Educate Yourself About A Homemade Pet Food Diet

Food is one of the ways people show their love for each other. It’s also one of the ways we show our love for our pets. A rewarding way that pet parents can show their love is by feeding our beloved pets homemade pet food.

Grey and white cat with bowl of homemade pet food
Photographer: Laura Chouette

The Concerns Of Mainstream Pet Food

More and more pet parents realize the dangers of feeding their pets dry kibble and most commercial canned pet foods. The main ingredients — sometimes the only ingredients — of many brands of commercial dry pet foods are alien to the natural diet of healthy pets.

Corn and wheat are cheap can be chemically modified to increase the percentage of protein the manufacturer can claim on the label. The nutritional problem is that none of the ancestors of today's dogs and cats ate grains. Some dry pet foods even list high-fructose corn syrup before meat and meat by-products, as if the natural habitat of our pets was a Dunkin' Donuts.

The protein component of most dry and canned commercial pet foods is equally problematic. Livestock too sick to walk are ground up whole to provide filler for cheaper brands of pet food. No human would knowingly eat this "food," and pets should not have to, either.

It's only natural for loving pet parents to want to feed their pets better food than they can buy in the major pet supply stores. But is it better to go with homemade pet food or a reliable brand of raw food from a trusted provider?

The Benefits of Homemade Pet Food

Some benefits are obvious. You’ll know exactly what is going into your pet's bowl. You can make sure your pet's food is fresh, minimize food waste while eliminating problem foods, dyes, and preservatives from their diet.

Pet parents who make their pet’s food can do an elimination diet to identify potential allergies, and then ensure your pet isn’t fed those sensitizing foods again. You wouldn’t buy "corn gluten" potentially adulterated with melamine or pet food mixed with pentobarbital, both food contaminants that have caused so many pet deaths in recent years.

Making the Switch to Healthy Dog Food

You will have the flexibility to help your pet adjust to healthy eating with homemade pet food. Some dogs and many cats are kibble addicts. They become so used to eating dry and crunchy food of dubious nutritional value that they hesitate to try healthy raw foods you prepare for them.

When you prepare your pet's food at home, you can offer a mixture of commercial pet food with healthier choices.

Introduce your dog to a healthier homemade pet food diet

You could start by replacing 20 percent of the food in your dog's bowl with the same quality raw meat you would feed the rest of your family. A good place to start is with raw muscle meat, such as raw chicken breast or raw ground beef.

If your dog's stools are not too soft, replace another 20 percent of your dog's kibble ration with raw, meaty bones about a week later. (Never give a dog raw bones, because they can splinter.) A week after that, replace kibble with a raw vegetable. Then add an egg to the food mix. Next, introduce meats that are packed with nutrition but that most humans would find to be something of an acquired taste: beef spleen, beef uterus, emu neck bones, thread herring green-lipped muscles, pork jowls, pork cushion meat, rabbit liver, stuffed beef trachea, chicken feet, and duck heads, for example.

Help Your Feline Kibble Addict Start Eating Right

Tabby - a Pet Assistant community cat

Similarly, even finicky cats respond to gradual changes in diet. They’re naturally free feeders. They like to be able to amble up to their bowl and nibble throughout the day. The transition to healthy raw foods will require putting your cat on a meal schedule so that raw meat isn’t sitting out in their dish all day.

Most cats respond to a transition from or canned to raw foods over a few weeks, but your cat will never change her habits if you do limit feeding times. Your cat's stomach will have to produce more acid to digest healthy, raw food. There is less chance of digestive upset if you give your cat a chance to adjust to her new diet.

It's a lot easier for your pets to enjoy their healthy diets if you start them on healthy foods when they are puppies and kittens. But it's also essential not to make nutritional mistakes with their homemade pet food.

What Can Go Wrong with a Home-Prepared Raw Food Diet?

Our fur babies aren't little people. Dogs and cats don't have the same nutritional needs as people. They need different proportions of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and essential amino acids. There are some general principles of pet nutrition that every pet parent needs to keep in mind when transitioning to homemade pet food.

Dogs and cats have to get their vitamin D from their diets

People can make their own vitamin D with the help of sunlight. Fur people cannot. Dogs and cats get the vitamin D their bodies need for healthy bones, hormonal regulation, and immunity from their food.

In the wild, the ancestors of dogs and cats obtained vitamin D from organ meats from the prey they consumed whole. In the twenty-first century, the dogs and cats in our families still need organ meats, especially liver and kidney, to get essential vitamin D. When you provide your pet with organ meats — not meat byproducts — they get the D they need without any risk of toxic overdose.

Never give your pet your vitamin D supplements. The dosage is too high for all but the largest dogs. Make sure your cats and dogs get their vitamin D from organ meat, as part of their homemade pet food.

Raw eggs are a great source of protein, within limits

Brown eggs in egg carton - an ingredient of homemade pet food
Photographer: Caroline Attwood

In very rare instances, a pet that eats too much raw egg white can develop a biotin (vitamin B7) deficiency. There is a protein called avidin in raw (but not cooked) egg whites that binds biotin so it can't be used by your pet's body. This deficiency can aggravate mange or seasonal hair loss. The solution is simple. Limit raw eggs to one or two a week for smaller animals (cats and dogs up to 35 pounds). For larger pets weighing over 35 pounds, limit raw eggs to two or three a week.

Both dogs and cats need preformed vitamin A

The human body can make vitamin A from beta-carotene and other plant pigments. Dogs can make vitamin A from beta-carotene only very inefficiently, and cats can't make vitamin A from beta-carotene at all. Carrots are not helpful for cats, and they aren't a good source of vitamin precursors for dogs. Dogs and cats need "ready-made" vitamin A from animal-sourced foods. These can be organ meats and, if nothing else is available, milk fat (not skim milk) or cream.

A fishy problem

Pets that are fed large amounts of raw fish often develop vitamin E deficiencies. That's because fish contain oils that would oxidize and form toxic byproducts in your pet's body if they are not neutralized by vitamin E. Giving pets too much raw fish tends to deplete their vitamin E.

fresh mackerel - an ingredient of homemade pet food
Photographer: Edouard Dognin

Cats have exacting requirements for protein

You probably have never seen a cat that was excited by the sight of a jelly doughnut. Humans get their carbohydrate highs by eating sugary foods, but cats don't eat sugar. Cats can't eat very many carbohydrates at all. A cat's body makes the glucose its cells use for fuel from the amino acids it digests out of protein. The human body can make glucose out of amino acids when carbohydrates are not available, but a cat's body runs this process all the time. Protein is essential for cats the same way carbohydrates are essential for people.

Turning protein foods into sugars is a toxic process. One of the byproducts of sugar synthesis in a cat's body is acidifying urea. For humans, "ash" in leafy greens is de-acidifying, but that's not how the process works for a cat. The cat naturally neutralizes urea so it can be excreted with an amino acid called arginine. A deficiency in arginine in your cat's diet for as little as 24 hours can cause serious damage to their health.

Cats also need taurine, an amino acid that isn't required for dogs or people. Without adequate supplies of taurine from food, they develop cardiomyopathy and vision problems. Giving your cat dog food or a vegetarian diet is very dangerous to her health. Cats need animal-sourced, clean, healthy protein in their homemade pet food.

Even healthy diets can sometimes trigger food reactions

Both dogs and cats can develop food allergies that are set off by cow’s milk, beef, chicken, rabbit, pork, mutton, horse meat, fish, cod liver oil, fish oil supplements, eggs, corn, oatmeal, wheat, potatoes, soy and soy isolates, rice flour, kidney beans, chemicals used in sealing canned foods, chemicals used to prevent moisture accumulation in dry dog and cat food, pill pockets, pet treats, and specific food additives. Since you will know exactly what you fed your pet before symptoms of food allergy, which can range from hair loss to loose stools to seizures, you can quickly eliminate the problem.

The one aspect of pet health that kibble makers have mastered is dumping chemically sourced vitamin A, vitamin D, and amino acids into their products so your pets do not suffer these deficiencies. But some kinds of commercial pet food have to have extra vitamins and amino acids in the mix because they are broken down by bacterial contamination. The downside is that if bacteria aren't contaminating the commercial pet food, then there's an overdose of the added nutrients.

Healthy homemade pet food has to be fed in appropriate amounts

In addition to making sure that our pets receive the right levels of micronutrients, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and essential amino acids, our pets also must receive the right levels of macronutrients. Every pet needs the right number of calories matched to its size, breed, and activity level, to avoid underfeeding or overfeeding.

How does that work?

Based on your pet’s weight and activity level, you’ll be able to calculate the number of calories your pet needs from protein, fat, and carbohydrate to match their weight, breed, and activity level.

Of course, any health problems your pet has will need to be taken into consideration. Maybe your dog or cat needs to be put on a diet to lose weight. Or maybe they have health problems that require them to eat more food. Consider just these rules for nutritional support for cats with health conditions, developed by veterinarian Susan Little, independently of any pet food company funding:

  • Cats that have heart disease need additional protein, at least 30 to 45 percent of total calories in their diets. They need sodium restriction, but they need additional potassium. Any cat that has heart disease needs to receive about 0.3 percent of the total diet by weight in the form of taurine for heart health. Omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids should be offered in a 5:1 ratio.
  • Cats that have inflammatory digestive diseases need home-processed raw foods. The Maillard reaction that produces browning on meat creates chemical byproducts that inflame the cat's intestines. Protein in these cat's diets should exceed 40 percent of calories, but the fat must be less than 25 percent to prevent the slowing of digestion.

Dr. Little's dietary prescriptions go on for 40 pages in her guide for holistically-minded feline nutritionists. The common denominator of her recommendations is lots of math. There are similar scientific recommendations for diets for dog health that also require time-consuming research.

The real cost of pet food

Then there are the considerations of budget. Commercial pet food is cheap, but vet bills are expensive, and your pet's life is priceless. Making your own pet food at home is more expensive than buying mainstream commercial food. There are also other costs to consider. Making your pet's food at home takes time, both for shopping and for preparation. It takes careful planning and serious nutritional expertise beyond what most vets get in veterinary school. And as Dr. Little points out, it takes math. How can pet parents put their pets on healthy diets without spending hours shopping, chopping, measuring, and doing complex calculations?

hands holding American Dollar Bills to show the cost of not feeding homemade pet food
Photographer: Alexander Mils

Help for Healthy Homemade Pet Food Diets

Healthy homemade pet food is a nutritional challenge. But healthy kibble is an impossibility. How can caring pet parents make the transition from unhealthy foods to natural foods while making sure they cover all of their pets' nutritional needs?

A small number of concerned pet food suppliers carry clean, ethically sourced, and genuinely nutritious raw pet foods for your pets. These carefully measured and thoroughly analyzed foods are available fresh dehydrated, freeze-dried and fresh frozen. These suppliers can take over the work of shopping and preparation for you, and help you make sure you give your pets all the nutrients they need.

No one designs the perfect pet food recipe overnight. Every pet parent needs some help making the right choices. These ethical pet food stores can help you make the transition to lasting pet health.


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