Home Cooking for Your Dog

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.

Veterinary nutritionists

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?

Best wishes,

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
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

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.


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16 Comments on “Home Cooking for Your Dog

  1. I wanted to update my earlier post when it was brought to my attention that Dr. Stombeck’s diets are no longer highly recommended. I referred back to the Whole Dog Journal article (“No Bones About It,” Jan. 2011) in which Mary Straus (dogaware.com) evaluates several canine cookbooks. Although not “perfect,” there are two that are “recommended”: “Natural Food Recipes for Healthy Dogs: Everything You Need to Know to Make the Greatest Food for Your Friend,” by Carol Boyle 2006 (3rd edition), Pyr Press Publishing Group and “Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats,” by Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, PhD, and Susan Hubble Pitcairn 2005 (3rd edition), Rodale Books. There are several others that she rates “recommended, with reservations.” Whole Dog Journal has a great archive if you want to read this article in detail for detailed reviews. Mary Straus’ website is also loaded with information on canine nutrition, diets, and recipes, especially here: http://www.dogaware.com/articles/index.html

  2. Nancy Correa hit the nail on the head. The AVMA is only out to take care of themselves. Don’t get me wrong – I love my Vet and have utmost confidence in him. He practices with an ‘alternative’ approach; well trained in acupuncture, holistic modalities, but will not refuse to see a client who is not
    yet ready for that modality.

  3. “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.”

    Where can we find those 10 recipes???

    NRC and AAFCO “set nutritional standards” but do not enforce them. Pet food manufacturers take great latitude in how those standards are applied. Some companies do feeding trials (in which dogs are often killed).

    Claims of nutritional adequacy of pet foods based on the current Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) nutrient allowances (‘profiles’) do not give assurances of nutritional adequacy and will not until ingredients are analyzed and bioavailability values are incorporated.

    “What most consumers don’t know is that the pet food industry is an extension of the human food and agriculture industries. Pet food provides a convenient way for slaughterhouse offal, grains considered “unfit for human consumption,” and similar waste products to be turned into profit. This waste includes intestines, udders, heads, hooves, and possibly diseased and cancerous animal parts.”

    What’s Really in Pet Food:

    The process of turning toxic garbage into kibble destroys many nutrients; rendering the animal by-products can alter or destroy natural enzymes and proteins found in the raw ingredients.
    Because of persistent rumors that rendered by-products contain dead dogs and cats, the FDA conducted a study looking for pentobarbital, the most common euthanasia drug, in pet foods. They found it.

    Many kibbles include grains; Veterinary nutritionists who do not work for the pet food industry have told me that wild canids and felines never eat grains. In present time almost all corn and soy is GMO (unless it is labeled ORGANIC); GMOs have been found to cause liver and kidney failure in animals.

    I’ll take my chances with my animals needing supplemental vitamins rather than paying money to feed them toxic garbage, which are almost guaranteed to be less nutritious than whatever I feed my companions.

    Currently, approximately 85% of dogs in the USA die of cancer. This did not happen when they were fed table scraps; but there were no GMOs in those days, and the meat by-products were fresh and less contaminated.

  4. I feed a commercial raw diet that meets the guidelines for complete nutrition. While I know it would be less expensive to make my own raw at home, I don’t trust myself to provide a balanced diet that way. I also feed only high quality, USA sourced training treats. My dogs are healthy, energetic, have healthy gums/teeth, and maintain a good (low) weight that I monitor like a hawk! Hopefully they are getting what they need!


    On June 5, 2010, dachshund Lalita weighed 15 lbs when her thyroid testing was T4 level and she was prescribed Soloxine 0.2 mg. (½ tablet x 3 per day). The cost for 100 tablets at Walgreens was $17.80.

    Then on July 23, 2011, at the age of 13, she was diagnosed with diabetes mellitus. Her blood glucose test measured 207. She weighed 15 lbs. and was prescribed Novolin N (9 units x 2 per day). The Walgreen cost was $67.99 for Novolin N and $16.19 for regular needles, for a total of $84.18.

    Lalita qualified for financial assistance with The Muffin Pet Diabetes Support Group, and they found a sponsor for Lalita’s diabetes. On July 28, 2012, the sponsor requested that we purchase the insulin at Walmart and highly recommended thin needles. The cost for the Walmart Humulin N was $24.88 and $12.58 for thin needles, for a total of $37.46. This saved the sponsor $46.72!

    Lalita’s sponsor became our mentor. She was sympathetic because she was the mother of a beautiful black diabetic dachshund who had a long struggle with diabetes, cushings, cataract surgeries, blindness, bleeding ulcers, and heart problems before she passed in her sleep at the tender age of 8 on October 5, 2012.

    We built a relationship and good communication with Lalita’s doctor, who had experience in diabetes. We educated ourselves about diabetes and we asked our vet a lot of questions. We talked to our vet about monthly payment plans and she worked with us throughout Lalita’s life!

    When Lalita was first diagnosed with diabetes mellitus, we were faced with frustration, anger, exhaustion, sadness and fear. After this diagnosis, she needed insulin injections, proper feeding at regular times and an exercise routine. By planning ahead, we were able to continue doing things we did prior to the diabetes diagnosis. We received a lot of understanding and compassion from family and friends who knew and loved Lalita.

    From the time Lalita was ten weeks old, we had been giving her commercial kibbles in the morning. But for dinner, twice a week, papa Luis (with his tasty fingers) always pan fried/drained oil the ground sirloin (90% lean/10% fat) and steamed long-grain rice (with peas, carrots and pinch salt. On weekends, when Marilyn cooked she always made some of the same thing for diabetic Lalita (i.e., chicken or albondigas). And she was always given vitamins and brewers yeast tablets. After her diabetes diagnosis, we switched to brown rice because it provides more nutrients and fiber. It is more complicated to cook, but Luis had become an expert rice cooker and we mixed in 1 tablespoon of fresh ground tomatoes and she really liked it.

    Lalita did not get diabetes until July 23, 2011 at the age of 13 and we believe that her home-cooked diet helped her stay healthy and happy. She lived to June 1, 2013, nearly two years! At the end of Lala’s life, the vet said she would like our secret to keeping Lala alive so long! She was so sick, the vet stated that she would like the secret for her other diabetic pets!

    We believe the proof of the pudding is the success you have with your pet! We do not believe a nutritionist is needed, unless you need nutrition education in general and have serious weight fluctuations and health problems.

  6. I have been cooking for my dogs for 8 years. I also provide supplements and do a lot of research. I also provide a small amount of high quality kibble to my dogs several times a week. One of my my dogs had significant health problems, including surviving distemper, when I adopted him. He has overcome some really significant health problems and my vet credits that to his diet and overall healthy lifestyle.

    I work in qualitative research and have a few problems in the article. One of the issues I have is that it fails to mention or take into account some of the nutritional issues of many commercial dog foods.

    Here is the entire journal article: http://img2.timg.co.il/forums/1_173216027.pdf

  7. I do not believe anything that the AVMA has to say after their raw food fiasco.http://www.littlebigcat.com/blog/avma-vs-raw-food/
    Also given their ties with Hills Science as platinum partners. https://www.avma.org/News/JAVMANews/Pages/080715h.aspxn
    In 2008, AVMA created a four-year “AVMA Platinum Partner Program” with Hill’s Pet Nutrition. The AVMA got more than $1.5 million from Hill’s, in exchange for promotional favoritism.
    I emailed Susan Thixton of Truthabout petfood
    She related this:
    The study was really comparing apples to oranges – it can’t successfully be done. They used the National Research Council (NRC) nutrient requirements to compare home cooked pet foods to. On the surface, this sounds fair. But when you know that NRC established nutrient requirements for cats and dogs are based on kibble foods using ‘common’ pet food ingredients such as by-product meals and synthetic vitamins…it is comparing apples to oranges. We tried to engage the authors of the study in conversation about this huge factor – they wouldn’t respond. Also – the study’s author is part owner in Balance It – the supplement company (selling supplements to balance a home cooked pet food). I had a long conversation with the full owner of Balance It after this was published – he at least talked with me.
    If you care at all about finding out what is really in your companion animal’s food please consult a holistic veterinarian and do your own research.

  8. I feed a raw diet but alternate ingredients on a daily basis. some days I feed only chicken backs, other days I feed ground chicken and bone or ground beef mixed with various pre-mixes…or various home-made mixes, oils, vitamins,etc….sometimes with grain-free kibble. I think variety is the key to avoiding deficiencies, and that certainly wouldn’t show up in this kind of study.

    It seems to me that if this same sort of study were performed on home-cooked meals for people, they would be deficient as well–because nobody eats the same thing every day. No one would do that kind of research because (a) it would be thought ridiculous and (b) because nobody is hawking a “perfectly balanced” processed and packaged food for people to eat 3 times a day for the rest of their lives (unless you’re really old, and then nobody cares).

  9. I fed my previous dog diets from “Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats,” 3rd edition. At that time, we lived in a country where the only commercial food available was Purina Chow, and she’d had a reaction to it. Dr. Pitcairn’s diets worked well for her, I was careful to supplement as directed, I had a scale and measured amounts. She lived a long and healthy life considering she had CHF and we lived in parasite-laden tropical climate. She was adopted at age 2-3 and was with us for 10 years.

    Now back in the USA, my current dog gets Dr. Pitcairn’s diets, The Honest Kitchen (they use better ingredients that I can find in our new rural setting), and occasionally another commercial food that meets the guidelines set out in Whole Dog Journal. I rotate among these so that she has ample variety, gets all the nutrients, as well as “spread the load” for me in terms of both price and convenience.

    I also consult Dr. Stombeck — the “godfather” of the homecooking “revolution.” His book, containing diets for dogs with health issues, is available free here:


  10. I volunteer at a used bookstore. When a dog food recipe book comes in, if the recipes include onion and/or garlic the book gets recyled rather than sold.

    I do feed my dogs commercial food, sticking to vet recommended, made in USA brands, plus supplements for coat and joint health.

  11. I have a LOT of problems with this article! First, why are you “fully supportive of home cooking for your dogs”? Are you saying that commercial foods are worthless/less good? If you believe this, say so and give us the facts to back up that statement!

    Secondly, do you really think that many who home cook their dogs’ food will actually consult a nutritionist? How many HUMANS in this country eat a well-balanced diet? Look at our obesity problem! Are these same folks going to be reasonable where their dogs are concerned?

    Major pet food manufacturers spend a fortune on nutrition research every single year. Some, even have veterinary nutritionists on staff. If preparing pet food were easy, would bottom-line companies spend money for this?

    Why are you encouraging people to insist that the nutritionist follow their own biases – “…grain-free diet, or one that avoids red meat, or one that uses game meat as the primary protein source…”? Why are these things better? You owe us an explanation.

    I have little interest in cooking for myself these days, but do so. I do not have any interest in cooking for my dogs. They have all thrived on commercial food for these past 38 years. The best way to get a healthy dog with great longevity is to start with the dog’s breeder. An excellent breeder will believe in the three-legged stool approach to breeding – beauty, temperament and health. They want great longevity in their lines and healthy dogs and breed for it.

    All these people who are cooking and insisting on human grade ingredients need to focus their energies on HUMANS who need to be fed and go and help cook at a food kitchen for the poor. Their efforts would be much better spent.

  12. Dr. Kay,
    Once again, thank you so much for your information and your website! I have been very concerned about the food my dogs are eating especially my two older medium sized dogs who are 12 and 13 years old.
    I have fed a cooked-some raw-for over the last year, but was very interested to find out if I had a nutritionist close to where I live. I do have one within an hour’s drive and have sent an email to find out more information. I feel we can always learn more about our dogs nutritional needs and I am excited of the possibility of having a consultation with one concerning dogs diets! I do use a holistic vet who has worked with me on the dog’s diets, but this is just another avenue of information from someone who specializes in nutrition and even my holistic vet doesn’t usually have the time to go over specific needs of all my dogs in feeding. We did spend over half an hour one day going over one dog’s diet and that was what started me on feeding more foods associated with what a dog would more naturally eat.

  13. I am concerned about the study, but would like to read more. For 6 ½ years, I have been feeding one of my dogs a home prepared diet that uses a commercial pre-mix (a variety of grains to which I add meat and a couple supplements). This wasn’t an option I was thrilled about doing but he had been dealing with digestive issues, including IBD, for the first 2 ½ years of his life. Switching him to the pre-mix diet has made a huge difference. He just doesn’t seem to do well on commercially prepared diets. I can’t see switching him at this time.

    I do put a lot of thought in what I feed my dogs, but in the end I go by how the dog in front of me does on the diet he is given. What works for one dog could easily be a disaster for another. I shy away from “this is the BEST diet” thinking because NO diet is the best for all dogs.

    The main gripe I have about “cooking for my dog” is foraging for meat. It feels like I am always thinking of when I next need to buy meat, the need to find the meat that fits my criteria, its expiration date, and what price I can get it at. Otherwise, I have the actual prep down to a science. And the dog in front of me is doing great on it. So I keep foraging and feeding him a home made diet. :-)

  14. I feed my 15 month old Duck Toller a very balanced, species-appropriate raw diet. It includes: muscle meat, organs, raw meaty bones, mackerel and green tripe. I sometimes supplement with an organic fish oil. Her treats consist of dried lung, dehydrated tripe, fruits and veggies. Not only is she extremely healthy and has a beautiful shiny coat, she is vibrant and energetic!! I’m not surprised that the quoted research found that “home cooked meals” were either lacking completely or deficient in important vitamins and minerals. Why would we feed our canines (or felines for that matter) a cooked diet meant for humans?? Wolves, in the wild, do not cook their meat prior to eating it. Cooking denatures the protein, vitamins and minerals making them largely unavailable for absorption by the canine digestive process. The other issue I have with the study, from what I can see, is that it measured single recipes. A balanced diet is achieved over weeks at a time, not in one single meal. JMO :-)

  15. “If it is worth doing, it’s worth doing it right.” Right?

    I’ve been home-cooking for Jasmine and now for Cookie for six years. Both of them benefited greatly from that.

    We did work with a nutritionist and I do use a supplement.

    My main concern with home-cooked diets would be minerals, particularly calcium. Interestingly, based on fur analysis done by Dr. Frick on her patients, virtually ALL dogs are deficient in calcium, including those on commercial kibble. So, clearly, there is more to it than just “one fits all” type of numbers.