As raw food diets continue to be more popular than ever, you might be faced with the choice of “complete and balanced” formulated diets vs varied nutrition.

This article exclusively written for Carnivora™ by Brenda Hagel, author of Your Urban Carnivore - The Definitive Guide To Feeding Your Pet A Raw Food Diet.


Species Appropriate Nutrition 

While feeding a raw pet diet might be relatively new to some, it is actually a lot older than you might think. How far back can we look to find the answers to how our domestic pets should be fed? Eons! Throughout evolution, the carnivore diet has been dictated by mother nature herself and, of course, the physiology of the species. Meat, bones, and other tissues from a variety of prey animals, together with bits of seasonal vegetation has been the diet that for millennia supported them to thrive and reproduce. While our domestic dogs and cats have evolved differently in the way they look from their wild counterparts, their nutritional requirements have not changed. To this day the foundation for species appropriate nutrition remains the same.

So, now that we have established that the carnivore diet isn’t new, let’s look back on historical nutrition for domestic pets. A very long time ago, dogs and cats weren’t offered the kinds of lives we currently share with our pets. Before backyard fences were erected and animal control bylaws put in place, it was common for pets to roam in search of vermin and other edibles. Both city and country dogs were noted scavengers existing on human scraps or simple foods such as wheat or barley meal and milk. Cats were used to control rodents in and around establishments. In all, these animals maintained themselves on a variety of foods.

Evolution of Pet Food

Very simply, pet foods originated as a way to supplement at-home pet diets. The first commercially prepared dog food was launched in the mid 1800s in London, England by James Spratt and consisted of blended wheatmeal, vegetables, beetroot, and meat. Spratt’s ‘Meat Fibrine Dog Cake’ was also the first actively marketed pet food. An aggressive advertiser, Spratt convinced those people that fed their pets table scraps to buy his product. And so it began!

In 1908 F. H. Bennett Biscuit Company introduced Milk Bones as Bennett’s Milk-Bone Dog and Puppy Foods. By 1922 canned food had surfaced in the United States with the introduction of Ken-L-Ration, which utilized surplus warhorses for the meat in their product. By 1925, the Gaines Food Company emerged with a food product made of canned horse meat and also pioneered a new dry formula called ‘dog meal’. Meanwhile, in 1931, Dr. Ballard’s, whose ingredients were kept secret, was the first canned food produced in Canada. 

Cat foods were not popular in the early days of the pet food industry. Early versions were produced where fish was available, and they were sold as a product for both dogs and cats. Eventually, smaller cans were introduced, and cat foods became available in many varieties.

In 1957 there was dry kibble on the shelves. Purina introduced Dog Chow and in two years became the leading brand of dog food in the United States. Sometime later, in the early 1960’s, the Gaines-Burger brand marketed the first soft-moist dog food. It was highly popular until dry kibble took a foothold in the marketplace. 

The science of veterinary nutrition began in the late 1800s and continued to evolve throughout the 20th century. The first pet food specifically formulated for the nutritional needs of puppies was introduced in the early 1960s. It was not until the mid-1980s that the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council published nutritional requirements for dogs and cats; updated profiles released in 2006 reflected further changes regarding animal nutrition. After this publication, most commercially prepared pet foods were formulated to be “complete and balanced”. Every nutrient and ingredient pets need to thrive was present in each can or bag of pet food and owners were advised to feed these formulated diets to the exclusion of all other foodstuffs. To do otherwise could prove fatal to their pet. And so they did. One of the wealthiest industries in the world had filled the bowls of dogs and cats everywhere.

Complete and Balanced

What exactly is “complete and balanced” nutrition anyway? Put quite simply, it defines that pet food must contain carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and fibre in the required amounts and in the right proportion to meet the needs of the animal eating it. But to date, cats have some essential nutritional needs different from dogs, and some essential nutrients for both dogs and cats have yet to be required or even discovered. 

Let’s be clear. While a formulated pet food might claim to be “complete and balanced” there is no guarantee it is going to meet every nutritional need in a pet’s body. The food itself may contain a fixed amount of protein, vitamins, minerals, and fat as required on the label of a can or bag, but once that food enters the digestive tract of an animal, how each one is absorbed and utilized will vary with each animal. There are many factors to consider such as digestibility of ingredients and bioavailability of the food source. How can we in fact determine the exact amount of these nutrients each dog or cat truly needs or is receiving, per meal?

Certain vitamins, minerals, and other supplementations are added to pet food ingredients to meet the current nutritional criteria dictated by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Once vitamins and minerals are added to a formula, they can’t be taken out. But, what if a pet is on a medication that interacts with certain added supplements? What if a particular amount of a vitamin or mineral is too much? What if it meets the AAFCO criteria but isn’t sufficient for a particular pet? There’s no way to adjust nutrients in a pre-made “complete and balanced formula” on an individual basis. What types of vitamins and minerals are added to make a product complete and balanced? Are they natural or synthetic? How synergistic are they? Basically, the standard for nutritional requirements is blanketed for the average pet based on feeding trials. It does nothing to address optimal amounts of nutrients found in whole fresh foods - foods we as humans require for good health. Imagine eating processed food from a bag or can for your whole lifetime! The vitamins and minerals abundant in whole foods are the necessary raw materials that our bodies depend on daily. By eating these foods, we also get the benefits of so many other nutrients and phytonutrients which protect against chronic diseases. These are nutrients that can never be mimicked by industrial additives in pet foods.

Eating the same food day-in and day-out puts an animal at risk no matter what food is fed, be it canned, kibble, or raw. It is always wise to rotate a variety or brand. In fact, moderation, rotation, and variety are always the rules of thumb for good nutrition. 

Complete and Balanced vs. Nutritional Variety

Nutrition becomes complicated when it is turned into a science. We have only scratched the surface of understanding how nutrients are used in the body. We know some that are essential but there is still much more to be discovered. The complete and balanced paradigm assumes that we know all there is to know about what makes a pet food nutritionally complete. Just because something is said to be nutritionally complete does not mean it is. 

It only takes a bit of common sense to realize that no species on earth, including humans, consumes a “complete and balanced” meal each time they eat. The exception is domestic animals eating “complete and balanced” pet foods. All other species rely on fulfilling their nutritional requirements over a period of days, weeks, and possibly months. Some foods are seasonal, while others are more consistently available. Almost all species are faced with times of fasting. It is unlikely you will see overweight wild animals. Many domestic pets today are obese.

You might have been told by a veterinarian or a pet food retailer that you are not capable of feeding your pet a diet based on variety, but with a little planning, your pet can enjoy a healthy diet using various species appropriate foods. Think about how you plan different food groups into your own daily and weekly menu. Any of the fresh whole foods used to feed a dog or cat are easy to obtain from a raw pet retailer, grocery, or butcher. 

The basis of any home-prepared raw diet is edible meaty bones. For dogs and cats that might be in a ground patty or whole form depending on what you are comfortable with. They can be any type of meaty bones: chicken, beef, turkey, bison, lamb, rabbit, or even quail. It could also be whole or ground parts from a carcass such as chicken or turkey necks, chicken backs, or carcass frames. These meaty bones make up the biggest part of the meal, approximately 80%. Rotate different meaty bones daily or weekly. 

You can add any lightly steamed, raw puréed, or leftover vegetables from 5% to 10%, or if you don’t mind pinching your nose, try green tripe instead. Organ meats such as liver and heart are easy to find at the market and make up another 5%. These can be from beef, chicken, or any other animal. Try rotating a variety of organs for dogs and cats. The odd meal can consist of ground or chunk meat, or fish that doesn’t contain bone. 

The remainder is made of healthy extras like raw or soft-cooked eggs with or without the shell. Ground dried eggshell is a source for additional calcium minerals. Include fruits such as blueberries, apples, bananas, or any other that appeals to your dog in small amounts. Cooked sweet potato or canned pumpkin in small amounts can be utilized in the diet. Cooked fish, such as sardines in spring water or oysters, can help supply necessary nutrients and will appeal to cats as well. Small amounts of ground up seeds such as pumpkin, hemp, or flax are other healthy options. You can add 1/8 tsp kelp for small pets to 1/2 tsp for larger dogs daily for some iodine, or add a mineral mix. Cold Water Fish Oil is beneficial for its omega fatty acids, and cod liver oil is valuable for vitamin D. 

Once you get started, you’ll see it is fun to be creative and it’s so rewarding to watch your pet enjoy their meal. If you don’t already use fresh foods for all or part of your pet’s diet, think about how you can include wholesome additions to increase their health by using “complete and balanced” nutrition over time! Like we say, bone appetit!

“Most degenerative disease processes in pet animals are the direct result of a lifetime being fed cooked and/or processed foods…Processed pet foods contain barely adequate levels of the known vitamins…Many contain biologically inappropriate antioxidants, enormous levels of refined sugars and masses of salt together with other chemicals used as colorings and flavorings. This chemical cocktail is a lethal brew which is a major factor in producing the epidemic of degenerative disease leading to the early death and suffering we see in pet animals fed such rubbish, including cancer, arthritis and a range of allergies and autoimmune diseases.” ~ Dr. Ian Billinghurst 

“I think processed food is toxic. There are some studies that indicate it’s probably carcinogenic…Plus, it’s not real food, and a lot of the foods, the raw materials that go into processed food are even worse than the food itself.” ~ Dr. Robert Silver

“Diet decisions are not a matter of right or wrong. If you understand what is ideal, you can then create a feeding program that will help move your pet closer to the healthiest diet options. In general, the more real food your dogs and cats eat, the healthier they will be.~ Dr. Marty Goldstein


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The information on this website is not intended to replace Veterinary medical advice.