Every morning I portion out raw meat for my dogs. Or I thaw lamb ribs or duck necks for them to chew in the garden. If they're lucky, they get dried pig's lung from my friend who owns a food dehydrator and is as nutty as I am about giving her dogs a natural diet.
Feeding raw meat is a growing trend among dog owners who want to give their pets the most healthy and natural diet they can. A 2015 study by the American raw dog food company, Allprovide, indicates that 37% of dog owners are interested in a raw diet for their pet.
While some argue that a raw diet for dogs puts owners (and even dogs) at risk of bacterial infection or fail to provide a balanced diet, others feel that raw-fed dogs are eating a more natural diet, and are healthier, with cleaner teeth, better breath, and more vigor.
Not that I love raw. I'm a vegan. For me, it's unpleasant to have meat in the house. I feed raw meat because I want to give my dogs the healthiest and most natural diet for them, despite how I may feel about being elbows deep in dead animal.
While it is true that vegan dog food exists on the market, veterinarians and animal nutritionists like Dr. Ian Billinghurst, author of an early book on the subject, Give Your Dog A Bone, argues that protein-rich raw meat and bones, with their high enzyme and mineral content, comprised the diet of the dog's ancestor, the wolf. Like wolves, dogs are meant to eat raw meat and bones; they are not biologically designed to eat the starchy contents of commercial dog foods.
At least, that's what I thought.
Imagine my surprise when Dr. Peter Neville, one of the founders of the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology (COAPE) where I am studying pet behaviour, told me what he thinks is the true "natural diet" of my dogs' ancestors.
"Empty the contents of your bin, then mix in a whole lot of human waste," he said. "Your dogs adapted to a scavenger diet with the advent of agriculture among human populations. If you're looking for their 'natural' diet, that was it."
It sounds outrageous, but Dr Neville, Adjunct Professor at The Department of Animal Sciences at The Ohio State University, is making a serious point. The animal we call the pet dog most likely descended from wolves that broke away from their wild packs and began living on the outskirts of villages about the time humans settled into agrarian lifestyles. Living close to human dwellings, they scavenged food and human waste from latrines. The food would have included raw and cooked meats as well as vegetables and starches.
Purists of raw-feeding for dogs would argue that this switch to agriculture happened too short a time ago to make any evolutionary difference to the digestive system of the modern dog. Wild wolves may have evolved into the friendly family dog, but underneath the floppy ears and wagging tails, dogs still have the nutritional requirements of wolves.
They claim dogs need meaty bones, along with perhaps some vegetable and fruit for roughage, and nothing else. Certainly not the wheat, corn, barley or oats that can comprise half the ingredients of commercial dog food.
However, science is revealing a different story. A 2013 study published by Nature, suggests that today's dog shows genetic adaptations to starchy foods. They found thirty-six regions of the dog genome that were likely selected in the domestication process that transformed the wolf into a dog. Of those thirty-six, ten involve the ability of dogs to digest starch.
That's right, your dog doesn't have the same digestive system as a wolf. It's a dog, a scavenger, not a top-of-the-food-chain hunter. While my dogs retain the taste buds of a wolf, loving fat and meat in all its forms, it is really up to me whether or not I want to feed them raw food. For now, I'm going to stick with raw meat, but maybe not stick my nose up when other dog owners make a difference choice.
As Dr. Robert Falconer-Taylor, Veterinary Consultant to COAPE, says, "Dogs are highly adaptable creatures and a balanced diet can come in many forms. As important is a balanced lifestyle to go in tandem with it. One won't work well without the other."