Much recent media attention has been focused on the pet food industry and this has led to an increase in the number of clients asking about more natural diets for their dogs and cats. Veterinary nurses are ideally placed to discuss the pros and cons, but getting good, balanced advice to pass on to your clients can be hard, as most books and websites are either heavily pro or heavily against raw feeding.

Natural feeding, also called raw feeding or biologically appropriate raw feeding (BARF), can be a safe, cost-effective and satisfying way to feed a pet, but it does take a little more effort and forward planning than opening a bag of kibble or can of meaty chunks. There are many ways to approach natural feeding and none is necessarily right or wrong, but I hope this article will help you support your clients more effectively. Most BARF diets contain muscle meat, meaty bones, organ meat and blended vegetables but can be adapted to an individual pet’s or owner’s requirements.

Your questions answered

Is a ‘natural’ diet healthier than a processed one?

There is no scientific data to prove this is true. However, many owners following this diet report that their pets are well muscled with shiny coats, full of energy and need fewer trips to the vet. Teeth in particular benefit from the cleaning action of chewing bones, and obesity is less common on the diet.

I thought feeding bones was dangerous?

Raw bones, especially those of the ribs, neck and spine, are relatively soft and can easily be chewed, swallowed and digested. Cooked bones should not be fed as they are liable to splinter and could pierce the intestines. Leg bones from large animals such as cattle, pigs, deer and sheep are too tough for many dogs and trying to break them to reach the marrow may lead to tooth fractures. Choose bones of an appropriate size for your breed of dog or cat. Uncooked rabbit and chicken bones are suitable for most dogs when used as part of this approach to feeding.

Is it safe to feed raw meat? What about bacteria?

All raw meat can carry bacteria so take the same hygiene precautions as you would when preparing your own meals. Dog and cat stomach juices are more acidic than ours and food stays in the gut for less time, meaning they are at much lower risk of ‘food poisoning’. Never feed your dog meat that is ‘off’. Although is unlikely that the risk of contamination is appreciably higher than when feeding kibble, owners with a compromised immune system should avoid feeding a raw diet as a precautionary measure.

Don’t dogs and cats need some carbohydrates?

Dogs evolved as scavengers eating mostly bones and other food waste. Their diet, and that of their ancestors, contained little grain. Modern dog food uses grain as an energy source as it is cheaper than energy from animal fat and protein. Most raw feeders add some pureed fruit and vegetables into the diet to increase the vitamin and antioxidant content of the diet, although this is not essential. Your dog will get some carbohydrates from any fruit and vegetables in his diet, and most dogs need no further carbohydrates. A few dogs may benefit from a small amount of cooked rice, potato or quinoa but always avoid processed carbohydrates. Your cat’s wild relatives eat nothing but small mammals, birds and insects. Again, carbohydrate is included in modern processed cat food as a cheaper source of energy but it is not the preferred ‘fuel’ for your cat.

Is raw feeding expensive?

It doesn’t have to be. Complete prepared raw diets can be expensive for larger dogs, but, by buying in bulk and preparing your own meals, the cost can be surprisingly low. A 20 kg dog can be fed from around 70p a day, a cat for less than 50p. A freezer to make the most of cheap meat and bones when available helps keep costs low.

Is a raw natural diet suitable for all dogs and cats?

No. Elderly pets and those with certain illnesses may not tolerate a raw meat diet. Home-cooked diets may be suitable or choose a good-quality commercial diet.

Is raw the only way to feed a pet well?

No. Raw natural feeding is not for every pet or every owner. Alternatives include high-meat-content wet foods or quality ‘hypoallergenic’ kibble. Look for foods which have a high meat content, and contain an easily digested carbohydrate such as rice or potato and no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives. The best prepared foods list their ingredients fully and are cooked gently.

How do I switch over?

It is generally thought that it is best not to feed raw meat and cooked kibble in the same bowl because the transition times for these foods are totally different (an average of 10-16 hours for kibble and only 4-5 hours for raw meat and bone), as are the ways the different food types are digested by the pet ( raw.aspx). It is also thought that stomach pH is higher with grain-based foods which may affect the animal’s ability to digest raw meat and manage bacteria.

Most dogs suffer no ill effects from switching straight from kibble or tinned meat at one feed to raw food at the next. Cats can be more difficult to switch. Try lightly cooking minces or lightly searing a chicken wing. Exposing the flesh may help them get started.


•    Dogs and cats need raw meat, bone and vegetables if used every day.

•    Meat can take the form of minces or chunks and a variety of meats, offal and perhaps even fish should be fed during the week.

•    A handful or small cup of vegetables is enough for most dogs and a spoonful of vegetables is enough for most cats. More can be fed to overweight pets to fill them up.

•    Vegetables should be pureed in a food processor to allow the animal to digest them.

•    Most vegetables are suitable but avoid onions as these can be toxic.

Root vegetables contain quite a lot of sugar so limit these in overweight pets. Green leafy vegetables and herbs should make up most of the vegetable portion.

•    You don’t need to buy vegetables specially for your pet as peelings, stalks and slightly soft or yellowed vegetables all make good dog/cat food.

•    A small amount of suitable fruit can also be fed, but not grapes for instance.

•    Bones should have some meat attached and be of a suitable size for the dog/cat. Ideal bones include chicken wings and carcasses, ribs, necks and spines.

•    Rabbit portions, including any offal, can be a complete meal.

•    Start by feeding 200 g of meat and meaty bones per 10 kg of body weight per day for dogs and 150 g of meat and meaty bones per 5 kg of body weight per day for cats. This will need to be adjusted if the pet gains or loses weight or changes activity level.

•    Vitamin supplements are not usually required if you are feeding a varied, mixed diet to a healthy pet. A serving of salmon oil can help supply essential fatty acids, especially if you don’t feed fish.

•    Eggs can be fed occasionally. Blend them with the vegetables, and include the shells!

•    Blended vegetables last for only 1-2 days in the fridge but can be frozen in portions. An ice-cube tray is ideal for cat portions.

•    Bones and carcasses can be bought from the Internet or sourced from butchers and game dealers.

Supermarket chicken wings are a great s
tandby, but they don’t provide much entertainment or tooth cleaning for big dogs!

•    Bones are a high-value food, so do not start a raw diet with a dog that has food-guarding issues. Sort these out first!

•    Feeding bones can be messy; owners need a place which can be mopped down easily afterwards.

•    Cats like to eat little and often so split their allowance into at least three meals a day.


Natural feeding can be a safe, cost- effective way to feed your cat or dog and one which gives you complete control over the ingredients. For those not ready to take the plunge completely, a range of ready-made raw meals is now available.

It is not a miracle cure for diseases and it won’t suit every pet or owner, but pet owners should expect that veterinary surgeons and nurses are able to discuss a range of feeding options. 


Vicky Payne BVetMed MRCVS DipCABTI

Further reading

BILLINGHURST, I. (1993). Give Your Dog A Bone. Australia. Warrigal Publishing.

LEVIN, C. D. (2001). Dogs, Diet and Disease. Oregon City USA. Lantern Publications.

LONSDALE,T (2001). Raw Meaty Bones. Australia. Rivetco P/L.

THOMPSON, N. (2014). Responsible Raw Facts. [Online] Available from: feed-raw.aspx [Accessed: 8 August 2014] [Unpublished research but key facts in this article] [Accessed: 8 August 2014]

Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 29 • September 2014 •