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The Benefits of a Semi-Homemade Diet for Your Pet

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In 2009, Rick Woodford was told that his beloved Belgian Malinois, Jackson, had just one year to live. Jackson had been diagnosed with lymphoma, a type of canine cancer that most commonly affects immune system cells.

Jackson often refused to play, eat, or even leave his bed. Faced with a sick dog and a serious diagnosis, Woodford decided to try to make the end of Jackson’s life as pleasant as possible. He started in the most basic place he could think of: Jackson’s food bowl.

Woodford “lured Jackson back to the bowl” by ditching the kibble and instead throwing in a mixture of healthy, whole foods like turkey and vegetables. “Once again Jackson started to enjoy eating,” wrote Woodford on his website. “He [had] enough energy for walks. Soon he was even chasing my puppy around the backyard.”

It’s harder than it sounds

Jackson’s health and well-being were improving, but his new, unregulated diet was causing him to gain a lot of weight. Woodford turned to the experts, pouring through manuals, journals, and books on canine nutrition. Using what he learned he continued to develop recipes for Jackson’s homemade diet, and he started sharing his recipes with other dog parents. Jackson, despite the lymphoma, lived for four more years, and Woodford became known as “The Dog Food Dude,” eventually releasing the popular canine cookbook Feed Your Best Friend Better in 2012. His next book, CHOW: Simple Ways to Share The Foods You Love with the Dogs You Love, comes out in December.

Woodford is the first to admit that home cooking for your dog is not as easy as it sounds. There’s the added time and expense that goes into taking on the responsibility of your pet’s nutrition, but most importantly, there’s a lot of complicated science behind it too.

Commercial diets for pets were created to make it convenient and cost effective to feed a complete and balanced diet. But even with the huge array of pet foods available today, none are “one size fits all.”

Modern home cooking for pets first took off mainly with caregivers whose animals suffer from ailments like food allergies, gastrointestinal issues, and skin conditions that responded poorly to commercial food. Its popularity continued as the trend towards eliminating processed foods in the home grew, especially following the seemingly high- number of pet food warnings and recalls.

“There are still numerous commercial dog foods that really are not ideal, especially when fed as a sole diet or as a large portion of the diet,” says Nathaniel Cook, DVM, founder of A Living Bond, a Chicago-based mobile veterinary clinic that provides in-home care for senior pets. “Many commercial dog foods have taken the same unfortunate turn as many human foods in that they are highly processed and include non-nutritive, sometimes even toxic, ingredients,”

Not all commercial dog foods are created equal, though. Cook notes that ingredients, nutrient levels, process of preparation, and food form (i.e. dry, canned, frozen, etc.) are all factors that play important roles in determining the quality of a commercial diet. Some commercial dog foods hit the right marks and make it easy to feed your pet a healthy, well-rounded store-bought meal—but many don’t. It’s important to do your homework and ask questions.

As Woodford learned the hard way, it’s not as simple as ditching the kibble and feeding your dog whatever’s in the fridge. Dogs have complicated nutritional requirements that differ from our own, and there’s no magic, all-inclusive supplemental pill you can add to your dog’s food to fill in the nutritional gaps. People who successfully feed their dogs purely homemade diets do so after lots of research and collaboration with a veterinarian experienced in homemade diet formulation.

If your dog is experiencing significant health problems, discuss dietary changes with your pet’s health care team first. However, for pet parents with healthy pets who are interested in adding the benefits, of fresh, whole foods to their dog’s diet, both Cook and Woodford say to forget the either-or approach to commercial versus homemade diets and instead do a mixture of both.

Getting started

Start slowly, gradually carrying out any diet transitions or introductions to new foods over a period of one to two weeks. Once you know that your dog tolerates and enjoys a new food, you can try different feeding regimens to add interest and excitement to mealtime. For example, try swapping just a few meals a week with home cooked food. Or, serve less commercial food per each meal and use home cooked food to make up the caloric loss. Some pet parents feed commercial foods in the morning and a home cooked dinner at night. Foods like ground turkey, skinless, boneless chicken breast, grass-fed beef, cooked eggs, and dog-safe fruits and vegetables are all good choices. To minimize the risk of causing nutritional deficiencies or excesses, Cook says that you should aim for about 10% of your dog’s daily calories to come from home cooked food (see chart below for a more detailed breakdown).

“All dogs definitely benefit from better nutrition, but for a homemade diet to be of benefit it actually has to provide better nutrition,” says Cook. Supplementing your dog’s commercial diet with home cooked foods is a safe approach to introducing variety to your pet’s diet, and can help increase energy and make your dog excited about his food again. If you do decide to supplement with home cooking, Cook has put together the following chart to make sure you don’t overfeed. Your pet’s individual requirements may differ slightly, so be sure to consult with your veterinarian before making any major changes to your pet’s diet.

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A few quick notes:

• Reduce the amount of commercial food fed by an equivalent amount of calories in order to prevent unwanted weight gain.

• Amounts recommended are in uncooked weight of the meat or size of egg.

• Estimated daily energy requirements may over or under-predict actual requirements due to individual differences between dogs (especially their activity level).

References:
1. Applied Veterinary Clinical Nutrition, 2012
2. Self Nutrition Data: NutritionData.self.com

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Do what you can. If you’re strapped for time, even adding a little fresh meat and vegetables to your dog’s diet can be beneficial.

The more fresh food you feed, the more serious you need to be about feeding the right amounts and ensuring that your dog receives a proper balance of macro and micro nutrients. Don’t worry, it sounds harder than it is—just find a reliable source of nutrition to start out with.

If you’re preparing more of your dogs meals yourself, it’s always good to prep a triple batch of food and then cook batches in succession and freeze in two- to four-day portion sizes to make the most of your time. Homemade food can generally be safely stored in the freezer for at least two weeks and in the refrigerator for at least three days.

It’s okay to substitute similar ingredients. If your dog prefers something else or if you have other items on hand, feel free to make some swaps. Instead of potatoes, use yams. Instead of ground beef, use ground chicken, boneless, skinless chicken thighs, or ground turkey. Just be careful: If you’re feeding your pet an entirely homemade diet, substitutions can significantly alter the nutrient profile and should be approved by your vet first.

Know what’s safe. No onions, avocados, grapes, or raisins. People often talk about how garlic is dangerous, but only if you take your dog to a garlic festival. A clove of garlic in a batch of food can be beneficial and is often recommended by holistic veterinarians.

Think variety. The advantage of real foods, especially fruits and vegetables, is the wide variety of antioxidants and phytonutrients they provide. It’s these nutrients that provide the body’s armor against disease. A diet rich in antioxidants can help to slow the aging process and improve overall health. Try to select fruits and vegetables with all of the colors of the rainbow.

For picky dogs, often mixing foods together in one meal is effective at ensuring that your dog finds something in the bowl to kickstart her appetite.

Start with teaspoons and tablespoons, not cups and handfuls. Every dog is different so integrate foods carefully, watching for signs of digestive upset.

Often dogs will be wary of a new food, especially if they are only used to eating commercial dry foods. Meat is not usually an issue, but vegetables can be tricky. Chopping vegetables finely not only helps to aid digestion and nutrient absorption, it also enables you to mix it into dry foods so dogs are less likely to pick around it. Except peas—most dogs can always pick out a pea!

Ready to get cooking?

Try one of These sImple recIpes from Woodford’s canIne cookbooks:

Mutt Loaf

From: Feed Your Best Friend Better
Yield: 11 cups; 330 calories per cup

Ingredients:

3 medium russet potatoes, cleaned of eyes and green spots and grated
2 medium carrots, grated
1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
1⁄4 teaspoon garlic powder
2 1⁄4 pounds ground beef (85% lean)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Combine the potatoes and carrots in a large mixing bowl.

In a food processor, combine the kidney beans, eggs, rosemary, and garlic powder. Process with 6 to 8 pulses, until the kidney beans are well chopped. Combine the egg and bean mixture with the potatoes and carrots. Add the beef and mix thoroughly to combine.

Divide the mixture evenly between two 5 by 9-inch loaf pans and bake for 1 hour 10 minutes, or until the loaves reach 155°F when tested in the center with a meat thermometer. Remove from the heat and allow the meat loaves to cool.

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Banana Grrrrranola Bars

A healthy, homemade alternative to commercial treats.

From: CHOW: Simple Ways to Share The Foods You Love with the Dogs You Love
Yield: 64 treats; 32 calories each

Ingredients:

3 cups oats, any variety
1 ripe banana, sliced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1⁄4 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Grind oats in a food processor until they resemble a coarse meal. Add banana, olive oil, and cinnamon to food processor and blend until the dough gathers into a ball. If the dough doesn’t gather together after a minute or so add a few drops of water.

Turn out dough directly onto a cookie sheet and pat into an 8” x 8” square. Cut with a pizza cutter at 1‐inch intervals in both directions. Bake for 20 minutes or until lightly browned.

Store in an airtight container for up to 10 days or in the freezer for up to three months.

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