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Tips for Safe Home Cooking for Dogs
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Tips for Safe Home Cooking for Dogs

Dogs
Health & Safety

Home cooking is now becoming more popular as discerning dog owners like to know exactly what their dogs are eating. For many, it can provide a happy medium between raw feeding and commercial food, without the risks of bacterial / parasitic infection and bone shard damage / impaction associated with raw meals. This type of diet is popular with owners of dogs who require limited ingredients due to food allergies, or those who require a low fat diet in respect of medical conditions such as pancreatitis or inflammatory bowel disease. The main risk associated with home-prepared food for dogs is that unless you are following properly devised recipes or have an excellent knowledge of canine nutrient requirements and the nutrient (and calorie) values of a variety of foods, it can be difficult to provide the correct balance of nutrients that a canine needs to remain healthy.

A recent study by researchers at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine established that out of 200 home-cooked recipes (sourced online, from pet food cookery books and veterinary text books), only 9 of them met minimum nutrient values for adult dogs (as established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials). This shows that it’s important to not only source high quality nutritional valuable ingredients, but also to select your information sources very carefully! Rotating recipes to provide a diverse range of ingredients may also be beneficial in providing all of those important nutrients at the correct level.

1. Be organised

Home cooking for dogs can be expensive and time-consuming. A little key organisation can make life a whole lot easier. It’s not as simple as cooking a little of what you eat every day and providing an appropriate extra portion for your dog, because his nutrient requirements are not the same as yours. Furthermore, some ingredients that we often add to our meals are toxic to dogs (e.g. onions), some are simply best avoided (e.g. foods that can make dogs flatulent), and others we may prefer to keep off the menu due to health reasons (e.g. too much salt and artificial additives). Certain ingredients can only be fed in moderation (e.g. liver – due to its high vitamin A content). As with a raw diet, advance planning and preparation is required to ensure the correct balance of nutrients over a set time period. Also, a variety of meats are generally needed to provide them (unless you are feeding an exclusion diet with limited ingredients for medical reasons). Many owners who home-cook for their dogs find it easier to set aside a cooking day and prepare large batches of meals which are then refrigerated / frozen in portions ready for use during the coming week. You may find you need more fridge / freezer space to do this, and again, as with raw feeders an allocated dog unit is a good investment. Apply the same common sense to storing and preparing your dog’s food as you would your own.

2. Take care with the nutrient balance

Devising a home-cooked menu is complex because entities that are normally known with commercial food (the nutrient balance, the calorie content and subsequent feeding portions) are not provided for you and require calculation based on your dog’s life stage and activity level as well as general canine nutrient requirements and any special factors relevant to the individual. It is best to start off with a good book by a qualified and credible author; such as “The Natural Pet Food Cookbook” by Wendy Nan Rees with Kevin Schlanger DVM. Lew Olson’s “Raw & Natural Nutrition for Dogs” mainly covers raw feeding, but there are also some examples of some-home cooked diets (including menus for some nutritionally responsive medical conditions). There’s plenty of advice that can be gleaned online too, but do check the author’s credentials as a poorly planned and prepared home-cooked menu can result in dietary deficiencies or excesses. Home cooked diets should generally contain 50-75% animal protein sources (such as meat, fish, egg, yogurt that also contain water and fat; so do bear in mind that these ingredients do not provide 75% pure protein!). The remaining 25-50% is made up from carbohydrate sources (suitable fruits and vegetables; which must be cooked or pureed to ensure digestibility). A calcium supplement will be necessary for long-term home-cooking (900mg calcium per pound of food). Ingredients should ideally be diverse (unless the reason for home-cooking is to provide an exclusion diet) to ensure that all of the essential amino acids and other important nutrients that a dog needs are supplied.

3. Breaking yourself in gently

If you are cautious about getting the right balance, then why not start off by making some wholesome home-cooked dog treats and continue with a commercial diet whilst doing some more research? Another option (for adult dogs) is to add just a little healthy home-cooked food (such as lean white meat, fish or egg with some added rice or well-cooked mashed potato) and feed this alongside commercial wet or dry food. So long as the commercial food supplies at least two thirds of your dog’s daily calories, and you are not adding calcium-rich additions then this should not upset the nutrient balance of the commercial food (but do check with the manufacturer if you are not sure). As a broad guide (if the commercial dry food contains around 15% fat), you should reduce the amount of kibble by around 30g for every 100g of fresh food fed. For lower fat kibbles, reduce the dry by a little less; for higher fat kibbles, reduce by a little more. If feeding wet food in conjunction with home-cooked, reduce the commercial diet by the same amount of home-cooked food added. The reason why you reduce the dry food by less is because it is a lot more calorie dense and has a much lower moisture content than home-cooked or commercial wet food.

4. Puppies

Please note that mixing home-cooked and commercial food for puppies is not recommended unless under the specific guidance of the pet food manufacturer, your vet or an independent, qualified canine nutritionist. This is because it is much easier to unbalance the diet (particular the important ratio between calcium and phosphorous) when small tummies are involved, and when rapid early growth is underway. If you’re keen to move away from commercial dry food, why not look for a really high quality wet food for puppies which is complete and balanced and contains a good level of meat or fish? Some products can be lightly heated; as can some of the commercially available pre-packed complete raw meals now widely available.

5. Take extra care if your dog suffers from certain medical conditions

Some medical conditions are what is known as “nutritionally” responsive, and this may require deviation from what we would consider to be normal nutritional parameters. One such example is when a dog suffers from urate urolithiasis. This condition necessitates a low purine diet. Offal and game meat are purine-rich so are off the menu, and the only truly low purine protein source suitable for dogs is egg. This can prove quite limiting, and whilst chicken and white fish are generally considered acceptable it can be difficult to provide all of the nutrients necessary from a home-cooked diet. It’s not impossible, but consulting an independent nutritionist is the best option under such circumstances. Conditions where restriction of more than one nutrient is indicated (such as hepatic disease whereby the diet should contain only limited fat and copper) can also be difficult to cater for.

6. Have a contingency feeding plan in case someone else needs to take care of your dog

Whilst you may be a dab hand at preparing your home-cooked meals for your dog, others may not have the time or inclination to do this. It can also work out quite expensive (although if you’re a savvy shopper and look for reduced items, it need not be prohibitive). It is however important to have a plan prepared for the eventuality that you may not always be on hand to feed your dog; e.g. if you are away on business / holiday or are unwell. The nearest option to home-cooked food is a good quality wet food with a high meat (or fish) content. Commercial dry food further removed because it contains only about 8% moisture and is much more calorie dense thus requiring considerably smaller feed portions for a dog used to wet or home cooked food. That’s not to say that a dog who predominantly eats home-cooked food cannot eat commercial food if necessary (so long as the product does not include any ingredients known to be problematic for him). A gradual introduction is wise when a new product is fed for the first time, and it’s a good idea to get your dog used to a few different options and keep a few cans / pouches or small bags stored away so that there’s no need to panic if for whatever reason you are unable to home cook for any period of time.

If there are friends and family who will happily home-cook for your dog in your absence; make sure recipes, a weekly menu, feeding quantities and any special instructions are kept near to your feed bowls.

7. Home cooking for dogs with dietary allergies / intolerance

Home cooking can be a very useful means of feeding dogs with food allergies or intolerance; particularly if the ingredients responsible have not been pin-pointed. The reason for this is that commercial dog foods tend to contain a lot of ingredients. With a home-cooked diet fed for a limited period (usually 6-8 weeks max) you can limit the ingredients to one protein source and one carbohydrate source; which should be novel to your dog (i.e. ones he hasn’t eaten before, since adverse food reactions tend to arise after a reasonable period of exposure to the provocative ingredient). If your dog has been eating a chicken and rice based commercial diet for example, then fish and potato would be suitable as an exclusion diet. This also means that supplementary ingredients that may be included in the commercial food (e.g. additional grains such as barley or oats) are taken out of the equation too. If the food trial is a success and symptoms abate, then under careful supervision of your vet you can then carry out what is known as “re-challenging” where one ingredient present in the old diet is introduced at a time. If symptoms recur, but then abate once again when the ingredient is no longer fed, then it can be possible to identify the culprit/s. (Do bear in mind that processing methods can occasionally affect a dog’s tolerance to certain ingredients, so in some rare instances a dog may be fine with raw or home-cooked chicken for example, but not chicken extruded within commercial pet food).

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