The largest recall in pet food history occurred in 2008, when melamine was found to be a contaminant that caused illness and death in thousands of dogs and cats.
Since then, there have been dozens of recalls for excess or deficient vitamin or mineral ingredients, bacterial contamination, inclusion of pentobarbital (euthanasia solution), mold, foreign objects and aflatoxin contamination.
The rise of social media — and the vigilance of recall-tracking sites, like Petful — has made pet food recall information much more accessible to everyone. But it’s also increased anxiety around buying pet food.
Navigating the pet food aisles has become a source of frustration for many, causing people to attempt home-prepared meals for dogs and cats.
Homemade Pet Food
Making pet food at home can be rewarding, allowing you to provide high-quality ingredients of your choosing, increasing the human–animal bond and improving pets’ health.
But home-prepared meals deficient in certain vitamins and minerals may negatively affect your pet’s health and vitality if you don’t meet all the nutrient requirements.
- Seminars, online courses and books are available to those who want to prepare their own pet food.
- Computer software exists to help you determine whether your recipes are complete and balanced.
- Human nutrition sites may offer some loose guidelines, but they don’t provide nutrient requirements for animals.
- Veterinary nutritionists are available at many universities to help formulate diets for pets. Most nutritionists will provide 1–2 recipes, but some people who want to serve varied meals may be frustrated by these limitations.
As a holistic veterinarian certified in traditional Chinese veterinary medicine food therapy, I have spent the past 2 decades researching pet food, diet formulation and nutritional requirements for dogs and cats.
While it’s not impossible to make complete and balanced diets at home using only whole food ingredients, it does require the sourcing of some unusual ingredients that may be difficult to obtain easily.
Many dietary supplements are now marketed to help balance home-prepared meals, making this method of feeding more accessible.
4 Essential Ingredients for Home-Cooked Pet Food
The following is a list of the most commonly missed ingredients in home-prepared pet food recipes.
Use these as a guideline, but consult with a veterinary nutritionist or veterinary food therapist to ensure complete and balanced nutrition.
1. Calcium-to-Phosphorous Ratio
Dogs and cats require more calcium than phosphorous in their diet, with a ratio of about 1.2 to 1 being appropriate.
Meats are high in phosphorous and low in calcium. Green tripe (the first stomach in ruminants such as cows, sheep and goats) comes closest as a protein source with balanced calcium and phosphorous. However, the smell is enough to turn off most people.
Calcium is generally added to the diet with the addition of bone meal, ground eggshells (1/2 teaspoon per pound of meat in the recipe) or 10–15% ground bone in raw diets.
Milk and dairy products don’t supply anywhere near enough calcium for home-prepared diets.
2. Vitamin D
Unlike humans, dogs and cats cannot convert sunlight to vitamin D. Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) must be supplied in the diet.
Vitamin D helps regulate calcium and phosphorous balance, bone growth and density and immune system function. It also aids in cancer prevention. Know that excess vitamin D will lead to toxicity, causing kidney and bladder stones and kidney failure.
Human vitamin D supplements are too concentrated for pets. The average requirement is 227 IU vitamin D per pound of food fed.
Vitamin D, a fat-soluble vitamin, is found naturally in egg yolks and fish. Diets containing one of these ingredients daily will come closer to providing appropriate vitamin D levels.
I recommend vitamin D testing at least twice a year for any pets fed a home-prepared diet.
3. Trace Minerals
Zinc, manganese, iodine, copper, selenium and iron fall into this category.
Deficiencies may lead to problems with:
- Muscle function
- Coat and skin
- Tendon/ligament health
Many of these trace minerals are found in animal organs. Feeding liver, heart, pancreas and kidney will provide minerals not found elsewhere.
Many people have trouble finding organs to add to the diet and don’t like handling them, but the diet will be incomplete without their inclusion.
Chlorella, spirulina and kelp are good plant sources but do not replace the organ meats. Feel free to include both plant and organ sources.
Don’t include liver at a rate higher than 10% of the diet — most pets will develop soft stools or diarrhea at higher levels of inclusion.
Mussels and oysters are also fairly good sources of trace minerals.
4. Vitamin E
The amount of unsaturated fatty acids in the diet will determine the level of vitamin E required.
Diets high in fish, or fish and plant oils, will require more vitamin E.
Average requirements are around 25–50 IU vitamin E per pound of food fed per day.
Alfalfa meal, ground sunflower seeds and wheat germ are good sources of vitamin E, while milk and dairy products are not.
Things to Consider
Home-cooked diets for pets should include meat, organs, vegetables and fats. Grains and potatoes are optional additions.
Good sources of fat include meat, egg yolks and oils.
Many people worry about fats causing pancreatitis in their pets. Although over-consumption of fats and consumption of rancid fats may lead to pancreatitis, there are other contributing factors, such as breed, medication usage and inflammation elsewhere in the body.
Feeding very low-fat diets for long periods of time will result in deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins.
Add salt to home-prepared diets for body fluid balance. Sea salt most closely resembles the salt found naturally in the body. For pets with heart disease, the salt substitute potassium chloride may be beneficial for low potassium levels.
While it’s not impossible to prepare high-quality balanced meals for your pets, it does require some effort.
Not every meal must be balanced, but the meals over the course of a week certainly need to provide a wide array of nutrients.
In the video below, I show you how to make a warming stew that your dog will love:
Final Thoughts on the Essential Ingredients for Home-Cooked Pet Food
Keep the following in mind:
- Nutrient excesses and deficiencies will not be immediately apparent when pets are fed imbalanced diets. You might not see some effects for months.
- Get veterinary examinations and lab work performed at least twice a year for your pets if you make home-cooked meals for them.
- Let your veterinarian know what you are feeding — give them a printed list of ingredients.
As Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, has cautioned here on Petful:
“If you thought you could just throw some chicken and brown rice together, change up the veggies from time to time, throw in a vitamin and some calcium, and go feed Mr. Tibbs a meal made for a dog-king, think again. Your recipes have to be checked out scientifically if you plan on a DIY diet as the sole source of sustenance.”
Not all vets are well-versed in meal preparation for pets. So if yours doesn’t feel comfortable evaluating the diet, please seek the advice of a veterinary nutritionist or veterinary food therapist.
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