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Over the past year or so, I've noticed a line drawn in the sand within the raw feeding community, and the ever-widening divide is because of one word, “Balance.” Veterinarians who are against raw feeding give the reason as it's not a balanced diet. Many leaders in the raw feeding community believe that most commercial and DIY raw food diets for pets aren't balanced. And, in our attempt to attain balance, we've created several conflicting methods to balance our dogs' diet.
So, who is right?
I think everyone is right and in this blog post, I'm going to explain why I no longer feel offended when someone tells me that I'm not feeding a balanced diet. Let's explore the many ways we can balance our dogs' raw diets.
Balancing Raw Diets Aren't Complicated
If you're new to raw feeding, this blog post may seem daunting and you may be tempted to click away. Please stick around. It took me years to get to a place where I could feed my dogs a diet without giving much thought to the ingredients. The confidence I have today wasn't there when I started feeding raw. My confidence was gained by continually learning about raw feeding.
The point of this blog post is to share my thoughts on the growing divide when it comes to balance. Some say “do it my way or go back to feeding kibble,” while others say “just alternate between chicken and beef and your dog will be fine.” I believe that everyone has the best of intentions. One group wants to help you raise a healthier dog. Another group wants to take away the pressure and confusion that comes to embracing the science of dog nutrition.
Whichever side you choose to follow, know that the path to learning how to feed your dog a balanced raw diet is a marathon, not a sprint. As long as you're open to learning, then you'll do fine.
What is Balance?
When it comes to raw feeding, I've always thought of “balance” as a way to make sure my dogs are getting all of the nutrients they need daily and over time. During my tenure as a dog nutrition blogger and author, I've believed that balance could be met through 80/10/10 (80% muscle meat, 10% bone, and 10% offal), by using a base mix, through variety, and by following NRC. After six years of feeding raw and educating myself about dog nutrition, I've concluded that there isn't a single RIGHT way to feed our dogs a raw diet because every dog is different and every pet parent has access to different foods/sources.
Balancing through Premade Raw
The easiest way to feed a balanced raw food diet to dogs is to feed a commercial, premade raw diet. If you shop through a reputable brand, then you know that they have done all of the work to formulate a balanced raw diet that will meet the nutritional needs of most dogs; I say most because every dog is different. Some raw brands are balancing to AAFCO while others work with an animal nutritionist to formulate a balanced diet for pets.
Yes yes yes, I know that it's tempting to reject balancing using AAFCO standards because it's what is used to formulate kibble diets and it's based on a limited study of feeding kibble to pets. However, it's essential to take a step back and accept that until there is a standard for raw fed pets, AAFCO is one of a few standards we have to use. I have the same question that crosses the mind of many others: “are premade raw meals formulated based on AAFCO standards really balanced?”
There are two downsides to depending on commercial raw diets to provide balanced nutrition for our pets.
1 – Commercial premade raw is expensive. I don't know many people who can afford to feed 100% premade raw to their pets.
2 – With the growing popularity of raw feeding, we're seeing a lot of raw food brands entering the market and my concern is that a few may cut corners nutritionally and with sourcing.
Balance through Base Mixes
When I switched to DIY raw feeding, I failed miserably because I had no idea what I was doing, so I switched to using a base mix with the belief that all I had to do was add muscle meat and the base mix would balance out the meal. Today, this logic doesn't make much sense to me because each protein comes with a different set of nutrients, so how can one base mix be a good fit for each protein unless the serving recommendations are based on protein instead of the size of the dog.
While I still use base mixes when feeding my dogs, I don't use them to balance out their diet. I use base mixes as an alternative to fermented vegetables and pureed vegetables. I personally believe that vegetables provide fiber, anti-oxidants, and additional nutrients to a dog's diet, which is why I'm consistent about this ingredient when I do meal prep.
Balancing Raw through 80/10/10
When I first began researching raw feeding, everywhere I looked, I saw the ratio 80/10/10. If you ask any experts or influencers in the community where 80/10/10 comes from, you won't get a clear answer because no one really knows. Call a few raw food brands and ask them if their formulation is based on 80/10/10 and I'll be shocked (and wary) if any of them say yes.
The idea of feeding our dogs based on an 80/10/10 ratio was an attempt to replicate the ancestral diet of dogs (or, feed what wolves would eat). The theory is that when looking at a prey animal, 80% is muscle meat, 10% is bone, and 10% is offal.
The problem with 80/10/10, as I see it now, is that this diet doesn't cover all of the nutrients our dogs need in their diet. Where are the Omega 3 fatty acids? The iodine? The choline? And this diet doesn't take into account that despite our dogs being descendant from wolves, they aren't wolves and need additional nutritional support due to their domestic lifestyle, high-stress environments, and exposure to toxins.
While 80/10/10 is a great start and a fantastic foundation for a raw diet, it's not, in my opinion, a balanced diet for dogs.
Balancing Raw through Variety
A few years into raw feeding, I began to repeatedly read that we can balance a raw food diet through variety. Want to make sure you're covering all the basis? Then alternate proteins weekly. But is this enough? And what about people who don't have access to a lot of variety or can't afford a lot of variety? Are their dogs doomed to eat an unbalanced raw diet?
As I understand it, feeding variety is vital when feeding raw, and a “variety” can be as little as three proteins (e.g. chicken, beef, and turkey) or a library of proteins. As I created my nutrient spreadsheet, I saw that all of the proteins and offal I added to my dogs' diet brought nutrients in different levels to the bowl. But that's not the only reason to feed variety.
- Feeding variety keeps raw feeding from getting boring for me. To be honest, I don't think my dogs care as long as they're getting fed.
- Feeding variety keeps my wallet in check because I can better budget when I have more options.
While feeding variety seems like the easiest way to cover everything our dogs need, if you don't have a clear understanding of what a dog needs nutritionally, you can still be missing key nutrients. I fed my dogs a diet that may have been low in zinc for years before I saw a recipe with oysters and asked: “Can dogs eat oysters?”
Balancing Raw Through NRC Guidelines
The NRC guide raw feeders often reference in raw feeding groups is a big red book that shares the nutritional requirements for dogs and cats and it's not a fun read (for me, anyway). This text covers how dogs and cats metabolize nutrients, explains how to spot nutrient deficiencies and identify disease caused by those deficiencies.
From what I read, the NRC was developed in the 80s and was updated in 2003. I like to keep this in mind whenever I'm tempted to hold tight to the myth that this is the only way to balance a raw food diet.
When it comes to the NRC and other sources used to formulate and balance commercial diets for pets, I have to ask myself a few questions:
- How many dogs were studied to determine what the average dog requires?
- What foods were fed to the dogs during this study? Kibble? Fresh food?
If the NRC is only based on a sample size of 50 dogs of the same breed, then is this appropriate data for all dogs? And if the NRC guidelines were developed based on a kibble diet, is it appropriate to use these guidelines to judge a raw food diet that we consider more nutritious? Especially if the kibble diet is low quality, moderate protein, and high carb food.
While I don't think the NRC is the be-all/end-all for balancing, I do know that we don't have a lot of resources and this is one of the best ones available if you know how to read it (or know someone who can translate it for you).
How I Balance My Dogs' Raw Diet
Regardless of anything that anyone says, I don't believe that there is one right way to balance a dog's raw food diet. To balance my dogs' diet, I follow three methods I mentioned in this blog post:
- 80/10/10 is the foundation of my dogs' raw food diet. I use the ratio to estimate what I need for ingredients when thawing food for meal prep and placing raw food orders.
- Variety is important because different proteins and other ingredients bring various nutrients to my dogs' diet. Variety does a better job covering what my dogs need.
- I use NRC guidelines (thank you, Destiny) to determine the nutrients each of my dogs need according to their weight, which helps me identify nutritional holes in their diet when I compare the data to what I'm feeding to my dogs. This step is minimal. I'm not calculating macro and micronutrients – I just maintain a spreadsheet that helps me see any nutritional holes in my dogs' diet.
In my opinion, individually, none of these methods will produce a balanced diet for my dogs. However, together I believe that they can get me closer to meeting their nutritional needs. The diet may not be perfect, but nothing ever is, and my dogs' diet is close.
Ultimately, we're all still learning and it's important to maintain an open mind when it comes to pet nutrition. I don't think anyone has the definitive answer on animal nutrition; but I think the more we study, research, and compare notes, the closer we'll get.