What I learned from BARF. (Don’t Worry, You Won’t)

Designed by: Sarah Rivera via FreePik

“What kind of animal parts do you have?” I tentatively inquired.

The lanky Irish butcher, apron stained with dark red blood, cracked a smile. “Do you live around here?” he asked.

I explained that I’ve been in Covent Garden for the last few years. Beside and below me came a persistent whining noise, and the kind man looked over his counter to see a sleek, black dog staring at him. “Ahh,” he said, “it’s for her.”

About six months ago, I adopted a young and exuberant female Dutch Shepard from the U.S. She is my assistance dog, aiding me in the day-to-day struggles of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Her name, Ebbie, is short for Ebenezer, meaning “Rock of Help” in Hebrew.

To the world, Ebbie may seem like your average working dog — albeit with large ears and the energy to match. But in Ebbie’s world, all people were created to adore and worship her. While it sounds contradictory to the faith of her namesake, it’s what makes Ebbie…well, Ebbie.

A few weeks after I adopted her, she began a peculiar and seemingly self-destructive behaviour — excessive ear scratching. Wondering if it were anxiety or an allergy, I consulted her vet, who instructed me to administer an antihistamine (common brand name Benadryl). However, nothing changed, and each ear scratch brought on a wave of pain for her. Her sorrowful yelps meant frequent vet visits. Ebbie was given prescription after prescription, and before we knew it, injections and prescribed food. The money was adding up, and my heart sank at the possibility of Ebbie’s life being enslaved to medications.

I began to look into natural medications and diet options. Endless internet searches led me to BARF — not vomit, but the “Bones and Raw Food” diet. The raw food diet for dogs promotes raw and naturally sourced foods — postulating that because wild dogs and wolves hunt and scavenge for meat and sometimes fruits and vegetables, the raw food diet would be more natural for the dog. It also promised to help eliminate Ebbie’s allergies by providing greater control over what she easts, compared to unknown ingredients in commercial dog food.

However, the debate around the raw food diet is heated. Opponents argue that it is simply a fad, that it may lead to improper food quantity and nutrients, and that it introduces the possibility of food borne illnesses — the dangers of which, it is believed, far outweigh any benefits.

Proponents of a raw diet point out the safety benefits of natural foods over mass-produced dog food. In fact, just this year there was a major recall of a popular brand of dog food after the U.S. FDA found traces a of pentobarbital, a canine sedative and euthanasia drug, in the product.

I chose to try the raw food diet, and after one month, the evidence that Ebbie was thriving was indisputable. The redness to her skin had retreated, and except for a lingering ear infection (which we later cleared up with coconut oil), her scratching ceased. She harnessed a new energy, developed an incredibly silky and shiny coat, and became more focused in her work. She was a new dog, and I was loving it.

However, all this happy health came at a price — literally. Raw food diets are expensive. I also had to factor in dog food meal preparation into my schedule, and I had to cater my cooking skills to a new kind of client. But the benefits, it appeared to me, far outweighed the costs. An unexpected bonus: I was getting to know my dog in a whole new way.

Ebbie’s diet consists of 70% meat, 10% offal (organ meat), 10% bone, and 10% fruit and vegetables. Her main sources of protein are lamb, turkey, beef, and salmon. I discovered in this process that she is probably allergic to chicken, which can be inflammatory for some dogs. She also eats raw eggs and egg shells for the calcium and phosphorous they provide. She is not fond of fruits and vegetables, so I often disguise them with a turmeric based “curry”.

Designed by: Sarah Rivera via FreePik

My “rock of help” and I started to communicate with each other through food. For instance, I learned she’s as finicky as a toddler when it comes to her distaste for vegetables. She loves lamb, hates pork, and doesn’t understand the concept of sausage. When she likes a meal, she spends thirty minutes licking the bowl clean and then comes immediately for cuddles of approval. When she’s less than a fan, I’m left with a heaping mess of vegetables, turmeric, and the silent treatment.

Ebbie has become a more curious and adventurous dog. We have taken one vacation in the countryside since starting her on this diet. While convincing hotel staff to help us get a refrigerator for raw lamb and rabbit was forging new ground, they were happy to help. Having the mini-fridge stocked with quality meats and vegetables allowed me to be consistent with Ebbie’s diet, and Ebbie responded with exuberance, running wild in the countryside.

While there have been issues with some commercially produced pet food, I do believe that most is safe and healthy — my previous pets having had no issues with dried dog food. However, not all dogs (or owners) are created equal and you should discuss the BARF diet with your veterinarian, and contemplate whether you are willing to commit the energy, time, and resources to this way of feeding your pet. You will also need a reliable butcher and market for quality food.

Designed by: Sarah Rivera via FreePik

For me, the BARF diet has made Ebbie a new dog. She’s still a bit crazy, she’s still energetic; but she’s focused, determined, and thriving like an assistant dog needs to be for her owner. Living in a city like London can be a lot for a big dog like Ebbie, but her food regime has jumpstarted her to a happier and healthier life. We give two paws up to her new diet.