It’s been two years since the first melamine-related pet food recall, and during that time, more dog lovers than ever have decided to turn to homemade diets—cooked or raw—as insurance against potential problems with commercial products. Is a homemade diet really insurance? Yes, it can be, assuming it’s nutritionally balanced and takes into account your dog’s breed, age, weight, activity and overall physiology.
As a consulting canine nutrition specialist, I analyze hundreds of diets annually, and see firsthand what people are actually feeding their dogs. Here are a few common misperceptions I’ve encountered and my responses to them, which I hope will help Bark readers in their own efforts to improve their dogs’ nutrition. (The following applies to adult dogs in good health; if your dog is a puppy, a senior or has health issues, be sure to consult with your veterinarian before making dietary changes.)
1. “Using fresh, wholesome foods will, over time, meet my dog’s needs if I vary the diet enough.”
There is some basis for this point of view; fresh foods are indeed more bioavailable than those made with highly processed ingredients. In addition, when an owner prepares food at home, she knows exactly what’s going into it. However, when analyzed, even diets based on wholesome, fresh ingredients can still come up low in various vitamins and minerals.
Bone up on your dog’s actual nutrient requirements by doing a bit of research; this means reading widely, speaking with nutritionists and vets (holistic, conventional and specialists), and starting to think in terms of both ingredients and nutrient needs. (See sidebar for a short “starter list” of online information sources.)
2. “A multivitamin added to the food will cover any gaps.”
The question here is this: Which multi, and with which diet? Any unsupplemented home-prepared diet will be low in some nutrients and adequate or high in others. But because there is no standard formulation for human multivitamins and they can vary greatly in what they include, just tossing one in the dish is not the answer.
Choosing an all-purpose multi made specifically for dogs doesn’t necessarily solve the problem either. These usually contain very low levels of nutrients because it’s assumed they will be added to commercial food, and so are unlikely to provide enough supplementation to round out a homemade diet. This is why “balanced” is not just a buzzword; it’s a valid and essential aspect of proper nutrition. Once you understand your dog’s nutritional needs, work out what her diet actually contains and then add what’s missing.
3. “I’m adding yogurt to my dog’s food daily so she’s getting enough calcium.”
Dogs require fairly high levels of calcium, and yogurt absolutely won’t cut it. Here’s a quick example: My own 75-pound dog has a daily requirement of 1,840 mgs of calcium, and since I use quite a bit of fiber in his diet in the form of brown rice, I want to offset any absorption issues and ensure that he gets about 2,000 mgs per day, or 14,000 mgs per week. His weekly diet alone—turkey, liver, sardines, brown rice, ground lamb and acorn squash—only provides 1,750 mgs. That means I need to add over 12,000 mgs of calcium; in other words, more than 40 cups of plain yogurt.
Calcium supplementation is always necessary unless you are feeding raw bones. I recommend using a commercial carbonate or citrate form of calcium, or an eggshell crushed into a fine powder—one teaspoon of this powder (about 5.5 grams) equals roughly 2,200 mgs of calcium carbonate. To use eggshells, rinse them well and then bake for about 10 minutes at 300 degrees; use a small grinder to make the powder. Bone meal can be used if there is also a need to add phosphorus, but many homemade diets supply plenty of this mineral.
4. “I eat carefully and read human nutrition books—I just follow similar principles with my dog.”
This is a very common assumption but unfortunately, it isn’t accurate. Current nutritional guidelines for humans—who are omnivores—emphasize foods and ratios that may not be ideal for dogs. Ensure dietary balance by aiming for about 30 to 35 percent of total calories from fats, 30 percent from protein and the balance from complex carbohydrates. (Percentages are guidelines, but are not as accurate as evaluating the gram content of a diet; this is another place where it pays to do the math.)