What is biologically appropriate raw food? Yes, also known as BARF.

What is biologically appropriate raw food? Yes, also known as BARF.

As many of you know, I am currently studying to get my Certificate in Canine Nutrition and I have become obsessed with what my dog is eating. This article is doing a deep dive into one specific topic: raw + BARF but isn’t going into the nuances of kibble vs. raw but just looking at raw food as a topic. There will be more articles in the future regarding these topics! 

For better or worse, I am now writing about something called BARF. Yes, you heard it here first: biologically appropriate raw food. I wanted to write about this topic because I find that there has been a growing trend on the internet about it. I am going to define what the heck BARF is and then I am going to back it up to look at other types of raw diets and then take it from there. Sound good? Lesss go.

What is BARF?

So a biologically appropriate raw food diet is a diet that is what would be expected for a dog to eat in the wild. So, if my Vizsla who is tucked in with 2 blankets in her crate every night was out in the wild to fend for herself, what would she eat? All jokes aside, she’d likely go and try to eat some sort of small animal or fish, and what advocates of the BARF diet would actually say that she would eat a variety of things but not all in once sitting!

The BARF diet was brought to limelight by Dr. Ian Billinghurst in 1993 (30 years ago) with his first book called “Give Your Dog A Bone” where he claims that we are returning to feeding animals the diets that we had for them 60 to 70 years ago. He has some other names for the BARF diet like: Bones and Raw Food, Evolutionary Diet, or Natural Diet [1].

Okay, thanks for the history lesson, what is in BARF?

The BARF diet advocates a diet “consisting of 60% raw, meaty bones,” with the rest being made up of a “wide variety of foods, based on the type and quantity of foods a wild dog would eat.” Those other foods would include loads of “green vegetables (to mimic stomach contents of prey), some offal (liver, kidneys, etc), meat, eggs, milk, brewer’s yeast, yogurt, and small  amounts of grains and legumes.” The diet is expected to be balanced overall, but each meal is not balanced [2].

Overall, when I learned about BARF for the first time, I thought to myself, “okay, this is makes complete sense.” Let’s learn more and maybe give it a spin! So, I went down to do some research about how I was going to implement a BARF diet for my own dog and what other kind of raw diets are out there.

For simplicity sake, I am going to take a step back and answer some other questions before I get into another raw diet. 

Before, I impulsively switch my dog to a BARF diet, what is the overall goal changing my dog's diet?

This is likely one of the easiest questions to answer. I want my dog to live the healthiest lives and get all the nutrients necessary to do that so I needed to learn more about what my dog needed before we went into, should my dog be eating a BARF diet?

What are the necessary nutrients for a dog and who decided this?

"Complete and balanced" refers to the nutritional content of pet food, ensuring it provides all essential nutrients in the right proportions for a specific life stage, such as growth, maintenance, or reproduction, and species like dogs or cats. These nutrients include proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates. The goal is to meet pets' dietary needs to maintain optimal health.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is an organization that establishes guidelines and standards for pet food in the United States. AAFCO's regulations help ensure that pet food products are safe and nutritionally adequate. Pet food manufacturers can label their products as "complete and balanced" only if they meet AAFCO's standards, which can be determined through feeding trials or nutrient profiles.

Feeding trials involve actual testing of the food on animals to assess their health and well-being over a specified period. Nutrient profiles compare the food's nutrient content to established AAFCO nutrient profiles for a specific life stage. If the product meets either of these criteria, it can carry the label "complete and balanced" on its packaging, indicating that it should provide the necessary nutrition for pets when fed according to the label's instructions.

So if you see "complete and balanced," signifies that a pet food product meets specific nutritional requirements set by AAFCO, ensuring it provides the essential nutrients needed for a pet's well-being during a particular life stage. This label helps pet owners make informed choices about their pet's diet.

Are BARF diets “complete and balanced”?

BARF diets, as suggested above, are often not complete and balanced. The reason behind this is, if a dog was in the wild, they would likely just eat the prey of that day. And then the next day, they eat something else. So overall idea remains the same with the BARF diet, that they would eat one kind of food one day, and then move on to the next, the next day. So if you plan on feeding a BARF diet, your dog needs to be comfortable with a red meat, a fish, a poultry, as well as a fish oil to make sure your dog is getting adequate nutrients over time. This is a lot of meat rotation so it’s a heads up if this is a path you are considering to go down.  With that being said, rotating proteins does have some benefits such as:

  • Reduces sensitivities to meats later in life
  • Diversifies your dog’s microbiome
  • Helps with connection with your pup, who wants to eat the same food everyday?

Okay, if I still want to feed raw but don’t want to do BARF, what is the other option?

The other option is commercially available complete and balanced raw food. These are often one protein mixed with vegetables, and synthetic vitamins and supplements in order to make the meal complete and balanced. This is an excellent option for dogs that have lots of allergies and it does take a lot of the guess work out of feeding your animal. This allows you to feed and know that your dog is getting all of the necessary nutrients daily.

What are the risks of feeding my dog raw?  

There are numerous risks to feeding raw, but many pet owners do feel like benefits that they see in their dogs far outweigh these risks: 

  • Foodborne illness. In 2005, a study was conducted on 25 different raw meat diets found that 64% were positive for E. coli and 20% were positive for Salmonella spp. Interestingly enough dogs do shed these bacteria to humans, it was noted with a group of racing greyhounds in 1993 that were fed a Salmonella spp. infected diet also had this show up in their feces. [3] I will caveat this study is from 18 years ago and I do believe that we see far less recalls from raw food companies than kibble companies in 2023.
  • Incomplete and unbalanced foods. As often raw is dependent on the rotation of proteins and is not supplemented to become complete and balanced, this can cause a dog to have deficiencies and excesses that could be harmful for your dog.

Wrap it up

As raw becomes more and more popular, I want to share the different options with folks and hopefully you learned something about raw and BARF diets. Have more questions? Email us at hello@shopdogged.com


[1] Billinghurst, I. (1993). Give Your Dog a Bone. Dogwise Publishing.

[2] Billinghurst, I. (n.d.). BARF. Retrieved from https://drianbillinghurst.com/barf/

[3] Lewis L, Morris M, Hand M. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, Ed. 5. Topeka, KS, Mark Morris Institute, 2010; 228-229.

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