In this Springtime Dog Health Spotlight, we examine each of the four major dog feeding styles: dry, wet, raw, and homemade. We’ll go over the basics for each style, the pros/cons, best practices, and things to avoid.
Homemade Dog Food: A Growing Trend
Over the past decade, the popularity of homemade dog food has increased dramatically. This trend has been influenced by recent recalls of commercial dog food products due to accidental contamination and unscrupulous manufacturing practices. Other dog owners have opted for homemade alternatives to combat allergies or simply to improve the dog’s overall well being. Whatever the motivation, the homemade dog food gives owners control over the quality of the food they give their dogs, but these diets require significant research and effort to perfect.
Homemade Dog Food Summary
• Control over the quality of food
• Improved bioavailability of nutrients
• Less processing prevents nutrient loss
• Can help eliminate known allergens
• Lower carbohydrate content prevents weight gain
• Improved water consumption improves kidney function
• Time consuming
• Risk of imbalanced diet causing health issues
• Can lead to weight gain, if fat intake is not monitored
Benefits of Homemade Dog Food
The main benefit of homemade dog food is the higher quality of its human-grade ingredients. Beyond the incidence of tainted commercial dog food, the ingredients that are legally allowed in dog food might surprise the average dog owner. Animal-grade meats (grade-4D) allowed in pet food can come from dying, diseased, and even decaying animals. Animal byproduct meals can include indigestible scraps that are only protein in the technical sense. Moreover, commercial dog foods frequently contain carbohydrate fillers, which contribute to obesity and allergies. They also commonly include undesirable additives, flavorings and preservatives to compensate for the poor quality of the main ingredients. Of course, there are brands of dog food that have higher quality standards, but for the homemade dog food proponent, these standards do not cut it.
Challenges of Homemade Dog Food
The downside of homemade dog food, other than the time and expense, is the very real risk of making the dog sick due to nutritional miscalculations. A balanced diet for a dog is harder than it looks. In fact, a recent study by UC Davis analyzed 200 homemade dog food recipes from various sources and concluded that all but 9 of them were incomplete or imbalanced, according to the standards set forth by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
Help From the Pros
Before attempting a switch to a homemade regimen, a canine nutritionist can be consulted to make recommendations on the dog’s particular needs and how to make the smoothest transition to a new diet. Perhaps the safest route is to get a little help from a complete dog food mix. These are commercially available kits containing some of the more complicated aspects of a dog’s nutritional profile, to which one adds fresh ingredients, such as the meat, eggs, and dairy. This gives the dog owner control over the quality of the protein while eliminating some of the guesswork on the nutrition, assuming the mix meets AAFCO guidelines.
The Basics of Homemade Dog Food
The correct balance is complicated and should be tailored to the particular dog. There are varying opinions on the appropriate percentages of protein, organ meat, fat, and vegetable content, but alas there is no consensus. Some trial and error is to be expected. Health supplements are strongly encouraged to compensate for any nutrients that might be low or poorly absorbed, but a specialist in canine nutrition can help the owner avoid vast miscalculations.
The following is a breakdown of the required components of a homemade dog food:
Protein & Fats
The primary source of protein should be muscle meat from such sources as chicken, beef, lamb, pork, or fish. Game animals can be used as well for pets with protein sensitivities. The fat content will vary between the different proteins as well as the different cuts of meat. It is acceptable to remove excess fat from the meat; however, dogs do need fat for a healthy and balanced diet. If the dog is overweight or prone to digestive upset, removal of the excess fat is fine, as long as some healthy fats, such as fish oil or coconut oil, are added back into the diet. Mixing up the fats and oils will also help avoid any deficiencies in fat-soluble vitamins. Variation in protein sources can also provide a variety of essential amino acids. Table scraps may be used, but these should be proteins that people would eat, not just discarded cuts (e.g., trimmed fat and skin).
Some homemade dog food proponents opt for a raw diet. Raw meat requires special care to avoid food contamination for the dog and its owner. Pork, fish, and rabbit, among others, should be used with caution in a raw diet. These particular proteins have the potential to carry parasites, so it is recommended to cook these thoroughly if you are not 100% confident about the origin of the meats. Raw bones are packed with valuable vitamins and minerals; however, if the dog is not familiar with eating them, broken teeth or dangerous bone splinters can result. When giving a pet raw bones for the first few feedings, they should be monitored closely until they get the hang of it.
Other good sources of protein include eggs and dairy, such as yogurt, cottage cheese, or cheddar/Swiss.
A small percentage of the protein should be organ meat to include essential nutrients found only in these organs. Note that the heart is a muscle, so it doesn’t count as organ meat. It’s important to vary the type of organ meat to prevent hyper-nutrition (e.g., vitamin A toxicity from too much liver). Varying the source of the organ meat will also help provide a variety of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. It’s perfectly acceptable to try chicken gizzards one day and beef liver the next (variety is the spice of life!).
Dogs require high levels of calcium. Unless the recipe includes some form of digestible bone, then calcium should be supplemented. There are commercially available calcium supplements. Alternatively, eggshells can be ground into powder for an absorbable calcium source.
Fiber & Carbohydrates
Unlike humans, dogs can get glucose from meat and fats alone, so they don’t “need” carbs. That said, fiber is important for healthy digestion. Brown rice, oats, barley, and quinoa are excellent choices in this capacity; whereas, wheat and corn (common sources of dog allergies) should be avoided.
Fruits & Vegetables
Although dogs are primarily carnivorous, fruits and vegetables can help round out their nutritional profile, providing vitamins, fiber, and protein. To make the nutrients bioavailable, vegetables should be cooked, especially starchy vegetables. Some common fruits and vegetables include: kelp, alfalfa, green beans, carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini/squash, celery, bell peppers, blueberries, apples, pineapple, mango, cranberries, beets, cantaloupes, broccoli, and cauliflower. As stated previously, varying the vegetables the dog consumes can help enhance dietary balance.
Some vegetables can prevent absorption of important nutrients, so it’s important to research a new vegetable before introducing it to a dog’s diet. Onions, leeks, grapes, raisins, and macadamia nuts can be toxic to dogs and should be avoided. If the pet is prone to bladder stones or other metabolic issues, it is best to consult a nutritionist to get the best suggestions for vegetables.
As mentioned earlier, the vast majority of homemade dog food recipes are not perfectly balanced. Supplementation, such as Springtime Longevity and Skin & Coat oil are excellent additions to any homemade food regimen.
To learn more about another feeding style, click one of the links below…
Intro on Dog Food
Dry Dog Food
Wet Dog Food
Raw Dog Food
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