Ultimate Guide for Homemade Dog Food

Wouldn’t it be great if dogs and cats could eat homemade food like us? Many people think so, and there are many benefits to home cooking for your pets. This guide will help with your decision by discussing the pros and cons of home cooking as well as ingredients and supplements.  

Keep in mind that this discussion always pertains to ingredients that you put together and cook in your home to create a complete and balanced diet (a diet that meets all nutrient requirements for the life stage of your dog), not premade, fresh, frozen options that can be delivered to your home or purchased in a store.  

The Wonders of Home Cooking for Pets 

There is something special about being able to prepare food for your family, including your pets, either from ingredients you purchased or grew. It’s a good idea too since many dogs, and some cats, find home-cooked food very palatable, oftentimes more so than commercially available diets.  

 

There are also times when home cooking for your pet might be done more out of necessity than desire. When multiple health conditions are present at once, it may be difficult to find a commercially available diet that achieves the various nutritional goals to meet your pet’s particular needs. A Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionist® can help design a homemade diet tailored to your pet’s health needs. Also, when our pets don’t feel well, their food can become less attractive and palatable to them, and the increased palatability of a homemade diet can help get them back on all four feet.  

Homemade diets for pets tend to have very good digestibility since they are made with whole meats. In addition, they can contain fresh produce which provides beneficial phytonutrients and fibers. The high digestibility and phytonutrient-containing produce are beneficial for all dogs but can be especially helpful for those with digestive issues. Again, the diet can also be tailored to meet the particular needs of an individual pet, which helps to prevent or manage disease as well.  

The Pitfalls of Home Cooking for Pets 

While many dogs find dog food at home very palatable, cats are a different story. These pickier creatures can become accustomed to the texture, taste, and smell of the diet they are used to, and making a switch, especially when sick, to a homemade diet can be unsuccessful for a larger portion of cats than dogs. That said, there are some cats that will readily consume a homemade diet. For these guys, it can be just as beneficial as it is for dogs.  

While homemade pet food can be tailored to meet the nutritional needs of dogs and cats, whether it is for healthy pets or those with medical conditions, the diet should be balanced by a Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionist®. This is not the time to get creative in your kitchen. Dogs and cats have specific nutrient requirements that need to be met in the diet to prevent signs of deficiency over time. With certain medical conditions, some nutrients must also be restricted, so following the formulated diet is crucial to ensure that it is both safe and effective. Many diets can be found online, but if they weren’t formulated by a professional, they almost always have nutritional deficiencies or do not meet the intended nutritional goals for the management of disease.¹⁻⁶  

 

This brings us to the topic of diet drift. One issue with homemade diets, even properly formulated ones, is that the recipe tends to change over time.⁷⁻⁸ Owners tend to begin not to measure and weigh the ingredients or change them thinking the changes they have made are small. In fact, changes, especially those made to the protein and starchy components of the diet, can vastly alter the nutrient profile of the diet, either making it unbalanced or ineffective. 

Other downfalls of home cooking for pets are cost, time, and storage. Home cooking, especially for large dogs or diets high in protein, can be very costly. The meat, carbohydrate, and vegetable portions of the diet are expensive, but so are the vitamins and minerals that will need to be added to ensure it is complete and balanced. In many cases, these homemade diets are just as or more expensive than commercially available prescription diets. In fact, a recent comparison study of homemade dog food versus kibble and canned diet for both maintenance and therapeutic management of disease found that in all cases, kibble was most cost-effective, followed by homemade, with canned food being the most expensive. In addition, homemade meals take time to prepare and a lot of refrigerator and freezer space, both for raw materials in the meal and the finished prepared meals. Again, the larger the dog, the more of an issue this can become.  

It may seem like the hurdles to creating a balanced homemade diet are too high, but if you still think this is the way to go for your pet, please consult a list of Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionists® to help you formulate a complete and balanced homemade diet at American College of Veterinary Nutrition and continue reading for more details. 

Homemade Diet Ingredients: What to Consider, What to Avoid 

Most ingredients that we eat every day can be used in dog recipes. Certain ingredients will be preferred if your dog has a medical condition, but we will limit this discussion to what might be best for most healthy dogs.  

In general, to limit the risk of gastrointestinal upset, lower-fat meats and carbohydrates will be needed in the diet. In addition, some diets require additional linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid. For puppies, alpha-linolenic acid, EPA and DHA, and omega-3 fatty acids are required. These will be provided by vegetable oils and marine oils. Fruits and vegetables can also be added if your dog likes them and does well with them. Vitamin and mineral supplementation is also needed.  

A list of commonly utilized ingredients that work well in homemade diets is listed below: 

Meats: 

  • Boneless, skinless chicken breasts  

  • Boneless, skinless chicken thighs 

  • Ground beef 

  • Ground bison 

  • White fish such as haddock, cod, and tilapia 

  • Pork loin 

  • Ground turkey 

Carbohydrates: 

  • White rice 

  • Brown rice 

  • Oatmeal 

  • Sweet potato 

  • White potato 

  • Barley 

  • Pasta 

  • Quinoa 

  • Lentils 

  • Corn 

 

Oils that provide linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid: 

  • Soybean oil 

  • Safflower oil 

  • Sunflower oil 

  • Walnut oil 

  • Canola oil 

  • Corn oil 

  • Flaxseed oil 

 

Oils that provide EPA and DHA: 

  • Fish oil, such as anchovy, sardine, or salmon 

  • Algae oil 

  • Krill oil 

  •  

Fruits: 

  • Apples 

  • Melons, including watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew  

  • Blueberries 

  • Strawberries 

  • Bananas 

 

Vegetables: 

  • Green beans 

  • Zucchini 

  • Broccoli 

  • Cauliflower 

  • Peas 

  • Pumpkin 

  • Summer squash 

  • Brussels sprouts 

  • Carrots 

Avoid ingredients that are toxic to dogs, including (but not limited to) garlic, onions, grapes, and raisins, as well as ones that pose a choking risk, such as pitted fruits and corn on the cob. 

Supplements Available to Balance Homemade Diets for Dogs 

Most vitamin and mineral supplements on the market for dogs are intended to be used with a commercially available complete and balanced diet. Since complete and balanced diets are already supplemented with vitamins and minerals in the appropriate concentrations and ratios, that means these supplements are often lacking in some required nutrients or have some nutrients in very limited concentrations, making them inadequate for homemade diets.  

Some supplements that are available and work well with homemade diets are: 

Vegan and Raw Diets 

Vegan and raw diets for pets are becoming more popular. While vegan diets for dogs can be created by a Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionist®, the amino acid profile from plant sources is not as ideal as it is for meat sources, so this should only be done with the help of a veterinarian who specializes in the creation of homemade diets for dogs.  

 

Although not vegan, one compromise is to feed dogs eggs as their protein source since it is a highly digestible protein source that supplies many essential vitamins as well. Raw diets can be formulated to be complete and balanced just like home-cooked diets, however, the carbohydrates must be cooked to increase digestibility. Raw meats come with the risk of increased environmental contamination with bacteria creating an increased zoonotic risk, but they have no significant benefit over home-cooked diets.  

 

Considerations for Home Cooking for Dogs 

Commercially available diets for dogs have an AAFCO statement on the bag. This statement helps the customer determine which life stage a diet is appropriate for. It may say for instance, “This diet has been formulated to meet nutritional levels established by AAFCO dog food nutrient profiles for growth of large breed puppies.” Since homemade diets are not tested to ensure nutritional adequacy is met, they have to be formulated to ensure nutritional adequacy is met for the appropriate life stage. This becomes particularly important for puppies and even more so for large breed puppies that both have requirements above and beyond adult maintenance diets. In addition, large-breed puppy foods should have controlled calcium concentrations, a carefully established calcium to phosphorus ratio, and a controlled energy density to help prevent developmental orthopedic diseases.  

 

Finding out the energy requirements for your pet can be done with calculations. The energy requirements and calculations are altered by age, breed, neuter status, and energy expenditure of the pet. While your vet can help you with this calculation, you can also use this calorie calculator offered by Pet Nutrition Alliance.  

 

Mixing a Homemade Diet with a Commercially Available Diet 

To help increase the palatability of a commercial diet, some dog owners like to mix a homemade diet with a commercial diet. This is very reasonable as long as the homemade dog food recipe is complete and balanced. The easiest way to do this is to have a daily homemade diet created and then mix it proportionally with a commercial diet. For instance, you could feed ¾ of your dog’s daily calories from a commercial diet and ¼ of your dog’s daily calories from a homemade diet. Keep in mind though, as you reduce the amount of the total homemade diet, the supplement must also be reduced proportionally. So, if your dog’s daily diet requires four Nourish chewable tablets, then in the case above, you would only give one Nourish chewable tablet per day.  

 

Nourish chewable tablets for homemade diets can be purchased at NourishYourPets.com.  

 

 

 

References:  

¹ Larsen J, et al. (2012) Evaluation of recipes for home-prepared diets for dogs and cats with chronic kidney disease. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 240:532-538. 

² Heinze C, et al. (2012) Assessment of commercial diets and recipes for home-prepared diets recommended for dogs with cancer. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 241:1453-1460. 

³ Pedrinelli et al. (2017) Analysis of recipes for home-prepared diets for dogs and cats published in Portuguese. Journal of Nutritional Science. 6:e33. 

⁴ Pedrinelli et al. (2019) Concentration of macronutrients, minerals and heavy metals in home-prepared diets for adult dogs and cats. Scientific Reports. 9(1):13058. 

⁵ Stockman J, et al. (2013) Evaluation of recipes of home-prepared maintenance diets for dogs. 242:1500-1505. 

⁶ Wilson S, et al. (2019) Evaluation of the nutritional adequacy of recipes for home-prepared maintenance diets for cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 254:1172-1179. 

⁷ Davies. (2014) Short communication: Variability in content of homemade diets for canine chronic kidney disease. Veterinary Record. 174(14):352. 

⁸ Johnson L, et al. (2016) Evaluation of owner experiences and adherence to home-cooked diet recipes for dogs. Journal of Small Animal Practice. 57(1):23-27. 

⁹ Vendramini T, et a. (2020) Homemade versus extruded and wet commercial diets for dogs: Cost comparison. PLoS ONE 15(7):e0236672.