Raw chicken salmon and beef in a glass bowl with broccoli quail egg and spices

What is a BARF Diet for Dogs?

What does BARF stand for?

With so many different dog foods to choose from, you may have come across the BARF diet. But what does BARF really mean? BARF is actually an acronym with two different meanings; 'Biologically Appropriate Raw Food' and 'Bones and Raw Food'. Essentially, BARF is a raw diet for dogs. It was designed by a veterinarian in 1993 for racing and sled dogs and subsequently adapted into a diet for general adult dogs. As the name suggests, these diets consist of raw meat and bones, with little or no plant ingredients.

What are the benefits of a BARF diet?

Raw diets were conceptualized based on the theory that dogs would thrive on a diet containing primarily raw meat, bones and vegetable scraps. Similar to the diets that ancestral canines, like wolves, would have eaten. Supporters of raw food claim benefits of raw foods include shinier coats, reductions in allergic reactions, lower incidence of dental disease and higher energy. Higher palatability in dogs and the desire to consume raw food over kibble is also a highly made claim. This is likely due to the higher inclusion of meat and fat in raw diets, compared to kibble.

What are some problems regarding the BARF diet?

Many veterinarians disagree with the benefit claims listed above. According to the FDA, raw diets also carry potential risks including bacteria contamination and malnutrition, due to an unbalanced diet. Certain bacteria which are a risk with improper handling and storage of raw diets include:

  • Salmonella (most common)
  • E. Coli
  • Clostridium Botulism 
  • Listeria
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Campylobacter
  • Clostridium perfringens

Dogs have evolved to eat what humans eat and this means that the dog’s GI system has also evolved. Dogs can no longer process raw, wild meat without concern for microbial and parasite contamination. Unlike wolves, dogs can also not go days without eating and are accustomed to regular, daily feedings. This means that the high protein, high fat diet that wolves eat will provide them with enough energy to survive several days without food, something that domestic dogs just don’t need. A dog on a high fat, high protein diet, without the balance of a rigorous exercise regime is more likely to become obese. 

Dog digestion is also a little different from that of the wolf and other wild canids. Dogs are more genetically equipped to digest starches and produce longer chain starch-digesting enzymes than wolves do. This means that it is easier for dogs to break down and absorb starch sources like potatoes, rice and peas. Essential vitamins and minerals may also be lacking in a BARF diet as some do not include additional supplements to meet AAFCO standards. Deficiencies in essential nutrients can cause problems with growth and maintenance of overall health.

Take home message

While the wild relatives of dogs traditionally eat a raw diet, our domesticated companions have evolved differently. Studies have shown that dogs do benefit from fibre and other carbohydrates in their diet. Furthermore dogs are susceptible to getting sick from contamination of raw food due to improper handling. We urge owners to read about the recalls and scientific studies published on raw foods and why they should maybe be avoided.

View Sources

Axelsson, Erik, Abhirami Ratnakumar, Maja-Louise Arendt, Khurram Maqbool, Matthew T. Webster, Michele Perloski, Olof Liberg, Jon M. Arnemo, Åke Hedhammar, and Kerstin Lindblad-Toh. "The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet." Nature 495, no. 7441 (2013): 360-364.

Wayne, Robert K. "Evolutionary genomics of dog domestication." Mammalian Genome 23, no. 1-2 (2012): 3-18.

PetMD “Raw Dog Food: Dietary Concerns, Benefits, and Risks” (2012). https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/guide/raw-dog-food-dietary-concerns-benefits-and-risks#2  

Wester, Trish. "Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Food for Animals: FDA’s position on pathogens in raw pet foods."

van Bree, Freek PJ, Gertie CAM Bokken, Robin Mineur, Frits Franssen, Marieke Opsteegh, Joke WB van der Giessen, Len JA Lipman, and Paul AM Overgaauw. "Zoonotic bacteria and parasites found in raw meat-based diets for cats and dogs." Veterinary Record 182, no. 2 (2018): 50-50.

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April 14, 2021
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5 minutes
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