Home-Prepared Dog Food: How to Make a Balanced Diet
Check out our expert's guidelines for a home-prepared diet: You don’t need a spreadsheet or a degree in nutrition to feed your dog a complete and balanced diet.
[Updated February 1, 2016]
Over the past few months, I have offered diet critiques that tweaked good home-prepared diets in order to address health concerns – or simply to optimize the diet. To do this, I analyzed the diets and compared them to the National Research Council’s guidelines for canine nutrition. I want to be clear, though: I don’t believe this is a requirement for feeding a homemade diet. Just as with the diet you feed yourself and your family, feeding a wide variety of healthy foods in appropriate proportions should meet the needs of most healthy dogs.
Problems arise with how this description is interpreted. Too often, people think that they’re feeding a healthy diet when key ingredients may be missing or are fed in excess. Here are specific guidelines to help ensure that the diet you feed meets your dog’s requirements.
Complete and Balanced
It’s important that the diet you feed your dog is “complete and balanced,” meaning it meets all of your dog’s nutritional needs. It is not important, however, that every meal be complete and balanced, unless you feed the same meal every day with little or no variation.
Home-prepared diets that include a wide variety of foods fed at different meals rely on balance over time, not at every meal. Similar to the way humans eat, as long as your dog gets everything he needs spread out over each week or two, his diet will be complete and balanced.
A human nutritionist would never expect someone to follow a single recipe with no variation, as veterinary nutritionists routinely do. Instead, a human would be given guidelines in terms of food groups and portion sizes. As long as your dog doesn’t have a health problem that requires a very specific diet, there’s no reason you can’t do the same for your dog.
Keep in mind that puppies are more susceptible to problems caused by nutritional deficiencies or excesses than adult dogs are. Large-breed puppies are particularly at risk from too much calcium prior to puberty.
Following are guidelines for feeding a raw or cooked homemade diet to healthy dogs. No single type of food, such as chicken, should ever make up more than half the diet.
Except where specified, foods can be fed either raw or cooked. Leftovers from your table can be included as long as they’re foods you would eat yourself, not fatty scraps.
Meat and Other Animal Products: Should always make up at least half of the diet. Many raw diets are excessively high in fat, which can lead to obesity. Another potential hazard of diets containing too much fat: If an owner restricts the amount fed (in order to control the dog’s weight) too much, the dog may suffer deficiencies of other required nutrients.
Unless your dog gets regular, intense exercise, use lean meats (no more than 10 percent fat), remove skin from poultry, and cut off separable fat. It’s better to feed dark meat poultry than breast, however, unless your dog requires a very low-fat diet.
Raw Meaty Bones (optional): If you choose to feed them, RMBs should make up one third to one half of the total diet. Use the lower end of the range if you feed bony parts such as chicken necks and backs, but you can feed more if you’re using primarily meatier parts such as chicken thighs. Never feed cooked bones.
Boneless Meat: Include both poultry and red meat. Heart is a good choice, as it is lean and often less expensive than other muscle meats.
Fish: Provides vitamin D, which otherwise should be supplemented. Canned fish with bones, such as sardines (packed in water, not oil), jack mackerel, and pink salmon, are good choices. Remove bones from fish you cook yourself, and never feed raw Pacific salmon, trout, or related species. You can feed small amounts of fish daily, or larger amounts once or twice a week. The total amount should be about one ounce of fish per pound of other meats (including RMBs).
Organs: Liver should make up roughly 5 percent of this category, or about one ounce of liver per pound of other animal products. Beef liver is especially nutritious, but include chicken or other types of liver at least occasionally as well. Feeding small amounts of liver daily or every other day is preferable to feeding larger amounts less often.
Eggs: Highly nutritious addition to any diet. Dogs weighing about 20 pounds can have a whole egg every day, but give less to smaller dogs.
Dairy: Plain yogurt and kefir are well tolerated by most dogs (try goat’s milk products if you see problems). Cottage and ricotta cheese are also good options. Limit other forms of cheese, as most are high in fat.
Fruits and Vegetables: While not a significant part of the evolutionary diet of the dog and wolf, fruits and vegetables provide fiber that supports digestive health, as well as antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients that contribute to health and longevity. Deeply colored vegetables and fruits are the most nutritious.
Starchy Vegetables: Veggies such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squashes (including pumpkin), as well as legumes (beans), provide carbohydrate calories that can be helpful in reducing food costs and keeping weight on skinny and very active dogs. Quantities should be limited for overweight dogs. Starchy foods must be cooked in order to be digestible by dogs.
Leafy Green and Other Non-Starchy Vegetables: These are low in calories and can be fed in any quantity desired. Too much can cause gas, and raw, cruciferous veggies such as broccoli and cauliflower can suppress thyroid function (cook them if you feed large amounts). Raw vegetables must be pureed in a food processor, blender, or juicer in order to be digested properly by dogs, though whole raw veggies are not harmful and can be used as treats.
Fruits: Bananas, apples, berries, melon, and papaya are good choices. Avoid grapes and raisins, which can cause kidney failure in dogs.
Grains: Controversial, as they may contribute to inflammation caused by allergies, arthritis, or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD); as well as seizures and other problems (it’s not clear whether starchy vegetables do the same). Some grains contain gluten that may cause digestive problems for certain dogs. Many dogs do fine with grains, however, and they can be used to reduce the overall cost of feeding a homemade diet.
Grains and starchy veggies should make up no more than half the diet. Good choices include oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, barley, and pasta. White rice can be used to settle an upset stomach, particularly if overcooked with extra water, but it’s low in nutrition and should not make up a large part of the diet. All grains must be well cooked.
Some supplements are required. Others may be needed if you are not able to feed a variety of foods, or if you leave out one or more of the food groups above. In addition, the longer food is cooked or frozen, the more nutrients are lost. Here are some supplements to consider:
Calcium: Unless you feed RMBs, all homemade diets must be supplemented with calcium. The amount found in multivitamin and mineral supplements is not enough. Give 800 to 1,000 mg calcium per pound of food (excluding non-starchy vegetables). You can use any form of plain calcium, including eggshells ground to powder in a clean coffee grinder (1/2 teaspoon eggshell powder provides about 1,000 mg calcium). Animal Essentials’ Seaweed Calcium provides additional minerals, as well.
Oils: Most homemade diets require added oils for fat, calories, and to supply particular nutrients. It’s important to use the right types of oils, as each supplies different nutrients.
Fish Oil: Provides EPA and DHA, omega-3 fatty acids that help to regulate the immune system and reduce inflammation. Give an amount that provides about 300 mg EPA and DHA combined per 20 to 30 pounds of body weight on days you don’t feed fish. Note that liquid fish oil supplements often tell you to give much more than this, which can result in too many calories from fat.
Cod Liver Oil: Provides vitamins A and D as well as EPA and DHA. If you don’t feed much fish, give cod liver oil in an amount that provides about 400 IUs vitamin D daily for a 100-pound dog (proportionately less for smaller dogs). Can be combined with other fish oil to increase the amount of EPA and DHA if desired.
Plant Oils: If you don’t feed much poultry fat, found in dark meat and skin, linoleic acid, an essential omega-6 fatty acid, may be insufficient. You can use walnut, hempseed, corn, vegetable (soybean), or high-linoleic safflower oil to supply linoleic acid if needed. Add about one teaspoon of oil per pound of meat and other animal products, or twice that amount if using canola or sunflower oil. Olive oil and high-oleic safflower oil are low in omega-6 and cannot be used as a substitute, although small amounts can be added to supply fat if needed. Coconut oil provides mostly saturated fats, and can be used in addition to but not as a replacement for other oils.
Other Vitamins and Minerals: In addition to vitamin D discussed above, certain vitamins and minerals may be short in some homemade diets, particularly those that don’t include organ meats or vegetables. The more limited the diet that you feed, the more important supplements become, but even highly varied diets are likely to be light in a few areas.
Vitamin E: All homemade diets I’ve analyzed have been short on vitamin E, and the need for vitamin E increases when you supplement with oils. Too much vitamin E, however, may be counterproductive. Give 1 to 2 IUs per pound of body weight daily.
Iodine: Too much or too little iodine can suppress thyroid function, and it’s hard to know how much is in the diet. A 50-pound dog needs about 300 mcg (micrograms) of iodine daily. Kelp is high in iodine, though the amount varies considerably among supplements.
Multivitamin and mineral supplements: A multivitamin and mineral supplement will help to meet most requirements, including iodine and vitamins D and E, but it’s important not to oversupplement minerals. If using the one-a-day type of human supplements, such as Centrum for Adults under 50, give one per 40 to 50 pounds of body weight daily. Note that most supplements made for dogs provide a reasonable amount of vitamins but are low in minerals, and so won’t make up for deficiencies in the diet. Be cautious with small dogs; I’ve seen some supplements that recommend the same dosage for 10-pound dogs as for those weighing 50 or even 100 pounds. In those cases, the dosage is usually too high for the small dogs and should be reduced. Products made for humans are also inappropriate for small dogs.
Green Blends: Often containing alfalfa and various herbs, green blends may be especially helpful if you don’t include many green vegetables in your dog’s diet. You can also use a pre-mix that includes alfalfa and vegetables, such as The Honest Kitchen’s Preference. Note most pre-mixes also supply calcium, so you should reduce or eliminate calcium supplements, depending on how much of the pre-mix you use.
Mary Straus is the owner of DogAware.com. Contact her via her website if you would like to submit a diet to be critiqued.