If you’re nervous about feeding your dog home-cooked food, you’re not alone. Many dog owners have concerns about the time involved, the cost and the consequences of failing to include the right ingredients to keep their furry friends healthy. On top of that, most vets frown on home cooking for dogs.
Eight years ago, I started cooking for my dogs as a way to introduce quality ingredients into their diets and to help clients who had dogs with health problems. Since then, many clients have raved about the effects of a home-cooked diet on their dog’s health; seeing flaky fur turn glossy and the pleasure dogs seem to get from eating better is definitely inspirational.
In the process, I found the slow cooker to be the perfect (and easiest) tool for homemade dog food meals. Combining the ingredients in the cooker and setting the time takes only minutes, which makes it appealing to those who shy away from home cooking because they think it’s too time-consuming.
I started by using ingredients listed on the label of a high-quality canned food. I’ve also cooked chicken thighs and even whole young chickens with most of the skin removed. After 14 to 16 hours in the slow cooker, chicken bones become soft and crumbly and are a great source of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamins and healthful fats. (However, this isn’t true for cooked beef bones, which should never be given to dogs.)
If your dog doesn’t have major medical problems and has tolerated food changes in the past, start the transition to home-cooked meals by preparing a small batch of low-fat food and gradually adding increasing amounts to his normal diet (25, 50, 75, then 100 percent over a four- to seven-day period). I recommend using low-fat meat or fish combined with white or brown rice.
Because slow-cooked dog food may have more fat and vegetables than some commercial foods, dogs have been known to experience stomach or bowel upsets. Vomiting, indigestion or gas are signs that a dog’s digestive tract needs more time to adjust to the new ingredients, which can take days, or even weeks.
Dogs who have had pancreas issues need to eat a low-fat, limited-ingredient diet and be transitioned very carefully for a longer period of time. Remember, too, that dogs can be allergic to wheat, beef and/or chicken. Signs that your dog may be sensitive to the food include hives; excessive scratching; or red, itchy ears.
On the other hand, if your dog seems happy and has normal stools with the new home-cooked food, increase the amount over a week’s time, as noted previously. Once you know he can tolerate the new diet, cook a larger batch and portion it into daily servings. Keep one week’s supply in the refrigerator and freeze the rest in resealable freezer bags or another suitable container. Thaw before feeding, but after that, to avoid spoilage, do not leave the food out longer than mealtime or allow it to sit at room temperature for hours (if your dog likes his food warm, it’s fine to heat it up before serving).
In the starter recipe provided here, the protein is higher (about 50% dry matter) and the fat is lower (about 10% dry matter) than in most recipes. This mixture yields about 70% moisture, 10 to 15% protein, 5 to 7% fat, and 5 to 7% carbohydrates, depending on how much fat is in the meat and the quantity of green beans and rice used (or, 40 to 50% protein, 20 to 25% fat, and 25 to 30% carbohydrate by dry matter).
Starter Recipe: Chicken and Vegetable Stew for Dogs
3/4 to 1 pound cubed, skinless, boneless chicken breast or thighs, or lean beef, turkey or fish
1 to 3 ounces chicken liver, hearts and gizzards, or another animal liver.
1 or 2 whole eggs (source of healthy fat)
8 ounces uncooked white or brown rice
16 ounces green beans (frozen or canned; if using canned, drain off the liquid)
Bone meal, 1 teaspoon (about 1,500 mg) per pound of meat*
*Not needed for the trial period or if the home-cooked food is less than 10% to 20% of the dog’s daily diet.
In a slow cooker, combine the chicken breasts, chicken liver, chicken hearts, gizzards and eggs. Add the bone meal, rice and green beans. Add water, then stir. (The longer the meat and veggies are cooked, the more water is needed. For this basic starter recipe, you don’t need to completely cover the ingredients. If you are slow-cooking chicken and bones for 14 hours, then more water is needed.) Cover and cook on low for 4 to 8 hours, until the breasts fall apart. Stir and add or drain water as needed to make a drier or moister stew. Let the mixture cool before feeding and refrigerating.
Yield: 7 to 8 cups (60 oz.)
Supplements (given separately or added to each meal)
• Vitamin E: 2 IU per pound of dog daily.
• Sardines in water: one-quarter to one tin twice weekly, or one to three 1,200 mg fish oil capsules daily. (Dose is based on 10 to 30 mg/pound of DHA and EPA).
Note: Because it’s high in protein, this combination isn’t suitable for dogs with failing kidneys. To decrease the protein, double the amount of rice and green beans and/or use less meat (1/2 to 3/4 pound).
Depending on the level of fat and moisture in the food, most home-cooked diets prepared with lean meat have about 20 to 35 calories per ounce. To increase the calories, strain off some of the liquid from the stew or add some healthy fat, such as olive or non-GMO canola oil. An 8-ounce serving of this chicken-and-vegetable stew has about 200 calories. After the transition period, I recommend that you start out feeding your dog about the same amount of home-cooked food as you would canned food.
So, to summarize, by cooking for your dog, you’re able to use the best ingredients available to you and mix them in the way that best suits your dog’s needs. If you follow a basic formula of muscle meat, organ meat, bone or bone meal, and a variety of vegetables, your dog will thrive. Home-cooked dog food can also be used to add quality ingredients to a kibble or canned-food diet. Your dog will love the variety!