I began this journey with the intention of getting my dog started on a home prepared diet and also be able to help out my customers that may be curious of feeding a home prepared diet or just want to offer some fresher options with their dog’s kibble. I do not really have any experience with a home cooked diet. I generally end up going raw with my dog or foster dogs and if that is not well tolerated I will do a dehydrated food for convenience. Since I work for an independent pet food retailer, my dog mainly gets commercially prepared raw. She is always more than willing to test out the new products and takes her job as food tester very seriously. I became interested in home prepared diets for a couple reasons. The first was the recent development of seizures in my dog. I wanted to eliminate any unnecessary foods from her diet that could potentially contribute to the seizures. Being a vegan, I am also very conscious about where food is sourced. Many companies may claim their chicken is ‘cage-free’ or their beef ‘free-range’. However there is rarely information beyond that about where the meat is actually sourced and the treatment of those animals. With growing pesticide use and exponentially growing number of GMO products it is also hard to find companies that will divulge this information if they even know it.
As with most caring pet owners, one of the biggest concerns is the ability to create a balanced recipe to make sure all nutrients requirements are met. The more I read and researched, a standard added multivitamin/mineral was not the best way to go. After all, I was going for more whole food nutrients, not just replacing the added vitamins and minerals in the raw food I am feeding with different ones. While it is extremely important to meet the nutrient requirements, it is not extremely critical to meet them with every meal. A home cooked meal allows you to tailor each meal based on fresh, seasonal ingredients and your dog’s health needs. While having a healthy dog allows you to be a little more flexible with diet, a pre-existing condition such pancreatitis, or cushing’s can have a diet more nutritionally tailored to that condition.
Home prepared diets can be highly beneficial for all dogs but particularly those with some developing or pre-existing conditions that require specific nutrient guidelines. Some diseases that benefit greatly from a home prepared diet include kidney disease, pancreatitis, irritable bowel disease, diabetes/obesity and urinary tract disorders. This is just the tip of the iceberg where we see a host of benefits. Many age-related issues can be alleviated or at least the progression slowed when a diet is switched from a highly processed dry or canned food to a fresh cooked or raw diet. Whether the diet is cooked or raw, many dogs will benefit from having the majority of their calories coming from quality meat sources. Some older dogs may that have been on raw may benefit switching to a cooked diet in order to enhance digestion. Kidney disease is one of the prominent afflictions we see in pets today and I have heard endless stories of success in slowing or even stopping progression of the disease through a closely monitored home-cooked diet utilizing moderate amounts of highly digestible meat and low phosphorus foods. Food allergies, sensitivities and IBD are the current epidemic of the pet world. One of the benefits of creating a home prepared diet is you have 100% control over the ingredients in the food. It’s not longer a matter of hunting high and low to find the most limited ingredient food or finding a nutritional panel “close enough” to what you think will do best for your dog or cat. This saves stress on you as well as a lot of discomfort from your pet. I think our pets appreciate home-cooked more than they do a corn-based prescription food sprayed with animal digest.
What does it take to ensure that delicious home prepared diet is balanced? It generally takes a canine or veterinary nutritionist and/or a little homework utilizing some online tools. In the beginning of the home prepared diet, say you are doing an elimination diet, the recipe may not be balanced. You start with a few basic ingredients to make for an easy transition and make sure the dog doesn’t react. A few days or weeks on a non-balanced diet will be ok. It is important to start slowly mixing in more foods and slowly adding in needed supplements. One place to find nutritional information on the food you are feeding is through the USDA Nutrition Data website. This will give you the nutrient values of the foods you are using as well as create whole recipes and determine the nutritional gaps. The Nutrition Research Council has both a textbook and an online resource to find the general nutritional requirements for dogs and cats. You do have to know a bit of math but once you have the basics figured out, like your dog’s metabolic weight, the rest is just a matter of punching in a few numbers to personalize Nutrition Data to your dog.
Variety is truly the spice of life here. When you start punching in those numbers, the nutrient levels are going to start vary depending on the meats and vegetables used. In my personal experience, there are a few nutrients that have to be added to almost every meal in order to meet minimum requirements. These include calcium, Vitamin D, and Vitamin E. There are a variety of other trace minerals that change based on the vegetable content however these three nutrients are very difficult to find using food sources. Calcium sources are easy to find such as bone meal (be careful of sourcing with this one), eggshells (my personal favorite) or calcium carbonate/citrate.
The other major player in these diets is the inclusion or lack thereof of organ meat. Organ meats tend to be very nutritionally dense and where a lot of B vitamins, vitamin A, iron and other trace minerals can be found. Without including organ meat you will most likely be adding in a greater number of supplements such as iron, copper, zinc, choline, etc. to meet minimum requirements. This all depends on the type of meat used and vegetables included of course and this varies greatly. Not all animals tolerate organ meats so this may not even be an option for you. It can also be a challenge to find quality sourcing. Since many of these organs are utilized to help clean the blood and excrete waste from the system it is critical to find natural sources without antibiotics or hormones and preferably grass-fed, free range animals. This is where it can get a little pricey.
One thing to remember with home prepared diets is that it gives you the opportunity to tailor the diet to your own dog’s needs. You may use recipes you found in a book or online but this should only be used as a guideline. Even if the book claims the diet to be complete and balanced, punch the information into your Nutrition Data account and double check. One change in ingredients (it can be as simple as substituting in a single vegetable or using a slightly different cut of meat) will change the overall nutrient content. I strongly recommend working with your veterinarian and/or canine nutritionist throughout this process. It is important to know if your dog or cat has any pre-existing issues prior to starting the diet so you can adjust as needed. It also helps to have record of what you have been feeding, the amount, and how often. Sometimes knowing a little history will help immensely if an emergency arrives.
Making a home prepared diet for your dog or cat should not be a chore. It should be a fun experience that both you and your pet enjoy. Utilizing whole foods and getting to experience a healthier, happier pet is worth the bit or research, reading and math that goes into the home prepared diet.
My life has gone to the dogs. I've worked in shelters, dog daycares, veterinary offices and local pet food retailers. I've seen all aspects of the pet world and I've got a theme that keeps popping up. Let's get back to basics, keep it simple. In my mind, it all starts with good food and using what nature has to offer.