I often come across dogs who are on a home prepared diet. I have an interest in nutrition; so I read a lot about it, I look at the research available, I try to keep up to date with new evidence. So, when I am told that a dog is on a homemade diet, I stop and dig a little deeper. Anecdotally, what I often hear does not fill me with confidence… In fact, it often concerns me greatly as to the nutritional adequacy of the formulation chosen by owners.

There are many reasons why people say they feed home cooked. Their dog was fussy and only eats chicken, they don’t like kibble, they think fresh is better, healthier etc. I can understand why, if I was a pet owner and stumbled across some of the anti-kibble misinformation I see online, I too would be shocked. The problem lies in the fact that much of this information is in fact not factually correct. Nor is it supported in evidence.

Indeed, although many feel that home prepared diets, whether cooked or raw, are more natural and therefore healthier, there is often a real danger to using them.

Why do people feed homemade?

I will always support people’s feeding decisions. I will guide them the best I can to make sensible decisions to alleviate the main issues associated with each feeding style. And of course, there can be nutritional issues with both home prepared and commercial diets; there is a great degree of variation in testing, evidence and product quality between many diets. 

However, despite the availability of good quality, complete and balanced commercial diets, many owners choose to prepare their pet’s diet at home. 

Reasons given in one evaluation included:

  • Having more control of the foods that their pet eats
  • Distrust in pet food companies
  • The desire to feed a more ‘natural’ diet

Who do people go to when formulating?

From research it is suggested that people feeding these diets often use non-veterinary sources. Such as the internet, books and magazines to formulate their food. Many do not seek nutritionist advice or the advice of their veterinary team before embarking on these diets.

One survey found that most diets in their survey were formulated by the owners themselves following:

  • Other people’s advice available online
  • Using nutritional guidelines published in websites
  • In books
  • Following no rules

Shockingly only 8% turned to the veterinarian and 5% to a nutritionist for formulation.

Using advice or guidelines available online or in books and magazines should be discouraged. This is because some studies have shown such published recipes of home-prepared diets for dogs and cats to have multiple nutritional imbalances. For example, 95 to 100% of the recipes analysed failed to meet all essential nutritional requirements for the target animals. 

Recipes published are readily accessible to pet owners in the popular media (Internet, pet magazines, and books). However, current recommendations are that home-prepared diets are best evaluated and formulated by a veterinary nutritionist; ideally one that is board certified.

Why do you need this much support just to feed a dog?

Although there are MANY incredible people working in the canine nutrition industry who are not board certified, the title ‘nutritionist’ is not a protected title. This means that the industry is also subject to many bogus services; many of which hold beliefs that are actively dangerous, and have very little education or qualifications.

Great care needs to be taken when finding a nutritionist to formulate your pet’s diet. Ask their education, qualifications and credentials. I myself investigated an online course that claimed I could call myself a ‘canine nutrition specialist’ by the end. With the evidence-based knowledge I had before embarking on the course I was able to see that it was loaded with false misinformation. But proved how easily owners can be misled by claims of competency to formulate their beloved dog’s diet.

Indeed, one study concluded that better training of professionals that intend to prescribe home-prepared diets is advisable as home prepared recipes may potentially expose animals to nutritional deficiencies. And it is important to inform the owners of the risks of providing home-prepared diets. 

It’s important to remember that nutritional disease is not an incredibly rare problem – we increasingly see it in developed countries like the UK and US. While humans as true omnivores seem to be able to survive and even thrive on suboptimal diets, a dog’s metabolism is more limited and the risks of poor health are significant. And of course, they haven’t chosen their diet: we’ve done that for them.

What does the evidence say?

This is where things get more concerning.

A European study calculated levels of 12 nutrients (e.g., calcium, phosphorus, vitamin A and so on) for 95 homemade raw meat diets being fed to dogs. They found that 60% of the diets had major nutritional imbalances.

In another larger study, 95% of the 200 recipes examined resulted in food that was lacking in the necessary levels of at least one essential nutrient. And more than 83 percent of the recipes had multiple nutrient deficiencies.

Another study looked into how well people stuck to diet recipes. Many people did not, over time, stick to the plan and made alterations to the feeding guides. These alterations make the nutritional composition of the diets unpredictable and likely nutritionally imbalanced.

The study acknowledges that although homemade diets could be a useful tool for the nutritional management of dogs with certain diseases, not all owners are able to appropriately use this type of diet and adhere to it for an extended period of time. This limitation needs to be considered when recommending the use of homemade diets.

And this survey warned against the issues of prolonged administration stating that nutritional imbalances are very common in this type of diet. And the effects of prolonged administration could be more detrimental in young or sick dogs. Furthermore, similarly to as in humans, dogs with impaired immune systems could show a decreased resistance to pathogens that leads to the development of foodborne illnesses.

Although not canine, another review saw feline pansteatitis was reported in 10 cats fed a homemade diet of cooked pig brain or raw and cooked oily fish. 

What can I try instead of kibble but I don’t want to home prepare?

There are now many commercial diets available that aim to formulate their diets in line with the FEDIAF Nutritional Guidelines but are also using more ‘whole foods’ or ‘lightly cooked’ formulations.

There are a number of reasons I would not recommend raw food diets; however, these other options available on the market could be a nice compromise between kibble and home preparing a diet.

Some dogs thrive on home cooked. If working closely with a nutritionist who really knows their stuff then dogs can exceed all expectations to really benefit from these diets. This is especially important in dogs who need very unique dietary formulations made for them.

However, it is very clear to see that this kind of home prepared diet should not be embarked upon without careful consideration into the time, money and expertise you are willing to invest to ensure that the common issues seen with nutritional imbalances are not mirrored in your beloved dog.

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