How To Incorporate Homemade Dog Food Into Your Pup’s Diet, According To Experts

Forbes April 30, 2024

Lifestyle

How To Incorporate Homemade Dog Food Into Your Pup’s Diet, According To Experts

Like many pet guardians who strive to keep their furry companions as healthy as possible, you may have entertained the idea of feeding homemade dog food to your pup. Given pet-food recalls, growing science about pet nutrition and the bevy of fresh pet-food delivery services currently on the market, swapping your dog’s kibble for home-cooked or fresh food is a consideration that’s been gaining popularity. But is it actually always healthier for your pet, and how do you even start? And if you simply don’t have the time to cook for your pets, are there alternatives that are more nutritionally beneficial than store-bought pet food?

To answer these questions and more, I chatted with veterinarians and other experts in the pet care space to understand the best approach to homemade dog food, including how to ensure that making the switch results in meeting your dog’s nutritional requirements. It’s important to keep in mind that the answer isn’t one-size-fits-all; what works for some pets may not work for others. There’s no shortage of online resources to help guide beginners, including recipes, serving-size charts and information about general best practices. Ultimately, however, if you decide you’d like to transition to homemade dog food, consider consulting with your veterinarian and/or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist beforehand.

 
What Are Homemade Dog Meals?

Homemade dog meals are simply recipes that you prepare for your pup, and they’re not that dissimilar to human meals: Each should consist of protein, a starch, and some fruits and vegetables. While the ideal ratio may vary based on your pet’s age and medical needs, Dr. Francisco DiPolo, a New York City–based veterinarian with experience in integrative medicine, recommends a diet that’s 40 to 50% protein and 25 to 30% complex carbs and/or rice; vegetables and fruits should comprise the remaining percentage. (Note that some experts recommend more protein, while some recommend more carbs.

In addition to adding any supplements your vet or veterinary nutritionist may recommend, omega-3 fatty acids are another crucial ingredient. Regardless of what you feed your pet, in fact—even if it’s store-bought—Dr. Karen Shaw Becker, veterinarian and co-author of The Forever Dog, recommends supplementing with an omega-3 fatty acid, as manufactured foods don’t require these. “Dogs and cats have a really high EPA and DHA requirement, and they're certainly not getting it from pet food,” she says. As a result, if you aren’t giving your pet something containing omega-3 fatty acids (like sardines) or a high-quality fish oil supplement, they could have a deficiency.

When it comes to the protein you use, says DiPolo, “some of the most commonly used proteins by people—because they are the ones that are the easiest to find—can also be the most likely associated with some type of allergies [in dogs], like chicken. Pork, turkey, fish, even beef may be better than chicken, and those are all good options.” As for the carbohydrates, DiPolo recommends limiting them or using complex carbohydrates like quinoa, barley or pumpkin. Compared to simple carbohydrates like rice, they “have a little bit more complexity and provide more vitamins and nutritional value,” he adds.

Christine Filardi, author of Home Cooking for Your Dog and pet behavior specialist, recommends starting with just one fruit or one vegetable, and then adding in additional produce as time goes on. (Pureed blueberries, mango or banana are some of her go-tos.) In addition, she adds ingredients like apple cider vinegar and bone broth, and suggests incorporating eggs into dogs’ meals as well, which have 100% biologically available protein. And for the natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids, she points to sardines: “They're in the food chain for a small amount of time and they're not very contaminated.”

Rather than haphazardly throwing together some ingredients from your refrigerator, though, it’s important to cook nutritionally balanced meals using veterinarian-approved recipes. “Dogs and cats have complex nutritional requirements, but just as you can follow a recipe to make lasagna, you can follow a recipe to make dog or cat food,” says Becker.

 
Why Has Home-Cooking For Dogs Become More Popular In Recent Years?

In recent years, more and more pet owners have become curious about the benefits of homemade pet food, and there are a few possible (and overlapping) factors at play. For one, dog food delivery services have been gaining in popularity, and many use what these brands call human-grade ingredients (in contrast to what’s used in most manufactured pet foods, which is feed-grade ingredients, or those deemed not suitable for human consumption).

There’s also more research being done on the topic of dog food ingredients. According to Rodney Habib, co-author of The Forever Dog, we’ve moved from dry food taking up close to 99% of the global pet food market a decade ago down to 67% today. This shift may additionally be a by-product of humans’ increasing wariness of foods made with numerous ingredients and preservatives we can’t pronounce—and being more mindful about incorporating more whole foods into our own diets.

Many people are also turning to home-cooked food as a solution to help their pets with chronic conditions, such as allergies or gastrointestinal issues. Dr. Rebecca Shumaker, a Connecticut-based veterinarian, notes that a lot of her clients wind up cooking for their dogs who have food sensitivities: “I find that the majority of the people who want to cook for their dog usually wind up cooking maybe half, and then the other half is a prepared, well-balanced diet made by a reputable company that has what's called AAFCO certification.”

That said, home-cooked dog meals aren’t universally embraced by veterinarians and others in the pet care space. “Most vets have concerns about any pet foods other than kibble or canned diets because there’s no unbiased education about other pet food categories in vet school nutrition courses,” Becker adds. “None of the pet food companies sponsoring vet schools produce any fresher-food diets (including raw, gently cooked, freeze-dried or dehydrated diets), so these categories of pet foods are not discussed enough for graduates to understand their benefits.” As a result of this lack of knowledge, she argues, many veterinarians are hesitant to fully support a home-cooked dog food diet.

 
What Are The Benefits Of Homemade Dog Food?

As Habib and Becker explore in their book, there’s science supporting that a diet lower in processed foods is linked with a longer life span in dogs. Regarding research the pair did on what the longest-lived dogs in the world are fed, Habib says, “it's the same thing that your mother and her mother and her mother would tell you: Avoid as much ultra-processed food as possible and consume as much minimally processed foods as possible.” He also mentions a Finnish study that showed how minimally processed, fresh foods—similar to their effect on the human body—can lead to less inflammation in dogs, which may affect not only physical health but also better cognitive function.

Additionally, Becker advocates for fresh or homemade food because the formulation guidelines for U.S. pet foods are set for highly active animals. This means if you feed less food than what’s instructed on the bag (for instance, if you have an obese dog and you’re trying to cut down on their food consumption), then your animals may wind up nutrient deficient. On the flip side, she says, if you have a very active animal, such as a sporting breed who’s hunting in a field for hours, and you have to feed them two or three times the recommended amount of manufactured food, they can actually wind up consuming toxic levels of minerals that they do not need. So, by cooking your dog’s food yourself—assuming you do so properly—you have more control over the nutrients to fit your specific pet’s lifestyle and needs.

What’s more, Filardi, who’s also an animal behaviorist, points to anecdotal evidence that a more nutritionally sound, home-cooked diet can also significantly affect behavior. “Instead of addressing behavior, we are too quick to put dogs and cats on mood stabilizers and Prozac,” she says. “Based on all of the clients I worked with, every time they've had behavioral issues, I have suggested a change in diet. And every single time, the behavior has improved because the dogs are getting what they need nutritionally.”

 
Are There Any Risks To A Home-Cooked Diet?

One primary risk of home-cooking for your dog, according to the veterinarians I spoke with, is not formulating their meals to be nutritionally balanced for their needs; calcium deficiency tends to be common. Most importantly, you want to vary their diet and not feed the same ingredients day in and day out. “Veterinarians are correct in the fact that feeding your dog chicken and rice and maybe carrots—three ingredients for the rest of the dog's life—even though it's home-cooked, comes with a lot of issues, because obviously you're missing a multitude of vitamins and minerals,” says Habib.

One valuable vet-recommended resource to consult to make sure you’re providing your dog with optimal nutrition is the site Balance. It, which offers a calorie calculator and information on how to create balanced recipes for your particular pet. Consulting a veterinary nutritionist is also something to consider before transitioning to a largely home-cooked diet.

Second, getting the serving size correct is crucial, as overfeeding (or underfeeding) your pet can counter the benefits of homemade food to begin with. “If I have to give one single recommendation to a pet owner about nutrition, it's not about the quality of the ingredients they are feeding their pet but about how much food they're feeding their pets,” says DiPolo. “Weight management is the single most important thing that any pet owner can do for their pet.”

Becker adds the example of two dogs who weigh the same, but one is highly active and the other is mostly sedentary: “Those dogs need the same level of vitamins and minerals, but they don't need the same number of calories.”

 
Is Raw Food Good For Dogs?

Whether raw meat is better than cooked meat for your pup is a question that’s a bit polarizing among veterinarians. Some vets have found that it works well for some dogs and not others. A few touted benefits of a raw meat–based diet include being higher in antioxidants and potentially improving immune function. However, it also presents more risk for the transmission of foodborne pathogens. If you do choose to try raw food with your pets, make sure to practice safe handling as you would with any raw food for human consumption. That means washing your hands and any surfaces it touches, making sure all bowls are thoroughly cleaned between feedings and not letting it sit out too long.

“Dogs don't have any sort of special ability to get rid of toxins in their body that we don't,” says Dr. Shumaker. “I have diagnosed salmonella, I've diagnosed E. coli.”

Also, if you decide to feed your pet a raw diet, “you want to be careful where you buy your raw meat from,” says Filardi, who shops exclusively at a butcher for canines. “You don't want to buy the manager’s special at Stop & Shop.”

 
What You Need To Make Homemade Dog Food

Aside from the ingredients you’ll be cooking with, of course, you want to make sure you have a high-quality fish oil or omega-3 supplement and any additional supplements your veterinarian recommends. We’ve included two sample recipes, one from Becker and Habib’s forthcoming book, The Forever Dog Life, and one from Filardi’s Home Cooking for Your Dog, a bit further down.

As far as supplies go, whether you’re cooking for a Chihuahua or a pit bull, you’ll make things easier on yourself by batch cooking—either for the week or longer. When necessary, store the food in the freezer until it’s ready to thaw. That means you want some food storage containers handy and a basic kitchen scale to ensure your recipes are consistent and you’re feeding your pet the proper amount. 

 
Homemade Dog Food Alternatives

You may find that you simply don’t have the time to home-cook for your dog or that it just doesn’t work for your lifestyle. But if you’re still interested in transitioning them to a fresher diet, there are plenty of dog-food delivery services crafted with what are said to be human-grade ingredients. While these are more expensive than cooking for your pets yourself, they do make things extremely convenient. (I’ve personally been using PetPlate for years, rotating meals to give my dogs a diverse array of ingredients in their diet.) You can also add freeze-dried meal toppers or other freeze-dried foods to your pet’s diet, as well as meat or vegetable broths; my dogs particularly love Vital Essentials’ toppers.

  • PetPlate Personalized Meal Plans
  • Caru Daily Dish Pumpkin Broth
  • Vital Essentials Freeze-Dried Raw Protein Mix-In
  • Vital Essentials Freeze-Dried Raw Turkey Entree Patties

 

Homemade Dog Food Recipes

 

Root Vegetable Super Stew

Excerpted from The Forever Dog Life

This nutrient-dense super stew contains turnips, whose compound sulforaphane activates genes responsible for fighting inflammation. Sulforaphanes also slow the rate of cancer and cardiovascular biomarkers, reduce inflammation and remove toxins from the body. Serve this as a chunky soup or puree it into a topper.

Yields 6–8 cups

Ingredients

1 medium turnip, peeled and diced into 1/2- to 1-inch cubes

1 medium parsnip, peeled and diced into 1/2- to 1-inch cubes

1 small rutabaga, peeled and diced into 1/2- to 1-inch cubes

2–3 Jerusalem artichokes, diced into 1/2- to 1-inch cubes

1 daikon, peeled and diced into 1/2- to 1-inch cubes

1 medium or 6–8 baby carrots, sliced into 1/2-inch coins

1 large beet, peeled and diced into 1/2- to 1-inch cubes

1 small sweet potato, diced into 1/2- to 1-inch cubes

4–8 cups broth (bone, chicken, beef, mushroom, etc.) or as much as needed to cover vegetables

2 teaspoons fresh or 1 teaspoon dried herbs, added while cooling

Optional: herbal tea bag

Instructions

1. Place all vegetables in a large soup pot, then pour in 4 cups of broth. Add more broth if vegetables are not covered.

2. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer 30 minutes or until veggies are tender.

3. Add 1–2 tea bags of choice while stew cools, along with fresh or dried herbs.

4. Remove tea bags when broth is cool. Puree to smooth consistency if desired.

5. Slow cooker method: Place vegetables and broth in Crock-Pot, cook on low for 8 hours, then add tea and herbs once heat is turned off. Remove tea bags when broth is cool.

 
Meatloaf Monday

Excerpted from Home Cooking for Your Dog

Makes 4 servings (for a 50-pound dog)

Ingredients

2 pounds ground beef

1/2 cup uncooked quinoa pasta

1/2 cup chopped broccoli

2 large eggs

1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

4 tablespoons fish oil

4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Instructions

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray.

2. Over simmering water, steam the broccoli for 3 minutes. Drain, then puree it in a food processor. You should have about ½-cup of broccoli puree.

3. Prepare the pasta as directed on the package. Set the cooked pasta aside to cool. When cool, puree it in a food processor with a little water, if needed. You should have about 1 cup of pureed pasta.

4. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs. Add the beef, pureed pasta, and broccoli. Using your hands, mix all the ingredients well. Press the meatloaf mixture into the prepared loaf pan. Sprinkle the coconut evenly on top.

5. Bake the meatloaf for 45 minutes, or until the top is browned. Let it cool for 30 minutes before serving.

6. Add 1 tablespoon of fish oil and 1 tablespoon of the vinegar to each serving. Refrigerate any leftovers in an airtight container for up to three days.


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