“We have seen a steady increase in the number of people who are asking for help with making a homemade diet,” says Sarah Abood, DVM, PhD, an assistant professor of small animal clinical sciences at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
The trend toward homemade dog food began about 10 years ago, and the “vast majority” of owners still feed their dogs commercial pet foods, Abood says. But she noticed stronger interest in homemade meals after the spring 2007 recall of melamine-tainted pet food.
Aside from product contamination scares, some pet owners believe that homemade meals are a fresher alternative to commercially made pet food. “There are other pet owners who have a lot of time and have a very strong bond with their animal and feel that if they’re going to eat healthy, they want their animal to eat healthy, too.”
Owners may also cook for their pets as an “expression of affection” says Claudia Kirk, DVM, PhD, DACVN, DACVIM, a professor of medicine and nutrition at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. “Pets are like their children.”
Homemade Dog Food: Balanced Nutrition
So you’re tempted to try home cooking for Bruiser or Muffy. What should you consider?
Whether owners are getting recipes from a book, the Internet, or through a veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist, one concern tops the list. “We want to make sure the recipe is going to provide something that is complete and balanced for the animal,” Abood says. “From a nutritional standpoint, that is the biggest challenge that someone has when trying to feed homemade.”
There are no magic foods or ingredients, Abood says. Rather, “dogs and cats, like people, have requirements for nutrients, not ingredients. You can step away from the whole idea that ‘my animal has to have blueberries’ or ‘my cat needs to have fish.’”
Commercial pet foods are formulated to provide adequate nutrients, she says. But dog owners who make homemade dog food must make sure that the diet contains a protein source, a carbohydrate source, sufficient vitamins and minerals, and some fat. “Animals do have a requirement for a small amount of fat,” Abood says.
Home cooks can combine protein and carbohydrates in various combinations, including lamb and rice, beef and potatoes, or chicken and pasta. “Carbohydrates are an inexpensive source of energy and provide some essential amino acids and fatty acids,” Abood says.
In addition, “a variety of vegetables would be perfectly appropriate,” she says, although veterinarians caution against onions and garlic, which can be toxic to dogs.
Other foods to avoid: raisins, grapes, macadamia nuts, chocolate, and raw meat, which exposes dogs to risks, such as salmonella and E. coli. All meat should be cooked, say Kirk and Abood.
Homemade Dog Food: Balanced Nutrition continued…
Although owners can find abundant recipes for homemade dog food on the Internet and in books, “I would really encourage pet owners to take those recipes to their veterinarian and ask if the veterinarian could help them figure out if it’s balanced,” Abood says.
“Furthermore, owners doing homemade diets should have their pet and the diet evaluated at least two times a year.” Owners should also remember that dogs in different life stages or with medical disorders may have very different dietary needs than a normal, healthy adult dog.
Owners can also seek out a reputable veterinary nutritionist to help them create a balanced diet, Kirk says. Often, these experts can be found through a nearby veterinary school, or may be available to consult with your regular veterinarian via telephone or the Internet.
For pet owners who want to find dog food recipes online, Kirk and Abood suggest web sites that are operated by board-certified veterinary nutritionists. But owners will have to purchase the recipes or supplements required to balance the diets.
Homemade Dog Food: Supplementation
Do dogs eating homemade dog food need supplementation to ensure that they’re getting adequate nutrients? Abood and Kirk say yes.
They say nutritional deficiencies can lead to health problems. “Calcium is probably the most common deficiency in a homemade diet that isn’t professionally balanced,” Kirk says. When dogs don’t get enough calcium, they’re prone to a condition called nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism, which can cause soft bones and fractures, she says.
Abood has seen such effects on young dogs eating unbalanced homemade diets. “We see problems with their bone growth — either they’re obviously not growing normally, so you see bent limbs, or they’re actually bent and bowed,” she says. “It can also be severe enough that we see broken bones.”
“If you correct the diet, you sometimes can correct the actual problem with the growth,” Abood adds.
Besides calcium, other vitamins and minerals are important, too, including magnesium, iron, and zinc, Abood says. “You need to have those covered, and it’s very challenging.”
Pet owners should ask their veterinarians for advice on supplementation.
Homemade Dog Food: Time and Cost
Of course, it’s more time-consuming to cook than to buy pet food at the store. As for cost, “much depends on the size of the animal,” Abood says.
Big dogs, for instance, Saint Bernards and Rottweilers, are costlier to feed than small breeds.
“If they have a dog that’s over 50 or 60 lbs. — and they have two of them — absolutely, the cost is going to be more, relative to the owner that has two miniature poodles or a Yorkie,” Abood says.
It’s also important that owners remember to stay diligent and strictly adhere to the recommended dietary formula. Many owners, over time, will make small adjustments to the diet because of the ease of cooking or cost of ingredients, a phenomenon called “recipe drift”. You shouldn’t make these changes without consulting a veterinarian, as they might lead to malnourishment.
Homemade Dog Food: Shelf-life and Storage
Commercially prepared foods have a long shelf life. Not so with homemade meals, Abood says. “It’s a ‘pro’ that you’re choosing fresh ingredients; it’s a ‘con’ that you don’t have a long shelf life.”
For small dogs, owners can concoct a big batch, freeze it, and pull out portions as needed. “It’s going to last for quite a while,” Abood says. But meals for big dogs are best stored in the refrigerator because, as Abood says, “It’s going to be gone in two or three days.”
The bottom line: Home-cooked diets can be very healthy and rewarding for owners, but require a time commitment and extra cost from the owner, and consultation with a veterinarian to make sure the diet isn’t causing harm.