I have had many clients ask me lately "Is home cooking good for my dog?" and the answer is yes and no. Home made dog food that isn't properly balanced can do more harm than the worse kibble. But don't get discouraged because with the right guidance and a few important considerations, home cooking will make your dog healthier and happier! Let's explore this further and get you started on the right track.
Why Should I Home Cook for My Dog?
First, let us talk a bit about some of the most popular reasons pet owners consider this option. They may have asked themselves, while walking down the kibble isle, "What can I feed my dog instead of processed food?" and yes, there are options like a raw commercial diet or home made, dehydrated or freeze-dried (much less processing involved), and home cooking. Some specific reasons people choose home-cooking is it was recommended by their vet, their dog has allergies or sensitivities, digestive issues, or a disease which would benefit from a more natural, less processed diet with more control over what your pet is eating. And speaking of more natural, we all know that even the best kibbles are heat processed at high temperatures, killing off valuable nutrients, therefore they have to add synthetic vitamins, minerals, plus preservatives (Carna4 Kibble is the only one I know of that is synthetic-free due to a low temperature cooking method and high quality ingredients).
Can't I Just Feed My Dog What I Eat?
Dogs are not people, they have a different digestive tract and their nutritional requirements aren't the same as humans. First of all dogs have a higher requirement for protein and fat, and although they can tolerate carbohydrates, they actually have no requirement for them. If we were to look at the primordial diet of the dog, their calories came from protein 49%, fat 44%, and carbs 6%. In contrast, processed kibble on average contains 20% of its calories from protein, 30% from fat, and often up to 50% from carbs. But back to the question, can I feed my dog the same meal as the family? Let's take a closer look (without getting into it too deep). For now let's focus on the calories which come from Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrates. Here is a yummy example of what you might consider feeding a 15lb dog for the day: 1 cup medium hamburger meat, 1/2 cup of carrots, 1/2 cup of kale, 1/2 cup of sweet potato. Sounds delicious and healthy! However if we look at the calories of each macronutrient, protein is at 34%, fat is 30%, and carbs are at 36%. Not quite equivalent to the primordial diet yet better than most kibbles. But let's take a closer look at the most important macrominerals in a dogs diet, calcium and phosphorous (which according to The National Research Council - and AAFCO bases its guidelines on their recommendations, should be 1:1 or calcium slightly higher) we have calcium content at 188mg and phosphorous at 350g. That's approximately 1:1.3. Not good. All of this to say, there are some considerations you must take into account when making home made food for your dog.
What is a Balanced Diet for a Dog?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let's just make a few things clear when it comes to home-cooking:
- Every dog is an individual and specific needs and requirements need to be taken into consideration.
- Perhaps discuss switching to a home-made diet with your vet (however the decision is ultimately yours).
- A rotational diet consisting of variety is key to ensuring a balance of nutrients over time. Different proteins and veggies.
- Pick the best quality that fits within your budget and use seasonal vegetables and organic lean cuts of meat.
- Don't overcook and especially don't cook at high temperatures - estimates show mineral loss at 20-40% when food is cooked and for vitamins it is 25-70%. Consider keeping the vegetables raw but do puree them for better absorption, or use a low temperature slow cooker.
- Never cook bones.
- Be confident! Dogs have been domesticated for around 14,000 years and processed dog food began about 120 years ago. What does that tell you?
Again, let's keep things simple. Your best friend through all of this will be the USDA FoodData Central website https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/ where you can punch in every component of your dog's meal, and verify the protein/fat/carb amounts AND it lists the vitamins and minerals. Keep in mind that there are about double the calories in fat as there are in protein. A great home cooked diet will consist of lean meat, organ for many vital minerals, a calcium supplement like bone meal, egg shells, or calcium carbonate, and veggies with little fruit. Some dogs do well with grains, however they don't have much use as far as nutrition is concerned, so experiment. Typically, if you were to make a batch of food, start with 8 cups of extra lean ground beef, 1 1/2 - 2 cups of organ meat, 3-3 1/2 cups of veggies. Once cooked, mix in 6-8 teaspoons of bone meal and when you feed your pup, add 1/2 teaspoon of hemp oil per cup of food served. But I am getting deep into details. Consider buying Unlocking The Canine Ancestral Diet by Steve Brown as this will help guide you through the DIY dog food process.
How Can I Make Home-Cooking Easier?
Of course there is an easier approach to consider. There are a few companies that offer pre-mixed base meals that are meant to balance a home-cooked meal and make it easier for those of us that have difficulties feeding ourselves and non-furry family members a healthy dinner 7 days a week! Plus let's not forget that you can do both. The amazing thing about a home fed dog is that every day can be different, just like us. Typically the biggest concern people have about a commercial diet is the meat; where has it come from, has it been rendered, it is from the 4-D's (meat from dead, dying, diseased or disabled animals), has it been cooked at such high temperatures that it is no longer nutritious?
Companies like Sojo's, Grandma Lucy's, and The Honest Kitchen provide base mixes that are just waiting for you to add your own cooked or raw meat to and then voila, a complete balanced meal. No fuss, no worries! It can also be your backup plan if you have a busy weekend ahead of you, or you forgot that you have no more premade food left, or perhaps you are going away on vacation. They provide everything that a dog needs in a box (or bag) besides meat. You simply add water to the measured amount of mix, rehydrate, then add chicken or beef, perhaps lamb (raw or cooked) and then their meal is ready!
On the days you want to make it yourself, here are a few tips: make big batches of food, divide it up and freeze it (be sure to add oils and any additional supplements at feeding time for optimal efficacy). Investing in a slow cooker will save both time and effort. Frozen mixed vegetables are more than adequate and again, will make your life easier.
Can Cats Eat Homemade Dog Food?
Cats are obligate carnivore and although dogs have very little need for carbohydrates, cats have zero need for them. Plus, unlike dogs, cats can not make their own taurine (an essential amino acid required for normal vision, digestion, and heart muscle function) and this is primarily found in muscle meat and organ but is easily lost in the cooking process. Yes it is possible to home-cook for your cat, but stick with meat & organ lightly cooked, small amounts of veggies (or none), a calcium supplement and a taurine supplement just to be sure they are getting the correct amount. Be patient - cats are fussy and are often stuck in their ways. Consider serving it warm, and/or adding some canned food or freeze-dried raw initially and then gradually reduce the canned food over a long period of time.
In conclusion, feeding a homemade diet is a wonderful endeavor and will definitely make your dog (or cat) healthier and happier. It puts you in control of what they eat and ensures they receive quality ingredients without fillers, additives, preservatives, and undesirable meat products. Make sure to offer variety and provide a rotational diet consisting of 2-3 different proteins within a 7-10 day period. With this in mind and a little homework, you are well on your way!