Feeding your dog a home-prepared diet

by Kathy Johnson

originally posted May 3, 2007,

updated February 18, 2008

 

A while ago I sent a post to the Greyhound-L list regarding the ongoing dog food recall. It sparked a flurry of questions from folks who are interested in learning how to feed their dogs without using commercial dog foods. I decided it was easier to just post the answers to the most-asked questions on a web site, rather than write and re-write the same things. I hope you find this helpful in deciding whether to begin making your dog's food yourself.

 

Go directly to the link to the diet calculator spreadsheet.

 


Why I no longer use commercial dog food

In October 2001, my beloved greyhound boy Tesla was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in his right tonsil. While trying to find a way to have the tumor surgically removed, I did a lot of research into supplements and diet, hoping to slow the growth of the cancer. One thing kept coming up over and over in many of the books and articles I read--cancer feeds on carbohydrates. I decided to take Tesla off of the carbohydrate-filled canned "cancer diet" dog food the vet was selling me for $2 per can, and find a way to prepare his meals at home.

I did a lot of reading on home prepared dog food, and realized that I only had two choices--either I had to cook it, or I had to feed it raw. That choice was a no-brainer...I don't like to cook. Thus, I switched a dog who was undergoing radiation and chemotherapy to fight a very nasty type of cancer over to a raw diet in the middle of his treatment. I worried that he would develop an infection from the bacteria that so many doomsayers insisted was crawling all over the raw meat. But instead of getting sick, Tesla's health improved! Our oncologist vet noted that his blood counts, which had been too low to give him his chemo treatments, had increased to almost normal levels. I told her what I had done, and she said "Keep doing it, it's helping him!" Tesla loved the raw food, and so did our other dogs who were switched over at the same time. He never got commercial dog food again. His teeth had gotten so caked with tartar from the soft carb-laden canned food and kibble that our regular vet was actually considering putting him under anesthesia for a dental cleaning despite the cancer. After just a few weeks on the raw diet, which included whole raw turkey necks and chicken backs, the vet rather indignantly asked me who had cleaned Tesla's teeth. I just smiled...I didn't tell him what I was doing until well after Tesla had passed away.

In May 2002 we lost Tesla to the inevitable spread of the squamous cell cancer into his lungs. In August 2002 we brought home a greyhound puppy named Slate. At age 15 weeks, Slate was given his first raw chicken neck. He wolfed it down and eagerly came back for more. I threw away the bag of kibble that had come home with him, and from then on, he was raised on a raw diet.  As of this writing (April 2007) at almost age 5, Slate has *never* needed his teeth cleaned, and I don't expect that he ever will. I have also never had to clean out his ears even once since he came here. I learned during my research into home prepared diets that much of the "gunk" that develops inside a dog's ears comes from mild yeast infections caused by the carbohydrates and grains in commercial dog food. Slate doesn't get grains in his food, thus he has no yeast to grow black goo inside his ears.

In January 2005, my darling greyhound girl Allegra was diagnosed with chronic renal (kidney) failure. We believe that this was brought about by using PPA (phenylpropanolamine) to treat assumed "spay incontinence" that was actually incontinence due to neurological problems from a neck injury. PPA can increase blood pressure, which in turn puts too much strain on the kidneys, causing them to fail. Whatever the cause, she needed a special low-phosphorus diet to help slow the progression of the renal failure. The vet offered to sell me prescription "kidney diet" dog food, either canned or kibble. I declined, and spent the next six months learning how to create a kidney friendly raw diet for her. Allegra thrived on the special diet, and lived 2 years and 3 months after her initial diagnosis before her kidneys finally got too weak to function any longer. I am certain that she would not have lived as long as she did if I had simply put her on the commercial prescription diet foods. Even though they claim to be 'low phosphorus', they aren't as low as they could be, they are way too high in calcium for long-term use, and they are too high in fat for most dogs to tolerate for more than a short time. 

Just a few weeks before Allegra died, the horrible pet food problems involving contaminated wheat gluten from China began showing up in the news.  I have been watching the ongoing discussions on various lists about which foods are still safe, and I've been watching the recalls spread from one company to another, even to companies that insisted that there was no way their foods could be affected, and most recently from canned food to dry kibble. I admit to feeling smug that I do not use commercial dog foods.  I wouldn't feed my dog ANY commercial dog food right now, because I'm certain that this contamination problem will get bigger and spread further before it is finally solved.

I'm putting this information up so that others who are concerned about the safety of commercial food will know that you DO have other options for feeding your dogs a healthy diet. Below I've addressed several of the questions I've received.


But it looks so hard. And won't I kill my dog if I don't give him food that was invented by scientists?

I will admit that feeding a home prepared diet isn't quite as easy as just opening a bag or a can and dumping food into a bowl. It takes some pre-planning, and at least once a day you will have to THINK about what you will feed the dog instead of feeding on auto-pilot. But it's not impossible, and it's NOT rocket science. It does not take a PhD to feed your dog a healthy diet, and the ability to properly feed a dog isn't some magical talent that only a few scientists can perform.

The key to feeding your dog is NOT a perfectly balanced tightly controlled meal twice a day, filled with supplements and vitamins. The key to feeding your dog is BALANCE OVER TIME. This means that as long as you feed a variety of nutritious foods spread out over a period of a week or so, your dog will get all the nutrients necessary for good health. This is how wild canines get their nutrition--one day they may catch a rabbit, the next day a bird, the next day they might eat carrion they found. Each food provides different nutrients, and over time they balance out.

The most important mineral you do need to concern yourself with is calcium. A diet high in meat products contains a lot of phosphorus, and that phosphorus needs to be balanced out with calcium in order to prevent some health problems from developing long-term. A little research on nutritional database web sites like www.nutritiondata.com will give you the phosphorus content of the foods you choose to feed your dog. Then you simply add some calcium carbonate powder to the food in a ratio that equals 1.1 unit of calcium to 1 unit of phosphorus. There--that's the really hard part. The rest is just finding foods your dog likes, and finding places to get those foods affordably.

Here's a link to tool I created that will help home feeders to determine the amount of calcium they need to add to their dogs' meals. Diet Calculator


Is preparing my own dog food going to be expensive?

I don't find it to be any more expensive than kibble. I am not comparing prices pound for pound though. First, by feeding a home cooked diet, I have eliminated most of the "regular" vet bills my dogs used to incur. I haven't had a dental done on a dog since 2001, and probably never will again. That's $175 or more  per year per dog that I do not have to spend to get their food off of their teeth.
Many of the other problems I thought were "normal" have also gone away, such as ear infections, anal gland cleaning/impaction and skin problems.

As for actual food costs, the first thing you need to do is find sources for the foods you will be feeding. That takes a little time, but pays off hugely in lower costs. There are groups of folks located all over the country who get together to share sources for dog food supplies. You can get onto yahoogroups.com and look up 'raw feeding' or "BARF diet" and find lots of such groups.  It is  a lot cheaper if you can buy in bulk, but if you can't buy in bulk and store the food, you can still feed a home-prepared diet.

 

Here is a link to a list of raw feeding co-op groups. http://www.dogaware.com/diet/rawgroups.html

And here is a link to a list of raw food resources. http://www.dogaware.com/diet/rawfoods.html

I get much of the meat I feed my dogs from a meat wholesaler in Detroit. (All prices are current as of 11/2011). I pay $15-$20 for 40 pounds of chicken backs, and similar prices for 40 pounds of turkey necks, chicken necks and pork neck bones, which works out to approximately 50 cents a pound. Raw ground turkey here is approx. $1.89/lb, and the least expensive raw ground hamburger is between $1.59 and $1.99/lb. Raw green tripe, an excellent food for dogs that is not available through meat wholesalers, costs more because I have to order it from a raw dog food supplier. The more variety you can provide, the better, so if you get into more exotic meats like ostrich or rabbit, the price does go up considerably. But you can provide pretty good variety with just turkey, chicken, beef and pork, and beef or chicken liver, chicken hearts and gizzards. I don't feed a lot of vegetables, but those that I do use are the lowest priced frozen ones from the local grocery store. Having a freezer is a big help because then you can purchase in bulk, which saves money. I got a tiny freezer (5 cu. ft I think?) for $100 at a local grocery store. It's about the size of a washing machine, and it holds enough dog food for a month. Once a month or so I go pick up about 100 to 120 pounds of raw meat at the wholesaler, bring it home and repackage it into zippered plastic bags or disposable plastic containers that each hold 2 or 3 meals.

 

Your cost per day will vary depending on what you're feeding, but mine averages about $1.00 to $1.50 per day to feed Slate, who is 70#. That may look like a lot compared to kibble, but consider the vet bills you won't be paying, and consider how much healthier your dog will be on a more natural diet. On a home prepared diet the dogs' body actually uses more of the food it ingests, so you are not paying for food that just passes right through unused. And the yard cleanup is a LOT more pleasant on a home prepared diet.

 

If you choose to feed a totally raw diet as opposed to cooking for your dog, you may choose to use a prepackaged raw diet instead of tracking down all the individual ingredients yourself. This will cost more money per pound, but it will save you a lot of time by not having to shop, package and prepare each meal separately. You can purchase ready-to-use raw diet foods from a number of different raw food suppliers such as Oma's Pride, Raw4Dogs or A Place for Paws.

 


Is it going to be difficult to cook for my dog?

It can be as simple or as complicated as you would like to make it. Some people just increase the quantity of whatever they are cooking for themselves, and they pull out the dog's portion before adding canine-questionable foods like onions. So some dogs might get gourmet cooking if the owner is so inclined.  Other people just toss meat and vegetables into a crock pot and let them cook down into mush, add some calcium and perhaps some other supplements, cool the whole thing and ladle out portions.

Any dog food recipe you find can be put in a crockpot, even if it's just meant to be cooked quickly on the stove. If it includes grains like rice or dried beans, be sure to add extra water so it doesn't cook dry.

There are several books you should be able to get from a library or from Amazon.com that have cooked dog food recipes--


Dr. Pitcairn's New Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats <http://www.amazon.com/Pitcairns-Complete-Guide-Natural-Health/dp/157954973X/ref=pd_sxp_grid_pt_2_2/104-8246116-4067903> Paperback by Richard H. Pitcairn


Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets: the Healthful Alternative <http://www.amazon.com/Home-Prepared-Dog-Cat-Diets-Alternative/dp/0813821495/ref=pd_sxp_grid_pt_1_0/104-8246116-4067903> Paperback by Donald R. Strombeck


Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats <http://www.amazon.com/Natural-Nutrition-Dogs-Kymythy-Schultze/dp/1561706361/ref=pd_sxp_grid_pt_1_2/104-8246116-4067903> Paperback by Kymythy Schultze  (mostly about raw diets but lots of good info on basic nutrition)


Canine Nutrition <http://www.amazon.com/Canine-Nutrition-Lowell-J-Ackerman/dp/1577790154/ref=pd_sxp_grid_pt_2_2/104-8246116-4067903> Paperback by Lowell J. Ackerman


Holistic Guide for a Healthy Dog (Howell Reference Books) <http://www.amazon.com/Holistic-Guide-Healthy-Howell-Reference/dp/1582451532/ref=pd_sxp_grid_pt_1_0/104-8246116-4067903> Paperback by Wendy Volhard


Whole Pet Diet: Eight Weeks to Great Health for Dogs And Cats <http://www.amazon.com/Whole-Pet-Diet-Eight-Health/dp/1587612712/ref=pd_sxp_grid_pt_2_2/104-8246116-4067903>

Paperback by Andi Brown

And here are a few web sites with some recipes
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/03/16/earlyshow/contributors/debbyeturner/main680487.shtml (recent news article with a recipe)
http://www.naturaldogfood.com/ (this one is selling a recipe book)

http://community-2.webtv.net/GRR__Bham/HomeMadeCannedFood/  (Crockpot chicken dog food recipe)

You can use any fresh foods YOU would eat, keeping the fat content somewhere below what would be considered "high".

No added salt, and always use meat of some sort is a main ingredient in each meal. Vegetables are used as fillers/supplements, and bones are important to include for calcium content, but they are only OK as long as they are either totally raw or if they have been cooked until they are soft enough to mash between your fingers. Calcium carbonate powder is used as a calcium supplement if bones are not included in the meal. The whole goal of home prepared dog food is "variety over time" meaning that each individual meal is not 100% balanced. Get a variety of foods and switch between them every few days.

 


What if I decide to feed a raw diet instead of a cooked one?

My personal opinion? Don't bother cooking dog food. If you want to home feed, just go straight to raw. It is SO much easier than cooking, and you don't cook out the vitamins when you feed raw, so you need fewer supplements to put the vitamins back in.

The raw meat/bacteria issue that the vets will bring up is truly only an issue if you have very young kids, elderly people or someone with a compromised immune system (HIV, etc.)  in your home. Simple hand washing and wiping the counter with soap and water after handling meat and a little common sense (don't let the dog lick your face for a while after eating) takes care of the problem. Personally I wear disposable plastic food handling gloves that I get from Sam's Club for about $5 per 1000  because I don't like feeling meat fat under my nails. The gloves take care of the hand washing issue for me. I don't go overboard with bleaching the floors after the dogs eat. In the winter I feed them on washable rag rugs from the dollar store, and in nice weather, they eat outside. If they get meat fat or blood on the floor, I wipe it up, but I don't obsess about every little germ.

To be honest, since I started feeding the dogs raw and started handling raw meat twice or more daily, I am physically healthier than I have ever been before. I don't get "food poisoning" from restaurants anymore, and I rarely even catch colds. When I do start to get a cold, it goes away within a couple days without getting bad at all. I think the constant little challenges to my immune system from whatever bacteria may be in the meat have strengthened it. And I have my doubts about the 'bacteria on the meat' issue as well. If our meat was as contaminated as some reports would have us believe, it would not be safe to eat even if cooked. I think the whole issue has gotten blown out of proportion because we are such a litigious society. The food companies feel they have to scare us to keep us from suing them every time we get sick. Think of the warning on McDonalds coffee--"warning, this coffee is HOT". Duh... 

A very good book on how to begin to feed your dog a raw diet is called "Switching to Raw" by Susan Johnson (no relation). www.switchingtoraw.com

If you get no other book on how to feed your dog home prepared food, get this one.

 


How do I know how much to feed my dog? How many cups of food do I give him now?

When you feed a home prepared diet, you feed by weight, not by "cups". You start feeding 2% to 2.5% of the dog's weight in food daily, and adjust up or down if the dog gains or loses more than you want it to over the next few weeks. So if your dog weighs 70 pounds for example, 2.5% of that is 28 ounces of food per day. Every few weeks you re-evaluate the dog's weight and see if you need to adjust the amount you are feeding.

The very best part of a home prepared diet is that you know exactly what you are giving your dog. If your dog develops a health issue that requires a specialized diet, you can adjust what you are feeding to accommodate it.


Is my vet going to be upset with me if I feed my dog home made food?


Your vet will probably raise holy hell when you bring up home feeding. Most vets only get one or two short classes in any sort of nutrition while they are in vet school. What they are taught is all taught by dog food company representatives who tell them "If a dog is healthy, then the owner should feed our food brand A. If a dog has health condition X, then you prescribe our special dog food brand Y". The dog food company reps convince the students that it is terribly difficult to feed a dog yourself, and normal pet owners can't possibly do it right without the help of pre-packaged foods.  So most vet students are not taught any basic canine or feline nutrition information, only about the manufactured foods represented by the visiting lecturers. The vets tend to forget how dogs ate before there WAS commercial dog food.

My own regular vet was really worried when I first told him I was feeding my dogs a raw diet. I didn't tell him until several months after Tesla died and we had just gotten Slate as a puppy. First he started giving me articles on the dangers of salmonella and e-coli infections--in PEOPLE, not in dogs. But I never got sick like he expected me to. Then I got the usual lecture about bones and intestinal punctures. Soft RAW bones such as those found in chicken backs and turkey necks are perfectly fine to feed to dogs as long as the dog knows to chew them up before swallowing them. COOKED bones are BAD--never give a dog a bone that has been cooked in any way.

My dogs have never developed any intestinal punctures or tears from bones in their diet. The worst thing that we ever had happen in that respect was Tesla swallowed a whole big knob of gristle off a beef knuckle bone once, and became temporarily impacted. The piece passed within 48 hours with no outside interference. We no longer give knuckle bones with the gristle still on them. Problem solved.

When he first found out what I was feeding them, my vet also insisted on doing full blood panels on both of my dogs to see if I was killing them with a bad diet. He was surprised to see that their blood work was all normal, despite the fact that Allegra had already been on a raw diet for about 8 months before I finally told him about it. He got to watch Slate grow up from a puppy to a gorgeous healthy adult dog while being raised on a raw diet. And Slate grew SLOWLY, which is good  for a large breed, entirely because he was on a raw diet. Commercial puppy foods force pups to grow much too fast, which is very bad for their joints and bones. The raw diet gave Slate proper nutrition but it did not encourage fast growth.

The final thing that convinced my vet that raw diets are not all bad was Allegra's 2+ year survival after being diagnosed with kidney disease. The vet had never had a kidney patient live as long as she did. She actually got to a stage of kidney failure that he had never encountered before because none of his renal failure patients had lived long enough to reach that point in the disease progression.

He finally admitted that a properly managed raw diet is good for the dogs. He did add the caveat that he felt that most people would not take the time to learn to do it properly, so he would not be comfortable recommending it to most of his clients. That's fine, and I can accept that as a reason not to recommend it.

But general blanket statements such as "all raw diets are dangerous" are incorrect and need to be addressed. If your vet starts to give you grief about home feeding your dogs, stand up for your beliefs. Find out specifically what he is objecting to about the diet, go home and find the answers to those objections and take them back to him. Loan him books on the subject, print out articles from web sites, and let him examine your dogs to ease his own worries. I've heard of vets who refused to treat patients who were on raw diets, so if your vet is really stubborn about changing his mind, be prepared to find another vet who is more open minded (or more educated).

Here is an excellent article which is a rebuttal to something written by a vet about home-prepared diets vs commercial food.

http://dogged.typepad.com/doggedblog/2005/01/another_round_i.html


Where do I go to get answers to my questions about home feeding my dog?

I think the best lists to join to learn more about home feeding are  Naturally Grey and K9Nutrition, both on yahoogroups.com. Naturallygrey is specifically for greyhound owners and is a smaller list. K9Nutrition is a much bigger all-breed list. It covers more topics, and has several experts who know a lot about canine nutrition. If you do a groups search on yahoogroups.com you can find many other home feeding lists that are breed specific or health condition specific. Also, if you are feeding a dog with a specific health problem, ask about it on K9Nutrition. I'm sure the folks there can direct you to lists where you can get more info about special diets for any problem.

Here are some links to excellent web sites with information on feeding your dog a healthy, home prepared diet.

 

B-Naturals Newsletter, by Lew Olson PhD Natural Health (list owner of the K9Nutrition list on yahoogroups)

Good first articles to read from Lew's site is this one, on putting together a raw diet, or this one, on putting together a cooked diet.

DogAware.com an excellent web site by Mary Strauss with TONS of information on home feeding, the dog food recall, health specific diets and more

A Crash Course on Calcium, article by Mary Strauss

Nutrition by Betty Lewis, RVT, Dr. A.N.

"How Much To Feed" raw diet food calculator

Raw Diet Basics from the Raw Dog Ranch

Risks, Raw Feeding and Pathogens: A Review

The Top 50 most-asked questions about feeding raw diets

Dog Food Label Reading 101 (ok, so it's not about home feeding, but it DOES give a great explanation on how to decipher all the stuff on the labels of those bags and cans)


What if I'm not sure I want to commit to this permanently? Got any tips on how to test drive a home-made diet?

Do the research and see how many sources for the least expensive foods you can find in your area. Do a little calculating and see how much food your dog will need to eat per day, week and month. How much food can you store at one time? Look at your food storage options. Do you have a freezer? If not, do you have room to add a tiny one for the dog food? Do you have a nearby neighbor, friend or relative who might let you use some of the space in their freezer? These are all things you can do before you ever buy a single turkey neck.

If you decide after careful examination that for whatever reason you can't prepare your dog's food at home yourself, that's fine. Don't feel guilty--not everyone will be willing to do this daily for the life of one or more dogs. If you wish, you can still feed occasional raw meaty bones to help keep his teeth cleaner. One or two packages of turkey necks won't take up much freezer space!

If you choose to start cooking your dog's meals, you will most likely not encounter any argument from him . He will probably just wonder what took you so long to come to your senses and realize what he wanted.

But if you switch to raw, you may encounter a little confusion from your dog, who may not realize at first that it's OK to eat this stuff! You can experiment with offering your dog small amounts of raw foods to see if s/he will eat them before filling your freezer with things you may not use for a while. If the dog refuses the food the first time, put it away and try again later. Sometimes it takes several tries before the dog decided to try the strange new food.

Go to the grocery store and buy a small package of turkey necks or chicken backs. Most dogs prefer their food at room temperature, at least at first, and may refuse to eat food that is cold straight out of the refrigerator. Warm a piece of whatever you bought by putting it into a plastic bag and floating it in a sink full of hot water until it is warm but not hot to the touch.

Do not ever put raw food with bones in it into the microwave--that can cook the bones and cause them to splinter when chewed.

Decide in advance when you intend to feed that first raw meaty bone meal, and give the dog no kibble for about 12 hours beforehand or afterward. Because your dog has been on a commercial diet for some time, it may have less concentrated stomach acid than a dog who has been on a home prepared diet for a while. Less concentrated stomach acid can cause raw meaty bones to digest slower than kibble does, and combining the two in the stomach at the same time when a dog is new to raw foods may cause some vomiting. If you choose to continue feeding a raw or home prepared diet after you've tried it, giving a digestive enzyme with every meal for the first couple months will help ease  the transition to the new diet.

When you give your dog that first piece of turkey neck or chicken back, hold onto it tightly. You do not want the dog to swallow it whole; not for fear of choking, but because it will probably be vomited right back up. The dog needs to learn to chew the food into bite sized pieces before swallowing it. If your dog has never had raw meaty bones before, she may try to wolf the whole piece down before you change your mind about letting her have it. Hold on tight! If you don't think you can hold onto a slippery piece of meat, get a pair of Vise-grips pliers, and clamp them onto the meat tightly before offering it. If the dog tries to pull it away from you, just hang on and encourage them to chew off a hunk. Once the dog figures out the chewing thing, the blissful expression on his face as he enjoys his food will be worth all the work.


Renal Diets and the Diet Calculator

If you would like to download the Excel spread sheet that I designed to help me create a renal-friendly diet for Allegra, you can download it here.

This spread sheet can also be used to feed healthy dogs. If you have Excel installed, when you click the link it should automatically ask if you want to open the file.

It may look a little intimidating at first, but it's really easy to use. Start at page one and read through it. The program explains everything. All you have to do is plug in a few numbers, and the spread sheet figures everything else for you. Then all you have to do is tell it how much of which foods you're feeding, and it will show you whether the calcium and phosphorus content is balanced properly, as well as how many calories are in the meal. For renal diets, it also tracks fat, potassium and sodium.

If you don't have Microsoft Excel on your computer, you can download Open Office, which is a suite of open source programs that are as good or better than Microsoft Office, and best of all, they're free. You can get Open Office here.