The modern dog food industry bears little resemblance to the dog food industry of 60 years ago. Rather than a handful of brands, a kaleidoscope of options is now available: preservative- and GMO-free, organic, raw, even some with varying degrees of “source to bowl” traceability. Many of the newer food companies were founded by people dissatisfied with the status quo—dog owners who wanted both the convenience of commercial food and the assurances of safety and quality that accompany food fit for human consumption.
For many, a high-quality commercial diet is an appropriate way to feed their dogs. Though this may sound blasphemous to home-feeding purists, when the number of contemporary foods that contain corn, wheat and far worse ingredients (for example, ethoxyquin, a preservative banned from food intended for human consumption in Australia and the European Union but still found in some dog foods) is taken into account, making a change to a healthier commercial diet could constitute a drastic improvement.
But as we have learned more about the marriage of food and disease, so too have we learned of the necessity to divorce ourselves from processed foods. Many a book has been written on the virtues of whole and natural foods in the human diet, and increasingly, science suggests that their benefits may apply to our canine companions.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than one-third of all human cancer deaths may be eliminated by a healthy diet, and while preventive or palliative canine cancer diets have been comparatively less studied, work done on the topic indicates that a similar effect may exist for our dogs. A Purdue University study found a significantly lower rate of bladder cancer among Scottish Terriers fed cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli and kale) three or more times weekly (JAVMA 2005, 227 (1): 94–100).
As dietary changes to ward off or combat numerous canine diseases become more widely accepted, it’s likely that many owners will feed their dogs a homemade diet at some point in their pets’ lifetime. A diet rich in antioxidants and whole foods—the same protocol physicians recommend we follow ourselves—does not have to be an exercise reserved for sick dogs but rather, an approach taken on behalf of stacking the odds in favor of our dogs’ longevity.
To some, this is a radical notion. Few remember a time during which the family dog’s meal did not come from a bag or can and contain ingredients of uncertain properties and dubious origins. But despite the fact that owners might wrinkle their noses at the smell of their dogs’ food and struggle to decipher the ingredients list, most who continue to feed commercial food do it for a single reason: the food is “complete and balanced.”
It is true that a balanced diet is essential, and that most traditional commercial dog foods provide the vitamins and nutrients that most dogs need to survive. However, there is a vast distinction between surviving and thriving, and the inclusion of fresh, whole foods in the canine diet may well be the catalyst that transforms good health to great.
For example, antioxidants play a vital role in clearing the bloodstream of free radicals, which can damage cells and are believed to speed up the progression of cancer as well as cardiovascular and age-related diseases. With this in mind, an increasing number of dog food brands have added blueberries, cranberries and other fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants to their recipes. However, some of these foods’ benefits can be destroyed in the manufacturing process, so their appearance on an ingredient list—frequently near the bottom—may not guarantee a positive effect. Merely incorporating a food is not beneficial if its nutritional quality is diminished or its quantity is not sufficient to be useful to the dog.
For many, the dog food recall of 2007 was a real (and rude) awakening. Even those unaffected by it became aware of the uncomfortable realities of the modern dog food industry, from the vagaries of food safety and sourcing to the ultimate question: what are we really feeding our dogs? The answers—at times limited—left owners wondering what aspect of canine nutrition was so complicated that it could only be understood by a rarified few and only met by a commercial product.
Following this landmark recall, many dog owners ventured into the world of home feeding, where they often encountered a thicket of contradictory information and complex formulas. While some were discouraged, others persevered, and discovered that home feeding need be neither costly nor complicated. It requires a primer on nutrition, a handful of decisions about cost and time, and finding a veterinary professional who can provide guidance on recipe formulation and how to create a balanced diet that optimizes the health of dogs over time.
Stepping into Home Feeding
The first choice is to decide between raw or cooked, which may require some research. There are many books and websites on the attendant benefits and drawbacks of the two approaches; a vet or vet nutritionist should be able to recommend reliable and useful resources.
The second consideration is whether to prepare the food from scratch or purchase a commercial product. While the latter may sound antithetical to the idea of home feeding, here, it refers to commercial diets that include the same whole, fresh ingredients as would be found in a “from scratch” meal, and that incorporate an appropriate nutrient balance. These come in raw, cooked, frozen or dehydrated forms and are manufactured without the harsh processing that can leach ingredients of nutritional value.
For owners who wish to pursue this option, a number of companies offer raw and/or cooked meals. Some provide information on the sourcing of their products, humane treatment of food animals and whether they utilize human-grade ingredients. Those who elect to feed their dogs commercially prepared raw food—pre-balanced, unprocessed raw diets and raw meaty bones—will usually find it in specialty pet-supply stores. (As a reminder, dogs should never be given cooked bones, which can splinter and cause serious problems, including the risk of internal damage.)
These options all offer convenience, sometimes at a price. Because their quality is generally quite high, commercial “homemade” diets can be a more expensive option. Some owners combine methods—for example, feeding a dehydrated food in the morning and preparing a meal from scratch in the evening.
Handmade at Home
Depending on the type of ingredients and where they’re purchased, preparing meals from scratch at home can be more or less expensive than purchasing premade options. Organic ingredients and a shortage of storage space can make it as expensive (or even slightly more expensive). On the other hand, buying in bulk, particularly at wholesale clubs, and being able to store and/or freeze ingredients make this type of home feeding much more affordable. For protein sources, an increasing number of reputable American farms offer individuals the option of purchasing bulk meats (including raw meaty bones) online at discounted prices, an excellent cost-saver.
Entirely homemade meals require attention to supplementation. In the aggregate, all elements need to be accounted for in proportions relative to a dog’s size, activity level, health status and tastes. Fish oil supplements can be an excellent addition, and canine multi-vitamins also can be useful, although they vary widely in quality; some are little more than treats, while others are a sound way to achieve balance. Consult your veterinary professional for guidance on selecting supplements that will meet your home-fed dog’s needs. Calcium is a particularly critical element, although dogs fed a raw diet usually get a large portion of the calcium they need from raw meaty bones.
Finding Your Way
For years, the holistic veterinary community has widely supported raw and cooked diets for dogs as a way to both prevent and manage disease. Veterinary nutritionists, who are fewer in number than holistic veterinarians, are also excellent resources. When looking for a holistic veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist, ask if he or she is familiar and comfortable with the type of diet you wish to feed. Regardless of the method you choose, work with a veterinarian to ensure that the diet is benefiting your dog. To find a holistic veterinarian, visit the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association website; find a veterinary nutritionist at the American College of Veterinary Nutrition site.
There are a number of online recipe sites as well as canine cookbooks designed for either raw or cooked home feeding. Be aware that their quality varies, and that even in combination, the meals may not afford balance over time. However, if you like the idea of incorporating certain ingredients, take your ideas to the vet professional you choose to assist you in developing a meal plan for your dog. Also, before feeding any new food, check with your veterinarian to be sure it’s safe; a number of foods (including chocolate, grapes and onions) can be toxic to dogs. The ASPCA website also has information on this subject (aspca.org; enter Foods That Are Hazardous for Dogs in the search box).
In recognition of the impact our culinary habits have on the planet, an increasing number of dog owners are applying the same eating ethos they incorporate into their own diets to their dogs’ food regimen. Feeding homemade food also has the benefit of helping reduce our carbon footprint when we choose locally grown, seasonal produce (preferably pesticide-free). You can take that benefit one step further by growing your own fruits and vegetables. Another avenue to consider is buying meat raised humanely; grass-fed beef contains higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. Improving the lives of our dogs can also translate into improving the lives of food animals.
Julie Mayer, an integrative veterinarian who has dedicated most of her 20-year career to holistic veterinary medicine, has a special interest in nutrition. She has seen firsthand the benefits of feeding dogs a homemade diet, and encourages all owners—even those who are not yet ready to feed homemade—to integrate safe, whole foods into their dogs’ meals. “Food is medicine, and what we feed our dogs can make a profound difference in their health,” she says. True for us, true for our dogs. And truly, there will never be a better time than the present for all of us to eat and live well.