The decision on what to feed our canine children is a complex one. There are pet food companies shouting at you that, if you don’t feed their food, you don’t love your dog, and well-meaning others who want to convince you that anything commercial is taking the lazy way out. There are foods that are “all-natural” and foods with tasty bits to convince your finicky dog to eat. Just like feeding ourselves, it is very hard to sort out the truth from the marketing.
Prioritize nutritional needs. We all can agree that choosing the right food for life can be one of the biggest factors in longevity and quality of life. We also have to realize that just like human food, the best-tasting food is often not the most nutritious. Usually foods with “tasty bits” are sold to satisfy the human’s emotional needs more than the dog’s nutritional needs and are often the cause of obesity (a common killer of dogs).
Seek the advice of a professional. What “all-natural” really means is often anyone’s guess. To really choose the best food takes some research or requires finding someone knowledgeable who you really trust to advise what is right for your individual dog. This is not the salesman at the pet store who has only been informed by representatives from the food companies, and it shouldn’t be just some website that made sense to you. Typically, your veterinarian or a trained nutritionist (who can often be found and contacted on vet school websites) are the best resources to make decisions for your dog as an individual.
Debunking BARF. One type of food espoused by some well-meaning pet lovers is biologically available raw food (BARF). The idea of this approach is that raw food is closer to what a dog would eat in the wild. Unfortunately, dogs in the wild do not live very long, which, to me, is a flaw in their logic, but I try to consider all viewpoints on issues this important. From research as it stands now, there is no real evidence that there are any health benefits to eating raw meat. If, however, you do want to try it, make sure you do your research and do it the right way. With extreme choices such as raw food, there is no such thing as “I do mostly raw food”. Even proponents of the diet will tell you that there are risks if you don’t do it exactly right. In addition to finding organic food sources, you must balance the food with vegetables and other sources of micronutrients to meet all of your dog’s nutritional needs. Changing an adult dog to BARF too quickly can cause pancreatitis, so follow your vet’s instructions.
Carefully choose commercial dog food. Since most of us don’t have time to look for and properly prepare organic chicken, it is more sensible to find a high-quality commercial dog food that is preserved with vitamin E or other natural preservatives (eliminating chemicals and using high-quality meat instead of meat byproducts). These foods are formulated by trained nutritionist to be the best and help your dog live the longest, healthiest life possible; something that most of us are not trained to do.
Commonly, BARF is recommended for dogs with certain medical problems such as skin conditions or immune problems. Sometimes it helps, not because of any magic of raw food, but because the key ingredients to which the pet is sensitive are eliminated. This same thing can be accomplished with carefully chosen commercial foods, getting all the nutritional advantages of teams of nutritionists while avoiding the risks of parasitism, food poisoning, and skin problems.
Consider food allergy. Food allergy is a very common component of itchy skin in dogs. Chicken, beef, lamb, corn, soy, wheat, egg, and dairy products are common ingredients which induce these allergies, but, whether they are raw or cooked, the immune system looks at them the same. The key to choosing a food for skin problems is to pick one that does not include any of these ingredients, is preserved with vitamins, and preferably is supplemented with fatty acids (fish oils). Most large food companies now have their own versions of these foods. They are usually sold as prescription foods but are not significantly more expensive than over-the-counter foods of equivalent quality. Food allergies are the most common reason for dog owners to seek a dog food that is made from a consistent Limited Ingredient Diet or LID.
Recommendation: with the wealth of foods that are available to help many different conditions, the lack of evidence that raw food provides any advantages, and the potential risks of raw food, I can’t recommend that it is a good choice at this time. As research is done, we may one day find that there are advantages, but, for now, high-quality commercial food is the better choice.