There are different reasons people give for recommending or feeding home-prepared foods to companion dogs and cats. Some insist that it is a more “natural” way to feed them, while others will list concerns about commercial pet food safety and a general distrust of industrial food supplies. Whatever the reason, what most home-cooking crusaders leave out is the potential harmful effects of feeding an unbalanced diet. If raw meats are being recommended as part of the “natural” diet, they also omit the very real risk to both caregivers and companion animals if that raw meat has been contaminated with “natural” food-borne pathogens. I don’t have anything new to add to my position against raw meat diets, but if you want a quick review you can pop over to my previous post on that topic.
So assuming that the food is pathogen-free, I don’t believe there is one diet or feeding strategy that works universally for all animals. My nutrition training gave me an understanding and appreciation for the basic requirements for healthy dogs and cats and how those requirements can be altered by disease. My clinical experience has shown me that while there are generalities in nutritional management, individual animals may not always read the textbooks and there needs to be flexibility in diet planning. My approach to nutritional management of my patients is fairly consistent: Step 1 is to identify the nutritional needs of the patient; Step 2 is to make a list of the different ways of getting those nutrients in (commercial- or home-prepared, or both); Step 3 is to pick a starting strategy; and Step 4 is to monitor for effect and adjust as needed.
I could give examples and argue either side of the pet food debate. I have seen patients suffer from chronic gastrointestinal disease (diarrhea or vomiting, or both) or chronic skin disease while eating a commercial diet, yet when switched to a home-prepared diet their signs improved. But, I have also seen growing kittens and puppies suffer from avoidable nutrient-deficient diseases, like bone fractures and rickets, from being fed unbalanced home-prepared diets and adult animals develop diarrhea when the caregiver attempted to transition to home-prepared meals. I don’t think any of these clinical signs or subsequent improvements/worsening had much to do with the inherent “wholesomeness” of the foods offered, rather that there was a patient/diet mismatch.
I’ve seen website claiming that one doesn’t need a “fancy spreadsheet” or “letters behind (their) names” in order to feed a home-prepared diet correctly. They make statements like “rotation is the key” or “our own diets are not balanced that closely and we seem to be just fine”. But I would argue that collectively people are not that good at balancing their own diets. Human nutritionally-related diseases like goiters caused by iodine deficiency and rickets caused by vitamin D deficiency are making a comeback in the United States. It is not just people with limited access to food who are affected, but those born into educated, more affluent family. Most people don’t do a very good job of balancing their own diets on any given day or even over the course of the week, let alone take the time to think about every essential nutrient and plan every meal.
Recommendations for making home-cooked foods have cropped up online and on popular tv talk shows in past years, especially after the large-scale, multi-brand, multi-national pet food recall in 2007. With some notable exceptions, almost all of the pop-culture pet food recipes promoted through websites or in books are coming from individuals with little to no training in nutrition and almost all have significant (and potentially harmful) nutritional gaps. These recipes often give vague recommendations (like “give a multivitamin”) or list ingredient that may provide calories but not adequate amount of essential nutrients (sorry, coconut oil is not a good source of essential fatty acids). I worry that by trying to fix one problem, such as concerns about safety of the food supply, these “resources” are creating a whole host of new problems with nutrient deficiencies. Or should I say re-emerging old problems.
Published reviews of the nutritional adequacy of home-prepared diet recipes for healthy maintenance, kidney disease, or cancer treatment have found that very few of the recipes available to pet owners provided a complete and balanced source of nutrients or are appropriate for specific disease states. This highlights the importance of working with someone trained in dog and cat nutrition when deciding to feed a home-prepared diet. Feeding a complete and balanced home-prepared diet to a dog or cat isn’t difficult, but it does take planning, an understanding of basic nutrient requirements, and an appreciation for how nutrients are affecting by cooking and storage. Good quality commercial pet food manufacturers have already thought about all of this. When you switch to a home-prepared diet the responsibility (and the blame if things go wrong) shifts to you.
I am less concerned about what is being fed (assuming it is balanced and free from contaminants) and more focused on supporting optimal health in the individual.
Lisa Weeth, DVM, MRCVS, DACVN
Home-Prepared Diet Pros and Cons
- Ingredient Control
- Fresh foods
- Provide variety
- Avoid preservatives
- Human-animal Bond: emotional involvement with feeding
- More “natural” diet
- Potential nutrient deficiency
- Ingredient omission or substitutions
- Veterinary supplements may not provide adequate levels essential nutrients
- Selective consumption (picking out and eating only certain foods)
- Nutrient interactions or degradation (with cooking or storage)
- Potential food-borne pathogen (if fed raw or undercooked)
- Cost: can be more expensive than commercially-prepared diet
- Time: takes more time to plan and prepare foods
Ultimately, the most important thing is to select the right thing for you and your companion dog or cat whatever the feeding strategy.