Home Podcast TOP #39: Benefits of Commercial Raw Dog Food Diets

TOP #39: Benefits of Commercial Raw Dog Food Diets

Feeding your dog raw pet food remains a controversial topic, with some claiming it's the healthiest way to feed dogs due to how their ancestors survived, and others saying that it's a dangerous option due to possible bacteria and parasites. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. So what are the facts on the benefits of commercial raw dog food diets, its possible dangers and how to avoid them?

On this podcast, I had the pleasure to interview Mark Sapir from Stella & Chewy’s, a well-known pet food brand with a great reputation. The company is focused on making raw dog food accessible to canines in a healthy and safe way. Their diets go through rigorous testing to prevent any bacteria or parasites.

Mark explained a little more about what raw dog food brands really offer, what are their benefits, and whether it's always the right option for dogs of any breed, age and size. This turned out to be a very educational podcast, which I recommend you listen to if you're interested in feeding your pet commercial raw pet food brands.

Listen to the episode in the video above and find the full podcast transcript below. For more, visit this episode’s post on the official Theory of Pets website.

Benefits of Commercial Raw Dog Food Diets
(podcast transcript)

Benefits of Commercial Raw Dog Food Diets

The raw diet is a very controversial topic in the pet industry right now. Some pet owners feel that our pets' ancestors ate a raw diet and that it's best to feed our domesticated animals the same type of food. On the other hand, there are people who believe that raw food can be a house for bacteria and some very dangerous parasites that could make our pets sick.

So which side of the fence should you be on? Is raw food safe? Is it harmful to our dogs? Is it healthy? Is it going to give your pet all the nutrition that they need?

Today, I was able to speak with Mark Sapir, and he is the Chief Marketing Officer at Stella & Chewy's. Stella & Chewy's is a company, if you've done any research on the topic of raw food, you certainly have heard this name before. They focus on making healthy and safe commercial raw food for our pets. Mark was able to tell me more about the diet, its pros and cons, the benefits of buying a commercial raw diet instead of making your own at home. And we also chatted a little bit about the company's newest products which is really neat and innovative. It's actually a kibble, but it's been rolled in the company's raw food mix. So it's a kibble that still offers the benefits of raw, which is something that I think is going to pique the interest of a lot of pet owners.

So without further ado, this is what Mark had to say —

Interview with Mark Sapir

Mark: You know, we launched this business almost 15 years ago and our founder, Marie Moody, had two dogs who were Stella and Chewy's. They're not mythical figures; they're real dogs that had real challenges with nutrition. Fifteen years ago, really, commercialized raw diets didn't exist. Marie went to the vet and starting learning about nutrition and diets. The internet didn't really exist. She was reading books and talking to vets and nutritionists.

It became clear to her that her dogs would thrive on a diet that was most similar to what dogs ate in the wild; not necessarily manufactured food as it existed that day, but a raw diet. And sure enough, she started feeding her dogs a raw diet — fresh meat and organs — and her dogs began to thrive. It became very clear to her that nutrition matters.

As a pet parent who loves her dogs, it became very clear that there was an opportunity to help pet parents, because no one was commercially making a raw pet food diet available. And she started in her own kitchen and her own apartment in Brooklyn at the time, going to the butcher's and getting meat and making this diet and then door to door in Manhattan, taxi by taxi, developing at the time what was a frozen business and taking it to stores and building the business, door-by-door.

And not surprisingly, it began to take off, because pet parents want the best for their animals and they were seeing a meaningful difference in terms of vitality, in terms of palatability, in terms of performance. It got bigger and bigger and bigger, and it got so big that she needed to come back to Wisconsin where she grew up and start making the food. That's when she created our first kitchen, and now we're onto our fourth kitchen as demand has increased, and the business has evolved.

We've gone from frozen to adding a freeze-dried component, which is for many pet parents more convenient and shelf-stable and doesn't require the preparation or the storage. We've added a meal mixer which allows the pet parents the ability to introduce some raw into the bowl and not necessarily feed raw exclusively. Then more recently, we've launched a baked kibble with a raw coating and an element of raw.

And that's sort of our evolution of the business. We really do believe in the power of a raw diet. For me, as a pet parent, it provides a great solution for a lot of people. I mean if your dog's finicky, it's a great solution. If your dog has certain pet sensitivities to ingredients, a great solution, because the far far majority of our diets are true limited ingredient diets, and they're one protein and that's it. Our diets are high and rich in omegas. It's great for skin and coat. Our diets are high in glucosamine chondroitin naturally because of the bone in them.

So it really provides a great solution for a lot of pet parents, and we're seeing more and more pet parents get more interested and knowledgeable on what's in their pet food. And as they've gotten more diligent, more deliberate, they're gravitating towards solutions like ours that are more pristine solutions for their animals.

Samantha: Absolutely. And I know, you know, a lot of… You talked a little bit about nutritional challenges and those seem to be becoming more commonly seen in a lot of pets.

So one of the big things I always hear from people about the raw food diet is that major difference between raw and traditional commercial diets that include some fillers, artificial ingredients, some ingredients that aren't as healthy for our pets. And the raw diet, at the same time as people are thinking that there are some healthier aspects to it as well, there are a lot of people that worry about the raw diet and contamination of the food and things like that. Can you speak on that?

Mark: Yes, I'd love to speak on both the ingredients and the food. I agree with you on ingredients, I mean, the reality is every single one of our diets at its foundation, is 90-95% meat, organs, and bones. So essentially outside of vitamins and minerals and some vegetables, you are getting 95% meat, organs, and bones, and the ingredients are proudly put on the label, the sourcing we're proud of — all of these are coming from a USDA-inspected facility. None of this is 4D meat, it can't be 4D meat.

It's meat, organs, and bones, so I think the ingredients matter and the beautiful thing about a raw diet is 90-95% meat, organs, and bones, and that to me, as a pet parent, gives me a lot of confidence in what I'm feeding.

Separately, I think there are a lot of questions on the safety of raw food, and there should be because pet parents want to know what they're feeding their dogs is safe. And I will tell you, when this business originally launched, you know Marie was making this stuff in her own kitchen, which probably, candidly, wasn't the most safe solution.

And I think Marie quickly realized about two years into her journey that it wasn't enough just to have great nutrition, but it needed to come with food safety. She was keenly aware of pathogens and she knew she needed to figure out a way to eliminate pathogens to not only deliver great nutrition but to delivery food safety. And Marie looked everywhere.

She knew she wasn't going to cook the food, because that obviously changes the value of the food and Marie found HPP which was being used on the human side. It's recognized by the FDA as a pathogen-killing.

And she started doing tests with HPP, and she quickly realized that it would allow her to eliminate pathogens but at the same time not de-nature or not devalue the nutrition value or the palatability. And at the time, which was a very controversial decision and not wildly embraced by the pet community, made a commitment to HPP every single product, because she felt and we still continue to feel that it's the safest way to deliver raw that eliminates pathogens but still delivers all the value of a raw diet.

And initially there were other competitors that didn't participate. It seems like, over time, more and more and the far majority of people are now HPPing, because it's what, we think, a required step to ensure food safety and to make sure our food is pathogen-free and that's something we do. I know there are people that don't, and that's their path and I can only worry about our business and what we think is best for pet parents. We believe strongly that it provides extra protection and allows our products to be pathogen-free.

Beyond that, as an organization, we have a tremendous amount of procedures in place to ensure food safety starting from all of our incoming ingredients, making sure they're coming from qualified sources that are USDA or equivalent-inspected. When the meat comes we have our own process to ensure that the meat is coming in clean. And, in fact, our kitchens we're constantly testing for pathogens, environmentally. We're testing product as we make it, significantly, to make sure before we release anything, we hold it to ensure that it's pathogen-free.

So it's not just leaning on HPP as that step. It's a collective and holistic approach to food safety that we're proud of. And it's always improving and always getting better just like any business. That's how we approach food safety, and that's what we do to ensure for pet parents that they're getting product they can feel good about in terms of nutrition as well as food safety.

Samantha: So that's a big difference. The first thing that I thought of, as I'm listening to you talk, is it's such a huge difference between making your own raw food at home. Because, of course, then you're responsible for the ingredients that are going into it and the way that they're prepared and making sure that you're following as many food safety guidelines as you can. And I think what you said in the beginning with Stella and Chewy's cooking it in just a standard kitchen, obviously, not for lack of caring about your pet. But it's just impossible to get it as safe as a commercial raw diet can get it when you use those other technologies.

Mark: I think that's fair. I'm not suggesting people shouldn't make homemade food. I think it's wonderful that people have the passion and the time and the resources to do that. And I think more than likely it's perfectly safe and more than likely even if somehow salmonella from the counter top, from something else, or a sort of environmental pathogen got in there, I think we all know dogs are fairly resistant.

So, again, I don't want to suggest that we're anti-people-making-their-food-at-home. We just provide what we think is a great solution for those that perhaps don't have the resources, time. As well, we have a lot of steps in there that should give them the confidence in food safety, as well.

But the reality is, and I think pet parents know this that make their own food, there's always risk with pathogens because they're everywhere and they're around and we should all be aware of that. We're certainly aware of it, and that's why we do everything we do to ensure food safety.

Samantha: Yes. Absolutely. I agree. And certainly, there are pet parents out there that have the time, the ability to make the food at home. But it certainly sounds like a commercial raw food diet, there's a lot of safety measures in place that you can't get at home, first of all. And second of all, when I talk to anybody or anybody asks me about the raw food diet, it's almost instantly the concern is the safety of it.

So it sounds like, to me, that going commercial, it's a way for pet owners to still provide the benefits, the health benefits, of the raw food diet. But they don't have to worry about contaminating themselves, or their pets at home, or anything like that in dealing with actually creating the raw food themselves.

Mark: Yes. I agree with that. And I think pet parents should do their research. There are different raw providers that have different standards and different requirements. We're proud of our requirements. There are other raw diets that likely have similar expectations and requirements. But pet parents, as they're making decision, should do their research and I'm confident when they do, they'll see what makes us unique and special.

Samantha: With feeding a raw diet, are there certain vitamins, minerals that you add to the raw food? Or do they all… Everything that a dog would naturally need, does it come from the ingredients itself?

Mark: Yes. Great question. We do add vitamins and minerals, and we think it's important. And I will tell you — 99% of everything that's required comes naturally. Likely on many levels, everything comes naturally. But the reality is, when you're dealing with natural ingredients, right, apples and meat. An apple today isn't apple tomorrow. A piece of meat today isn't exactly a piece of meat tomorrow. Naturally, there's inconsistencies. Right?

Samantha: Of course.

Mark: And separately, naturally, vitamins and minerals break down. And the vitamins and minerals of an apple today are different than what they are in 20 days. And oftentimes, that's basically produce come in and out. It changes.

Samantha: Sure.

Mark: And we don't feel, personally as a company, that it's in the best interest of pet parents not to add extra insurance and add vitamins and minerals in addition to 100% be confident that every single bag from day 1 to day 360 is 100% delivering on those AAFCO required vita-minerals to allow for great nutrition and vitality.

So we do deliberately and intentionally add vitamins and minerals, and we think that's the most responsible thing. If we didn't, we would literally feel like it's required to test every single bag, given the inconsistencies and we would feel less confident at day 360 than we do now, where we know we're completely 100% compliant from day 1 to the end of our shelf-cycle. And that's why we do it. That's why human-state vitamins and minerals, similarly, in the same way and why we made that decision. Again, there are different companies out there that have different approaches. Our approach is always about pet parents and always about what we think is right for their dogs. And we think that's the right thing to do.

Samantha: Yes. Certainly. I agree with that, as well. And are there some dogs who, or pets in general, I guess — are there health conditions or anything like that, are there certain types of dogs that shouldn't be eating a raw food diet? Or is it something that's healthy for all dogs and all life stages?

Mark: I need to be careful on that. Because to blanket suggest that, I think, would be irresponsible. Meaning there are diets, or dogs, that perhaps have a specific issue. Maybe it's a disease, and they need a diet that has less than 8% fat, so…

Samantha: Right. Absolutely.

Mark: — So I don't want to blanket say that our diet is appropriate for every dog out there. I think if your dog has an issue, you need to lean on the vet more specifically. I can say for 98% of dogs that don't have a specific sort of more issue, it's a great diet. It's great nutrition. It's unbelievably high in protein. It's unbelievably low in carbs. It's great fuel that dogs thrive on. And beyond thrive on love, if you've ever put a bowl of freeze-dried down versus a bowl of kibble, it's a different…

Samantha: Absolutely.

Mark: Most dogs will eat anything. I get it. But those dogs that are finicky or even not the level of excitement is different and unmatched. But yet for the far, far more majority of dogs that are eating kibble, it's a great solution. I just want to be careful to say it's great for everyone, because there's a minority dogs that have specific issues and they need a specifically-catered, perhaps, diet and the vet should help them more on solution.

Samantha: Yes. Absolutely. And I agree with that, as well. But the raw diet, it's safe for puppies, for older senior dogs.

Mark: Yes. 100%. It's great for… It's an all life-stage diet. And, obviously, to be able to say that it's not just me with an opinion, AAFCO, has strict guidelines of what is appropriately for all life stages in terms of calcium, in terms of sodium, in terms of vitamin D. We craft these diets to make sure we are completely compliant for all life stages. It's great diet for all life stages. It's a great diet for small breed to big breed. And we truly believe that any element of raw in a dog's diet is better than none and there's positive that come from it. We have a lot of different ways and different offerings that allow pet parents to feed their dogs exclusively or to feed it as an element.

I think, right now, on our frozen, the far majority of people that frozen, it's a great economical way to feed raw. On our freeze-dried business I'd say it's split — half of them feed exclusively and likely buy our patties, and half of them buy our meal mixers and love the ability to boost nutrition and boost palatability in their dog's kibble.

Samantha: Yes. And that's actually a perfect segue, because now I want to jump in and kind of talk more about Stella and Chewy's. And you have touched on the many different products so it allows that flexibility of do you want to feed 100% raw. And I know, for a lot of pet owners, it's not that they don't want to feed a high-quality raw diet, but it may be an affordability issue. It's just it's too expensive. So you have other alternatives to add toppers and mixers and just kind of add those benefits to your everyday kibble diet, which, I think is great. One, it makes it more affordable, which all of us are on a budget now. So that's a big concern for a lot of people that I speak with, a lot of pet owners.

But it also makes it easy for pet owners in the frozen as well. If you think about making raw food at home, what does that entail? First of all, before you even begin, it's a ton of research and a ton of work to figure out the recipes for your dog's nutritional needs. And then it's all the prep work and things like that. You have to go to the store. You have to go to the butcher shop. You have to get the ingredients and you have to prep them.

So there's a lot of great benefits all around with all of the Stella and Chewy's lines, which is what sticks out to me, really, about the brand. I mean, it's obviously the high-quality diet, but that you really make it easy for pet owners to pick whatever they need, whether it's a full-on diet or whether it's just a little food topper, something extra to give their dog the nutritional benefits.

Mark: Yes. Thank you for your feedback and I agree. I think we recognize that not everyone can feed 100% exclusive raw. That doesn't suggest they're not great pet parents. It's just the reality.

But we've provided a lot of different ways to either feed raw exclusively or to provide more pet parents an opportunity to introduce raw and have an element of raw. So we have a frozen business, and our frozen business is where we started. The benefit of the frozen business — it is the most pristine way of delivering raw. It's basically meat that's grinded and HPP'd and immediately frozen and packaged. As well as it's a more economical way. It's about 35% cheaper to feed a raw diet frozen than it is freeze-dried. So for those that are most often all in, frozen is a great way to feed raw exclusively.

Separately, we recognize that not everyone is feeding exclusively as well; not everyone perhaps has the time to let it thaw and prepare. For me, I can use raw, I put it out the night before, and it's fairly methodical. But for other people, look people are busy. That's why we launched freeze-dried. Freeze-dried is shelf stable, so it doesn't require freezing. It doesn't require thawing. It's just like our pantry. You take it in and out, and you feed it. And that's the benefit of our freeze-dried diet.

We have patties that make great meal solution. We provide feeding guidelines and it's a fairly easy transition from kibble to freeze-dried. And that's why we have our patties business. Then separately, about four years ago, we recognized that many consumers weren't feeding freeze-dried exclusively. About half of them were adding it to their kibble, which is great. It's a great way to make kibble more interesting for the dog and more palatable and more nutritious.

We launched meal mixers which is a bit more convenient way to add raw into their kibble bowl and it's a sort of smaller shape, more kibble-esque, and allows you to sort of mix it in and the dogs go crazy. Unfortunately, pet parents find that often dogs find the raw and pick out the raw first and then get to the kibbles. It just shows you the power of raw. And then they end up adding two scoops and three scoops and the dogs are delighted and we're delighted, because they're getting more raw into the diet.

But meal mixers make it really easy and convenient and affordable for pet parents to begin to introduce raw into the bowl. And that business has become bigger and bigger as more and more people are curious of raw, but perhaps not yet ready or truly aware of all the benefits to easily engage and not change their behavior. It seems to be a sort of gateway of people into raw.

Having said that, we recognized years ago that that looking at the kibble landscape, that we felt there was an opportunity to come out with a better kibble, a less processed kibble, a kibble with better ingredients, in a kibble with an element of raw. We've spent three years developing that. We know there's a lot of kibbles out there. We wanted to do something that was unique and special and more consistent with Stella and provided pet parents that were feeding kibble a better solution and allowed them to introduce to our brand and make eating raw or an element of raw more convenient.

That's really why we launched kibble. And I think, for us, we will still continue at our foundation to have raw, frozen, and freeze-dried. But the reality is it's not truly available for everyone in terms of resources and costs. For many, it's not perfectly convenient. You got to get the kibble, and you got to get the raw. For us launching a great kibble with an element of raw is a perfect solution for a wide number of people. And the initial reaction we have gotten is unbelievably positive. We're excited to have that as a complement to our raw for those that are feeding kibble but want something better.

I think, to me, what makes our kibble special and unique is one, is we bake our kibble. And the far majority of kibbles out there in the world are extruded. Extruding was created about 80 years ago by big manufacturers, because it allowed them to make a lot of product quickly and cheaply. The downside of it is it basically nukes the kibble as a kill step and much of the nutritional value and much of the sort of overall value is destroyed. Then they try to offset that at the end by adding stuff.

For us, it was really important to get into kibble to do it a less processed way, in a more, what we think is nutritious way, and that's baking it. The temperatures in baking it is at the max 200 degrees, and it's a slow-cook which big kibble players don't like because it's slow and that ruins efficiency. For us, it's less about efficiency, it's more about nutrition. It's a more nutritious kibble because it's baked and that is a big point of difference, and it's more consistent with our philosophy that less processed is better and that's what we're doing.

Separately, our ingredients are different. The far majority of kibbles out there aren't using grass-fed beef. They're not using cage-free chicken. They're not using organ meat. We love organ meat. We know how important organ meat is in our raw diet and we're proudly putting it into our kibble as primary ingredients. We're putting organic fruits and vegetables into our kibble. When you buy our beef kibble, it's called “Grass-fed beef recipe,” because at least 25% of that bag is grass-fed beef. The far majority of kibbles are beef, plus potatoes, plus lentils because collectively those equal 25%. We don't need to play that game because 25% at least of that bag is proudly beef. Our diets are 70% meat.

So, these are uniquely different kibble offerings than what the far majority of people are doing both in terms of process and ingredients. And, then, the magic is at the end where all of our kibble is coated with our raw.

So, we're taking our raw patties, we're grinding them up and we're coating them on kibble. Which, for dogs, is special and again we're tricking them into thinking this is all raw and the reaction is unbelievable and our food is more palatable. That in tandem makes for what we think is a great kibble solution.

We're excited to partner with Neighborhood Pet and make it available. And initially the reaction has been very positive. For those that couldn't afford or weren't yet ready to go all the way in into raw, it does require educating, it does require a behavior change, it allowed them to not change behavior, but to provide a better kibble and begin to see the benefits of raw.

Samantha: Yes and I will saw too and it's not up on our Top Dog Tips website yet, but I did receive a bag of the new kibble to review and to try with our dogs. So we have a chocolate lab who will eat anything and everything. And it doesn't even need to be food. But then we also have a little beagle mix, and she's very particular. I typically, usually, I feed a homemade — it's cooked, it's not raw — but a homemade dog food diet. So she's had that. We've had her since she was a puppy, and that's pretty much all she's ever known.

So to get her to try and eat traditional, commercial kibble sometimes can be a little challenging. She's even picky with her dog treats, just because she's used to fresh, the protein sources, the enticing smells, and things like that that you don't get with a lot of commercial diet. So she's typically, fairly, picky when it comes to commercial. And she gobbled the Stella and Chewy's right up.

So I think, like you said, just that little coating of raw it sort of tricks them into thinking that they're getting this really enticing raw food when it's actually just a little coating of raw food and then the inside is the kibble.

Mark: Yes. I'm delighted to hear that. And I'm sure the team will be excited and proud, because we spent a lot of time on making sure that this kibble would feed phenomenally well. Obviously nutrition and food safety are important to us, but palatability is a point of difference in everything we do.

We know there's nothing more concerning for a pet parent to see their dog not eating, and palatability is really important. And I'm glad to hear your dog liked it. We're hearing similar feedback from other dogs, and it's rewarding. I really would encourage pet parents, even if the dogs are loving their food, just from a nutrition perspective to consider giving it a try. But also certainly from a palatability perspective, there's a meaningful difference in unlock — and that's great to hear from you. We're always looking at new ways to unlock nutrition and palatability and we're going to continue to do that.

Samantha: If you have any other questions on the raw food diet, either that I could answer for you or that I can pass onto Mark and get an answer for you from Stella and Chewy's, please jump on our website — it's theoryofpets.com. You can leave your questions there. You can send them to me in an audio file. I might use those on future podcasts, which is really helpful for other pet owners that are having the same questions. A lot of you guys have the same types of questions. I have the same questions as you, as well. It's a pet owner thing. We want what's best for our pets, so we end up asking a lot of similar questions. But, of course, if you just want to email those, there's a spot for that, like I said on our website, Theoryofpets.com it'll come to me in an email and I will be sure to get back to you as soon as possible.

PREVIOUS PODCAST: Pet Trainer’s Tips on Dealing With Anxiety in Dogs

Samantha’s biggest passion in life is spending time with her Boxer dogs. After she rescued her first Boxer in 2004, Samantha fell in love with the breed and has continued to rescue three other Boxers since then. She enjoys hiking and swimming with her Boxers, Maddie and Chloe.