Do you love a good home cooked meal? According to research, over 80% of Americans prepare their meals at home and 36% of Americans cook at home on a daily basis. Many of us make food for ourselves, but what about for our dogs? They're our family too. So should you make your own homemade dog food? Read on to find out the pros, cons and more.
Is Homemade Food Better For Your Dog?
There's no scientific evidence to support the notion that homemade food is healthier for your dog. The belief that it is likely stems from misconceptions about commercial dog food and the quality of their ingredients as well as fears of recalls. Commercially processed recipes are actually specially created to be nutritionally complete and balanced, better ensuring your dog receives enough nutrients. Cooking your dog's food, on the other hand, makes it difficult to guarantee they are in fact receiving the proper amount of nutrients. Homemade meals do allow you to make sure you feed your dog a whole ingredient-based diet, which tends to be better in the long term. That being said, many commercially produced dog foods now contain whole ingredients.
Pros Of Homemade Dog Food
There are a handful of benefits to cooking homemade food for your dog. These include:
- Allows for tailoring recipes to specific dietary needs based on age, weight, health, allergies, pickiness and more.
- Provides more control over ingredients with the ability to guarantee the use of fresh, high-quality whole foods and avoid preservatives, dyes, hormones and other additives.
- Reduces the consumption of processed food by using raw, steamed, baked, broiled or other healthy cooking methods.
- Increases the variety of food your dog receives.
- Can sometimes be more cost effective.
- Less waste as you can reuse some of your own food, provided it's safe for dogs to eat.
- Ensures you avoid recalls of commercially produced dog foods.
- Builds upon the bond you feel with your dog.
Cons Of Homemade Dog Food
There are also several cons to cooking your dogs meals at home. These include:
- Higher risk of your dog developing nutritional deficiencies as it's more difficult to guarantee the meals are complete and balanced specifically to your dog (you will likely need to add supplements, but even that may not be sufficient).
- Hard to get the right caloric intake, leading to weight loss or weight gain.
- Takes time, effort, labor and space (you need to do a lot of research and routinely shop, measure, cook, portion and properly store the food).
- Can be more expensive.
- Expires more quickly due to a shortened shelf-life.
- Not very convenient (e.g. many boarding facilities do not accommodate homemade food and homemade food doesn't travel well when vacationing with your dog ).
- Raw homemade meals can increase risk for food-borne illnesses.
- Won't allow you to avoid all food recalls, as store bought ingredients can also be recalled.
Some Ways To Mitigate The Cons
If you're set on cooking your dog's food, there are ways to reduce the disadvantages of homemade diets:
- Always choose recipes that are formulated or approved by canine nutritionists or veterinarians and provide nutritional information.
- Add supplements to counter the risk of nutritional deficiency.
- Familiarize yourself with what foods are safe and unsafe for dogs and check all the ingredients are going in to the recipe.
- Calculate nutritional information.
- Buy ingredients in bulk, cook in large batches and utilize your freezer (you can also use a vacuum sealer to extend freshness).
- Use recipes with ingredients that are on sale.
- Meal prep for your dog so you have food for weeks at a time.
Common Mistakes Owners Make When Cooking For Their Dogs
Making homemade food for your dog is a complicated task that takes a lot of time and effort. Some people assume it's easy, which can lead to overlooking some important factors. Here are five common mistakes owners make when cooking for their dogs:
1. Not Using Trusted Sources
There are a lot of dog food recipes out there, but most are unbalanced and some can even be dangerous. To avoid using an inadequate recipe, look for recipes formulated or approved by canine nutritionists or veterinarians. You can also consult BalanceIT.com, which is a site run by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist that helps owners create a semi-individualized diet. It's a good idea to consult your vet or a veterinary nutritionist to make sure the recipes you're using will meet your dog's nutritional needs.
Pro Tip: Use a food scale to get an even more accurate measurement for meat and other ingredients.
2. Not Preparing Balanced Meals
On a related note, one of the most common mistakes when making homemade dog food is not providing balanced meals. Dogs require around 40 essential nutrients that play specific roles in their bodies. These include protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and more. When these are not provided in the proper concentrations, it can cause a nutritional imbalances (deficiency or excess). That can lead to malnutrition, obesity, and other diseases that could eventually be fatal. Remember, commercial dog foods follow strict nutritional standards that meet the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) requirements for balanced nutrition. It's hard to get homemade dog food to meet these high standards.
Often times, homemade meals need to be supplemented for your dog. But picking adequate ones can be a difficult task as there are so many and it all depends on your dog's size, age, sex, breed and more. Furthermore, nutrients in multivitamins are less valuable that those in fresh, whole foods. Many are created to supplement commercial dog food, so they won't have enough nutrients for homemade meals.
Pro Tip: After two or three weeks on homemade food, take your dog to the vet or weigh them at home to make sure they aren't losing or gaining too much weight. If there are weight changes, check again in a few weeks.
3. Not Following Recipes Exactly
When you find an adequate and safe recipe, you'll need to follow the recipe exactly - from ingredients to measurements, cooking methods to cooking time. Otherwise, you may be leaving out important ingredients or steps that provide nutritional value. For example, using different cooking methods - such as steaming versus roasting - can change the nutrient composition of foods.
Pro Tip: If the recipe has vague instructions, talk to a vet or veterinary nutritionist rather than making your own interpretations.
4. Using Unsafe, Unhealthy or Low-Quality Ingredients
There are a lot of foods and ingredients that dogs can't eat, and many more that they shouldn't eat. This is why it's extremely important to familiarize yourself with what dogs can ingest and ensure whatever you make, doesn't have anything unsafe or unhealthy. Furthermore, make sure to take into account your dog's health or health issues they may be prone to. For instance, certain breeds are prone to a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and should not be fed grain-free, legume-based, and high-fiber diets.
5. Not Gradually Switching To Homemade Food
It's important to transition your dog when switching from commercial to homemade meals, just like when you switch between commercial dog foods. Some people don't realize this and make the change immediately. But this can cause gastrointestinal issues and upset, from nausea and vomiting to appetite and stool changes. Typically, it's recommended to switch food over the course of a week so your dog's stomach can adjust:
- Days one to two: 75% old food, 25% new food
- Days three to four: 50% each
- Days five to six: 25% old, 75% new
- Day seven: 100% new
Pro Tip: Some dogs are sensitive to certain ingredients (usually specific proteins), so start with a simple ingredient list and monitor your dog for signs of irritation. These include itchy skin and ears, excessive scratching or licking of sensitive areas, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal upset. If these show up, it will be easier to determine the cause with a simple recipe.
Alternative To Home Cooking
If you're really set on ditching the commercial dog food but don't want to cook homemade meals, there are some options. One alternative is buying commercial dog food that guarantees the use of whole foods. Another alternative is going with a company that provides pre-cooked, ready-made meals using whole, human-grade ingredients.