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There's been a rumor going around for a few years now that commercial raw diets aren't balanced. I watched a Facebook Live a while back that was of a presentation calling out raw food brands and I immediately started microwaving popcorn, waiting for the lawsuits because…DAMN!
I've been feeding raw for more than eight years and while I don't buy into the theory that commercial raw diets aren't balanced, I wonder if the finger pointing had a certain type of brand in mind – 80/10/10 or if there is something I'm missing, because…
- I want to to get what I pay for.
- My dogs count on me to do what's right by them.
- I'm trying to do the best for my dogs.
Before we dive into balancing a commercial raw diet, I want to share how I define a commercial raw diet.
What's a Commercial Raw Diet?
When I think of a commercial raw diet, I think of raw dog food that is formulated by a brand and sold through pet stores, through raw food co-ops, or directly to customers. Examples of commercial raw diets that I purchase (or have purchased) include:
- Darwin's Natural Pet Food
- Raw Paws Pet Food
- Columbia River Pet Food
- Wild Coast Raw
- Answers Pet Food
- Northwest Naturals (white fish and salmon)
Out of my short list of commercial raw brands, two require additional steps to create a “balanced” diet. The other diets label themselves as nutritionally complete, which some people think isn't accurate.
Shedding Light on the “Balance” Police
There are many well-meaning raw feeders who stress “balance” over everything else in raw feeding. Many times, I've seen raw food advocates tell people to feed kibble because, in their eyes, there is only one way to feed raw (their way) and if you won't jump in line, the you may as well feed kibble because at least it's balanced. #TrueStory
Excuse me while I take a five minute break to roll my eyes at that last part.
Balance According to Whom?
Whenever I see people promoting “balance” above all else, I tend to dismiss what they have to say because of one question a friend (and owner of a raw food brand) posed to me years ago – “Balance according to whom?”
Some people balance to NRC, some balance to AAFCO standards (which is bizarre), and some balance to FEDIEF. While all of these are a great start, no one can claim that any of them are perfect for all dogs. When were these standards created? What criteria was used to create these standards? Do they apply to raw feeding or just processed diets?
I balance over time because I think this is the easiest and most accurate way to make sure my dogs are eating a nutritionally complete diet. Yes, this can be problematic too, but the way I do it works for my dogs. More on that later.
Who is Qualified to Tell Us How to Feed Our Dogs?
Another issue I have with the Balance Police is their qualifications. Most of the people lecturing others on “balance” have zero background or certification in animal nutrition. And a certification from an online magazine doesn't qualify someone to tell others how to feed their dogs. #NoShade
There is a growing number of people taking online animal nutrition courses and using that education to offer meal formulation services. This is great for new raw feeders, if you bring home a new dog, or if you just want to test out your DIY recipes. The only downside to meal formulators is that they have zero experience with my dogs. So, while I can use their services, it's important for me to remember to continue educating myself to better apply what I'm learning to my individual dogs.
Feed the Dog in Front of You
I say this all the time, even to myself. I can't remember who gave me this advice, but I do remember that this was the day when I stopped stressing about raw feeding. By focusing on my dogs, I can filter through the abundance of information that comes our way via social media and other sources. When Dogs Naturally Magazine told us to balance or fats, I learned that this didn't apply to me because I alternate a variety of proteins, which balances the fats for me. By focusing on my dogs, I saved myself money (didn't need to buy different oils), time, and stress.
So, now let's talk commercial raw diets.
5 Reasons Why Commercial Raw Diets Aren't Balanced
When I see people saying that commercial raw diets aren't balanced, my kneejerk reaction is to argue. Ummm, yeah they are??? But are they? When I think of Darwin's Natural Pet Products and Wild Coast Raw, two local raw food companies, I know that they are nutritionally complete. However, Columbia River, GreenTripe.com, and my local farms aren't offering nutritionally complete diets and this is how I know.
1 – Some Products are Based on 80/10/10
There are commercial raw diets that are based on 80% muscle meat, 10% bone, and 10% organ meat. I think we collectively decided that 80/10/10 isn't a balanced diet five years ago (or at least that's when I figured this out). So these diets should be labeled “for supplemental feeding” in my opinion.
2 – Some Products are for Supplemental Feeding
Products that are labeled for supplemental feeding are whole food supplements like sardine chubs, vegetable blends, or green tripe. These are foods that are beneficial and, in my opinion, should be in our dogs' diet, but our dogs can't thrive on sardines alone.
3 – Some Products are Made By Inexperienced Raw Feeders
I've been interviewed by several aspiring business owners who planned to launch a raw food brand. Many are working with a veterinarian and/or pet food formulator while a few are making it out of their kitchen and selling it to friends. It's the later group that raises questions about the food and if it's nutritionally complete.
4 – Some Brands are Honest About Their Ingredients (Allegedly)
Remember when a canned food/kibble brand got caught mislabeling their food? If I recall correctly, the can said beef, but the food was horse meat. Well, that sucked and there are some raw food brands doing the same, allegedly. A friend of mine had food she purchased for her dog tested and the brand was feeding chicken, but labeling each product as a different protein.
My heart breaks for the poor dogs that are allergic to chicken.
5 – Some People are Only Feeding One Protein
So, this one isn't on the brand, it's on the dog owner. While you can choose a food that is nutritionally complete and stick to that brand while only feeding the chicken, for example. While I believe that this is fine in the short run, I question if there could be deficiencies in the long run. Each protein brings a different set of nutrients to the bowl and by feeding variety, alternating between two proteins or ten, allows our dogs to get everything they need in their diet.
How to Determine if a Commercial Raw Diet is Balanced
While no individual raw food diet is going to be perfectly balanced for each individual dog, for this blog post, let's say that most are 95% balanced.
When I' m considering a commercial raw diet, one thing I ask is if there is anything I need to add to the bowl. The following are five examples of raw food brands to show you the difference between supplemental feeding and nutritionally complete.
Darwin's Natural Pet Food – Duck
Antibiotic-Free Meat (74.16%): Whole Duck (including bone), Duck Heads (including bone), Duck Necks (including bone), Duck Gizzards, Duck Livers, and Duck Hearts. Organic Vegetables (24.64%): Sweet Potato, Lettuce, Squash (seasonal), Carrots, Celery, and Parsley. Special Nutrient Mix (1.20%): Organic Sunflower Seed Oil, Fish Oil, Proprietary Vitamin and Mineral Mix.
Wild Coast Raw – Duck
Whole Cleaned Duck (including bone), Turkey Gizzard, Duck Liver, Organic Carrots, Organic Zucchini, Organic Apples, Organic Kale, Organic Parsley, Cod Liver Oil, Kelp, Vitamin E Supplement. Meets AAFCO requirements for adult maintenance.
Columbia River – Duck
Ground Duck, Duck Heart, Duck Liver, Duck Bone.
Columbia River – Duck with Veggies
80% Ground Duck, Duck Heart, Duck Liver and Duck Bone. 20% Fresh Frozen Veggies (Broccoli, Cabbage, Squash, Parsley, Carrots, Sprouts, Spinach and Kale).
Comparing Ingredients of Commercial Raw Brands
When I'm comparing ingredients of raw dog food brands, I'm looking for a statement that tells me that the food is “balanced” or I'm looking for a nutrient mix, which would be used to achieve “balance.” I happen to know that Darwin's has worked with professional diet formulators (Steve Brown and James Pendergast). And Wild Coast Raw states that their food meets AAFCO standards, however, I believe that their food far surpasses AAFCO standards.
Unlike Darwin's Pet and Wild Coast Raw, Columbia River states that it's for intermittent or supplement feeding. This let's me know that the food will not meet my dogs' nutritional needs on it's own. I need to add ingredients to achieve “balance.”
How to Balance a Commercial Raw Food Diet
Darwin's Pet and Wild Coast Raw
When I feed Darwin's Pet or Wild Coast Raw to my dogs, I may add sardines, fermented fish stock, a raw egg, or duck feet to the bowl – it's not necessary because I can feed the food on it's own and meet my dogs' nutritional needs, but I prefer variety, which is why I reduce the amount of raw dog food to make room for other ingredients. I do this because…
- variety is good – different foods bring different nutrients to the bowl
- enrichment – my dogs enjoy crunching on foods (duck feet, quail, etc.)
- saves money – adding other nutritious foods reduces the amount of raw dog food I'm feeding in a meal, which makes it last longer
But doesn't adding foods take the diet out of “balance?” Yeah, yes it does. But by how much? And, over time, I believe that my dogs' diet is nutritionally complete.
Columbia River Pets
When I feed Columbia River Pets to my dogs, I have to do meal prep first to create a nutritionally complete meal and it's very easy. The following are the ingredients I add and have been proven through nutrient testing to work for my dogs.
For every three chubs (6 lbs) of Columbia River Pets duck recipe…
- hydrate and mix in 1 cup of Dr. Harvey's Paradigm
- add 2 lbs of GreenTripe.com organ blend
- add 1 can of oysters (optional)
I also add the following, not for “balance,” but for additional support now that we have three senior dogs in the house:
- add 3 tablespoons of green lipped mussel powder – Omega 3 fatty acids, joint support, arthritis
- add 1 tablespoon of chia seeds – heart, skin/coat, immune system, joints, cognitive
- add 2 tablespoons of hemp seeds – gut, heart health, skin/coat
Other Raw Foods that are Intended for Supplemental Feeding
I hope that the examples I shared above make it clear what I'm looking for when working with raw dog food. To be honest, I prefer to buy foods that are for supplemental feeding because they're less expensive, they allow me to save time during meal prep, and they're easy to “balance.”
Other foods (that I feed) that fall into Supplemental Feeding category include:
- green tripe and green tripe blends
- ground sardines, mackerel
- single protein foods (pork, venison, emu, etc.) where it's muscle meat only
While whole ground rabbit is fed as a balanced diet for pets (based on prey model theories),
What if the Packaging isn't Clear?
If you're feeding a brand and it's not clear if it's nutritionally complete or intended for supplemental feeding only – call the brand and ask?
There are brands that will not tell you specifically (by amounts) what's in their food and, to me, this is reasonable. Brands will give you a list of ingredients, but not tell you the grams/ounces of each ingredient, siting proprietary blends. Some feel that this smacks of a lack of transparency, while others think this is good business. I wouldn't race to share a recipe blend that I paid thousands to have formulated to every random person who asks (including my competitors). But that's just me.
Ultimately, each pet parent needs to determine what's important to them. If you need to know every ingredient (amount, sourcing, etc.) in the food that you buy, then you should purchase from brands that openly share this information. And if you find that you're more interested in determining if there is an ingredient that your dog can't eat, then that's when you contact the brand.
Either way, if you're not getting what you need from a brand, simply switch to another brand. With this growing community and the raw pet food industry, many pet parents have several brands to choose from, including DIY raw feeding.