Feeding dogs has come full circle. Back before the invention of canine convenience foods (kibble and canned products), a dog’s diet consisted primarily of table scraps left over from the human supper plate. The introduction of commercially processed foods changed all that. Not only were kibble and canned foods more convenient, they were formulated to provide complete and balanced nutrition. These features were appealing, particularly to people who were transitioning their dogs from the doghouse in the backyard to the sofa in the living room.
Fast-forward several decades to the current shift back to preparation of homemade diets for dogs. What’s the quibble with kibble? Increasingly, people are concerned about the effects of processed ingredients and the use of additives. Although there is a lack of scientific substantiation, it’s not uncommon to hear blame for a whole host of canine maladies placed on processed foods.
Some folks cook for their dogs as they would cook for themselves. The meals vary from day to day or week to week, and they typically contain a hodgepodge mixture of meats and veggies with or without vitamin/mineral supplementation. Others work from recipes found on line, in books, or obtained from a veterinarian with the notion that the end product will be nutritionally balanced.
Are homemade diets nutritionally balanced?
A study titled, “Evaluation of recipes of home-prepared maintenance diets for dogs” published in a 2013 edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association documented significant nutritional imbalances in homemade diets. Two hundred recipes from 34 sources including veterinary textbooks, pet care books, and websites were evaluated. Most of the recipes were authored by veterinarians. All were assessed both qualitatively (specificity of ingredients and preparation instructions) and quantitatively (calculation of total energy, energy density, proportion of calories contributed by protein, fat and carbohydrates, and essential nutrient concentrations).
The study demonstrated that most of the recipes (92% to be exact) contained vague or incomplete instructions requiring the chef to make assumptions about the method of preparation or exact products used. Additionally, most of the recipes provided no information about caloric content or feeding instructions. Thirteen recipes called for the addition of garlic or onion, both of which can be associated with hemolytic anemia, a potentially life threatening disease in dogs.
Of the 200 recipes evaluated, only ten of them (5%) provided adequate concentrations of all essential nutrients based on NRC (National Research Council) and AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) standards. NRC and AAFCO set the standards for balanced nutrition in commercially prepared foods. Most of the home-prepared recipes (83.5%), including those that called for rotation of ingredients, had multiple nutritional deficiencies. The nutrients most commonly lacking were zinc, choline, copper, essential fatty acids (DHA and EPA), and calcium. Total fat concentrations were adequate in all but two of the recipes, likely reflecting human preferences and the desire for enhanced palatability (the more fat, the more yummy the diet is for the dog).
Some deficiencies were so severe that nutrient concentrations did not reach 50% of the recommended amounts. Additionally, nine recipes surpassed the safe upper limits for specific ingredients such as vitamin D and the fatty acids, EPA and DHA.
The use of published recipes for home-prepared dog food is an example of really good intentions gone awry. People wanting to feed their dogs in the healthiest way possible are unintentionally providing nutritionally unbalanced diets.
I am fully supportive of home cooking for your dogs, but discourage doing so without professional guidance. Unfortunately, this guidance likely needs to come from someone other than your family vet. The sad fact of the matter is that most veterinarians (myself included) don’t have the know-how to formulate a made-from-scratch balanced and complete canine diet. For this reason I encourage consultation with a veterinarian who specializes in nutrition. Such specialists can be found via the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. For a one-time consultation fee, veterinary nutritionists provide their services over the phone or via email (no need for an office visit). Not only do they formulate diets for healthy digs, they also craft homemade recipes for those with special dietary needs because of an underlying chronic disease process.
Some folks are skeptical about veterinary nutritionists based on the belief that they are simply pawns of the processed pet food industry. My reaction to this is, so what if they have some bias about dog food? The way around this is to let your own bias be known loud and clear. Do you want a grain-free diet, or one that avoids red meat, or one that uses game meat as the primary protein source? If so, specify up front where you draw your line in the sand. The nutritionist should be able to build a balanced and complete diet for your dog around your preferences.
The alternative to working with a veterinary nutritionist is to feed a home-prepared diet that likely contains too little or too much of key ingredients. Do all dogs on unbalanced diets fail to thrive? Absolutely not, but given the opportunity to feed your dog a diet that is balanced and complete, why would you choose otherwise?
If you care to learn more about the home-prepared diet study cited above, I invite you read an interview conducted with one of the researchers, Dr. Jennifer Larsen.
Do you feed your dog a homemade diet? How do you feel about the results of the study cited above?
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.
Tags: AAFCO, balanced dog food, Canine nutrition, dietary deficiency, Dr. Nancy Kay, home cooking for dogs, home-prepared diet for dogs, homemade diet for dogs, Nancy Kay DVM, NRC, processed dog food, Speaking for Spot, Your Dog's Best Health