– 10 MYTHS DEBUNKED –
It’s been 20 months since the first melamine-related pet food recall, and during that time, more dog lovers than ever have decided to turn to home made diet – cooked or raw – as insurance against a potential problem with a commercial product. But is a home made diet really insurance? Only if it’s nutritionally balanced, and meets the needs of your own dog, considering breed, age, weight, activity and overall physiology. Many owners start a home made diet following general guidelines that might apply to their dog – but more often, do not.
Many home made diets are not properly formulated and some are significantly out of line with what your dog requires. As a consulting canine nutrition specialist, I analyze hundreds of diets per year, so I am able to see firsthand what people are actually feeding their dogs. Many home prepared diets have been put together by a dog lover who has gleaned bits of information from various sources – some recipe books, some internet sites, and some discussion groups. In nine out of ten cases these diets are imbalanced; sometimes grossly so. So what’s a concerned owner to do? It’s not time to give up just yet. Let’s take a look at several common mistakes home feeders make – and see how we can improve on the average home prepared diet.
1) Myth: “Using fresh, wholesome foods will, over time, meet my dogs’ needs if I vary it enough.” This is without a doubt the most popular misconception I encounter. There is some basis for it; fresh foods are indeed more bio-available than are highly processed ingredients. In addition, when an owner home prepares the food, they know exactly what’s going into the dog – much more so than is possible when using kibble, canned or premixed foods. However, many diets that are based on wholesome fresh ingredients still come up low in various vitamins and minerals when put through a thorough analysis.
Solution: Bone up on what your dogs’ actual nutrient requirements are by doing a bit of research. This means reading widely and speaking with nutritionists, vets (holistic, conventional and specialists) and starting to think in terms of both ingredients and nutrient needs. One of the best tools for this is the 2006 National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Dogs, which can be viewed online at http://books.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10668 .
This in depth report may seem a bit daunting at first, but take it in small bites and the information will serve you well. No matter how much you vary the diet, it can be difficult to provide adequate minerals, for example, and while running a deficit won’t show up right away, over time even one deficiency can create problems that may be difficult to correct.
The next step is to familiarize yourself with the nutrient content of foods, by using a tool like www.nutritiondata.com or the USDA Nutrient Database at http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/. At Nutritiondata, you can enter any recipe in the database and quickly see what you might need to add more (or less!) of.
Bottom line… fresh, homemade diets are a healthful alternative to highly processed meals, but only if they provide appropriate levels of all nutrient requirements. Using variety is not likely to work; problems associated with this sort of diet can take years to show up – and may not be recognized by your vet. A little homework now pays huge dividends later.
2) Myth: “A multi vitamin added to the food will cover any gaps.” If only it were that simple. The problem here is this – which multi, and with which diet? Any non-supplemented home prepared diet will be low in some nutrients as well as adequate or high in others. Depending on which multi is used, the diet can end up still low in one requirement and excessive in others. It all depends on what’s needed in the first place. Many mult’s geared to dogs offer very low levels of nutrient since it is assumed they will be added to kibble; these products generally will not provide enough supplement to round out a home made diet. And human multis can contain very high levels of one nutrient while not supplying adequate levels of others. It’s important to remember that some nutrients can be toxic if added in excess, and some are not so much toxic as they are antagonistic to other nutrients. So that extra zinc you think is beneficial may be negatively affecting your dog’s ability to absorb copper. This is why “balanced” is not just a buzz word – it’s a valid and essential aspect of proper nutrition.
Solution: My preference is to take the above two steps and make supplementation more personalized; work out what your dog’s diet actually contains, then add only what is missing. A diet that offers plentiful selenium could turn out to be very low in copper and zinc so you would need only to add those two minerals, not a multi that contains extra selenium and other unnecessary nutrients. If there’s one place to sit and do the math, it’s here. And it’s not that hard once you are used to the process. Some of us even find it fun!
3) Myth: “I’m adding yogurt daily so he should be getting enough calcium, right?” Not so! Dogs require fairly high levels of calcium, and yogurt absolutely won’t cut it. Let’s take a quick example; my own 75 pound dog has a daily requirement of 1840 mgs of calcium – and since I use a fair bit of fiber in the form of brown rice, I want to make sure to offset any absorption issues that could arise.Foods that contain a high level of anti-nutrient, such as phytate, can adversely affect absorption of minerals, and should be taken into consideration when deciding how much to supplement.. I want to ensure he gets about 2000 mgs per day or 14 grams per week. His weekly diet alone, of turkey, liver, sardines, brown rice, ground lamb and acorn squash, only provides 1750 mgs. That means I need over 12,000 mgs of calcium – or in other words, more than forty cups of plain yogurt! Calcium supplementation is always necessary unless you are feeding a fair bit of bone.
Solution: I recommend using a purchased carbonate or citrate form, or a finely powdered eggshell can be used – one teaspoon equals about 1800 mgs of calcium carbonate. Just be sure to rinse it well and then bake the shells for about ten minutes at 300 degrees. Then use a small grinder to make the powder. Bone meal can be used if there is also a need to add phosphorus, but many home made diets supply plenty of this mineral, and too much can place strain on the kidney. Some plain yogurt will work for a treat, but it won’t meet calcium requirements – not even close.
4) Myth: “I eat carefully and have read a number of human nutrition books – I just follow similar principles with my dog.” This is a very common mistake I see many dog owners make. The assumption that we can simply apply standard dietary advice for humans to our dogs as well is not accurate. Current nutritional advice for humans emphasizes whole grains, high fiber, 5-10 servings of fruit and vegetables daily, minimal fat and moderate protein. These guidelines are not ideal for a carnivorous species who will, as a general rule, do best with higher fat and protein, lower fiber and moderate carbohydrates.
Solution: Ensure a good level of dietary balance aiming for about 30-35% of total calories from fats, 30% from protein and the balance from complex carbohydrates (which need not mean grain; starchy vegetables like sweet potato, and nutrient rich seeds such as quinoa and wild rice are healthy alternatives). Percentages are guidelines, but not as accurate as evaluating the gram content of a diet, so again we are looking to use the spreadsheet. Be aware that just like us, dogs are unique beings. As an example, the range for canine dietary fat is huge; a level that works beautifully for one may cause loose stool (excess) or dry coat (deficient) in another. Unless there is a specific condition like pancreatitis that indicates low fat diet, most dogs do best with a good presence of dietary fat – preferably from animal sources, and fish or fish oils for Omega 3. (NOTE: it’s important to distinguish between cod liver oil, which adds a large amount of Vitamin A and a good amount of D, and fish body oils, which add essential fatty acids, but much lower levels of vitamin).
5) Myth: “My dog had some loose stool, so I cut way down on fiber.” In fact, more loose stool is caused by excess fat, or by feeding too much food overall, than is caused by fiber overdose. And what type of fiber you use counts as much or more than the amount. Fiber certainly can be an issue and admittedly it’s a little tricky to find what level works for your own dog. In my experience, brown rice – a highly digestible, gluten free source is usually well tolerated, but the level that works best for the individual can take some experimentation.
Solution: If your dog has loose stool on a home made diet, be aware that many aspects of the diet can be the culprit. Check fat levels, cut back the food by 30% for a day or so and always watch for other symptoms that might indicate an illness or parasite. If a few days on a bland, low fat diet doesn’t clear up the problems, consult your veterinarian.
6) Myth: “I use a lot of fresh veggies like spinach for iron, so I don’t need to supplement.” Veggies are such a hotly debated topic in canine nutrition circles I could devote a whole article just to this one. One school of thought holds that adding vegetables is inappropriate and should be avoided altogether since dogs are carnivores and do not need plant matter in the diet. Others emphasize veggies (and fruit) in the diet, with an eye to boosting not only essential nutrient but phytochemicals that provide protection from disease, especially cancer. The reality is that the issue is not this clear cut; while vegetables do offer much in the way of health benefits, we are again faced with the all-important questions “how much and what type”. Many vegetables contain anti-nutrients, such as phytate, oxalate and tannins, that can interefere with the absorption of minerals, and some, such as the nightshade family (tomatoes, white potato, eggplant and peppers) contain an alkaloid called solanine that is thought to aggravate inflammation. Still other veggies – any member of the brassica family, for example, inlcuding broccoli, brussel sprouts, and cauliflower) are considered “goitrogenic” so these should not be fed to a dog who has thyroid disease. In my view, they should not be fed daily to any dog. We hear a great deal about the health benefits of vegetables, but there are drawbacks as well. Lastly, plant sources of vitamins and minerals are not as well utilized by dogs as are animal sources, for instance beta-carotene conversion to Vitamin A is described as “inefficient”.
Solution: Once again, knowledge is power. Use veggies judiciously, and rotate them so you are never feeding one or two types all the time. Limit dark leafy greens, which contain high levels of oxalate, to twice a week. Limit the brassicas to three times and only if your dog has normal thyroid function. Be careful with nightshades; I avoid them altogether for dogs with arthritis. Green beans and carrots are usually safe bets. Sweet potato is well tolerated, and not a nightshade like white potato, but is high in calories and starch. Checking with www.nutritiondata.com can provide a wealth of information, and help you make the wisest choices.
7) Myth: “Dogs don’t require any carbs in the diet, and grains are really bad for them.” If I had to pick the most oft-quoted and most misunderstood of all the ideas here, this one would have to be it. The starting point for this idea seems to be that according to the NRC research, dogs have no strict requirement for dietary carbohydrate. Briefly put, this means that they can metabolize adequate glucose (blood sugar) from adequate levels of dietary protein and therefore do not “require” carbs for blood sugar. A lack of carbohydrate will not lead to an identifiable deficiency state, such as lack of Vitamin C in the human will produce scurvy. To complicate this issue somewhat more, many home feeders use the terms carbohydrate and grain interchangeably, insisting they use a no-carb diet because they have eliminated grains. While excess carbohydrate is undesirable and can lead to problems with absorption of multiple nutrients, a diet based only on protein and fat poses problems as well.
Solution: Some portion of your dog’s home made food should consist of complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, starchy vegetables or quinoa.Complex carbohydrates provide energy, spare protein for other uses in the body and aids in healthy gastrointestinal function. Avoid grains such as wheat that contain gluten except as occasionally treats, as in a biscuit. Try also to keep levels consistent so if there is a fiber related problem, you will know how much you were using and can proceed from there. Other sources, such as wild rice and legumes, may be used sparingly as well.
8) Myth: “A raw diet is always superior to cooked – dogs fed raw do not get sick. My dog’s issues could not be related to his raw diet.” Anytime an attachment to nutritional theory blinds an owner to the negative effect on the dog, there is a cause for concern. Raw diets vary in type, some philosophies follow the NRC Guidelines and seek nutrient balance while others utilize a “prey model” approach, wherein the food should mimic the diet of a wolf or wild dog as closely as possible. These diets have become hugely popular over the past decade, as an alternative to kibble; to be sure, many some dogs absolutely thrive on it. But some do not. Raw diet may be a poor choice for dogs with cancer, with colitis, with pancreatitis or liver disease. It’s also a concern that many raw diets encourage a laissez-faire attitude toward nutrient balance, which can prove deleterious over the long run. As with a cooked diet, it’s essential to ensure proper formulation. Raw diets have drawbacks as well as benefits and are not suited for every individual.
Solution: If you are planning to try a raw approach, do a lot of homework. Research both within and without the various raw communities that exist on the internet. Talk to veterinarians, nutritionists, read widely and take your time. This is not an approach for everyone; it may or may not work for your dog. The bottom line is simple; any diet is a poor choice if the individual fails to thrive on it. If you perceive your dog is not thriving on a raw diet, consider a change to commercial or cooked, with guidance from a veterinarian as needed.
9) Myth: “Raw diet is dangerous and a fad, I’d be scared to try it.” For every home feeder who sings the praises of a raw diet, I will hear one say they wouldn’t dare use foods that aren’t cooked. It’s as much a mistake to assume that raw is dangerous across the board, as it is to insist it’s a viable solution for every dog. The dangers of raw diets do exist, but can be minimized with attention to detail. The term “raw diet” covers a number of nutritional philosophies that vary from quite conservative to extremely radical. I often use raw diets for dogs with an allergy, or proactively where there are no problems and the owner has expressed an interest. One great advantage of this approach is ease of preparation. Cooking is a better option for many dogs, but there is no getting around the fact it takes significantly more time and planning than do the raw diets. Consider your own needs and lifestyle as well as your dogs’ when making this all important decision about feeding.
Solution: If you are uncomfortable with raw, consider a cooked diet. Or you could use a half and half approach, cooking part of the time and using a quality commercial the rest. It’s a myth that dogs can’t eat both home prepared and commercial! I see very healthy dogs on a wide range of diets, and your comfort zone matters too.
10) Myth: “Dogs of all ages can be fed a similar type of diet, as long as it’s natural”.
Similar to number 1, this can be a dangerous misconception. Pups need at least twice and in some cases, as much as five times the nutrient content of an adult dog. At the same time they require more nutrient, over-nutrition can be a serious and even devastating problem, particularly in giant breeds. It was long thought that reducing dietary protein was in the best interest of the senior dog; current findings suggest they may actually require more. If you are new to home feeding and have a pup, it might be best to spend that critical first year boning up on nutrition, and start the diet once you and he are ready. Another idea is to consult with an experienced nutrition consultant who can adjust the diet according to your pup’s growth needs. For the senior, make sure to run a full geriatric screening yearly to ensure liver and kidney values are within normal range. Aberrations in these numbers indicate a need for dietary management.
Solution: Yet more reading! Be aware that growing dogs and seniors pose a far greater challenge to the novice home-feeder than do adults. If you wish to home-feed your new puppy and have never done so before, consider professional guidance. The same goes for a senior, or any dog with a serious health condition. Mistakes made in these cases can have serious consequences.
In conclusion, a home made diet remains a popular and potentially very healthy alternative or compliment to the many premium foods on the market these days, however, some research and planning is essential. Go slowly, gather information from a wide range of sources, and exercise a little caution, perhaps starting with just one day a week of home made food to start out. Your dog will thank you for it.
Catherine Lane, Dip.CFN
Canine Nutrition Consultant
Dietary Consultations, Seminars, Online Courses in Nutrition and Natural Health
Recommended Reading and Websites:
1) National Research Council Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats, 2006
2) Small Animal Clinical Nutrition:4th Edition; Hand, Thatcher,Remillard, Roudebush
3) Canine and Feline Nutrition: A Resource for Companion Animal Professionals; Carey,Case, Hirokawa, Daristotle