Home-Made Diets for Pets
What should I know about feeding a home-prepared diet to my pet?
The first inclination of some people when feeding a home-prepared diet to their pet is to simply feed the animal leftovers of what they are eating. However, the nutritional needs of dogs, cats and humans differ.
Humans are omnivores, and can maintain excellent health on a meat-free diet with only minimal dietary supplementation. Cats are obligate carnivores and must consume meat. Dogs are similar to humans, but are considered carnivorous omnivores.
Veterinary nutritionists have determined that cats have a low biological requirement for carbohydrates in their diet, suggesting that a high meat and low grain diet may be ideal for their well-being.
Dogs are facultative carnivores (they can eat a very meaty diet or a very low meat diet), and therefore are able to make better use of non-meat ingredients. To a significant extent, however, dogs are also well adapted to a high meat diet.
Nutritional balance thus varies from species to species, with an optimally balanced diet providing over the course of a day the minimum calories required for the animal’s level of exercise, health and size; adequate levels of trace nutrients such as vitamins and minerals; and an ideal ratio of macronutrients such as proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
So creating a balanced diet for a pet seems a formidable task, but there is an easy way to do it; simply follow diet recipes that have been formulated by animal nutritionists or that otherwise are shown to meet the basic nutritional requirements for the species. To avoid trace nutrient deficiencies or excesses, it is recommended to vary the source of each diet component (for example, using different protein, vegetable, and grain sources from week to week).
Because meats and some vegetables are deficient in calcium, it is absolutely necessary to provide supplemental calcium in all pet diets. For this reason, most diet recipes include vitamin and mineral supplements, although there are some vegetables high in bioavailable calcium such as broccoli, kale, and green leafy veg. Calcium can be added at any time during the cooking process or as a supplement when the meal is fed. Calcium citrate is a more bioavailable form of calcium than calcium carbonate (chalk). The citrate molecule helps to solubilise calcium in the urine and prevent calcium oxalate stones. Spinach is not recommended as a calcium supplement since it is also high in oxalates, but may be fed in moderation. Vitamin supplements added before or during the cooking process may become denatured or inactivated, and should instead be added after food preparation is complete.
What are the benefits of home-prepared diets for my pet?
Supporters of feeding home-prepared diets to pets emphasise the importance of a variety of fresh whole foods for the maintenance of health. The benefits of home-made diets include confidence in the freshness and wholesomeness of the ingredients (especially if you use organic source foods), and the potential inclusion of non-essential or synergistic components in the diet, such as so-called nutraceuticals.
Many dogs and cats have improved hair and skin condition and increased levels of energy on home-made diets. Specific food intolerances can be catered for specifically as the diet can be made to include and avoid any element in the ingredients. Owners, once they have got over the fact that they have to spend some time creating the diet always express their deep satisfaction for this way of feeding.
What are the risks of home- prepared diets for my pet?
As mentioned above, it is not enough to just feed a diet of table scraps, or to toss some meat, grains, and vegetables into a bowl for your pet. If you do that, your pet could end up malnourished (as opposed to undernourished). It is much better to follow a recipe or method in preparing a diet.
While a recipe/method for a home-prepared diet may appear to come from a knowledgeable source, ideas about what constitutes the ideal diet for dogs and cats is currently evolving. Rigid adherence to one recipe over a long time may thus cause severe nutritional imbalances if it later is found to be inadequate. Likewise, avoid using recipes that are complicated or time-consuming to prepare, since you will be more likely to take shortcuts in the preparation.
Problems may also occur if pet’s diets are either under- or over-supplemented with certain vitamins and minerals. The most common imbalances in home-prepared diets involve calcium, phosphorus, zinc, magnesium, and iron. Animals with increased nutritional needs associated with growth or reproduction have different requirements for energy and nutrients, and require enhanced protein levels and optimal ratios of vitamins and minerals to support growth. The advice of a vet with nutritional knowledge is essential. Please talk to one of the vets. We would be happy to help.
Some popular authors of pet diets recommend feeding grain-free (or carbohydrate-free) diets, raw meat diets, or bones and raw food diets. Clinical improvements in animals fed these diets are often impressive and perhaps not surprising given that dogs, cats and humans all do better on fresh wholesome food. Critics of raw meat diets speculate that bacterial pathogens common in intensively reared poultry and livestock could be transmitted to animals or their owners. In practice this does not seem to be the case. The majority of research currently suggests, however, that dogs and cats are relatively resistant to bacterial pathogens found on commercially available raw meat sources, with shedding of consumed bacteria occurring briefly or not at all, and raw bones are much more digestible than cooked bones.
"Some popular authors of pet diets recommend feeding grain-free (or carbohydrate-free) diets, raw meat diets, or bones and raw food diets. Clinical improvements in animals fed these diets are often impressive and perhaps not surprising given that dogs, cats and humans all do better on fresh wholesome food."
It should be remembered, however, that animals or their owners with compromised health or immune systems may be more susceptible to illness caused by bacteria. Likewise, raw bones are not without some small risk; some cases of faecal impaction and intestinal accidents such as bowel perforation have been reported, but almost always with cooked bones, not raw. Cooked bones must NEVER be fed, since they are brittle and prone to splintering, that can cause both obstructions and perforations of the intestinal tract.
How can I minimise these risks?
Discuss your pet’s diet honestly with us, including any treats or supplements that you provide. Have your pet examined regularly so that any early indicators of problems may be detected. Since animals age more rapidly than humans, a good rule of thumb is to have a complete physical examination every year.
Consult reputable references for healthy recipes for home-prepared meals. We’re happy to advise here.
What symptoms or conditions are most often treated with home-prepared diets?
Symptoms such as excessive shedding, itching, skin lesions, and digestive disturbances have been correlated with allergies or intolerances to components of commercial diets, or to inappropriate diets for a specific individual or breed. Animals with specific dietary needs or health problems are often put onto special home-prepared diets that are nutritionally formulated to meet these needs. Fussy pets will often eat a home-prepared diet more willingly than commercial food. Cats can be difficult, however!
How successful is treatment with home-prepared diets?
Animals with specific dietary needs or health problems can show dramatic improvement in their state of health when fed a home-prepared diet that has been nutritionally formulated to meet these needs.
How do I know if the diet is properly balanced?
A sample batch of the diet can be analysed at a commercial food laboratory to determine its contents. The patient can be assessed by means of blood and urine analysis and radiographs to determine whether the pet is showing any sub-clinical abnormalities that could be related to dietary deficiencies or excesses. The easiest method, however, is to get good advice from a vet or from a reputable author.
What is the cost of home-prepared diets?
Home-prepared diets are comparable in price to premium commercial diets. If the diet is prepared with organic source ingredients, its cost will increase.
How can I find out more information about home-prepared diets?
Some popular books containing recipes that are based on nutritional formulations include:
- Healthy Dogs A Handbook of natural Therapies, Dr Barbara Fougere BSc BVMS
- The Pet Lovers Guide to Natural healing for Cats and Dogs, Dr Barbara Fougere BSc BVMS
- Real Foods for Dogs and Cats Dr Clare Middle
- The BARF Diet, Dr. Ian Billinghurst DVM.
- Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets, Dr Donald Strombeck DVM.
Please speak to one of the vets if you would like to discuss home-made diets for your animal. We would be happy to advise.
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