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Raw dog food (or near-raw food) gets closest to a dog's natural diet

Although it costs more than kibble or canned, many dog owners say feeding their dogs raw dog food is worth it; several report that their pets' skin problems, bad digestion and other ailments cleared up after switching to raw or near-raw food. You can buy complete raw diets for dogs either frozen or dehydrated.

The Honest Kitchen Embark (Est. $45 for a 4-lb. box) easily wins this category. "My own dogs have been eating The Honest Kitchen at every meal as the foundation of their diet for over 9 years," dog expert Tracie Hotchner says. It's a top pick of every single top expert source that rates dehydrated/raw food.

The Honest Kitchen comes as a dehydrated powder, which you mix with water to make a moist food. The Honest Kitchen uses only human-quality ingredients, and it's made in a U.S. human-food factory. It's one of only 18 pet food companies that have signed the Pledge to Quality and Origin at Susan Thixton's website, TruthAboutPetFood.com, disclosing every ingredient and its source.

Some flavors -- including Embark -- are grain-free. Turkey is its first ingredient, followed by organic flaxseed, potatoes, celery and spinach. Vitamins and chelated minerals are added to make this a complete, balanced food for dogs.

The ingredients aren't quite raw; they're steamed to kill pathogens. The Honest Kitchen recalled some of its food in 2013 after its parsley supplier recalled a shipment for salmonella, and now steams its greens as well as its meats and fish. (It also dropped that parsley supplier.)

Raw food diets are often referred to as BARF, which stands for "biologically appropriate raw food" (though some folks refer to it as "bones and raw food"). It generally focuses on bone-in chicken, bone-in beef, veggies and fruits, and there's a lot of information on it out there. In short, you can throw your dog a whole raw chicken or a whole fish and a bunch of carrots every day and he'll thrive, advocates say. (Raw bones will not splinter and injure a dog as cooked ones will.) One of the leading proponents of a BARF diet is an Australian veterinarian named Ian Billinghurst, who suggests that a dog eat 2 percent of its body weight per day. For example, a 50-pound dog would eat about 1 pound of food per day (this varies, of course, in terms of how active the dog is, how old, metabolism, general health, etc.).

In the U.S., Natural Pet Systems Inc. distributes Billinghurst's BARF Diet products via its website, BarfProducts.com. The products are delivered in freezer packs, with 24 pounds of food per pack (Est. $125 plus shipping). The ingredients are certainly sterling and include beef, lamb, chicken, pork, finely ground beef bones, liver, kidneys and tripe, with fruit and vegetables among the lesser ingredients.

Nature's Variety, Nature's Logic and several other brands sell similar raw frozen diets (in smaller sizes) through local and major online pet-food chains, like Petco.

Of course, if you have the time and inclination, you can make your own homemade dog food. Homemade dog food recipes are time-consuming and messy to make at home, but certainly can be done. A typical homemade raw-food meal might include chicken backs, necks or wings, a couple of beef ribs and an egg. Fish is also highly recommended; an entire raw fish is considered a real treat.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Dog Food: Which are the best dry and canned dog foods? Editors read expert opinions and user reports to identify the top choices.

Dog Food Ingredients: What's in that dog food? We explain which dog food ingredients to look for and which ones to avoid.

Best Dry Dog Food: Which are the best dry dog foods? We look at expert advice to identify the most nutritious choices, and some great budget alternatives.

Canned Dog Food: Which is the best canned dog food? We name top choices based on dog food reviews by experts and dog owners.

Buying Guide: What are the most important considerations when selecting a dry, canned or raw dog food? We discuss what you need to know in this dog food buyer's guide.

Our Sources: Links to the expert and user reviews we used to select the top dog food, along with our assessment of each reviewer's expertise, credibility and helpfulness.

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