Whole Dog Journal's Blog May 1, 2012

Homemade Dog Food Diets Don’t Require an Analysis

Posted at 04:08PM - Comments: (22)

Follow proper guidelines to create a healthy diet for your dog, just as you do for your family.

For the past few months, I’ve been writing critiques of home-prepared diets for the Whole Dog Journal. My original intention was simply to review the diets and offer comments about what they might be missing or how they could be improved, but I ended up doing a full nutritional analysis of each diet to try to figure out why the dogs eating these diets were having problems, or to better understand a very complex diet.

My goal was two-fold: to find out how each diet compared to National Research Council (NRC) guidelines, which would be helpful to those experienced in feeding a homemade diet, and to help newbies get started with the recipes provided.

I was taken aback, then, when I received an email from someone who said that after reading the most recent critique, “It completely convinced me that I cannot home cook for my dog because I would be hopelessly lost and inept. . . . Variety was the point, but by the time a pet's diet is so precisely fine tuned, you don't leave much room for variation because it would throw everything off.” This was not my intention, and it made me stop and think about what I was doing.

In the past, my advice has always been to feed a wide variety of healthy foods in appropriate proportions rather than using spreadsheets to do nutritional analyses, but after completing a series of reviews on over 30 books about homemade diets (WDJ December 2010, January 2011, and March 2011), I was shocked at the bad advice I found in the majority of the books. Few of the cooked diets described in the books included calcium or organ meats, while those advocating raw diets were sometimes limited to almost nothing but raw meaty bones. I was also surprised to discover that when people did analyze diets similar to what I recommend and feed to my own dogs, they did not meet NRC guidelines.

That started me on an ongoing quest to better understand what might be missing from various types of homemade diets. Over the last year, I’ve been working with spreadsheets to determine exactly what NRC recommends (the numbers are not as straightforward as you might think), and which foods and supplements supply each nutrient. It’s a lot of work, and I’m far from done, but I’ve learned a lot.

I still feel bad about making someone feel that feeding a home-prepared diet to her dog is too complicated, when that’s not my belief. Yes, you need to follow certain guidelines, and it is important to make sure that some food groups and supplements (primarily calcium and vitamin E) are provided, but you don’t need to follow a recipe exactly, nor do I think this is an ideal way to feed your dog.

I’ve never analyzed the homemade raw diet that I feed Ella, my 8-year-old Norwich Terrier. Why? Because I feed so much variety that it would be just about impossible to do. I rotate between certain types of meals on a regular basis, making sure that she gets a wide variety of foods from all food groups with appropriate amounts of organ meat, raw meaty bones, vegetables, etc., and I work hard at controlling the fat content, since she has a tendency to gain weight, but I don’t follow a recipe and I don’t feed the same foods all the time. I do give her a multivitamin and mineral supplement, rotating between those as well.

Instead of my usual diet critique in the July issue of WDJ, I will offer dietary guidelines that can be used to create a home-prepared raw or cooked diet for healthy dogs. In the future, I’ll think carefully about how I approach these critiques so that I don’t continue sounding like it takes a degree in nutrition to feed your dog, any more than it does to feed your family.

Comments (18)

Thanks for the feedback, Mary S. I just now found the "complete nutrient profile" for Preference on the HK website, so I'm a bit more comfortable it as a complete diet w/ the addition of meat. Like Janet, I would really like to see a WDJ review of pre-mixes and dehydrated food choices. Thanks again!
Mary B

Posted by: MadderScientist | July 10, 2012 6:40 PM    Report this comment

Mary, I jusr re-read the article you submitted on the raw food recipe. You talk about total calories to be fed of the "recipe" on a daily basis. I read that as calories above and beyond the duck necks. Have I made the correct assumption? I did a paper calculation of the cost of this kind of feeding and it hits around $3/day for two small dogs, based on your recommendations. I have a 16 lb Shih-Tzu and a 12 lb mini-poodle something. If duck neck are figured into the number of ounces to be fed per animal, that does, of course, change everything. This seems extremely expensive to me, but I'll admit that I may be out of touch with reality because I eat very inexpensively: little beef and lots of vegetarian-style dishes, but I do eat animal protein. Comment hoped for and welcomed.

Posted by: Christine H | June 1, 2012 9:48 AM    Report this comment

Feeding guidelines would be great! I am a Fromm's kibble feeder (with twice weekly Stella and Chewy's commercial raw) and would love to try home-cooked for my little 18-lb mixed breed. However, getting the correct mix of ingredients seems daunting and intimidating. How do I know if he has enough oils or calcium? Or fruits? Or protein? Or probiotics? Or prebiotics? Ack!

I've considered pre-mixes (Honest Kitchen or Grandma Lucy's), but how do you know how much meat to add? (Can WDJ please consider an updated review on pre-mixes?)

Also, has anyone done any studies to show an increased lifespan on feeding kibble / raw / premix-dehydrated / home-cooked?

So I've stuck with kibble because the commercial raw is higher in fat and my little guy tends to gain weight quickly, but I would really love to give my little one higher quality food. Thanks for any suggestions or advice!

Posted by: PY | May 30, 2012 10:13 PM    Report this comment

I've been slowly working towards a home-cooked diet for my dog Cisco, in part for the same reason that Sandra C is interested - cost effectiveness vs quality. I can find chicken livers and ground meat (beef, chicken, turkey, and pork) in the 'reduced' bin at the supermarket for about $2 per lb and stock up. Right now, I cook and freeze a couple of weeks worth of meat and mix w/ HK Preference pre-mix in 2-3 day portions. Cisco's getting about half of his daily calories from the mix and half from kibble. I've been leery about increasing his home-made portion due to the "balanced diet" concern, so I'd very much appreciate if the guidelines could address the issue of when one passes over the line between supplementary nutrition vs. full nutrition needs.

Posted by: MadderScientist | May 30, 2012 12:12 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for posting! So many people worry about the nutrients when feeding homemade or raw. It is sooooo much better then commercial kibble!

Posted by: TheDailyGolden | May 29, 2012 10:31 PM    Report this comment

I'll look forward to your further comments. I fed a variety of foods following Dr. Pitcairn's diets for 8 years, to my Havanese, Maggie. She recently succumbed to congestive heart failure. I also like to think this diet (with supplementation appropriate to a dog with CHF) helped her to live longer and feel better longer. It's too bad there isn't a way to know for that for sure. But I do know that she enjoyed her meals right up to her last day and that means a lot.

Posted by: Carolyn M | May 29, 2012 7:39 PM    Report this comment

I've fed my dogs a homemade raw diet for about 15 years. My dogs live long lives, their senior blood work is always "great for a dog their age." Once I was told, "The blood work is great, the only thing is that the iron is a little high, but that's probably because of the raw diet."I did all my research 15 years ago, and I read WDJ to stay current on the topic, but basically, I'm pretty relaxed about the whole thing, and my dogs' well being seems to be all the proof I need that they're doing fine.
The best thing I ever read about how easy it is to feed raw and do it well was, "It can't be any harder than feeding your child!"
Pat E.

Posted by: Pat Engel, CPDT-KA | May 29, 2012 6:30 PM    Report this comment

I would love to get some help setting up a spreadsheet with the NRC guidelines so I could enter in the foods I feed my dogs and know what is missing - if anything. Since the last Diamond Food recall of a few weeks ago I am determined to start feeding my dogs a homemade diet. But, I want to make sure I am doing it right. After awhile I am sure it will become easy to know what to feed them, just like feeding myself, but in the meantime I need the reassurance I will get from a spreadsheet.

Posted by: Jals | May 29, 2012 6:21 PM    Report this comment

As a puppy, my dog had terrible stomach problems on even the best kibbles. I started him on premixes (Dr. Harveys and Sojos--he doesn't do as well on Honest Kitchen) mixed with fresh, very lightly cooked meat, plus yogurt, cottage cheese and salmon oil. He's extremely healthy now. I try to rotate the meats among chicken, london broil, fish, and turkey, and add the occasional egg, raw bone, veggies, etc., but it isn't a truly varied diet. This seems like a reasonable compromise between raw and commercial,but I've never seen a complete analysis of what he is or isn't getting in the premixes. I'd really appreciate more info.

Posted by: Deborah B | May 29, 2012 4:54 PM    Report this comment

I love this idea of offering dietary guidelines! This is how we were able to start feeding raw with confidence - which has been amazing. We read of a basic formula - approximately 50% raw meaty bones, 50% muscle meat, and 5-10% organ meat. Yep - it doesn't add up, but means a small adjustment to either of the 50-percents as needed. Over time, we added a few supplements - salmon oil, Vitamin E, eggs, yogurt, etc.

I, too, created a spreadsheet with the NRC guidelines that allowed me to enter the foods I was feeding and highlighted what nutrients were over or under-represented. I found it an excellent learning tool to help with formulating a diet over time. I learned what it meant to feed beef heart and beef liver, etc. - WHY I was feeding those things. After a while, I just began to know - just as I do for my own diet - what was important and in what quantities - and what the value of each food item was. I continue to tweak my dogs' diet - as I do my own.

It would be so great if there was a tool that people could easily use that would take in what is fed and highlight where too much or too little is fed according to the NRC.

I hope to read in future WDJ's about the value of specific food items - what they contribute and how best to use them. A regular feature of this kind would go so far in helping people find the confidence to get started.

Thank you!

Posted by: Martie L | May 29, 2012 4:21 PM    Report this comment

I'm kind of on the same page as Barbara and can really relate, Mary, to this article. I have read all the books and have recently focused on the newer ones you recommended, but I, too, am afraid to feed my dog home cooked/raw because I'm so afraid I'm going to mess up the balance of vitamins/minerals/calcium/etc. and that he won't get enough of something and I'll damage him in some way :( Right now I'm buying commercial raw (Darwin's) rotating or adding The Honest Kitchen, Grandma Lucy's, Stella & Chewy's raw freeze dried, and Primal raw freeze dried. If I feed Tucker home cooked or raw I prepare, I add The Honest Kitchen's Preference (premix). I would prefer to prepare my own raw and not have to use a bought premix, but I am scared and don't know what to do to be sure I get it right. Thank you for your help! :-)

Posted by: Kim K | May 29, 2012 3:50 PM    Report this comment

I am sad to hear that you plan on switching Harry back to kibble.
Having fed my 4 footers a raw diet for about 15 years I found it makes for happy healthy dogs. Annual blood tests will tell you if your dog is getting everything he needs. Balance over time is the idea. Finding meat sources was a challenge at first. Eventually some of us started a co op. You need to have a freezer and use your ingenuity to find food sources. Depending on the protein source feeding raw can be as cheap or expensive as you want to make it. I can feed both my Dobermans ( 64 and 106 lbs ) for less then $3.00 a day. Look for sales and marked down meats. Eggs and cottage cheese are a good protein source and usually well priced. Hunters often have meat that is not needed for their table. Programs that keep meat out of landfills often give that meat away for the price of a donation. Left overs from your meals like veggies are taste additions to the dogs meals. I have no idea how much a GOOD quality kibble costs but I am sure its not cheap. The plus is that you know exactly what goes into his diet so there is no concern about recalls and ingredients from China. I could not even begin to consider feeding kibble again.
Anne in California

Posted by: ANNE K | May 29, 2012 2:50 PM    Report this comment

I hope you'll provide tips for homemade raw diets when serving a variety of proteins isn't an option. I've ended up with a raw diet for my dog because he has both GI problems and food allergies. While raw has been fantastic for his gut troubles, it didn't make his allergies disappear. Since he's allergic to salmon and salmon oil is added to many premade raw diets, I looked into making his food, but everything I found relied on a rotation of proteins to ensure proper nutrition. But to do a successful allergy elimination diet, he needs to be on a single protein for at least three months. Further, because of his GI troubles, many of the leaner meats are problematic since he can't eat enough to keep his weight up without overloading his stomach. So until I can find a recipe that he could stay healthy on without regular changes of proteins, we're stuck with the premade ones, and I may end up having to special order a premade raw food without salmon oil in it -- expensive and inconvenient.

Posted by: Mary-Beth B | May 29, 2012 2:41 PM    Report this comment

Oh, I need to add:
My transition to raw happened largely because of what I had been reading in the Whole Dog Journal.

Also, switching to The Honest Kitchen dehydrated dog food, that I could add things to, gave me a bit of confidence in the conplete transition to Raw. Now I only use The Honest Kitchen when traveling. When we are on vacation if we are going to stay anywhere for a few days, I go to the local grocery store, and cut down on The Honest Kitchen and add some Real food to it. Easy!

Posted by: ThrpyDogTeam | May 29, 2012 1:25 PM    Report this comment

I am a raw feeder and I must admit I was a little overwhelmed by the analysis until I giggled a bit realizing I would have a very difficult time writing down everything I feed because of the ever changing variety. I've read all the books, good and bad, and gleaned a bit from each one. My dogs and cat are very healthy and maintain an excellent weight. Having rescued several in deplorable conditions, watching their bodies heal and their coats become shiny and luxurious has been a pleasure.

I approached the whole switch-to-raw with lots of reading, and though some accomplish the transition overnight, I transitioned a bit at a time, sometimes with fear and trembling. I'm so glad I persevered! I can feed my critters from my refrigerator and freezer just like I do the rest of my family. I just vary what I am feeding and portions for the person or critter that is going to be the recipient.

I have always eaten real food and now, so do my critters.

I LOVE the benefits! They are healthier, have white teeth, pink healthy gums, no tartar, sweet breath, wonderful coats, smaller/well formed/easy to pick-up/non-offensive smelling poo, etc. I would never go back!

Posted by: ThrpyDogTeam | May 29, 2012 1:13 PM    Report this comment

I have been feeding homecooked diet to my dog, Harry. I am preparing
to switch back to dog food because I am so worried that he is not getting
what he needs from my homecooked. I feel bad about going back to dog food
but don't know what else to do. I am so stressed, thinking that he may not
be getting everything he needs from my homecooked. I always hear....homecooked
is dangerous if not done correctly. Can anyone help?

Posted by: BARBARA L | May 29, 2012 12:53 PM    Report this comment

I have been feeding homecooked diet to my dog, Harry. I am preparing
to switch back to dog food because I am so worried that he is not getting
what he needs from my homecooked. I feel bad about going back to dog food
but don't know what else to do. I am so stressed, thinking that he may not
be getting everything he needs from my homecooked. I always hear....homecooked
is dangerous if not done correctly. Can anyone help?

Posted by: BARBARA L | May 29, 2012 12:53 PM    Report this comment

Thank y, thank you! i am recently retired ( the whole fixed income, which isn't much mess) and have two Cardigan Welsh Corgis and a retired racing Greyhound. I go through a large bag of no grain kibble about every two weeks and must spend about $55 - 60 each time. I live about 75 miles or more from the nearest food sources but do have a large freezer and could store meats, etc. I hope I can learn how to feed my dogs adequately using a raw diet. Just worried about the cost I guess.

Posted by: Sandra C | May 29, 2012 12:38 PM    Report this comment

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