What is a Raw Food Diet for Dogs (Including Senior Dog Diets)
Just like human beings, dogs require a balanced diet for good health and general well being. Pet owners should be aware of their pet’s nutritional needs to know the best diet that suits them best. Dogs have a short digestive system and are omnivorous (eat both meat and plants) by nature.
A dog’s diet should essentially contain quality and easily digestible ingredients. Their general diet should include minerals, vitamins, essential amino acids from proteins and essential fatty acids e.g. Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.
A dog’s digestive tract is not adapted to digest carbohydrates. They lack the enzyme amylase found in saliva to digest it. This puts a strain on the pancreas responsible for the digestion of carbohydrates and the production of insulin essential for sugar metabolism. Grains and vegetables, on the other hand, have to be cooked, minced or juiced to increase digestibility.
A well-balanced diet is essential to run the body physiological needs, provide energy, growth, and repair of tissues as well as increase immunity. The diet chosen should also match the dog’s life stage as each stage requires special nutritional needs. When talking about life stages we are referring to puppyhood, adolescent, adult, geriatric and pregnancy stages. Neutered, indoor or senior dogs may require low-calorie foods as they are less athletic.
Feeding Senior Dogs
Large breed dogs tend to age faster as compared to small breed dogs. At the age of 5 to 6 years a large breed dog is termed as a senior. At 7 to 8 years of age, small breed dogs are considered seniors.
Senior dogs go through both physical and physiological changes as they age. Consequently, their diet should focus on addressing common health problems common in this age group such as:
- Vision problems
- Skin problems
- Weight loss or gain
- Dental problems i.e. bad breathe, periodontal disease
Diets specifically formulated for senior dogs usually differ from those for regular dogs in a variety of ways. These include:
- Contain joint supplements: Senior dogs are prone to arthritis and other joint degenerative diseases. Glucosamine, Chondroitin and Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to help in the regeneration of bone cartilage and relieve arthritic symptoms such as joint stiffness, pain, etc.
- High digestibility: Senior dogs are prone to digestion related problems such as colitis, pancreatitis, etc. Fatty foods, as well as those rich in grains, should be avoided.
Foods with soft texture as well as those fortified with citric acid or probiotics are recommended for dogs with few teeth and improve oral health.
- Nutrient adjustment: Senior dogs need food high in proteins as they lose significant muscle mass as they age. Amino acids help to repair and grow new muscle. Low-fat diets are also popular as senior dogs are less active, have a lower metabolic rate and are at a high risk of obesity. High fiber diets also help in bowel movement and also provide food for bacteria in the gut to ferment.
- Diabetic dogs should be put on high fiber low-calorie foods while those at risk of heart diseases should be put on a low sodium diet.
- Behavioral changes or memory loss: Food rich in antioxidants, medium-chain triglycerides, fish oil help to reduce the effects of these changes.
- Treats should also be healthy, low in fat and sodium. Vegetables and fruits such as carrots and apple slices offer good and healthy alternatives to bones and milk biscuits.
- Water should also be constantly available as their body’s ability to maintain water balance is decreased as they get older.
Raw Diet for Senior Dogs
Raw diet formulations are rising in popularity over recent years. This stems back in history where canine used to live off a raw diet before being domesticated.
A raw diet mainly consist of raw meats, bones, fruits, and vegetables.
Various benefits have been associated with raw diets. These include:
- A shinier coat
- Healthier skin
- Higher energy levels
- Cleaner teeth snd reduced mouth odor
- Smaller stools
Raw diets are also rich in antioxidants such as Vitamin E, C and A which are usually denatured when foods are processed. Antioxidants not only boost immunity, but they also get rid of free radicals that injure body cells and cause cancer especially ion senior dogs.
On the flip side, some veterinarians, as well as the FDA, have linked raw diet formulations with various risks including:
- Risk of acquiring bacteria infections through consumption of uncooked food
- Intake of an unbalanced diet
- Risk of choking, broken teeth and internal puncture through feeding bones
- Risk of poisoning resulting from consumption of toxins contained in raw foods e.g. vegetables
Nutritional deficiency is quite common in raw diets. For example, homemade raw diets may be deficient in calcium and phosphorous predisposing senior dogs to fractures due to weak bones as well as dental problems. The quality of the raw diet is also hard to determine especially if homemade. Some nutrients are also harder to digest and be simulated into the body in their raw form e.g. calcium which may also lead to deficiency. Some raw diets may also contain high levels of certain nutrients which may turn toxic. E.g Vitamin A.
Pet owners are usually advised to consult with a veterinary nutritionist and veterinarians before embarking on a raw diet for their senior pets. Pre-existing medical conditions may require specific nutritional needs as well as avoiding an excess of some nutrients. High protein diets in senior dogs with late-stage kidney or liver failure can put an extra strain on the organs. High-fat diets can turn disastrous in pets with digestive problems or those suffering from pancreatitis.
The risk of bacterial contamination is also very high in raw diets. Uncooked meat and vegetables usually carry high levels of bacteria, especially if not handled hygienically. A study done in 2006 on 20 raw food diets reported 7.1% contained salmonella while 59.6% contained E.coli bacteria. These bacteria are not only hazardous to animals but can also be transmitted to humans leading to serious gastrointestinal infections.
Raw food diets include commercially processed raw food diets, frozen food, freeze-dried foods as well as a combination of diets that include a blend of grains, vegetables, and vitamins that are mixed with raw meat purchased by the owner at the grocery store.
A basic raw food diet comprises of:
- Raw meat mostly on the bone
- Bones either ground or whole
- Raw eggs
- Vegetables e.g. carrots. Broccoli, spinach
- Fruits e.g. apples
- Organ meats such as liver, kidneys
- Some dairy products e.g. yogurt
Raw Diet for Beginners
As stated above when planning to introduce a raw diet to your pets, it best to switch to home-cooked meals prior to facilitate a smooth transition. Adding probiotics to the diet prior to introducing a new diet helps to introduce good gut flora which helps to prevent or reduce the severity of diarrhea. This should be followed by slowly and gradually adding raw pieces of food into the diet as you decrease portions of the previous diet.
This will help prevent gastrointestinal disturbances which accompany a sudden change in diet. Soft poop or diarrhea, vomiting are commonly observed during the transition as the gut gets used to the new diet. It is also advised to start with easily digestible meats or proteins such as chicken at least until the stool is back to normal and progress to beef or rabbit meat.
It may take a while, especially for seniors to adjust especially if transitioning from commercially processed foods due to the high sodium and starch that their taste buds have been accustomed to. One can also opt to use canned food, baby food, tuna, yogurt, or broth as mix-ins and top dressings to aid in the conversion.
Adding blended vegetables at the start is also essential in promoting gut movement and is also a good option for treats. Blending also helps to release nutrients, therefore, faster absorption. This may include baby carrots or fruits such as bananas.
For diabetic dogs, treats with a low glycemic index are preferred e.g. green beans. For those with cancer, food choices low in sugar and high in antioxidants are best suited e.g. kales, broccoli. High fiber low-calorie diets are best suited for obese pets.
Usingstainless steel bowls also helps to prevent infection as plastic bowls harborbacteria. Water should also provide ad-lib to help in digestion as well as keeppets hydrated especially in senior pets with kidney failure.
Senior pets almost always have dental problems or tooth loss. It is important to consider the texture of the food you are serving making sure it suits their oral needs. A ground or blended diet is suitable in such cases.
This refers to fresh uncooked food in which moisture has been removed to extend shelf life without reducing or compromising the nutritional value. Microorganisms require water or moisture to survive, therefore this prevents food from rotting and safe for consumption. There is usually no heat application in this process but the moisture content is removed. Most companies manufacturing these types of food use high-quality ingredients with organs and vegetables being the choice ingredients.
Freeze-dried foods are normally packed in temperature-controlled material and form a good alternative to homemade raw diets especially when traveling. Freshwater is usually to the food returning it back to normal before drying when serving. This also ensures most ingredients maintain their flavor making it easily palatable to most dogs.
The downside to this type of raw diet is its high price point. The use of high-quality ingredients as well as the process of preparation makes them more of a high-calorie treat or used during travel or emergency cases when one has run out of homemade food. They also often used as a topper together with more affordable foods.
Freeze-dried Food vs Dehydrated Food
Thoughboth are made from raw ingredients, dehydrated food is usually passed through alow-temperature environment for a period of time. The water contained in theingredients is slowly changed into a gaseous state. Due to the heating process,most nutrients go through structural changes losing some of their nutritionalvalue, flavor, and aroma. Dehydrated rawfood contains less moisture (90%) compared to freeze-dried food and thereforerehydrates slower when water is added. They tend to also be more leathery anddense once water is added.
Onthe other hand, freeze-dried foods are frozen raw ingredients that are placedin a low atmospheric pressure environment which causes the ice to sublimate togas directly. No heat is applied during this process. They contain 99% moistureand rehydrate soon as water is added to the food. Due to no heat applicationduring processing, freeze-dried food contains more aroma and flavor compared todehydrated food. This also helps to maintain the nutritional value of theingredients used.
When purchasing freeze-dried or dehydrated foods, consider choosing:
- Foods with a high amount of omega fatty acids. This includes foods containing salmon, flaxseeds, etc.
- Foods high in fiber and rich in antioxidants e.g. cranberries, blackberries, blueberries, spinach, parsley, and carrots.
- Avoid food containing artificial flavors, colors or additives as they can trigger allergies.
- Always go for foods containing high-quality ingredients manufactured from countries with high safety and quality control standards. They may, however, be expensive.
Refrigerated Dog Food
Refrigeration helps to keep stored raw food fresh and safe for consumption for a period oftime. This is usually at temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This helpsto prevent bacterial growth and replication. Freezer temperature however shouldalso be at zero degrees Fahrenheit.
After thawing a portion of raw food it is advisable to refrigerate the remaining portion immediately to prevent bacterial growth. It is advised to separate meats from other foods to prevent cross-contamination. Airtight containers should also be used during storage.
Before serving always lookout for signs of spoilage such as:
- Food appearing frostbitten and crackling on the surface
- Mold spores growing on the surface of the food container
- Presence of foul or rancid odor
Discardfood that has been left out of the refrigerator for over 24 hours or storedfor an extended period of time in a malfunctioning fridge.
Rawdiets offer various benefits to senior dogs. They are not only high in nutritional value but also boost immunity, give a shinier coat, cleaner teethetc. However it can be time consuming and has the risk of not offering abalanced diet.
Pet owners should seek advice from an animal nutritionist or veterinarians before embarking on a raw diet. This will help to match their pet’s nutritional needs, especially in sickly dogs. Supplements are also a valuable addition to raw diets more so in senior dogs.
Dr. Maureen is a qualified and registered veterinary surgeon and an epidemiologist. With over 6 years of experience in Veterinary Medicine as well as 4 years of experience as a researcher, Maureen provides informative and well researched articles.