Dog Eating

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.

What Should You Feed?

Your veterinarian may not be able to formulate a complete and balanced diet for you, but she can refer you to a board-certified veterinary nutritionist or a service like Balance IT, either of which can help to construct a custom homemade diet for your pet that takes into account factors such as size, age, gender and body condition (underweight, overweight or just right), as well as the ingredients you want to use. In addition to providing appropriate recipes, a nutrition service may sell vitamin and mineral supplements that help ensure the recipe provides complete nutrition.

Depending on which route you take, you may pay a fee to the nutritionist or service for formulating one or more recipes, or the recipes may be free, but there may be a charge for supplements. Don’t balk at the bills: Pet food companies build the costs of their research into the price of the food, but whether you buy prepared food or make it yourself, you are paying for the expertise to ensure that your pet eats right.

A nutritionist or service will help you formulate a balanced diet for your pet. The biggest mistake people make is feeding only a single ingredient, such as chicken breast, because “that’s all he’ll eat.” That’s not a balanced diet. But be cautious about mixing it up too much: When you cook for yourself, you probably enjoy experimenting with your recipes and adding new ingredients, but doing so with your pet’s food can unbalance the recipe and cause problems for your pet. Instead of tweaking individual recipes, gather an assortment of recipes based on different ingredients, so you can rotate your pet’s menu and offer him a variety of appropriate, healthy choices.

Another mistake pet owners make is trying to force pets to conform to their own philosophical beliefs. It’s fine for you to be a vegetarian or vegan, but for your cat, it’s a recipe for disaster. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they must have meat in their diets to survive and thrive.

How Much Is Enough?

When you look at a bag or can of pet food, there’s usually a recommended daily amount based on a pet’s weight. But these standard serving sizes don’t work for every pet. Each animal is different, even if they are the same breed, size or age. Your individual pet may need more or less than the recommended amount of food, and sometimes you have to fiddle with how much you give before you find that “just right” amount. The same is true with homemade diets.

“The starting point is going to be plus or minus as much as 50 percent for any individual animal,” Dr. Buffington says. “If the calculated amount per day is 400 calories, for example, you can have animals who might eat only 200 calories a day or animals that are really active, who eat 600 calories a day. No one can tell that without feeding the animal and looking at his body condition.”

When it comes to body condition, you should be able to feel (but not see) your pet’s ribs and backbone as you’re petting him, he should have a visible waist when viewed from above, and the abdomen should tuck up behind his rib cage and in front of his hind legs when viewed from the side.

To make sure your pet is thriving on your home cooking, repeat the exam and diagnostic tests in six months to see if he is doing the same, better or worse. “It’s just a little bit of insurance that if something is going wrong, you can pick it up as quickly as possible,” Dr. Buffington says. “If everything is still normal, that’s another level of confidence that everything is going well.”

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