Raw Food for Whiskey: Why we went the BARF route
Nearly 30 years later, "Give Your Dog a Bone" still the best Bones and Raw Food diet guide for dogs
Whiskey will feast for his 7th birthday on Sunday.
I’m going to cruise a butcher shop or two and see what I can come up with. He loves raw meat and bones and eats them every day—unless he’s having fruits, vegetables, and/or offal.
As we go in for his annual checkup and shots next week, our vet will likely comment again on his good condition, and ask if he is still on a raw-food diet. His vet has said he is not that familiar with these diets and is always interested in how Whiskey is doing. He encourages us to keep it up but has said that in his experience most people are not successful, make their dogs sick and/or give up.
Folks who find out about Whiskey’s diet always are curious. Questions seem to have increased as more and more people are interested in “natural” dog foods and store shelves have loaded up with grain-free and other “real” food offerings.
Mostly, people want to know why we started on it, if it’s horribly expensive and how much of a pain in the butt it becomes. I figure this blog and sharing some of Whiskey’s real everyday meals through the magic of TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube should do the trick, so subscribe and stay tuned.
My first jump into the “BARF diet”—bones and raw foods—came more than 20 years ago in Fairbanks, Alaska. Our female black Lab, Tag, had chronic ear infections, the kind that send boogers flying when the dog shakes her head.
We tried everything, including Science Diet foods for dogs with allergies, a salmon-based food that was popular with mushers—that made her smell like a rotting fish—and potato-based foods, plus a million lotions, washes and medications.
Worried that it had reached a point that her hearing might be harmed, our veterinarian sent us to a holistic vet outside North Pole, about 20 miles down the road from Fairbanks.
I’ll never forget walking into that roomy, single-story log cabin. The scent of patchouli oil and woodstove smoke mixed with smells characteristic of any veterinarian’s office met us at the door—along with the resident Vietnamese pot-bellied pig.
The vet was with another client across the room and she told me to let my dog off her leash so she could explore the place on her own and get comfortable with the surroundings before her exam.
Tag had never seen a pig before and strained against her leash.
“Let her off that leash, she’ll be fine,” she urged.
Not your typical veterinary office. Tag was more comfortable than me, if I’m honest.
She introduced us to the then relatively new, BARF diet and the book “Give Your Dog A Bone: The Practical Commonsense Way to Feed Dogs for a Long Life,” by Ian Billinghurst, an Australian veterinarian who had plenty of bad things to say about commercial dog foods in 1993. A later edition of similar information—for cats and dogs—is titled “The BARF Diet.”
We left with a caution that starting a 3-year-old Lab on a new diet requires some transition time and the advice, “they don’t call it the barf diet for nothing.” The older the dog and the longer it has been on commercial food, the more careful you must be with the transition.
About a week of watching my dog barf up food, and eat it again, followed. Her diarrhea lasted longer. At least once—at the very least—I called the vet again to make sure I wasn’t doing something wrong.
Fast-forward a month and that dog’s ears were clearing, her teeth were clean and her breath fresh, she was shedding less, her coat looked great and her stools were generally firm less smelly and easy to pick up.
I was sold.
Tag showed us the best tooth-cleaning maintenance routine of all. We often bought 30-pound boxes of frozen turkey necks and kept them outside on the deck in wintertime. Around the holidays some of the necks in those boxes are the size of my wife’s forearm.
Tag loved to lie in the snow and chew on a frozen turkey neck. It made her teeth sparkle. When we moved to Oklahoma the necks went into the freezer and came out for her on the hottest days as turkey Popsicles, a refreshing treat!
When Whiskey came to us at 18 months old his teeth were pretty bad. The vet wanted to book him for a tooth cleaning and we got the lecture about gum disease. I asked for another check in a few months after I could get him on the right diet.
He’s never needed a tooth cleaning.
So, how about the expense and effort?
Well, thanks to web algorithms all I had to do was post one YouTube video and my feeds filled up with pitches for the latest commercial “natural” and “real” food suppliers—most of which are freeze-dried everything-in-one kibble combinations with everything from beef livers and salmon to carrots and kale in one bite.
I looked at three brands and the average cost was pretty high. When I saw the 16-ounce bag for $28 (on sale), I had to think that would not go very far for my 70-pound dog.
Yesterday Whiskey ate two meals. Breakfast was a chicken hindquarter (50 cents) and two eggs (35 cents now, used to be half that) with corn oil and vitamin E and an Omega-3 oil tablet. Dinner was some expired spinach I had in the fridge (free leftovers), three tablespoons of plain whole milk yogurt, some more join supplements, and some chicken gizzards and livers (40 cents). I say his meals average $1.50 to $3 on any given day—except for his birthday. The joint supplements are expensive and more than double the cost of his meals. Those not necessary for most dogs, but vitamin E is a must, especially if you use corn oil.
We order 30-pound boxes of turkey necks from the butcher (used to be $28, now closer to $50). We wait for meat sales and get frozen chicken quarters in 10-pound bags for about $5.80 each and stockpile those in the freezer. I buy livers and gizzards (sometimes on sale when the expiration date is near) and split them up into handful-sized portions and freeze them in sandwich bags.
The price breakdown on yogurt and corn oil is tricky because we always have those around anyway. Most of his fruits and veggies are ones that passed their expiration date or scraps after I use the juicer. If he’s eating fresh fish or venison, I count those as a free meal.
You might wonder if Whiskey ever eats commercial food or if it makes him sick. We definiely use commercial food occasionally. It’s convenient if someone else is watching him or the weather is bad and he can’t eat outside. (my wife’s rule is no raw meat on the floors inside the house!)
We’ve found he can eat Purina Beneful (a no-grain chicken formula) without upsetting his stomach or giving him horrendous gas or diarrhea.
When we travel for hunting trips or just camping overnight, Whiskey gets so excited he will not take the time to eat raw food, but he will snarf down some Bil-Jac, especially if I add some yogurt, eggs, or broth.
That stuff is like dog candy. He gets his needed energy, but it also definitely gives him gas and loose stools, not diarrhea, but loose.
So, is the BARF diet hard to do? I don’t think so. Obviously, it’s more effort than shoveling the same kibble every day, but you have to be the judge of that for your own situation. I think it’s a superior diet for one or two dogs. More than that and I think it could be pretty hard to keep it up.
Again, I do not claim to be an expert on this diet, but it does make sense to me and it has worked for two of my dogs.
I share the same advice I received 20-plus years ago. Read “Give Your Dog A Bone” and decide how it can work best for your dog and for you. Then, carefully, dive in and remember, “they don’t call it the BARF diet for nothing.”
All Things Outdoors is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.