(This article was written in 2005 for the German magazine 'Beardie Revue', produced by Eva-Maria Kramer.)
Knick, Knack, Paddywhack……...
A magazine article entitled ‘ Feeding Your Dog Nature’s Way’, caught my attention recently. On closer inspection it proved to be an advertising feature for a commercial company selling herbal dietry supplements for dogs. The article was full of claims for pills and capsules – but there was no mention of any food at all.
I was reminded of an experience forty years ago when I had an Irish Wolfhound with serious bone problems and took her to a veterinary bone specialist for help.The first thing he wanted to know was how she had been fed. Since I had bought her from a couple who were not only well-known breeders but both veterinary surgeons as well, I had carefully followed their feeding instructions, which included large quantities of dietary supplements including rose-hip syrup, calcium tablets etc. But before I had finished reciting the list to the specialist he interrupted with “I don’t want to know what you added – I want to know what you fed her”.
I have never forgotten that lesson. A good diet needs no supplements and there is certainly nothing `natural’ about pills and capsules. Manufacturers of the `complete diets’ so popular with dog owners today emphasize the importance of vitamins and minerals but fail to acknowledge that the dog did not evolve to exist on pellets or tinned food – however well-balanced the nutritional content.
The dog evolved as a hunter and scavenger and for thousands of years domestic dogs have lived on bones and scraps and continue to do so in many countries. In the modern Western world we tend to forget this. Perhaps because we do not eat bones ourselves we are inclined to think of them as waste to be thrown away. But there is a good reason why we do not eat bones: neither our teeth nor our digestive system are able to cope with them.By contrast, the canine food-processing system has developed to deal with just such a diet and can extract most of the nourishment it needs from the bones that we would discard. Your Beardie has large teeth and strong jaws to tear, chew and grind, a digestive tract well able to cope with bones and large lumps of raw meat and anal glands to lubricate the passage of the hard, dry faeces of the bone-eater. Each part of this wonderfully-adapted system not only can process a truly natural diet of bones and raw meat but needs to and is likely to suffer if rendered redundant by modern feeding. Teeth become dirty and even rotten, digestive problems of all kinds are common and anal glands become blocked and infected.
This is only half the story, however, because it is not only the dog’s body that benefits from a natural diet: it is important to his psychological well-being as well. There are significant parallels here with the human case. It is not only the nutritional content of the modern human diet that is inadequate but the fact that it is so often eaten hurriedly and alone. The social and psychological benefits of taking time to sit down with friends or family to enjoy a leisurely meal are well known. Dogs also gain enjoyment and crucial social skills in taking their meat and bones together, learning to eat peacefully as a group, not to interfere with one another and that those who finish first must just wait patiently. I like to feed my Beardies in the garden where they have plenty of room to spread themselves out and it is interesting to see how each carries her meal to a space that is close - but not too close - to the others. Feeding outdoors also avoids greasy marks in the house and since the dogs like to clean their faces after eating I would rather they wiped them on the grass than on the rugs in the house.
Nine Brambledale Beardies, spanning three working-bred generations, enjoy their bones peacefully together.
For the single pet dog a substantial bone will provide hours of enjoyment – especially useful when he has to be left at home alone and bone-gnawing relieves boredom and stress as well.I find that it completely eliminates chewing of furniture etc. Raw-hide chews may help a little but are no substitute for bones.
By now it should be clear why bones and raw meat are so important to dogs and I hope that some readers may be considering a change to their Beardies’ diet, so I will now explain how to do it. Firstly, you will of course need a good supply. I have an arrangement with a local butcher, Tony, who supplies me with enough meat and bones for my nine Beardies and the occasional litter of puppies.Tony owns his own shop and buys his beef and sheep meat from local farms. The animals are slaughtered at a nearby abattoir and Tony cuts the carcases up himself. My weekly load consists of sheep breasts and scrags, all the meat scraps from the cutting-up and a large selection of bones of different kinds and all sizes, plus any meat left unsold in the shop, which may include liver, steak or some of Tony’s famous home-made sausages, so my Beardies have plenty of variety. This is an ideal arrangement which gives me a reliable supply of locally-produced meat of excellent quality from animals which have enjoyed a good life on the green hills of Wales and have not suffered a long journey to the abattoir. This ethical concern is very important to me because I believe that every animal should have a good life. I am a vegetarian myself, but although a vegetarian diet is no hardship for the natural omnivore that is Homo sapiens, it cannot meet the needs of a natural carnivore such as the dog. But if I am to feed meat to my dogs I want to be sure that it is both good for them and ethically produced.
The meat content of commercial dog foods is unlikely to meet either of these requirements as it is almost certainly intensively reared and may contain residue of antibiotics or hormones which have been fed to the animals. This is especially likely in the case of chicken, which is used in many commercial pet foods .My dogs’ meat and bones are not only healthy for them and ethically produced but also environmentally acceptable because very little transport is involved and we make use of bones and scraps which would otherwise have to be disposed of as ‘waste’. And because Tony has to pay for waste disposal he is so glad for me to take all his bones and meat ‘waste’ that he charges me very little for the sheep meat that I buy. So he and I and the Beardies are all happy and my dog-food bills are very low indeed. Commercial pet-food manufacturers also use waste ( although not of the quality that I get from Tony) but they make a huge profit by dressing it up to appeal to the shopper and charging high prices.
The sheep scrags are very useful. They vary in size but a small one is just right for an adult Beardie to eat whole as his main meal.
Above: Lamb scrags. Below: A large beef bone...before, during and after a good chew! The adult Beardies remove one end of the bone so as to get at the marrow inside.
And youngsters whose jaws are not yet powerful enough to do the job themselves are happy to take over where Dad has left off.....
Feeding time is very easy when I have enough scrags for everyone: an ideal meal, nutritious,plenty of chewing, low in fat - and no chopping, cooking, waste or washing-up!
The breasts have more fat but there is plenty of lean meat on them too and a large one will feed three Beardies. Breasts and scrags form the basis of my Beardies’ diet, providing both meat and bones.Most days they will have some bigger bones as well and when I have plenty of good bones these will make an adequate meal on their own.In addition the Beardies usually have a small breakfast of cereal, which may be porridge or brown rice ( both organically grown) or a few wholewheat biscuits, although when they have had a large meat feed the previous evening I do not give them breakfast at all.If you want to improve your dog’s diet but don’t want to give up the convenience of commercial dog food you could compromise by giving a small breakfast of complete food and replacing the evening meal with a small whole scrag, which needs no preparation. ( Although if your Beardie has not had the opportunity to develop his jaws you might need to divide the scrag into pieces to begin with.) The important thing is that he has some fresh, raw meat and bone as part of his daily diet.
My Beardies are lucky in also being free to hunt and scavenge for themselves, so they are not entirely dependent on what I give them. They often catch rabbits and voles, sometimes a squirrel and occasionally they find a pheasant that has been killed on the road.
These are all eaten with great enjoyment - although I am afraid that the successful hunter rarely shares her prize with the rest of the family! When I pick fruit and berries the Beardies like to pick them too and seem to enjoy eating them but it is not something they do unless I do.
Above: picking blackberries; Below : Five-week-old puppies share a bone. 2008
The daily diet that all my Beardies enjoy is also ideal for pregnant bitches and growing youngsters. The only ones needing something more are baby puppies too small to manage an adult diet. This does not mean that they can’t have meat and bones though and I feed both to puppies from three weeks old. I start by giving them scrags or bones which have just a little lean meat on them and no lumps of fat and they enthusiastically suck and chew little scraps of meat off. The remains can then be eaten by their mother. I also hand-feed them individually with tiny scraps of lean meat, but as they need bigger quantities I buy them Tony’s best minced beef to avoid spending hours cutting meat into tiny pieces myself. When my puppies go to new owners they usually prefer to buy mince but the puppies are well able to cope with chopped lamb by five weeks. I give them the leanest meat, cut into little chunks and use every meal as a training session, asking each puppy to sit, wait, come and so on for his pieces of meat. Like the adults, the puppies also have porridge and brown rice, but for them I make it with whole organically-produced milk and free-range eggs to make a rich pudding. During the period between being totally dependent on their mother’s milk and being able to eat and digest bones, I add bone meal to the puppies’ cereal feed .(Bone meal is simply ground bone and should not contain any additives.) (Update 2010 - Having recently had difficulty obtaining bone meal I am now using egg shells as an alternative. When dry, they can be ground to a powder and mixed into the puppies' food.) They soon start to eat some of the softer bones, even with their baby teeth and by the time the adult dentition is complete they can easily manage a whole scrag.
Puppies (including Breeze,Tiger,Wolfie and Enya) share a picnic. 2005
Some people believe that dogs should not be given bones lest they choke or suffer internal damage from sharp splinters and I am told that this view is even held by some veterinary surgeons, which is disgraceful.All I can say is that in nearly fifty years of feeding vast numbers of bones to vast numbers of Beardies I have never had a single case of harm. I might add that I never use veterinary surgeons either - my dogs are much too healthy to need them. But of course healthy dogs don’t make vets rich - there may be a moral in that!
Dr Lynne Sharpe
Copyright July 2008
Notes: 1) In case you are still waiting to learn the significance of the title, I should explain that it comes from a traditional children’s counting rhyme which has the oft-repeated refrain, “ Knick, knack, paddywhack, give the dog a bone……” This is just one of many traditional rhymes and songs that mention dogs and their bones and it seems extraordinary that the connection should have been forgotten in recent times.
2) It occasionally happens that a section of bone gets wedged across the roof of a dog’s mouth, but there is no need to panic as it can easily be dislodged with a finger The same thing sometimes happens with a stick - just another reason to make sure that your puppy learns to have his mouth opened and his teeth examined from his earliest days.
3) All the meat and bones I use are fed raw. As I have never used cooked bones I cannot say whether they are safe to feed to dogs.
Below : 2010 pictures of four week and five week old puppies enjoying bones together - an education in good table manners as well as healthy eating.