The term “prey model” gets thrown around a lot in circles that discuss raw feeding. It is used to describe and differentiate between the different methods of formulating a raw diet. It means different things to different people. Some like the term “prey model”, others do not. I am of the former camp. I think it is possibly the best descriptive term to apply to a proper raw diet, and in those two little words are a frequent reminder not to get lost in the details and provide just what our domestic carnivores need.
I’m not sure where exactly the use of the term “prey model” originated, but it gained popularity among users of an online community that I’m sure can boast being the largest and oldest still-functioning raw feeding discussion group. The term has spread to other online communities, and it is very common to hear ‘prey model’ when the subject of raw feeding comes up. The reason for its popularity, I believe, has to do with the fact that it describes exactly how one needs to formulate a raw diet. It can seem like a daunting task, especially for newcomers to the idea. It describes a “bare bones” approach – pardon the pun – and is used to differentiate this simply formulated, simply fed diet from more complicated home-prepared diets and commercially produced diets. Some attribute the term to Dr. Tom Lonsdale, or at least the style of feeding he promotes. In actuality, Dr. Lonsdale is not actually a fan of the term, but from what I can gather, it is because he feels that the term is unnecessarily limiting and discourages perfectly adequate feeding of raw diets that do not strictly conform to a “prey model” approach by his definitions. (See the discussion he has made available on his website here: http://www.rawmeatybones.com/pdf/RawVetPreyModel06.pdf). Interestingly enough, his reasons for not supporting the term is exactly why I think it’s great, and feel the need to clear up the way it’s interpreted and used some 10 years after the exchange from the link took place. Dr. Lonsdale’s exchange seems to me to be a discussion of semantics more than the intention of the term. What I like in the term prey MODEL, is that by using the word “model” we know that we have a suggested framework, not a set of absolute rules.
The commonly held antithesis of the ‘prey model’ approach is ever so attractively termed “BARF”, which stands for either “biologically appropriate raw food” or sometimes “bones and raw food” depending on who you ask. This term is attributed to Australian veterinarian and early champion of raw food awareness, Ian Billinghurst. If you follow his work (several published books and an internet presence), you’ll see his approach change over time, from a diet plan very much along the lines of what most consider “prey model” now, to one that includes a lot of ground veggies, fruit, herbs, flax seeds, and things like yogurt in a ground form. He even sells this food construct as frozen patties thru his website, BARFWorld. The “extras” content is what a lot of people use to distinguish a “prey model” approach from a “BARF” approach to raw feeding, though that’s not the end of it. I feel the term “BARF” is pretty outmoded these days, and I also strenuously object to any diet plan that comes in a ground or highly processed form without emphasis on the need for whole parts and pieces. Therefore that’s about all I’m going to say on that!
Roughly 15,000 years ago (or as little as 8,000 and as much as 32,000 according to some sources) the domestication of the wolf resulting in today’s dogs began. Modern scientists attribute the domestication of the cat to the ancient Egyptians about 10,000 years ago. Domesticity and all that comes with it has changed for humans and our pets over those thousands of years. For most households with dogs and cats nowadays, if done at all hunting is a seasonal activity for partial subsistence or sport and is not a regular requirement for basic sustenance. The process doesn’t necessarily even include the pets! Thus the need to formulate pet diets using the natural diet as a model rather than a reality: The impracticality of providing whole prey and the space to eat it in our modern homes.
OK, SO WHAT IS THIS ‘PREY MODEL’, ANYWAY?
The prey model is exactly as it sounds. It is the practice of looking to the physiological make-up of a natural prey animal, and the observed eating patterns of those animals by wolves (our dogs’ living ancestors) or wild cats or other predatory carnivores, for a “recipe” that we can use to practically feed our domesticated companions. (I will also take this opportunity to point out that ALL domestic animals and livestock can benefit from their own version of species-appropriate feeding, from fish to guinea pigs to chickens to horses. Seems there’s a “kibble” for every species these days!)
The idea behind the prey model is that nature has everything figured out, more or less. All we have to do is follow that plan to keep our kitchen-wolves and wildcats happy and healthy. There is one axiom a pet owner must accept before deciding that this is the correct approach: Our domestic carnivores are just that — carnivores. Whether “obligate” like cats and ferrets or more “opportunistic” like dogs, they have the digestive process and physiology of an animal that best derives sustenance from eating other animals. This, in my opinion, is more than easily acceptable fact, with proof coming from everywhere from scientific journals to simply taking a look at the dog or cat sitting by your feet as you read this.
Sourcing appropriate and practical parts, pieces, chunks, and smaller “whole prey” animals that fit into your lifestyle can be done in a variety of ways. Some raw feeders use only the meat section of their usual grocery store or butcher. Others hunt and/or fish, or connect with outdoorsmen or guides to acquire deer, fowl, fish, and other appropriate wild game. Raw feeders in more population-dense areas have formed co-ops and buyers groups which welcome new members. Restaurant suppliers and wholesalers will often deal with individuals willing to purchase in relative volume to save money. Some pet supply stores and boutiques meet the needs of raw feeders, and make available not only frozen ground food, but meaty bones and small whole prey.
BUT WHAT’S A PREY ANIMAL MADE OUT OF?
Of course to model a diet off a natural prey animal, one must know what one is and what one consists of, and in what proportion. First-hand experience with dressing and butchering animals for meat is not a skill most of us grow up with, though having had my own introduction to it as an extension of raw-feeding I do highly recommend the learning experience if you can make it happen! If that’s a little too hands-on, that’s OK, though.
The paragon of the natural prey animal for dogs (of all shapes and sizes) is members of the deer family — e.g., white tailed deer, mule deer, elk, caribou, moose. (Also see P.L. article, “A Brief Look At the Prey Model, With Excerpt From Barry Lopez“). Contrary to popular belief, cats have different needs than dogs, (though both are carnivores) and their natural fare consists of frequent meals of rodents and small birds.
From the viewpoint of a predator, a member of the deer family roughly consists of about 70% – 80% meat, fat, skin, fascia, and connective tissue; 10% – 15% edible bone, ligaments, and tendons; and 10% – 15% certain internal organs and glands. The stomach, intestines, and lungs of a prey animal are physically large, but not observed to be choice food for wild canids and are usually considered by raw feeders as “sometimes food” and part of the general “meat” allotment — if fed at all — rather than that of the vitamin-rich internal organs — the dark red squishy or really fatty ones. Of those internal organs the liver is the biggest, with the kidneys following that. (For more see P.L. article, “What Is Classified As Organ?“). While an ideal diet would include a representation of even the smallest glands, a perfectly good diet can be fed that does not, though liver and arguably kidney are crucial for maintaining good health. Other natural prey like rabbits and smaller mammals have a slightly closer ratio of meat/fat to organ/bone.
Another issue when practically putting together the diet using your “prey model” is what meat to use. Unless you hunt or have hunter connections, you likely won’t be feeding actual natural prey animals. More commonly available meat comes from domestic livestock, including, beef/veal, pork, and lamb/mutton, and the less common goat, bison, and rabbit. While it is the author’s opinion that “red meat” is important to nutrition, it is perfectly viable to utilize “white meat” like chicken, turkey, quail, and other birds, as well as fish (see Gone Fishin’). Poultry is especially nice for it’s edible bone content for even the smallest dog or cat and availability at good prices. This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of possible food animals. One can make use of a variety of protein sources. The only real limitation is your own resourcefulness, and while variety is really important to cover nutritional bases, I will caution against “variety for variety’s sake. The “prey model” not only can help you determine in what ratio to feed parts, but can serve as a guide in choosing what animals to feed. For example, since we know that deer and small mammals make up the majority of a “natural” diet, it becomes obvious that feeding a diet that includes a lot of squid isn’t going to serve your “prey model” very well. No in-depth nutritional analysis needed.
One of the most vital lessons I think we can derive from looking at our “prey model” and one SO detrimentally underscored in the current raw feeding community is the importance of the non-nutritive aspects of the prey-predator relationship to food: Actually working to eat food, not just having the constituent parts cut up into “bite-sized” pieces or ground. The importance of food as an activity and ‘toothbrush’ I do not feel is an optional part of the ‘prey model’ method of feeding.
WHAT ABOUT SUPPLEMENTS?
I plan on writing a separate article regarding supplementation, but feel it’s important to address the issue here, too. Pages of online communities that discuss raw food are full of suggestions to feed things like coconut oil, turmeric/golden paste, fish oil, milk kefir, yogurt, and a host of other foods as “supplements”. A “prey model” diet is not mutually exclusive of supplements, but no matter the diet choice I urge people to consider what they’re utilizing as a supplement and consider carefully what the substance is supplementING. A supplement replaces or augments a nutritional gap in the diet. Presumably from the prey model approach you have identified a missing element that you can’t source in proper amounts given the meats you have available to you, and need to go outside of more ‘natural’ meat/bone/organ sources to provide the nutrient. Fish oil is a very good example: When a diet consists of conventional (grain-fed) meat, the Omega-3 EFA content will be low, and the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 EFA out of balance. Fish body oil (like salmon oil) is a great substance to use to add O3’s and close the gap of O3 to O6. You’re not going to see a wolf or a feral dog refining oil out of fish just to get at the O3’s, but that’s why you feed it: Your dog isn’t a wolf. It should also be noted that “supplement” is also not synonymous with “therapy” or “medication”. Natural substances that are used to heal or treat medical conditions are not “supplements”.
I hope that this article has helped to make the “what and how” behind a good raw diet more accessible. For more practical “how-to” suggestions for getting started with feeding a raw diet please check out the links page and/or Reading and Resources article.
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