By: Kimberly Schmidt, DVM, CVA, CVCH, CVFT
(Veterinarian, animal acupuncturist, herbalist and food therapist)
This is a blog post that is near and dear to my heart. I truly believe in providing whole food nutrition for my canine patients. I must say that there are MANY opinions out there on home-cooking and, like most people, I have my own opinion. Through this blog I hope to provide you with a clear idea of how I think you can home-cook for your pet in a safe and healthy way. You may also be able to keep your veterinarian happy in the process!
It’s true that many vets are wary of home-cookers. They fear the diet is not safe or balanced for long-term feeding. Luckily, because cooking for our pets has become so popular, there are now some simple ways to make sure your diet is complete! Some also worry about the bacterial risk with home-cooked diets, so I do always recommend gently cooking the food (more below).
I am a veterinarian trained in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine. I am a certified acupuncturist and herbalist for animals. I also have a certification in veterinary food therapy, so I have some additional training on how to home cook for your pet. That being said, I am NOT a veterinary nutritionist and I don’t claim to be. This blog is aimed at cooking for a healthy dog. If your dog has a serious medical condition and you wish to cook, I would refer you to a board certified veterinary nutritionist who can develop a specific diet plan tailored to your pet’s needs. I do this for my own patients as well.
Why is home-cooking good?
Many commercially available “kibble” diets have a high glycemic index, which may trigger inflammation in the body and fuel neoplastic conditions, some of the most common conditions in our canine companions. Any fish oil added to the diet is usually rancid due to the cooking process and exposure to oxygen, making it pro-inflammatory. Also, the micronutrients and antioxidants are destroyed in the cooking and drying process. There is some preliminary research to suggest that kibble diets have more heterocyclic amines, a known carcinogen. There are also the potential risk of GMOs, 3D and 4D meats (dead, diseased, downed and dying animals). Home-cooking can eliminate these risks and may even help your pet live longer. Research on this is currently underway.
So how do you do it?
I recommend a gently cooked diet made of organic muscle meat, organ meat, whole grains and seasonal local veggies. I suggest rotating ingredients and supplementing with balanced vitamin/mineral supplement designed by a veterinary nutritionist and a calcium supplement. The most common clinical nutrient deficiencies seen in dogs eating home-made diets without balancing are taurine and calcium deficiency. I also recommend a source of linoleic acid and fish oil. Without these skin problems can develop.
I do NOT recommend raw feeding, and again, it is just my opinion and I may now have a few of you running from this blog. Chinese medicine believes that raw or “cold” food damages the digestive tract over time and can lead to chronic health problems. Also, research does show that raw feeding can cause a dog to shed harmful bacteria, which can potentially be passed to people in the home.1 My goal is to keep your dog safe, but you and your family safe as well.
I believe that dogs have genetically evolved to become scavengers, and as such their digestive systems can handle cooked veggies and whole grains. Even African Wild Dogs will eat the intestines of their prey first, which contain partially digested plant matter. I also think organ meats are also essential to the diet of dogs and we are depriving them if not feeding them.
Give me Specifics!
There are really 2 different options for safe and balanced home-cooking.
www.balanceit.com - #1
This website was designed by a veterinary nutritionist to help owners and veterinarians create and balance home-cooked diets for their pets and patients. When you go to the website hover over the Homemade Food icon on the left, then click on FREE Autobalancer EZ (not the one for vet patients). You don’t have to have an account to create recipes. You choose your meats, grains and veggies and it spits out recipe options in perfect daily proportions for your dog’s weight. You can multiply everything by 7 to get a week’s worth of food. I like the high protein or mid protein recipes provided. There is little room for adjustment as proportions have to be exact, no substitutions are allowed and organ meats are not options. You have to buy the recommended supplement (listed in the recipe) or it won’t be balanced. You can create several recipes, though, for rotational ability. There is also a meat only option. I do think this is an easy way to do it and it is very exact in terms of nutrients and calorie balance. This way is preferred by a lot of veterinarians and is used by many veterinary nutritionists. I have used it with many of my own patients.
A crock pot recipe - #2
This provides a large quantity of food that can be portioned out and used for meals throughout the week. You have more flexibility with ingredients and proportions, but it’s not as exact. Cooked food is good for a week in the fridge or can be frozen in meal portions and de-frosted if you have a larger quantity. You want about 1/3 meat, 1/3 grains and 1/3 veggies by volume once the food is cooked. 1/10th of the meat by weight can be organ meat (the rest should be muscle meat), which provides extra taurine, vitamins and micronutrients. It will take some practice to get the proportions right because depending on the grain you use it may increase in volume quite a bit when cooking and a lot of veggies will decrease in volume. I also add about 4Tbsp of an oil high in linoleic acid (walnut, canola, safflower, sunflower are all appropriate) to the crock pot. If you are using grains and veggies tend to get mushy you can always cook them separately and add them to the pot at the end.
I add fish oil (Just Food For Dogs has a great one) and supplements to the food just before feeding. The 2 supplements I use are designed by a veterinary nutritionist, and you need both for the diet to be balanced. Iviblend is the vitamin/mineral supplement and TerraCal is the calcium supplement. Just dose according to label instructions. They are designed to supplement rotational home-made diets so that they are as complete and balanced as they can be.
Feeding the appropriate amount of calories is very important as research has shown that dogs who are an ideal body condition (see here where your dog is!) live at least 2 years longer than overweight dogs! The calculator below provides average calorie needs for your dog. Some dogs require more or less. You can see how many calories you are currently feeding in your kibble by looking at the bag for kcal/cup. If your dog is maintaining an ideal body weight on this amount of calories then go with this number.
You can calculate your dog’s average calorie needs by using this online calculator. Make sure to choose your pet’s ideal body weight and the appropriate description under activity. If your pet needs to lose weight you can use the calorie requirement for weight loss. If your pet is already it’s ideal body weight then use the recommended calorie requirement.
You can easily figure out how many calories are in your whole crock pot by google searching the calories of all the ingredients based on the amounts you used and add it all together. Make sure to be specific in what types of ingredients you used. Then you can see how many cups of food you made and figure out how many calories are in each cup but dividing the total amount of calories in the crock pot by how many cups it made. Then you’ll know how many cups to feed your pet a day based on their daily calorie needs and you can split that into 2 feedings for the day.
Is there anything you shouldn’t feed?
It’s controversial, but just for safety’s sake, and because you may be doing long-term feeding, don’t use garlic or onions. They can be toxic to dogs when given on a consistent basis or in large quantities.
Grapes and raisins are also potentially very toxic to a dog’s kidneys, so just don’t use them. I usually only feed fruits as treats anyway, because they have a lot of sugar when using as a main ingredient in a diet. Berries make great treats!
There is also some new information out there that diets which include peas, potatoes or legumes may be causing a certain type of heart disease in dogs called Dilated Cardiomyopathy. Please see more information on this at my blog here. For now, until we figure out what is going on, I’m recommending to NOT include these ingredients in your home-made diets. There are PLENTY of other ingredients to choose from.
One last thing…
Please remember that if you are going to switch to a home-cooked diet you need to do it GRADUALLY. Recent research is showing that a dog’s gut microbiome is different if they eat kibble vs. home-cooked vs. raw. So when you are changing foods you need to go slow with your dog and give their gut time to adjust. This will help prevent issues like diarrhea. I like to do 1/4 of the new diet and 3/4 old diet for 3-4 days, then 1/2 and 1/2 for 3-4 days, then 3/4 new and 1/4 old for 3-4 days and finally all new! If your dog has a sensitive stomach take longer to transition. Also, adding in a probiotic prior to the change can be helpful. I like www.visbiomevet.com or any human probiotic with >8 strains and >50 million cfus which is made by a reputable company.
I really hope this blog has been helpful and that it will get you started on a safe and healthy path to home-cooking for your best friend! As always this is just a guide. For more specific information or a specific diet plan tailored to your pet’s needs you can discuss this further with your holistic veterinarian or schedule an individualized consultation by contacting my office.
Kimberly Schmidt, DVM, CVA, CVCH, CVFT
(Veterinarian, animal acupuncturist, herbalist and food therapist)
Napa Valley Holistic Veterinary Services
Lefebvre SL, Reid-Smith R, Boerlin P, Weese Evaluation of the risks of shedding Salmonellae and other potential pathogens by therapy dogs fed raw diets in Ontario and Alberta. JS. Zoonoses Public Health. 2008 Oct;55(8-10):470-80