In my clinical I sometimes come across dogs who are on a home cooked diet. There are many reasons why people tell me they feed home-cooked. Their dog is very fussy and only eats cooked meat and vegetables; they don’t like kibble or certain types of commercial dog foods; they appear to get bored and stop eating as much; or they think fresh is better, healthier etc.

I can understand why many people try cooked foods, and if I was a pet owner and stumbled across some of the ‘anti-kibble’ or ‘anti-processed’ misinformation I see online, I too would be shocked. The problem lies in the fact that much of this information is not factually correct, nor supported in evidence. “Processed” is not necessarily synonymous with “unhealthy” in dog nutrition.

I always delve deeper

I enjoy learning about nutrition, I read a lot about it, I look at the research available, I try to keep up to date with new evidence. So, in my clinical work when I am told that a dog is on a home cooked 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 because of the nutritional inadequacies of the formulations chosen by owners.

Indeed, although many feel that home cooked diets are more natural and therefore healthier, there is often a real danger of nutritional deficiencies when owners prepare them.

Why do people feed homemade?

I will support people’s feeding decisions. I will guide them the best I can to make sensible decisions to successfully manage the main issues associated with each feeding style. 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, some owners choose to prepare their pet’s diet at home. The reasons in one evaluation included having more control of the foods that their pet eats; distrust of pet food companies; and the desire to feed a more ‘natural’ diet. These points all match what I hear anecdotally from owners too.

Where do people go when finding a ‘recipe’?

Research suggests that people feeding these diets often use non-veterinary sources like the internet, books and magazines to formulate their food. Many do not seek veterinary nutritionist advice or the advice of their veterinary team before embarking on these diets. This worries me greatly, and brings us back to the original question – is this safe?

One survey found that most diets in their survey were formulated by the owners themselves following other people’s advice available online, after using nutritional guidelines published in websites or in books.

Some admitted to following no rules at all. This is something I commonly see with owners feeding just cooked meat, or cooked meat and some vegetables. Shockingly only 8% turned to the veterinarian and 5% to a nutritionist for formulation. This is where things become ‘unsafe’.

Why is this bad?

The reason this worries me so much is that using advice or guidelines available online or in books and magazines should be discouraged; unless the online guidance is coming directly from someone with knowledge of your pet; and having a credible veterinary nutrition qualification. Remember that ANYONE can call themselves a nutritionist despite lack of any evidence-based training. The best is a PhD in small animal nutrition or a Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionist (our nutrition blogger Marie is currently completing her residency in veterinary clinical nutrition at the University of Ghent). Although there are other great individuals who have not obtained this level of qualification but still provide great advice. This is why it can be so confusing for owners to pick who to listen to.

Owners seeking other advice is worrying 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 or the equivalent.

Stick to the professionals

Although there are MANY incredible people working in the canine nutrition industry who are not board certified; as mentioned before 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 they have very little formal education or qualifications.

Great care needs to be taken when finding a nutritionist to formulate your pet’s diet. Ask for 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 misinformation. But this proves how easily owners can be misled by claims of competency to formulate their beloved dog’s diet. I can guarantee anyone teaching owners after doing that course would not be giving ‘specialist’ advice.

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. 

What does the evidence say?

This is where things get more concerning. I would always prefer home cooked over raw home prepared, but both come with their issues. Cooking can change the nutrition profile of foods. This is why it is important to have proper guidance on how to cook a nutritionally balanced meal.

One 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. And they found that 60% of the diets had major nutritional imbalances.

In another larger study overall, 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.

It seems like a great idea, but many people become complacent with recipes

Another study looked into how well owners stuck to diet recipes they were given for their pets. 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. This is another factor to consider if you want to feed a home cooked diet. Have you actually got the time!?

The study acknowledges though, that homemade diets could be a useful tool for the nutritional management of dogs with certain diseases, and I agree. Some pets really do great when moved onto these for complex medical issues. However, 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. It is something you should consider if you think this diet is for you.

One 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. 

What can I try instead of kibble but I don’t want to home cook now I realise how hard it can be?

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. This may be a better option for you if you think, after reading about home cooking, that it might be a bit too complex, expensive or involved for you to keep up at a high-quality level. 

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 an extruded dry diet or ‘kibble’ and home cooked diet.

Some dogs thrive on home-cooked. And 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; when undertaken correctly then YES, these diets can be very safe and very much enjoyed by your canine companion.

However, it is very clear to see that this kind of home cooked 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 seen in your beloved dog.

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