Homemade Diets
by Joe Bodewes, DVM 
Drs. Foster & Smith, Inc.
Veterinary Services Department

This article will help you better understand the potential benefits and possible detrimental effects of feeding homemade diets to dogs and cats. If your pet is showing any symptoms or signs of disease, please contact your veterinarian. We want you and your pet to be happy and healthy. 

The vast majority of cats and dogs in this country are fed commercial dry kibble or canned food as the sole source of their calories and nutrition. Since the 1940s, preprocessed commercial foods have become so commonplace that most people would find feeding anything other than dry kibble or canned food very unusual or abnormal. The fact is however, that there are literally thousands and thousands of pets that don't eat commercially prepared food for a multitude of different reasons. A homemade diet can be nutritious, balanced, and better for your pet than commercially prepared diets. This article will explore the pros and cons of a homemade diet and give some helpful pointers to steer you in the correct direction should you choose to feed a homemade diet. 

Why would someone feed a homemade diet?

There are many good reasons that people feed homemade diets, for instance if their pet has a special dietary requirement that can't be met by commercial foods, such as food allergies, diabetes, kidney failure, or weight loss. Another reason that some people feed a homemade diet is to provide their pets with a source of nutrition that is free from the by-products, chemical additives and processing found in commercial foods. A third group of animals that may be fed homemade diets are performance dogs such as sled dogs where they require very high amounts of fat and protein that cannot be met by a commercial diet. 

What are the benefits of feeding a homemade diet?

Springer Spaniel eatingThere can be many benefits of feeding a homemade diet over a commercial diet. To understand the benefits of a homemade diet we may have to break through a commonly held myth that commercial foods are the best food for your pet. While the commercial kibble does an excellent job of meeting the nutritional requirements of most pets and is convenient and fairly affordable, it is far from the perfect food for your pet. First off, have you ever looked at the ingredients listed on a pet food label? Most of commercial diets are full of grains, animal by products (by product means intestines, chicken feet, etc. but no actual meat) and chemical preservatives. They contain huge quantities of carbohydrates. Dogs and especially cats were never intended to eat many of these types of foods. Dogs are primary carnivores and cats are complete carnivores. That means that they never evolved to eat all of these carbohydrates. They are designed to eat animals including their organs, skin, meat, hair, bones, and stomach contents. Early dogs would eat an occasional berry or plant but they were not the bulk of their diets. Cats hardly ever ate plant material of any kind, yet in commercial kibble we are feeding them up to 70% carbohydrates. Wild canines and felines eat a diet much higher in protein than what is found in commercial diets. But protein is expensive and even though many pet foods utilize the cheapest protein source available in the form of animal by products, it still costs more than grain. Because these carnivores cannot begin to digest these grains in a raw form they must be cooked. The cooking and high temperatures necessary for processing destroys many of the vitamins and nutrients found in these ingredients in the raw form so they must be added back in the form of vitamin and mineral supplements. To prevent the fat in the food from becoming rancid, chemical preservatives are then added. The pet food supplies what the public demands. We want food that is inexpensive and meets the minimum required vitamin and mineral requirements. We want food that is fast, convenient, and easy to purchase. In our demand for convenience and low cost the pet food industry has given us what we wanted, but is it what your pet would want or is really designed to eat?

Feeding a homemade diet can sometimes be cheaper than a commercial diet. I know of many kennel owners who purchase outdated frozen chicken and beef for as little as 10 cents a pound and formulate their own diets with this meat as the base. A homemade diet can also be a huge benefit in animals with food allergies or digestive disorders. 

Cat eatingWhy doesn't everyone feed a homemade diet?

People don't feed a homemade diet because for most of us it is too much work and most pets do pretty well on commercial diets. Many people also believe that they can't properly balance their petís diet if they make it themselves. The fact is that pets live longer now than ever before and a lot of that is due to improved nutrition, mainly commercially prepared diets. In fact, pets do so well on commercially prepared diets that by far the single biggest nutritional problem veterinarians see is obesity in pets. So despite all of the less than optimal characteristics of commercially prepared diets, there are many positive benefits, especially affordability and convenience. Most pets do pretty well on dry or canned food. But if you have one of the pets that doesn't, or you want to feed a more natural, healthier diet to your pet, you may want to seriously consider the benefits of feeding a homemade diet. With the availability of pet multi-vitamins on the market, balancing the vitamins and minerals is relatively easy.

The three kinds of homemade diets

I see three different kinds of homemade diets being fed. The first is the true, well-balanced, nutritiously complete entirely homemade diet. This diet contains premium protein sources, a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats and fiber and meets the animalís entire vitamin and mineral needs. People that feed this diet are truly dedicated to the health of their pet. 

The second diet is the supplemented homemade diet. It usually consists of a commercial dry food as at least half of the petís diet. The owner then supplements the diet with meat and some carbohydrate sources. The family leftovers usually get scraped into the petís bowl. If the owner is careful not to feed fat in the leftovers and adds a multi-vitamin to the diet this can work great. With sled dogs or large kennels of working dogs this is often the diet of choice. 

The third type of homemade diet is the one where the owner feeds their pet only table food and doesn't balance the diet for protein, fat, carbohydrates and vitamins. This is not a good diet for your pet. It is often fed to finicky eaters. In an effort to please the pet and to get them to eat the owner prepares a Ďspecialí diet that may consist of chicken breast or turkey but lacks fiber, and the correct vitamins and minerals. 

Some things to consider before feeding a homemade diet

  • Preparing a homemade diet takes more time.
  • A homemade diet may be more expensive than commercial kibble.
  • A homemade diet needs to be supplemented with a multivitamin to insure that it is completely balanced.
  • Once a pet gets used to eating a homemade diet it probably won't go back to commercial food.
  • If a homemade diet isn't properly balanced it can be worse for your pet than commercial diets.
  • Homemade diets are often soft and your pet needs to chew a solid, crunchy food such as carrots to provide the needed cleaning action for their teeth. 
  • You need to switch a pet from a commercial diet to a homemade diet slowly over a period of three weeks to prevent intestinal upset.
  • The best diet in the world won't improve your petís health if it doesn't receive daily exercise.

A sample of some homemade diets

For an active dog
One pound of meat with the fat included 
2 cups of cooked cream of wheat
1 1/2 cups cottage cheese
1 hard boiled egg
2 T brewers yeast
3 T sugar
1 T vegetable oil
1 t potassium chloride
1 t dicalcium phosphate
1 t calcium carbonate
Multi-vitamin/mineral tablet 

or
1 lb. ground meat with the fat included
4 hard-boiled eggs
1 cup cooked oatmeal
1 cooked potato
1/4 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup raw carrot
1/2 cup raw green vegetables
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
Multi-vitamin/mineral tablet

For a cat
1 lb. cooked ground beef
1/4 cup liver
1 cup cooked rice
1 t vegetable oil
1 t calcium carbonate
Multi-vitamin/mineral tablet 

This is just a small sampling of homemade diets. There are more complete lists in the references listed below. By following the rough guidelines shown with these diets you can substitute appropriate protein and carbohydrate sources as you or your pet desires.

Summary

Homemade diets can be a great source of nutrition for your pet. They require a little planning and extra time on your part but they can have many positive rewards. Dogs and cats with special nutritional needs can benefit greatly from these diets. By providing a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement you can meet your pet's daily requirements. With a little planning and preparation your pet can be one of the thousands that enjoy the benefits of a homemade diet.

References

The Consumers guide to Dog Food, Liz Palika
Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, Lewis
The Holistic Veterinary Handbook, Winter. 
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