Understanding Homemade Diets and the Pros/Cons of a Raw Food (BARF) Diet

by Shawn Messonnier, DVM
A resource from Pet-Togethers

Many holistic pet owners choose to prepare food for their pets at home. The following information will help you prepare the best diet possible for your pet. As is true with the selection of processed diets, you should work with your veterinarian to make sure that any homemade diet you prepare is best for your pet.

The idea behind the homemade diets is that the owner will use fresh, minimally processed ingredients. By offering fresh food, there are more nutrients in the diet that would otherwise be removed as a result of processing. Homemade diets seek to emphasize freshness and wholesomeness of ingredients. These homemade diets seek to mimic the diet the pet would encounter in the wild. The diets avoid the harmful chemical preservatives, additives, and artificial colorings and flavors that may occur in some commercially prepared diets. Homemade diets seek to address common concerns owners may express concerning commercial pet foods, such as:

• By-products, which may lack nutritional value and may be toxic.

• Food additives, flavoring, and colors which are added for the benefit of the consumer but which are of no nutritional value (and may be harmful) to pets.

• Failure to include fresh, wholesome ingredients, which could benefit the pet by providing a readily and easily digestible and absorbable source of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.

• Fillers such as animal and plant by-products which are of questionable nutritional value but which are often added to generic diets so the manufacturer can meet the minimum nutrient values required to be in the food.

While owners have often been told, "don't feed your pet people food," this advice is erroneous for two reasons. First, processed dog food and cat food is nothing more than "people food" processed into pellets and put in a bag for pets (although many manufacturers use ingredients not fit for human consumption.) Second, prior to the origin of processed foods in the early 1900's, our dogs and cats ate nothing but people food (unless the dog or cat hunted its own meals.) Many holistic veterinarians think that the diseases we now see (diseases such as immune disorders, allergies, and arthritis that were rare in past years) are a direct result of processed pet foods.

Fresh foods prepared at home with minimal processing provide phytonutrients (nutrients found in plants) such as bioflavonoids and many nutrients not yet discovered in the plants. This is another good reason to consider preparing food for your dog or cat at home.

The homemade diets use higher quality protein and carbohydrate sources and do not require heating to extremely high temperatures. Also, the homemade food is not extruded into pellets under high pressure like processed pet foods. This heating and pressurizing of food destroys most of the nutrients (enzymes, healthy bacteria (probiotics), and vitamins and minerals) that your pet requires, forcing pet food manufacturers to add extra vitamins and minerals to the food after extensive processing of the food (most manufacturers do not add back probiotics or enzymes; supplementation with these ingredients is still necessary to achieve levels found in homemade diets. Thankfully the Pet-Togethers supplementPetCentRx “Vim & Vigor” Formula for dog or cats provides probiotics and enzymes). By making your pet's diet at home, there is minimal destruction of enzymes, probiotics, and vitamins and minerals, ensuring your pet a maximum amount of these important nutrients.

An important advantage to preparing diets for your pet yourself at home is that you can choose the best ingredients available. Many clients prefer to use organically raised plant and animal tissues; these tissues are raised without hormones and chemicals, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. According to information from the Organic View, Vol. 1, No 17, there is great variability in the nutrient contents of foods raised by industrial agricultural practices when compared to organically raised foods. For example, they report that in an analysis of USDA nutrient data from 1975 to 1997, the Kushi Institute of Becket, Massachusetts found that the average calcium levels in 12 fresh vegetables declined 27 percent; iron levels dropped 37 percent; vitamin A levels 21 percent, and vitamin C levels 30 percent.

They also report that a similar analysis of British nutrient data from 1930 to 1980 published in the British Food Journal found that in 20 vegetables, the average calcium content had declined 19 percent; iron 22 percent; and potassium 14 percent. Additionally, a 1999 study out of the University of Wisconsin found that three decades of the overuse of nitrogen in US farming has destroyed much of the soil's fertility, causing it to age the equivalent of 5,000 years. Finally, a new US Geological Survey report indicates that acid rain is depleting soil calcium levels in at least 10 eastern states, interfering with forest growth and weakening trees' resistance to insects. Findings such as those reported here prompt many owners to try and find the most wholesome produce available for including in diets fed to their pets.

Check with stores in your area to see if they offer organically raised vegetables and animal meats. Also, ask them what they mean by the term "organically raised," as many producers may make this claim but still use conventional agricultural practices. Find out everything you can about the farmers who supply the stores where you shop.

Since every pet is an individual, homemade diets are easily supplemented with additional nutritional supplements as recommended by your veterinarian.

The main drawback to preparing diets at home is that unless following properly formulated recipes, it is easy to create nutrient deficiencies or excesses that could cause illness in your pet. The diets listed here are adapted from my book The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats.

A homemade diet can be used occasionally to supplement one of the better natural prepared diets, or as the sole diet for the pet. For pets with various medical problems such as heart disease or kidney disease, a homemade diet is probably the best way to go as there are no "natural" prepared diets at the time of this writing that serve the needs of pets with medical disorders (there are medical-type "prescription" diets for pets with various diseases, but these do not always contain wholesome ingredients and may contain by-products and chemicals not desired by owners who opt for holistic care for their pets. They can however, be used if an owner cannot prepare a special medicated diet at home.

Balancing the following diets is quite simple and only requires a few supplements; a balanced diet using fresh wholesome ingredients ensures optimal proportions of nutrients and may prevent disease as well as help treat pets with diseases. The optimum amount of any specific nutrient is not always well known; the following diets are formulated with nutrient ranges that can be adjusted under veterinary supervision as needed. Pets are individuals with specific individual nutritional needs. There is not one specific requirement for a nutrient for every pet despite commercial foods including the "correct" level of nutrients. Depending upon an animal's needs nutrient levels will vary; owners preparing diets at home for their pets can easily adjust nutrient levels as well as the composition of the diet to meet the pet's changing needs.

Many commercial pet foods contain materials, including cereal grains, that pets are not designed to eat. Additionally, the quality of the ingredients, unless they are human quality ingredients, is low. Many of the protein sources are prepared from rendered animals not fit for human consumption; animal proteins not fit for human consumption are waste products that unfortunately often end up in pet food or in fertilizer. Diets containing these ingredients cannot support maximum health for pets.

Dogs and cats are mainly carnivorous and should be fed mainly meat-based diets when possible, although many commercial foods base their diets on cereal grains and vegetables. Many of these diets contain meat or animal "by-products," such as organ meats and the flesh of the animals; these protein sources are of low biological value and are not healthy for the pet to eat on a regular basis.

Dogs can tolerate carbohydrate sources better than cats, as long as the carbohydrate is well cooked and easily assimilated; rice is recommended for this reason. There is no specific dietary requirement for carbohydrates in the diets of cats as they are true carnivores (dogs tend to be a bit more omnivorous, meaning they can digest and absorb carbohydrates better than cats.) Dogs and cats maintain blood glucose levels by metabolizing dietary protein and fat. Many commercial diets made for cats, especially dry foods, contain high levels of carbohydrates such as corn; many holistic veterinarians believe that feeding large amounts of carbohydrates to a species not designed to eat large amounts of carbohydrates has contributed to the high incidence of diabetes seen in this species (as a rule, diabetes is less to occur in carnivorous animals fed the proper diet.)

In some processed foods (especially soft-moist "burgers,") sugars are used as the carbohydrate source. This may contribute to diabetes; excess sugar is not digested and can cause diarrhea. Propylene glycol, a preservative in soft-moist diets, can cause anemia, especially in cats.

For owners who desire to feed a more natural, chemical-free diet, preparing diets at home is easy and cost-effective. Select the freshest ingredients; ideally the vegetables and meats should be from plants and animals raised without chemicals, hormones, or pesticides.

While many veterinarians suggest that feeding raw meat is best, there is always the concern about bacterial contamination and infestation with microscopic parasites. For these reasons every precaution should be taken in preparing the meat part of the diet. Ideally the meat should be thoroughly cooked. For those owners who prefer to feed raw meat, the following discussion can be helpful.

If you choose to feed a homemade diet, you will need to make the distinction between feeding a diet containing cooked ingredients (meat) or a diet where the protein source (meat) is fed raw. The following discussion will take a look at a popular and often recommended raw diet, and will present an objective overview of some of the debate both for and against feeding raw diets.

Natural Diets: Raw Versus Cooked and a Look at the BARF Diet

As an owner you may have heard a lot or arguments for or against feeding the diet in a raw, fresh, uncooked state. Many owners feel that feeding a raw diet is the only way to offer a truly healthy diet, and that cooking somehow destroys many of the nutrients in the diet.

Because this topic is so controversial with little science to back up many of the suggestions made on both sides of the topic, it is important to address many of the arguments made both for and against feeding raw foods.

The argument really concerns what has become known as the BARF diet, also called the Billinghurst diet after the doctor who came up with this concept, Dr. Ian Billinghurst. BARF is an acronym that stands for "Bones And Raw Food." In this diet, the pet is fed raw bones, raw meat, raw vegetables, and a carbohydrate source such as rice. The concept is simple: since the wild relatives of our pets eat raw meat, and they seemed to be "healthier" than our domesticated dogs and cats, that is what our pets should eat. This diet has been fed to many pets with little harm, produces great looking animals, and problems are quite rare. Let's take an objective look at many of the claims made by proponents of this diet.

1. Our Pets Should Eat What Their Wild Ancestors Eat.

While it is true that the wild ancestors eat raw, freshly killed foods, our pets are not wild animals but rather domestic relatives of wild animals. That doesn't mean we can't feed them a similar diet, only that we keep in mind that we are talking about totally different groups of animals with different lifestyles, exercise patterns, and health concerns.

2. Raw Meat Is Safe For Our Pets; Wild Animals Suffer No Ill Effects From Raw Meat.

Whether or not raw meat is safe is debatable, although most pet owners and holistic veterinarians report no obvious health problems in pets fed raw meat. Conversely, many owners and doctors report healthier looking coats and skin, less itching, less arthritis, and general overall health improvement once pets are slowly switched from processed food and fed raw homemade diets. There are health concerns with feeding raw meat, including parasites and bacterial contamination. These are discussed at length further along in this discussion.

To say that wild animals suffer no ill effects from eating raw meat is ignorant and presupposes we know everything that happens to every wild animal. While most wild animals thrive on their diets (as would be expected) we also know that wild prey (rabbits, rodents, etc.) carry parasites (which are obviously transmitted to wild animal predator relatives of our pets who eat the infected prey) and that any infected meat could certainly cause illness in a wild animal. Unfortunately we don't have any studies showing the effects of what happens when the wild relatives of our dogs and cats eat this infected prey.

3. Animals Are More Acidic Compared To People. That Is Why They Don't Get Sick Eating Raw Meat.

It isn't clear what this statement means, or how someone could even measure a pet's "acidity." We can only assume that those who make this statement somehow assume that the "acid" in the pet's body or stomach in some way can detoxify anything bad in the diet. While it is true that wild animals have adapted to their diets, this in no way means that they are immune to problems associated with the diet. For example, if a wild animal were only able to eat the muscle meat on the prey as the sole dietary ingredient, that animal would develop calcium deficiency. If the meat were rancid and infected with bacteria, the animal could certainly develop food poisoning (as often happens with our own pets that get into and eat raw garbage.) Meat infected with parasites can be eaten by animals and will result in the animal becoming infected with the parasites. So this statement concerning acidity just doesn't hold up.

4. Raw Meat Is Safe For Our Pets. Their Systems Are Designed To Handle Any Problems With The Meat.

This all depends what is meant by "safe." Certainly raw meat that was raised free of chemicals and hormones, and that isn't infected with bacteria or parasites is safe. There are many strains of resistant bacteria that are more prevalent today; food safety should be a major concern among pet owners. A recent report mentioned a resistant strain of Camphylobacter jejuni bacterium that was highly prevalent in chicken, which is the main recommended raw food. While many dogs and cats may be able to handle the bacterial load of the BARF program, some, especially those not already in good health may not, resulting in the potential for serious consequences. There are reports of supposedly healthy pets doing fine on diets like the BARF diet who then develop illness (such as Salmonella-induced diarrhea) when the owner feeds raw chicken from another supplier or from a contaminated source. Switching the pet to a better source (non-contaminated source) of meat then clears up the problem. Most holistic veterinarians believe that some dogs and cats can tolerate exposure to low levels of pathogens that may occur in some uncooked meat (and in today's world there will probably always be some) and others cannot, depending on their own health status.

One area of disagreement concerns the feeding of raw meat to pets with illness (such as immune problems like cancer.) While some people feel that these severely ill pets are most likely the ones who need the additional nutrition found in raw food, others prefer not to feed raw food to these pets as their immune systems are suppressed and are less likely to fight off any infectious organisms that may be found in the food. This issue should be thoroughly discussed with your veterinarian before feeding any ill pet raw meat diets.

Owners who choose to feed raw meat must do all they can to ensure that this meat is "safe" and free from pesticide, chemical, and hormonal residues as well as parasite ova (eggs.) Proper handling of the meat is needed to ensure that it stays "safe" at home (most food poisoning results from improper handling at home rather than a problem with the actual source of the meat itself.)

When pet owners say that animals can handle problems with raw meat, they seem to mean that the digestive tracts and immune systems of our pets (and wild animals) can eliminate any infections or parasites before they cause problems for the animals. While it is true that a healthy pet is less likely to become ill, and that a healthy animal is less likely to develop disease when infected with parasites (although this depends upon the parasite and the number of parasites infecting the animal,) raw meat can still make an animal sick (although when following the guidelines listed below this is highly unlikely and may be a risk you are willing to assume.)

What seems quite interesting is the recommendation made by proponents of feeding raw meat that it is acceptable to feed raw meat to pets EXCEPT raw pork or raw wild meat (venison, rabbit, etc.) The reason for this warning (which many veterinarians do agree with by the way) is that these meats are more likely to harbor parasites than beef or lamb. However, this warning seems contradictory: if our pets "can handle" raw meat because of their "acidity" and their immune systems, why couldn't they "handle" the parasites present in any raw meat, even pork or wild game? To many doctors this is an obvious discrepancy which discredits the argument about raw meat being "totally safe" for pets.

5. Feeding Bones Is Safe For Pets.

Once again we need to define safe. Most pets eating raw bones do not die, develop impactions of the digestive tract, fracture teeth, or develop any other problems. Still some do, as most veterinarians will attest. Some proponents state that only cooked bones, which are softer than raw uncooked bones, are likely to splinter and cause problems. Other suggestions include smashing them with a hammer first, so they are in smaller pieces that should pass easily (of course even small pieces can potentially cut the delicate intestinal mucosal lining or become lodged somewhere, unless the pieces are ground into a bone powder.) Another suggestion is to grind up chicken and bones into a homemade meal for the pet. While this loses some of the dental benefits seen in pets eating whole bones, it gains some safety and adds usefulness for toothless patients.

Once again the choice about feeding any bones is left up to your discretion after a thorough discussion with your holistic veterinarian.

6. The Barf Diet, Since It Is The Same Food Wild Animals Eat, Is Balanced For A Pet's Nutritional Needs.

While a properly balanced diet is the basis of any health program for pets, there has been some concerned expressed about using the basic BARF diet for each and every pet. Each pet is different, and each pet has his own nutritional needs in times of health as well as times of illness. Regarding the basic BARF diet, the daily ration has about 6900 kcals/kg on a dry basis, has higher levels of calcium and phosphorus recommended by most nutritionists for growth, and contains high levels of fat. A recent study found some raw food diets unbalanced in vitamins and minerals. There is also some question regarding the bioavailability of essential vitamins and minerals.

Still, many pets do well on this diet, especially when the diet is properly supplemented. Supplementing and formulating the diet for your pet's needs (by working with your veterinarian) can be a viable alternative to most commercial processed foods.

Here are some additional concerns and problems expressed by holistic veterinarians who have seen some problems with the BARF diet.

Fractured teeth have been seen in dogs eating bones. Commonly, the fourth premolars, the large upper cheek teeth that do a lot of the grinding of food, are the ones most commonly broken. The fractures occur more frequently when pets eat bones that have the shaft chewed or broken longitudinally; this broken piece of bone can act as a wedge and causes a lateral slab fracture of the fourth premolar. Additionally broken bones can lodge into the hard palate in between the teeth. Removal of this piece of bone would require anesthesia. One suggestion to minimize fractured teeth and lodged bones is to supervised bone chewing by the pet, discarding the bone after the "knuckle" part (the soft part) is chewed off.

It is suggested that feeding raw bones (rather than cooked bones) be fed to dogs and cats. The raw bones are softer than cooked bones and less likely to break apart, causing problems. While raw bones are not as hard as dry bones or cow hooves, there have been reports of dogs that were fed a raw diet similar to the BARF diet, in which it was reported a significantly higher level of tooth fractures than on a "normal" diet.

Other reported problems seen in dogs eating the BARF diet include: eclampsia (low blood calcium following delivery of puppies;) pancreatitis (from eating a lot of fatty bone marrow;) intestinal perforations (punctured holes in the intestines from the sharp edges of the bones;) iron-deficiency anemia associated with puppy deaths; "rage" syndrome in a dog whose rectum whose impacted with small, sharp pieces of bone (the "rage" resolved after the bones were removed and the bones were eliminated from the diet;) straining to defecate due to obstruction by bones; fever and toxemia; and death in pets with deficient immune systems (possibly due to bacterial contamination and toxemia.)


While some of these concerns are obviously serious health problems, most pet owners report no problems when feeding their pets raw bones and raw diets. It appears that the following cautions are in order to minimize the possibility of any side effects that can occur when feeding bones as part of the BARF diet:

1. Moderation is important; bones should be a small part of the diet, and veterinary supervision is critical in converting a pet to the BARF diet or any diet that is new to the pet.

2. Raw meaty smaller bones (chicken wings and necks) are less likely to cause problems than larger, cooked bones. It appears that most problems occur when meaty bones are not used or when mainly beef bones are used.

3. The diet should be balanced with fibrous vegetables to increase bulk and encourage movement of the bones through the intestinal tract.

While it may seem that the evidence suggests pets should not eat raw meat or bones, that is not necessarily the case. There are anecdotal reports (and some "feeling" among pet owners and holistic veterinarians) that pets eating raw foods look better and are healthier than pets eating cooked foods. There are no real good current studies comparing "health" of pets eating raw versus cooked foods, nor do we have any studies comparing the safety of either diet. From personal experiences most doctors would say that many of their clients feed raw meat and bones and have not reported any problems in their pets.

In the final analysis the choice will be left up to the owner. Regardless of how you choose to feed your pet, it is important to properly supplement your pet's diet to prevent deficiencies and ensure maximum health.

For now, here are some helpful hints for those who choose homemade natural diets.

1. While holistic purists often recommend feeding the diets raw (uncooked), and while many of these doctors have not had problems with food poisoning as a result of their recommendations, owners would be wise to be concerned about the possibility of infection from raw meat. The bacteria of immediate concern are E. coli and Salmonella. Stories exist in the media about human illness and death from both of these organisms. E. coli seems to be of most concern from beef, whereas Salmonella seems to occur mostly as a result of ingestion of poultry products (raw chicken, turkey, and eggs). Most homemade diets use beef or poultry as the main protein source; lamb, venison, or rabbit can be used but I would prefer to reserve these protein sources for those pets that have medically confirmed food allergies. Pork, venison, and rabbit should definitely be cooked (and I would be inclined to cook ANY meat in a pet's diet). For owners who choose to feed raw meat, it would be wise to choose only animal meat that was raised "naturally" (without antibiotics or hormones), thoroughly wash the meat at home, and maybe even prepare the meat by grinding it at home (to prevent cross-contamination with other foods at the local grocery or butcher shop). A veterinarian should evaluate any signs of illness as a result of feeding raw meat diets at once.

2. A better alternative would be to feed the meat and carbohydrate source cooked and the other dietary constituents (vegetables) raw or lightly cooked.

3. Dietary deficiencies and toxicities (mainly vitamins and minerals) are more common with homemade diets. Careful attention to proper preparation is critical to prevent both vitamin and mineral deficiencies and excesses. Multi-vitamin and mineral preparations designed for pets should be used to help balance the diet (I recomenend PetCentRx dog supplements and cat supplements to my clients). Calcium and phosphorus can be added in the form of bonemeal or calcium tablets (gluconate, carbonate, or the lactate forms are acceptable).

4. For owners who choose not to prepare a diet at home but prefer a commercially prepared diet that is close to natural, read the label to check for quality of ingredients (fresh meat or animal by-products) and lack of additives (look for natural antioxidants such as vitamin E and vitamin C and a lack of artificial coloring and flavoring). Order the special report DO YOU REALLY KNOW WHAT YOUR PET ATE LAST NIGHT?? READING AND UNDERSTANDING A PET FOOD LABEL to learn how to read a pet food label and see what’s really in the food you feed your pet. Supplementation with natural products such as the PetCentRx “Vim & Vigor” Formula for dogs or cats are often helpful to replace ingredients that may be lost during processing.

When switching from a lower quality food to a more natural diet (either cooked or especially raw,) it may take some time to get your pet to accept the new diet. Additionally, it will take some time (usually 4-8 weeks) for the new diet to work and see any positive effects in your pet (more energy, shinier coat, healthier skin, decreased allergies or arthritis) as the body detoxifies itself. There is a secret to switching your dog or cat to a new, healthier diet. Switching to the new food overnight may cause vomiting or diarrhea in a few dogs or cats; some pets are finicky and may not eat a new diet that is suddenly introduced.

The best way to offer your pet a new diet is by gradually introducing it to the pet. When you have about a week's worth if the old diet remaining, purchase or prepare the new, healthier diet. Add about 10% of the new diet each day, gradually adding more until you run out of the old food and the pet is eating only the new diet. This trick usually prevents upset tummies and eases the transition to the new food.

About Pet-Togethers

Pet-Togethers is a companion care company devoted to improving the lives of pets and those who care for them. Their veterinarian-recommended PetCentRx Vim & Vigor wellness formula is a highly nutritious supplement that’s giving new life to dogs and cats around the globe. Visit www.petcentrx.com today for more information.

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