Perfectly Rawsome to get your percentage of bone in specific raw meaty bone portions.
If I am feeding a chicken back with 45% bone content and it weighs 5.5oz and my muscle meat weighs 15.6oz., then my percentage of bone to meat is:
5.5 / 15.6 = .35 = 35% bone
From here you will factor in your percentage of bone inside the chicken back, which is 45%.
45% x .35 = 15.75 = 15.75% bone in this sample meal.
Because you will be adding organs and potentially other ingredients to the meal to balance it, your percentage of bone to the total weight of the meal will go down slightly, however, your calcium-to-phosphorus ratio won’t change that much since it’s primarily the muscle meat and bone that contribute to the calcium:phosphorus balance in a raw food diet.
3. Can Dogs Eat Bones?
One of the most common questions I get asked when it comes to raw feeding my dogs is, “Can dogs eat bones?”
The simple answer to this question is yes, but with some important caveats.
First, while feeding raw bones to dogs is perfectly safe, feeding bones that have been cooked, dehydrated, smoked, or any other way processed would not be safe for dogs as they can splinter when eaten resulting in potential intestinal perforation and blockage.
Most raw bones are soft and easy for dogs to digest.
Raw meaty bones provide essential nutrients, as previously discussed, and provide fantastic mental and physical stimulation for dogs while chewing.
And as an added bonus, your dog will reap the benefits of chewing raw bones with gorgeous pearly white teeth!
The second caveat to feeding raw bones to large breed dogs has to do with the size and type of bone.
With larger heads and bigger mouths, large and giant breed dogs should not be given raw bones that may represent a choking hazard.
For example, something like a small chicken neck or wing can easily slip down the throat of an adult Mastiff. Unless your dog is experienced with chewing raw bones and has proven efficient with them, I would avoid any small portions like these.
In addition, you will want to stay away from super dense bones like the weight-bearing bones of grazing animals like cows or deer, or even bones like turkey legs which are extremely dense as well.
My preference is to pull the meat off of these bones and feed the bone portion as bone broth instead.
Some of our favorite raw bones for dogs include turkey necks and wings, duck frames, duck and chicken feet, oxtails, and beef necks.
4. Observe Stools
One of the best aspects of raw feeding is how quickly and easily you can tell how well your dog is doing.
It is crazy to think of dog poop as a good thing, but in this case it absolutely is!
When a raw diet is balanced, stools are generally small in amount (yay!) and slightly darker in color as compared to kibble-fed stool.
Additionally, the more bone content you feed, the more white and chalky your dog’s stool will become. Conversely, the more organ you feed, the darker and looser your dog’s stool will be.
Colors and consistency can fluctuate daily depending on what you are feeding, but as long as you pay attention, you can adjust as necessary to obtain perfectly firm stools and a balanced raw diet.
Check out our video for an illustration of what you are looking for and a more detailed explanation of this topic.
5. Variety is Key
If you ate the same thing every day, you would likely be deficient in one or more micro or macronutrients.
It is no different with our dogs.
They need variety within their diet to keep them at optimal health.
Here are a ways you can vary a raw diet for dogs:
- When placing your order through a raw dog food co-op, vary your selections within each category monthly. For example, in June you order beef kidney and pancreas for your secreting organs, so in July you select spleen and thymus. As you are feeding throughout the month you alternate between the two organ choices you ordered that month for your 5% organ content. Don’t forget to add your liver, of course!
- Within your muscle meat portion, there are so many choices! Again, my recommendation is to select a few different ones from different protein sources each month and alternate between what you have on hand weekly. For example, in June you order beef cheek, beef heart, pork butt, and ground turkey. In July, you select beef heart, green tripe, beef tongue, and turkey breast.
- Protein sources from which you will pull your meat, bone, and organ should vary as well. My primary sources are beef, turkey, pork, duck, chicken (minimal), and fish. Venison, rabbit, and quail are among other sources of protein if you have access to them at a reasonable cost.
- I strongly recommend feeding fatty fish as well for essential fatty acids (Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)). I alternate between smelt and sardines, but you can feed salmon or mackerel as well. These fish provide high levels of vitamin D in addition to the DHA and EPA which are essential for optimal health.
- If you want to include fruits, vegetables, and nuts, there are a plethora of ways to add variety. The rule of thumb for dogs, as it is for humans, is to feed as many colors as you can. For a very helpful guide to feeding fruits, vegetables, and nuts – basically, what you should and should not feed to dogs – click here. (5)
With the 80:10:10 being the foundation to a raw diet for dogs, supplementation is used to fill any potential gaps that remain.
I have covered numerous supplements on BigDogMom.com – from natural pain relief products and omega-3 fish oils to immune support and the many probiotics for dogs.
Therefore, in this post we will cover just three supplements that are particularly well suited for dogs new to a raw food diet.
1. Daily Dog Probiotic by FullBucket Health
Daily Dog is unique in that it is a yeast-based probiotic (5 Billion CFU’s of Saccharomyces cerevisae boulardii) as opposed to a bacteria-based probiotic like those I have covered extensively on the blog.
While we are not going to cover all of the details about Daily Dog in this post (stay tuned), I will share with you just a few of the many benefits of feeding this type of probiotic to your raw fed dog:
- Stabilizes the gut and prevents overpopulation of bad bacteria
- Protects the good bacteria in the gut helping to prevent over colonization
- Works synergistically with antibiotics without competition that is likely when using a bacterial-based probiotic
- All in one gut support with probiotics, prebiotics, enzymes, and l-glutamine
I have been giving Daily Dog for about 6-8 weeks since transitioning Junior and Sulley back to a raw diet and I highly recommend it!
Click here to learn more about it and use my code (BIGDOGMOM) for 20% off if you decide to purchase some for your big dog.
2. Organic Mineral-Rich Sea Kelp
Sea Kelp has been a staple for my dogs since last year. I feed it daily and Junior and Sulley love it!
With 60 different vitamins, minerals, and trace elements as well as 21 amino acids, I feel like this supplement, possibly more than any other with the exception of a probiotic, is superior in filling any gaps in my dog’s raw diet.
As an excellent natural source of iodine, organic sea kelp supports glandular functioning such as thyroid health and metabolism, which decrease inflammation and infection while improving overall health.
Click here to read our full review of organic sea kelp.
And if you prefer, here is our full video review as well.
3. Organic Pumpkin Powder
I found this pumpkin powder when I was ordering some more Sea Kelp and thought it would offer more gut support in case of loose stools after moving and the diet change. With so much upheaval in my dog’s life over the last year, I was looking for something that would be both nutritious and soothing for them.
This antioxidant-rich pumpkin powder is an extremely effective anti-diarrheal. Because it is naturally rich in fiber and low in fat, it gently helps to promote normal bowel function, proper digestion, and healthy anal gland health.
And as I mentioned above about filling any nutritional gaps, this organic pumpkin supplement provides an excellent source of fiber, vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin A.
If you are transitioning your dog to a raw diet, if your dog struggles with firm or loose stools, or he or she just loves pumpkin, I recommend you try this.
Click here to read more about it.
7. Use a Raw Feeding App
I shared several great mobile apps in From Feeding to Travel: Top 7 Best Mobile Apps for Dog Owners, one of which is called Raw Pet.
If you are new to raw feeding your large breed dog, I highly recommend you check this mobile app out to help you with some of the basic calculations of menu planning.
While it does not calculate exact bone percentages for you (see tip #2), it does give you the proper 80:10:10 breakdown as a foundation.
In addition, I love some of the added resources on this app which, at the click of a button, offer quick answers to the most common questions about raw diets for dogs.
If you would like to see a live walkthrough of the Raw Pet app and how I use it for raw meal prep, watch our video below!
8. Tools Needed for Preparing a Raw Diet for Dogs
When it comes to tools needed for a raw diet for dogs, the list is pretty short.
Two of the most common tools used by experienced raw feeders are a scale and a grinder.
Let’s touch on each of these briefly…
I use a postal scale which I purchased on Amazon for about $30-$40. You can definitely find nicer ones out there, however, in my experience, my scale has been more than sufficient.
You want something that can handle at least 10 pounds, although you will rarely go over 3 for any one meal.
And you want to look for a scale that is small, easily portable, and very easy to clean.
The scale I purchased is all of those and has never failed me in the nearly 7 years I’ve had it.
2. Meat Grinder
Many raw feeders I know use and recommend a meat grinder to break down whole raw meaty bones into an easier-to-consume ground food.
While the one experience I have with a grinder did NOT go well, I will be the first to admit that perhaps it was the specific grinder I used that was so bad.
After a single and epic fail to grind even the softest of bones – chicken – and leaving behind a massive bacteria-laden mess for me to clean up, I decided to forego the grinder and opt for whole bones instead for my Mastiff’s raw diet.
So, in my effort to be the most helpful to you, my big dog friend, I will not be sharing the name of the crappy grinder I bought. Rather, here are a couple of recommendations from Kimberly – a long-time raw feeder from Keep the Tail Wagging blog…
9. Feeding Raw to Multiple Dogs
This is a tip for those of you who are feeding multiple dogs at the same time.
I recommend you find some way to separate your dogs a little while they eat raw dog food. This can be with a gate between them or simply 8-10 feet with you close by to observe.
If your fur family is anything like mine, you likely have at least one chowhound and one lazy eater. The chowhound scarfs his food down then hunts around for more as the lazy eater delicately picks food out of his bowl and takes it to his bed.
By creating space between your dogs and paying attention while they eat you can prevent one dog eating the meals of two.
In addition, one thing I have learned in my years of raw feeding is that raw dog food can bring out the wolf in even the most docile dog.
I am not suggesting your dog will become aggressive by eating a raw diet. That couldn’t be further from the truth!
But what I am saying is that kibble doesn’t provide the same level of mental and physical stimulation that chewing a raw meaty bone does.
The more your dog is enjoying his bone, the more interested he will be in preventing other dogs from taking it.
And again, my experience with this could be due to Sulley, my chowhound, constantly being on the hunt for more food, hovering over Junior and his bone.
While Junior has never gone after Sulley, he has let out a low growl to deter him from coming closer – a very natural, and in my opinion, acceptable warning.
To prevent any conflicts, I keep the boys separated while they eat and we have had zero issues.
10. Balance Over Time
If you were to examine your own diet on any single day, my guess is you would be embarrassed to admit everything you did and did not eat.
While My Fitness Pal believes I’m a mega-macro queen, he doesn’t know about the handful of Starbursts and Diet Coke I had after lunch or the Hershey Kisses I snuck after dinner.
But what he does see are the important nutrients I AM getting – the kale salad I ate one day and the protein yogurt the next.
And when combined with lots of water and exercise, balance is created over time.
It’s no different with our dogs.
The single most important tip I can give any new raw feeder is to not stress out about a single meal or even a week of meals.
There is NO perfect raw meal and you will always come up short.
While we know a lot about dog nutrition, we don’t know everything. As I argued in Homemade Dog Food: Is Balance Possible (or a Pipe Dream)?,
“… do not let the nebulous and substandard concept of “balance” stand in the way of your dog’s health and longevity. After all, balance should not be your goal when feeding your dog. Optimal health and wellness should be.”
Since we really don’t know what “perfect” balance is, how are you ever going to reach it?
Instead, I choose to adopt the simple rule of balance over time.
I ask myself at the end of each month if my dog’s are better off today than they were at the beginning of the month. If the answer is yes, that is my green light to continue.
BONUS: 11. Sanitize
For those dog owners who are concerned about bacteria and potential pathogens in raw meat, let not your heart be troubled.
For the purposes of this post, I simply want to share with you how I keep my Mastiffs and my house clean while raw feeding.
As you will see in the following video, I follow the same sanitization practices I use when preparing or handling raw meat intended for human consumption:
- Wash hands frequently with hot water and soap
- Keep utensils and tools separate to prevent cross-contamination
- Anything that gets near raw meat gets sanitized with a Clorox wipe
- All dish rags are laundered after touching raw meat – I don’t store them in the sink and reuse them
- Dog bowls are washed thoroughly with hot soapy water
- All surfaces are disinfected
- Dogs are wiped with diluted apple cider vinegar wipes – mostly mouths, legs, and in between toes and under paws.
VIDEO: Raw Diet for Large Breed Dogs Starter Guide – Top 10 Tips + BONUS [Raw Dog Food PREP & FEED With Me]
Best Diet for Large Breed Dogs? Your Turn…
Are you considering transitioning to a fresh raw food diet for your large dog?
What additional questions do you have about raw feeding your large dog? Put them in the comments below.
If you are an experienced raw feeder, what tips or advice do you have for beginners? Share below your expertise so we all can benefit!
Great article – I love to see other folks bringing up natural food for their articles and not focusing on dry/industrial food types. I started my dogs on a natural diet a few years back and it was the best decision ever.
Can I feed smelt?