Homemade Pet Diets: What You Should Know

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Thinking of starting your pet on a homemade diet? Dr. Marty Becker shares advice on the questions you should ask your veterinarian first.

I often hear from pet owners who want to start preparing homemade food for their pets. Their motivations vary; in some cases, they have been spooked by news stories about pet food recalls and want more control over the ingredients in their pets' food. Other times, they are concerned because their animal won’t eat the special diet prescribed for a medical condition, and they want to know if there’s something tastier they can make themselves.

People have been feeding dogs table scraps (or sometimes the best from their own larders) for centuries. Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, was known to feed his Greyhound, Eos, a diet that included regular servings of pâté de foie gras. Talk about rich!

We know much more now than we did a century ago about the dietary needs of our pets. There’s a multitude of commercial pet diets that are complete and balanced for different life stages or made to help treat certain health conditions, such as kidney disease, urinary stones or food allergies, to name just a few, as well as foods that contain organic ingredients.

Nonetheless, you may be thinking about feeding a homemade diet. I’ve always said that if you can make food for a human infant, you can make food for a dog or cat. That said, pets, especially cats, do have specific nutritional requirements — it’s not just a matter of mixing up some hamburger meat, rice and veggies and plopping the blend into your pet's bowl. I talked to my friend and colleague, Dr. Tony Buffington, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, about the pros and cons of a homemade diet and some common-sense guidelines if that’s what you want to feed.

Is a Homemade Diet Right for Your Pet?

A homemade diet can be suitable for a healthy adult dog, but it’s riskier for a puppy. Growing pups are still developing bone and muscle, and nutritional excesses of certain minerals can cause serious orthopedic problems. Until your veterinarian tells you it’s time to transition your dog off puppy food, stick to a commercial food formulated for puppy growth or for all life stages.

A homemade diet can also be riskier for a pet with a health problem, especially if diet is an integral part of management or treatment. Sometimes, however, those animals turn up their noses at commercially available veterinary foods. If that happens, especially if the animal is very old or very sick, Dr. Buffington says that having him eat anything is better than nothing.

Before you start your pet on a homemade diet, start with a trip to the veterinarian to rule out any hidden health issues. Your pet should have a thorough exam, a blood panel and possibly other diagnostic tests to make sure he’s in sparkling good health. Once you make the switch to homemade food, the physical exam and test results can serve as a baseline against which you and your veterinarian can judge how well your pet is doing on the diet.

While you're in the office, be sure to talk to your veterinarian about why you want to feed a homemade diet. She may be able to draw on her experience with other clients — or even her own pets — to advise you about the best way to proceed.

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