The benefits of a raw food diet for dogs

I've never been jealous of what I put in my dog's food bowl. Kibble looks about as appetizing going in as it does coming out, even if your dog gets ultra premium, high-dollar, unprocessed kosher kibble made of grass-fed beef. A few months ago, however, I saw a friend's dog chowing down on a meal of raw chicken and vegetables. Naturally, I was curious about this, especially when we started to eat Lean Cuisines while Fido chomped away on a four-star meal. So I did a little research.

Nowadays, one of the biggest doggie diet fads (yep, you read that correctly) is the BARF diet. The unappetizing acronym stands for Biologically Appropriate Raw Food, and the diet supposedly mimics food that dogs have been eating in the wild for thousands of years. It includes raw meat, vegetables, offal, fruit, alfalfa sprouts, eggs, flax seed, kelp and cod liver oil. Some of the touted benefits of the diet include higher energy, fewer stools, a shiny coat, cleaner teeth and generally fewer health issues. I thought shelling out 70 bucks for a sack of minimally processed kibble was going above and beyond, but my friend was clearly light-years ahead of me. Should we all be jumping on the BARF bandwagon?

Not necessarily. Like human diets, the benefits are often judged by individual standards and can vary depending on the dog. And, like human diet fads, the hype often overreaches the results.

First of all, feeding your dog a high-quality diet is obviously preferable to whatever filler-filled, lamb by-product food is on sale at the grocery that week. The dog on a diet rich with fillers will produce extra waste and probably not have as much energy as a dog who eats kibble with a high-quality protein source containing no additives or by-products. (If you really want to gross yourself out, go Google what standard of meat is allowed in dog food.) So in terms of being minimally processed, the BARF diet gets a gold star.

However, while the Internet is full of people singing the praises of the BARF, if you happen to buy chicken with salmonella or E. coli, you will be praying that your dog does actually barf the bacteria up before it wreaks havoc. Most vets will also raise the issue of bones: While gnawing on them can be healthy for teeth, it can also lead to tears and bleeding internally. And although a vet created this diet, it's not scientifically supported. Like the human raw foods diet, it's what we call testimony-driven.

Feeding dogs a BARF diet requires a lot of planning, too, and travel can be difficult. And while you're certain to find some holistic vets that will work with you on feeding your dogs a BARF diet, raw vegan diet, cooked whole foods diet, or whatever else you feel your furbaby deserves, many vets will look at you in the same "What the hell?" way mine did when I mentioned feeding my dog raw meat and bones.

So use your common sense. A lot of people love the BARF diet and see great benefits in their dogs. And then there are the horror stories of bacterial infections and choking on bones. If your dog is doing great on whatever she's eating now and your vet is happy, don't worry.

If you do want to try the BARF diet, I recommend going to www.barfworld.com and learning about it. In addition to time and planning, there's also a transitional period — a more intensive one than switching your dog from Science Diet to Orijen. Read around the forums, ask questions, and educate yourself. You can buy frozen patties of BARF food from them as well; a bag of 12, half-pound Juicy Chicken patties (their most popular choice) will run you $25.

And if you're interested in making your dog's food but a bit iffy on the whole raw thing, there are plenty of doggie cookbooks out there that incorporate many of the same ingredients as the BARF diet, just cooked. Ease yourself into it by making treats instead of whole meals with The Three Dog Bakery Cookbook.

For me, I'm sticking with dry dog kibble. Maybe my dog would appreciate the variety, but I have a hard enough time getting my own diet balanced, much less worrying about hers. She still loves me, though, even when she knows Rover down the street is feasting on raw steak. And that's true love.