Homemade pet food has become a bit of a hot topic in the animal world as of late. The more food conscious we become as a society, the more concern we have over what goes into our pets' diets, as well. Many of us consider our pets to be members of the family, so, naturally, we want to offer them the same quality of health we want for ourselves. But is a homemade diet really the best option for your pet?|
Why Feed a Homemade Diet?
People choose to feed their pet a homemade diet for a variety of reasons. Some pet owners feel that a home-cooked diet offers a fresher, healthier alternative to commercially available dog and cat food. It also gives owners free reign to determine exactly what they put into their pet's food and, in doing so, keep it free of additives, dyes and other unnatural ingredients that many commercial diets may contain. For others, it's about bringing variety into an otherwise "boring" life of eating the same kibble day after day.
In the wake of pet food recalls and product contamination scares, many people are mistrustful of larger food companies and suspicious of their marketing ploys. Some owners simply feel that a home-cooked diet may be a better choice for their pet who is suffering from a specific disease condition (such as allergies or cancer). Whatever the reason, it seems that more and more people want to jump on the homemade diet bandwagon these days.
The Reality of Homemade Diets
As a pet owner myself, I can certainly sympathize with clients who want to feed their pets food they would consider good enough for their own consumption. While I think the intention behind feeding a home-cooked diet is great, pet owners need to be aware that it's not as simple as filling your dog or cat's bowl with some chicken and vegetables and calling it good. Our pets require a specific balance of nutrients to stay healthy, and their needs differ from our own. If that balance is not met, it can lead to serious health consequences for your dog or cat.
Which Pets May Benefit from a Homemade Diet?
A homemade diet is probably best reserved for a generally healthy dog or cat, or for pets with documented food allergies. In cases of true food allergies, a homemade diet may be ideal or even recommended. Pets with suspected food allergies are often put on diet trials to eliminate specific proteins and/or carbohydrates from their diet while it is determined which foods they are allergic to. Pets who are allergic to several ingredients may be placed on short-term or long-term homemade diets. Please note that the proper steps still need to be taken to ensure these diets are complete and balanced. Any pet placed on a food trial for suspected allergies should always be monitored by a veterinarian or veterinary dermatologist.
The Ins and Outs of Homemade Diets
Do Your Research
If you are considering a homemade diet for your pet, it is important to do it the right way. While cooking for your pet regularly is certainly feasible, it does take some effort to ensure that your dog or cat receives a proper balance of nutrients. Know that it requires a time commitment and diligence and that you must strictly adhere to the nutritional requirements for your pet or run the risk of him or her developing severe nutrient deficiencies or becoming malnourished.
Pet food companies have often spent years of research formulating diets that are suitable to meet your pets' specific nutrient requirements. If you are serious about wanting to maintain your dog or cat on a home-cooked diet, you will need to do some research of your own. The first step is to make sure the diet you create for your pet is completely balanced. This is best done by consulting with a veterinary nutritionist. Your regular veterinarian can put you in touch with a veterinary nutritionist who can help you determine your pet's precise needs.
Some Common Ingredients
Unless your pet has a specific disease condition and must avoid certain foods, most homemade diets should include protein, a grain or carbohydrate source, a healthy fat and a variety of vegetables. Some common ingredients found in homemade diets include chicken, beef, lamb, brown rice or pasta, vegetable or fish oils, broccoli, peas and sweet potato. In terms of vegetables, it's best to avoid onions and garlic which can be harmful if fed in large amounts. (Many other "healthy" sounding foods are dangerous to dogs and cats.)
What about Supplements?
Even if your homemade diet seems well-balanced by human standards, it will still likely require some form of supplementation in order to provide your pet with the necessary vitamins and minerals he or she needs. Often, a multivitamin is required to help round out the nutritional content of a home-cooked diet. Calcium is also generally added to homemade diets in the form of bone meal or a powdered supplement. Dogs and cats who don't receive the proper amount of calcium in their diet can develop a disease condition known as nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism, which can leave them prone to bone fractures. Cats have additional requirements for certain nutrients such as the amino acid taurine, which plays an essential role in heart and retinal health.
Consistency is Key
Generally speaking, sticking to a fairly consistent, well-balanced diet probably is the best in terms of keeping your pet healthy. Constantly switching up foods can be upsetting to your pet's gastrointestinal tract and lead to vomiting, diarrhea or soft stool. Once you have a recipe that works for your pet, it's important to remain devoted to it. Making even small changes in important vitamins and minerals could lead to dangerous nutrient deficiencies.
Have a Vet Monitor Your Pet Frequently
If you are set on a homemade diet and have done the proper research, be sure to have your pet evaluated by a veterinarian frequently, especially in the early stages to ensure he or she maintains a healthy weight and to monitor for any clinical signs of disease that might indicate a nutritional deficiency. Remember, as your pet ages, his or her dietary requirements may change. Your veterinarian can help guide you in determining what changes may need to take place in your pet's diet as time goes on.
Avoid Human Diet Trends
Try to avoid imposing your own dietary preferences or requirements onto your pet, such as going gluten- or grain-free without a justified reason to do so. What's trendy in the human diet world may not be the best for your dog or cat. Most pets actually tolerate grains fairly well. Unless your pet has a specific food allergy or intolerance, it's not a good idea to eliminate an entire food group/item from his or her diet.
A Note on Raw Food Diets
When a Homemade Diet May Not be the Best Choice
For pets in life stages that require extra nutritional support, such as growing puppies and kittens or pregnant or nursing dogs and cats, a homemade diet may not be the ideal option. Ensuring that your pet's dietary needs are met during these life stages is crucial, so it's probably best to rely on a well-established commercial diet during these times.
Dogs and cats with specific health or medical conditions such as bladder stones or kidney disease often need to avoid certain minerals and/or minimize protein in their diet. These pets will probably do best on a prescription diet. Check with your veterinarian to determine your pet's specific dietary needs.
A Semi-Homemade Diet
If you are interested in adding more whole foods to your dog or cat's diet, but lack the time or resources to do it properly (let's face it, for some of us it is a challenge to prepare our own meals on a daily basis), you might consider finding a wholesome, balanced commercial food source and supplementing with fresh foods to provide your pet with additional tastes and nutrients. Some options to consider adding are (cooked) broccoli, carrots, pumpkin, sweet potato, salmon or chicken (without any bones, skin or added seasoning). Just be sure to account for the extra calories by scaling back on his or her regular food.
Cesar's Way, "Choosing the Right Dog Food," www.cesarsway.com, accessed on October 17, 2013.
Nestle, Marion and Nesheim, Malden C. "Feed Your Pet Right." (New York: Free Press, 2010). 252-254.
Web MD, "Homemade Dog Food," www.webmd.com, accessed on October 22, 2013.