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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Are Homemade Diets Recommended?

John sent the following message to me...

My question is: Will you, as a veterinarian, ever recommend home cooked dog/cat food to dog/cat owners? If a client, like myself, insist, could you prescribe some recipes and supplements for individual dogs?

I'm a believer in homemade pet food. But most vets I spoke to recommend that I buy commercial pet food. I understand commercial foods are approved with a balanced nutritional formula. I have done some research (online and books) and I choose to cook for my 2-year-old mini dachshund and 3-months old Yorkie.

John, I'll first answer briefly:  yes and no!  It really depends on the pet and the client.

In general I have the same view as most of my colleagues that you have spoken with.  Commerically prepared pet foods are good nutrition (though some better than others), cover the pet's needs, are easy to prepare and give, and are easy to acquire.  The research on nutritional requirements has already been done for you and many decades of extensive testing has been done to figure out which are the best foods and ingredients for pets.  Veterinary nutritional specialists spend their entire careers analyzing and developing diets and the vast majority of them feed commercial pet foods to their own pets rather than making them at home.  When the experts (nutritionists, internists, cardiologists, endocrinologists, etc.) chose to buy a bag of food rather than prepare it themselves I have to believe that there is validity in their view. 

The problem with many homemade diets is that there are many trace nutrients and minerals that are important but aren't easily found in many foods we use.  We have to keep in mind that a pet's digestive tract is not the same as ours, especially the closer you get to true obligate carnivores (such as cats and ferrets).  So we can't base a dog or cat's nutrition on what would be good for us.  A proper homemade diet requires a lot of work in preparation, including using trace vitamin supplements.  Most people won't do the research or talk to experts before trying to make the food themselves.  In these cases the pets end up with nutritional deficiences.  And many of these deficiencies aren't obvious quickly, often taking long periods of time before you see a problem.  You also need to make sure that advice on homemade diets is coming from a veterinarian or ideally a veterinary nutritional specialist.  Human nutritionists don't understand the differences in physiology enough to make proper judgements for pets.

So does this mean that I never recommend homemade diets?  Nope.  I have given owners recipes in certain cases, especially if there is a medical need and the pet doesn't like a prepared food for that disorder.  But I am very careful who I give such recipes to, and I make them a copy of pages from a veterinary nutrition text book.

My question is...why would anyone want to make their pet's food?  You can get as good or better nutrition from a prepared food and do so much easier and with less mess.  You also don't run the risk of major deficiencies with good quality commercial foods. 

Nutrition has become a pet interest of mine (no pun intended) over the last few years, and I've really been doing self-education on the issue.  Knowing what I know, I have chosen to purchase commercial foods.


  1. This has been my experience, that vets give a qualified yes/no to homemade food. I feed my dogs an no-allergen prepared diet that is very expensive. It frustrates me that while it is expensive, it is also not super healthy. The ingredients are primarily soy, chicken, and chemicals. However I've never found another food that they can eat. I considered preparing food at home but the dogs had a very difficult time adjusting--they'd only eat the new food and they had a lot of accidents as it was not what they were used to digesting. So I feed my dogs unhealthy, expensive prepared foods, and give them the occasional treat of watermelon, broccoli, apple, or other people food that they can eat that has some natural benefits they lack eating a food broken down to itty bitty particles.

  2. Forgive me Anonymous @8:39pm, but why do you think the food you are giving the dogs is unhealthy? Have you conducted clinical trials with hundreds of dogs to see how their health fares under that diet vs another? Your jargon of "chemicals" versus "watermelon, broccoli, apple" shows that what the doctor just told you went in one ear and out the other.

    Is your dog food processed, possibly beyond all recognition? Yes. Is it unhealthy? That is a different matter. Your dogs are not people and the research you have read which applies to people does not necessarily apply to dogs. Whether or not the food is "healthy" ultimately depends on the health of the animal after they eat it, not what you think it is after reading the ingredients label.

  3. I agree, Less. We also need to keep in mind (as I mentioned in the post) that a dog's physiology and intestinal tract is different from ours. Things that may be beneficial or safe for us may not be for pets. For example, garlic and onions are very toxic to cats, yet fine for us. There is also a difference between the nutrients in the food and what is actually absorbed. Dogs don't absorb whole fruits and vegetables very well due to the design of their intestines. So feeding these things to your dog is likely not having the benefit you think it is.

    I would also certainly disagree with these foods being unhealthy. Prepared foods have decades and many millions of dollars of research to make sure that they ARE healthy and beneficial. "Chemicals" aren't inherently bad, depending on what they are. These ingredients have very specific reasons for being in the food, otherwise they would not be included. Soy and chicken ARE great, nutritional foods and are recommended for humans as healthy alternatives to beef, wheat, and other ingredients. No offense, Anonymous, but I believe that you are misinformed about what is and is not healthy for your pets.

  4. It's just I heard a few (over 5) stories, about friends' dog getting sick when they're old, bad liver, no energy, skin issues, visions problems. All of them were not cured in the hospital, but owners who switched them to natural food and saw dramatic improvements.

    Then I read about the 2007 pet food recall.

    I'm reading this book on holistic dog food:

    I'm quite convinced.

  5. Something to think about . . . . if you went to a doctor, or took your children to a doctor, that said to never feed fresh, real, homecooked foods because it was healthier for them to eat this processed food, what would your reaction be?

    Dogs are omnivorous mammals, like humans. While there are some dietary needs that are different, in general, they have very similar dietary needs.

    I have used expensive prescription diets, cheaper OTC diets, and homemade food - after doing a lot of self-education as Doctor described. Our dogs are much healthier now, on homecooked food, than they were on any of the commercial diets.

    I do admit that I also use a commercial food - as a back up. Just like commercial, processed fast foods for humans, it is convenient and quick. I don't always have the time to cook. I'm not a purist about it. I also don't necessary think commercial dog food (or the companies that make them) are evil or bad. They provide a service that makes pet ownership easy in the best possible way they can. However, processed fast food, which is what commercial dog food is, is not healthier than fresh prepared food - any more than processed commercial human food is better, or healthier, than fresh prepared food.

    Like most things in life, it's about being practical. How many of you who are purists about using commercial food make sure to measure the trace minerals in your OWN diets to make sure you're getting everything you (or your kids) need? Most of the people I know (including veterinarians) spend more time arguing nutrition and pushing a pure commercial diet for pets while they take their kids, and themselves, to McDonald's.

    Just something to think about.

  6. I know it is claimed that commercial dog food is balanced to appropriately meet our canines' nutritional needs. I know that there is a lot of research to back it all up. But, I've got to thinkthat even a 40lb bag of $40 "quality" dog food is produced with profit being the first priority. Now, if you want to spend twice that amount I think what you must be getting a better product. At which point it becomes more economical to buy fresh meat, sardines & throw in a potato, carrot, egg, salmon & vitamin E oil, a few other things.

    It would seem to make sense to feed our dogs a mix of the same food that their more fortunate (wealthy) human companions probably gave them over say between 1000 & 200 years ago. I'm thinking leftover cooked meat, some raw meat, whatever was in in the stew, root vegetables maybe.

    I would think a variety of a dogs favorite unprocessed, cooked & raw foods would make for a healthier animal, the emphasis being VARIETY & FAVORITE.

    I'd appreciate any comments, as this is pondering on my part.

  7. A good question. The problem with looking at what was fed in the past is that people tend not to look at the health of dogs in the past. Dogs live much longer and are much healthier than in the past. One of the growing issues in veterinary medicine is geriatric care. Because dogs have started living longer over the last 30 or so years, we are being faced with challenges we didn't have a generation or two ago. What is the reason for the longer lives? A combination of factors that include better vaccination, parasite prevention, nutrition, and willingness by owners to treat disease.

    Nutrition is certainly better in modern times than it was even last century, let alone a millennium ago. By the rationale you use we should also follow nutrition practices for ourselves from the same time period, but we obviously don't do so.

    You certainly should never feed what is a dog's "favorite". My favorite foods are pizza, hamburgers, and cheesecake. But I wouldn't be very healthy if I ate only my favorites. Dogs don't have any nutritional discernment and so letting them chose what they want to eat is no different than letting your three year-old child determine their own nutrition.

    There is also a HUGE problem with just adding a bunch of leftovers and mixed foods to a dog's bowl. There are certain nutritional requirements that dogs have which can easily be missed by feeding leftovers. A healthy, nutritionally balanced diet is NEVER "throw in a X,Y,Z, a few other things". You could end up with severe nutritional deficiencies. Homemade diets are certainly possible, but require a lot of work and forethough.

    1. "By the rationale you use we should also follow nutrition practices for ourselves from the same time period, but we obviously don't do so."

      Many people do. It's called a Paleo/Primal diet

  8. Coming across your blog, I have a question. What if we mix commerical with home made? My dogs need appetizing, they are super picky eaters.

  9. Some dogs are indeed very finicky. There are products available in pet stores as "taste enhancers" specifically for this reason. I always prefer using these things as they are designed for pets and are nutritionally balanced.

    My question is what are we talking about when saying "home made" in this case. If you mean adding some human foods to their commercial food, I would say no. That would be a bad idea because you will have a different nutritional balance, and this can actually further encourage picky eating. If you have created a balanced, healthy home made diet with the consultation of a veterinarian, and you then mix that with a good quality commercial food, I wouldn't have a problem. That's really the difference. A good home made diet isn't just throwing some human food into a bowl. It has to be done with as much care and planning as goes into making the commercial foods.

  10. What commercial food would you recommend for cats and why?

    1. Royal Canin, Iams/Eukanuba, and Science Diet top my list. It has everything to do with the quality of their manufacturing process as well as their overall contributions to nutritional science. I blogged about this topic recently, including what questions to ask of a food company.


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