Features July 2012 Issue

Home-Prepared Dog Food – How to Make a Balanced Diet

Home-prepared diet guidelines: You don’t need a spreadsheet or a degree in nutrition to feed your dog a complete and balanced diet.

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.

Don’t bother trying to make every single one of your dog’s meal nutritionally complete; as long as he’s receiving what he needs over a week or two (often referred to as “balance over time”), he’ll be fine. This approach is similar to how we feed ourselves and our families.

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.

GUIDELINES
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.

Fruits such as melon, berries, bananas, apples, pears, and papayas can be included in your dog’s food or given as training treats.

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.

SUPPLEMENTS
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.

Top-quality fish body oil and cod liver oil can provide your dog’s diet with valuable omega-3 fatty acids. Be cautious about feeding the amounts suggested on the labels, however; these often supply too much fat.

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.

Comments (15)

I presently have 3 pups JohnnyBoy 14 Darla 4 and Tippy 1. My interest are herbal medicine and staying healthy. Lucky for my canine friends this benefits them as well. I feed them the least expensive food I can find as a filler and add Bee Pollen Olive Oil a little Diatomacious Earth and mix it with meat stock or occasionally sardines and garlic from my kitchen. I make treats with acia berries oats peanut butter peppermint and beef stock. To keep cateracs from forming and body cells strong and many other problems with age attacking the system at bay I always add Apple Cider Vinegar to the water. My pups have never seen a vet or have they been sick. As for me I am on the same regimen with exceptance of the dog food and have not had so much as a cold in my 67 year memory. Might not work for everyone but for us it is working well.

Posted by: Smilingeyes | March 26, 2014 10:25 PM    Report this comment

Excellent article and provides a world of information for those of us just starting to think about home cooked food for our pets. I am trying to come up with a good recipe for a wholesome diet for my 40 pound mixed breed dog. She has been on kibble her entire life but we are trying to make some changes for the better.

I am a vegetarian and can make eggs and give her canned fish. I am thinking of a combination of rice, beans, cooked veggies, yogurt and eggs as an option. I am also going to add the oil, vitamin and mineral supplements you have mentioned here. Should I give her the daily multi vitamin on top of what you have suggested under supplements? Wouldn't it over compensate?

Please advice.

Posted by: Vvishwas | March 21, 2014 9:24 AM    Report this comment

I happened to mention to the vet one day that my dog wouldn't eat her meals straight away but would take a few bites, leave it for a while and then take a few more bites during the day until she finished it at the end of the day. This is a problem when I try to give her the monthly flea control tablet which has to be taken after a full meal. I try to give her variety in her meals to try out the perfect meal that she will eat straight away, but it doesn't matter what I feed her - different brands of commercial dogfood, homemade dogfood with tuna, beef or chicken, organic loaf, dogfood out of a health shop - she never eats a meal straight away.

The vet asked what I normally gave her. Her normal meal at that stage was ground beef or kangaroo meat, with flaxseed oil, chopped liver or kidney and brown rice. I also gave her raw bones a few times a week and a bowl of grain-free dog biscuits to snack on during the day. The vet was shocked and said she should never have red meat or offal, as this was inflammatory, but that I should only feed her chicken or turkey or other white meat. I should also never give her bones as these would cause her teeth to splinter and her to have dental problems. I should also give her raw fruit and veges and only organic top of the range biscuits from the vet, which of course was in a small packet and very highly priced. I walked out of there feeling like I'd just been abusing my dog all this time.

I tried what the vet said and changed her diet to chicken and turkey only with cooked carrot and kale and other veges. I stopped her giving her bones and tried her on the organic biscuits. Every day for nearly a week she left both her wet and dry food bowls mostly untouched. She took to sitting on the floor at my feet begging as I ate my own meals, which she'd never done before. After nearly a week I couldn't stand her big sad eyes anymore and gave her back her red meat, bones and offal - which she gulped down like she'd been starving. Which she had. Now I don't mind if she takes her time eating her meal - as long as it's gone by the end of the day I'm happy. I accept that she's not a 'food' dog and won't gulp down her meals straight away like other dogs. I tried the expensive organic stuff and the white meat, but in the end she told me herself what she wanted.

Posted by: GL | November 9, 2013 10:42 PM    Report this comment

To Mardi H. I prepare food for my dogs these days, because many years ago, I lost two dogs to intestinal cancer. The vet asked me what I fed them and I told him that it was dog food, both tin and dry. He advised me that if I ever decided to get another dog to prepare fresh food. For one thing, only dry food is not healthy for a meat eating animal and the vet can always tell by the dog's breath. The other is that the meat draws the metal out from the tin. So from then on, I decided to feed only fresh food, which worked out wonderful. It was so good that my grandchildren also tucked into it. Then one day, someone threw bait onto my property and tried to kill my dogs in the most horrible way, with poisoned meat. There is nothing more horrible than finding your dog so sick that even today I can't put words to paper. From the ten dogs I have had in my lifetime, I recommend a balanced diet of dry but also fresh.

Posted by: Irene R. | September 24, 2013 11:50 PM    Report this comment

To Jean G. February with a pancreatitis dog. I've only discovered this site so my answer is a little late. I had two dogs that were poisoned but with a wonderful vet my two survived, one was diabetic and the other had pancreatitis. I had them on a diet of meat and vegetables of green beans, carrots, sweet potatoe, snow peas and lettuce all blended into a food processor and made into patties. Once a week I purchased fish and other seafood for the family, I made seafood patties for my dogs. The patties were the size of golf balls. I had border collies. However, instead of feeding once or twice a day, they were fed three times a day alternating with specially formulated canine food purchased from the vet, not to mention the medication they were both on and insulin for the diabeties, this for the rest of their lives. Both lived a little longer, however, my diabetic boy eventually had to be put to sleep because he went blind and the other with cancer. The only advice I can give is that the dog should be supervised by a veterinary. I had monthly visits to the vet but it was worth it to have them a little longer.

Posted by: Irene R. | September 24, 2013 11:15 PM    Report this comment

There is a fundamental metabolic error in this. The reason most pet dogs, perhaps 90%, are overweight or obese is not due to excess fat in the diet, it is due to excess carbohydrate. I am very familiar with the current nutritional baloney that fat causes obesity because fat is more calorie dense than carbohydrate. This is base upon the simplistic theory that a calorie is a calorie, which is based upon a misunderstanding of the first law of thermodynamics and how it applies to metabolism. Until you understand metabolism its pointless to argue the point because metabolism is what is fundamental to this subject. In the wold canines evolved and live today on a diet almost devoid of carbohydrate. No matter how much you would love to believe we can substitute those low cost carbs for protein and fat it aint never going to work. Most carbohydrate will rapidly convert to serum glucose which will immediately stimulate insulin production. Insulin operates in the conversion of serum glucose to body fat. That is until the system is worn out from overuse and the metabolism becomes diabetic. Obesity is evidence of the metabolism trying to protect the body from excess glucose which in the end causes cell death. Additionally the high glucose levels that dog lives with leads to more rapid cell replacement and a shorter life. That's why all studies done to date on feeding a drastically reduced quantity of food leads to significance life extension. The high serum glucose and its relationship to the incidence of cancer is a whole additional area of concern. You don't need to understand all this, just feed your dog as close as you can to how he would have eaten as a wolf.

Posted by: DAVID B | July 6, 2013 4:23 PM    Report this comment

I use Fish oil as a skin saver for my dogs. It seems their skin drya out during the summer and winter months so I give them a fish oil tablet daily. Makes a big difference. Is there another oil that you think would do this job better?

Posted by: lcridesherown | July 6, 2013 3:08 PM    Report this comment

To Lynn C. Re: diabetic Viszla. One of our mini schnauzers was diagnosed as diabetic last November. We have had tremendous success with both Annamaet Grain-Free Lean and Horizon Amicus Senior/Weight Control kibble (we alternate to keep Mr Picky Eater interested). We feed half kibble/half low fat canned. Apparently keeping blood lipids/cholesterl low for diabetic dogs is critical. Spenser's have dropped dramatically, and our vet has even recommended his diet to other diabetic patients. His glucose has dropped from 688 when diagnosed to 144 at last testing. But there have been fluctuations along. Has your vet increased insulin dosage? Over the course of the first few months, we have increased from 4 units 2x per day to 10 units 2x per day. Your dog's dosage seems low for a larger dog (Spenser is18 lbs), especially if she is gaining some of that weight back after starting on insulin. Good luck!

Posted by: Margaret S | July 6, 2013 2:22 PM    Report this comment

So I'm seeing some comments here, but wonder if any of them have been answered. I'd like to see the responses to some of these questions.... otherwise, what's the point, eh?

Posted by: Dorothy D | July 6, 2013 12:23 PM    Report this comment

thanks for the great article.

Wondering about Magnesium. Is the (relatively small) amount in most multivitamins sufficient?

Posted by: Jency | July 6, 2013 11:23 AM    Report this comment

I have an 8yr. old vizsla, female. December of 2010, Christmas, she stole and ate a brick of birdseed suet and eggnog cheese cake December 27, admitted to nc state vet hospital---- pancreatitis 2 weeks in hospital, stable and home 2 heat cycles passed false pregnancy, 2 nd cycle, very thirsty, loosing weight, and ravenous, bg level-588-has lost 15 lbs. emergency spay---April, 2012 check her bg level 2 x daily, insulin 6.5 units 2x daily. feeding wellness reduced fat, 1/2 cup 2 x daily, and my chicken stew, made with chicken breasts, string beans, jasmine brown rice, cinnamon, sea salt, garlic powder (little). pet vit., vit.e, milk thistle, viokase (orderline EPI) I give her raw veggies, yellow squash and snow peas I would love to cook for her and the rest of my vizslas (they are ok), but when do I know it is balanced. the kibble, ideally should be low fat, high protein, carbs, not too high. any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

recently, her bg has been running high, with no change in diet. this is very frustrating for all of us, fortunately she is an excellent patient, but I need to know that I am not failing her.

Posted by: Lynn C | April 29, 2013 9:39 AM    Report this comment

Is there any way that a dog with pancreatitis can thrive or even tolerate a home cooked diet? My friend's dog has this and she wants to give him some things but she throws up easily. Any suggestions?

Posted by: Jean G | February 4, 2013 9:46 PM    Report this comment

I have a Bichon with what the vets think might be food allergies so I have been cooking ground turkey with carrots and green beans in order to narrow it down. Now I realize this is not nutrionally sound. Is there one supplement I could add with all the needed vitamins and minerals since she is only 12 lbs.?

Posted by: Unknown | October 23, 2012 10:28 PM    Report this comment

My silky terrier 13 pounds has a urinary tract infection and has crystals or a stone (not sure yet) they have put him on a dietary diet. Do you have a homemade receipt as I have made his food since he was a puppy, he is 8 years now. Thanks

Posted by: Unknown | September 9, 2012 2:36 PM    Report this comment

can you post some recipes for home made meals....I am trying to do this but want to make sure that I do it right for my little 10 and 6 pound Yorkies..

Posted by: CINDY G | September 3, 2012 9:58 AM    Report this comment

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