The Barf Dog Food Review: Tested & Evaluated 2023
More and more pet parents are choosing to seek higher-quality diets for their canine companions. And is there anything more wholesome than a diet made primarily of raw meat?
The BARF dog diet is getting ever more popular, but it has also been causing a lot of controversy. So today, we’ll try to disentangle the issue. What exactly is a BARF diet? What are its benefits? And what’s the problem that so many vets seem to have with it?
These are the questions we started with. To find the best answers for you, we teamed up with veterinarians and canine nutritionists to form a panel of independent experts. We then discussed what the BARF diet is and how it may benefit or harm our canine companions. Let’s dive in!
Related: The Best Dog Food Australia.
Related: How To Choose The Right Dog Food?
Related: How Is Australia’s Dog Food Industry Regulated?
Related: What is AAFCO? The Association of American Feed Control Officials.
Related: What Is the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA)?
Related: AAFCO vs PFIAA: Dog Food Standards Comparison Australia.
Related: Understanding Guaranteed Analysis Levels in Dog Food.
Related: Real Meat vs Meat Meal.
What Exactly Is the BARF Diet?
BARF stands for Biologically Appropriate Raw Dog Food. Simply put, this is a diet based on wholefoods a dog would eat in the natural environment, in their raw state. According to the BARF model, these may include:
While you might find various recommended percentages online (like 70% meat and bones, 20% organs, 10% fruits and veg) those are just guidelines and aren’t very precise. The original BARF model as introduced by Ian Billinghurst is based on the idea that nutrition is simple and can be done by anyone, and does not have to involve complicated calculations.
The concept of ‘evolutionary nutrition’ is the central focus of the BARF diet. By this, it meant that dogs should eat foods they have evolved to eat over thousands of years. However, in contrast to some other raw dog food diet plans, the BARF model does take into account the fact that dogs have co-evolved with humans.
While essentially carnivores, dogs have lived with humans for so long that they have, in practice, become omnivores. For this reason, it is OK to include plant-based ingredients in a BARF meal plan, even though it should always be based primarily on ingredients of animal origin (meat, bones, and offal).
The Origins of the BARF Model
The man who coined the acronym BARF is Ian Billinghurst, an Australian veterinarian. According to him, BARF stands for Biologically Appropriate RAW Food or The Bones And Raw Food.
Billinghurst started working in companion animal health practice in 1975. Through the years of working with small animals and observing the effects commercially available pet foods had on his patients, Billinghurst concluded that these diets are doing more harm than good.
He became convinced that the key to better health of dogs (and cats, for that matter) is going back to a diet these animals have consumed for thousands of years, before the pet food industry even existed. ‘Evolutionary nutrition’, as he calls it, is the basis of the BARF concept, and involves simply feeding whole foods that dogs would naturally eat.
Billinghurst first laid out the BARF method in a book called Give Your Dog a Bone published in 1993. Since then, he has been giving countless lectures and talks working on popularizing his idea of a natural diet for pets. The book has indeed become very popular and has been followed by a second iteration called The BARF Diet in 2001.
“Because the BARF program of feeding is based on the diet our pets have eaten for millions of years, it is in no way a radical change for our dogs and cats. BARF is actually a return to the biologically appropriate method of feeding that was abandoned a mere 60 to 70 years ago when processed pet foods took over from more traditional methods.” - Dr. Ian Billinghurst (1)
The father of the BARF method is adamant about one thing: he believes canine nutrition doesn’t need to be complicated. As long as we stick to quality ingredients that belong to the natural diet of dogs and aren’t processed at all, our dogs will thrive:
“Nutrition is not complicated and it must be based on actual food. Real food is much greater than the sum of the limited nutrients that modern nutritional science (and/or AAFCO) thinks it should contain. When we feed the food an animal evolved eating, there is no need to know about nutrients, and we no longer have any need for experts.” - Dr Ian Billinghurst (2)
Following these claims, Billinghurst’s books are written in simple language that is easy to follow. This might be part of the reason why they became very popular. And, while you’ll find lots of practical info and tips in his books, one thing you will not find is hard data in support of these claims.
Related: What is AAFCO? The Association of American Feed Control Officials
Related: What Is the Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA)?
Related: AAFCO vs PFIAA: Dog Food Standards Comparison Australia
The Benefits of a BARF Diet?
Almost 30 years after the publication of Billinghurst’s first book, the BARF diet and raw feeding in general have become ever more popular across the world. Billinghurst is by no means alone in promoting a raw diet for dogs these days. And many pet parents who switched to BARF report a host of benefits.
These are the positive outcomes of the BARF diet for dogs as listed in the 2001 book The Barf Diet:
The problem? Evidence of these claims is mostly anecdotal. This is not to say these claims are not true, but we still simply don’t have enough sound research to prove the benefits of raw diets (3). And that’s part of the reason why you actually won’t find all that many vets that support raw diets for dogs.
The topic is still highly controversial, and you’ll find strong voices both supporting and discouraging raw diets for dogs, be it BARF or some other method.
Arguments for a BARF Dog Diet
To provide an unbiased view, our team of independent experts has gone over the main arguments concerning raw diets for dogs from both sides.
#1 Better Quality
Probably the strongest argument for feeding a raw diet to your dog is the better quality of ingredients.
Of course, this only refers to diet plans that are carefully prepared using quality ingredients. Not just feeding any kind of raw meat, but wholesome meat, raw bones, and offal from reliable sources.
This one is hard to deny. Raw diets are generally far simpler and designed to fit the needs of a dog. No matter if you prepare the meals at home or buys some of the commercially available raw food formulas, the ingredient list is simpler and more wholesome than most dry kibbles you can buy.
#2 It’s Natural
One of the main arguments for a BARF diet is the idea that it’s natural. The reasoning behind this claim is similar to that behind paleo diets for humans: dogs’ bodies must have evolved to process the foods that were naturally available to them.
However, saying that something is ‘natural’ is anything but straightforward. Sure, dogs were carnivores in the wild, but this is simply not the world they live in today.
#3 Health Benefits
As mentioned, a lot of pet parents (and some vets) who have seen dogs switch from dry kibble to a raw diet report a host of health benefits. You can find a list of the potential benefits in the section above.
Concerns About Raw Diets for Dogs
Now, our team of independent experts share the very real concerns for dogs following a BARF diet.
#1 Raw Meat Can Carry Harmful Pathogens
The main issue with raw diets for dogs (in today’s world) is the potential for bacterial contamination. As you surely know, raw meat is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria like Salmonella and E. Coli as well as many other microorganisms.
Related: The Best Meat for Dogs.
However, we must also note that dogs have tougher stomachs than humans and these bacteria will generally not harm a healthy dog. However, there is great potential for contamination here and the pathogens can be quite dangerous for the humans who live in the household where raw meat is fed to dogs (4).
#2 Incomplete Nutrition
Another concern about raw diets, including BARF, is the potential for imbalanced nutrition. While the hypothetical wild dog would eat a whole carcass, with bones, organs, and even contents of the stomach of the prey, that’s not what we typically buy in the supermarket.
Mimicking a natural diet in today’s world can prove to be quite difficult, and getting the nutrient levels wrong can be harmful to dogs, especially in critical life stages.
#3 Practical Issues
Feeding raw food is simply much less convenient than other options. Raw meat needs to be stored in the right conditions (the freezer) and handled with care to keep your home sanitary. This just takes much more time and effort, although it can be mitigated to some extent with raw dog food subscriptions, which do exist.
The Bottom Line
In the end, feeding raw has to remain a personal decision. Existing research does much more in terms of showing the potential of pathogen contamination than showing the long-term health benefits (5). This does not mean that the benefits are not there, but we simply have much more proof of the risks than otherwise.
While we do support pet parents who want to feed raw (with necessary precautions) - our team of independent experts wish to reiterate that it is certainly not the only option if you want to give your dog a high-quality diet. These days there are dry, freeze-dried, and cooked recipes that also use top-notch ingredients.
With that, a lot of the reported benefits of raw diets are based on comparing them to low-quality cheap dog foods. If we compare a cheap supermarket dog food brand with very questionable ingredients with a raw diet that uses top-notch hand-picked ingredients; it’s very obvious which one will give a better result.
Related: How Much Raw Food Your Should Be Feeding Your Dog.
But what if we compared a raw diet with feeding exactly the same ingredients only cooked, or, for example, freeze-dried? Well, we simply don’t have a lot of evidence to prove which one would be better. We do know that cooking food destroys some of the nutrients, but freeze-drying does not. In that scenario, it would be very hard to prove which one is better.
We could analyze the hypothetical case further, though. As top-notch freeze-dried or air-dried diets are generally quite expensive and not feasible to DIY, they could end up being much more expensive than feeding raw. On the other hand, raw meat does include some risks and inconveniences as mentioned above. In the end? It’s all about weighing the pros and cons of your particular situation
BARF Diet for Puppies: Is It a Good Idea?
Feeding BARF and other raw diets to puppies is even more controversial than feeding these diets to adult dogs. The adamant supporters of BARF will say that the diet works for all ages, but many vets don’t agree:
“The only place I’ve seen a problem with this diet is puppies. If you don’t get the calcium and phosphorus ratio right, you can have bone deformities and growth issues” - Doug Knueven, DVM, in an interview for FETCH. (6)
In short, the issue of potential nutrient imbalances is compounded when it comes to puppies. Getting the nutrient levels wrong during this intense growth stage can harm a puppy later in life. A puppy BARF diet, if fed, needs to be crafted with special attention.
Should Some Dogs Avoid Raw Food?
Our team of independent experts want to remind you that special care should always be taken with dogs that are suffering from specific health conditions.
“Raw food is not appropriate for any dog or cat whose immune system is suppressed because of significant disease or immune suppressant medications. Pets with severe disease such as moderately advanced heart, kidney, or liver dysfunction, diabetes, or cancer should not be fed a raw diet that may contain pathogenic bacteria.” - Lea Stogdale (7)
Some dogs who are not healthy to begin with might not benefit from a drastic switch in their diet at all. Moreover, dogs suffering from certain health problems don’t benefit from high-protein diets. While we can’t possibly cover every dog’s specific situation here, the rule of thumb should always be: if your dog is suffering from any chronic health issues and you are considering switching to raw, always talk to your vet first.
- Ian Billinghurst. BARF. Retrieved February 25, 2023. https://drianbillinghurst.com/barf/
- Ian Billinghurst. About. Retrieved February 25, 2023. https://drianbillinghurst.com/about/
- Sweeney, E. December 18, 2019. “Why Few Vets Say Raw Dog Food is a Good Idea”. Discover Magazine. Retrieved February 25, 2023. https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/why-few-vets-say-raw-dog-food-is-a-good-idea
- Ardente, A. February 18, 2022. “What You Need to Know About Raw Food Diets for Dogs”. PetMD. Retrieved February 25, 2023. https://www.petmd.com/dog/nutrition/5-mistakes-people-make-when-feeding-pets-raw-food-diet
- Brozić, Diana, et al. "Raw meat-based diet (barf) in dogs and cats nutrition." Ветеринарски Журнал Републике Српске 19 (2019): 314-321.
- Lee, E. “Raw Dog Food: Dietary Concerns, Benefits, and Risks”. FETCH by WebMD. Retrieved February 25, 2023.
- Stogdale L. One veterinarian's experience with owners who are feeding raw meat to their pets. Can Vet J. 2019 Jun;60(6):655-658. PMID: 31156268; PMCID: PMC6515799.