Below is a reprint of an early article I did with TheBark – an interview they conducted with me several years ago. It was pleasant to review this and see that everything I said then holds true now. Many things in nutrition change, but a personalized dietary approach grounded in both science and observation of the individual, always holds up .
My second article goes into more detail, this is really an overview and quite general, but I thought I’d share it with my readers all the same.
Perspectives on Canine Nutrition: Homemade Meals
The list of responsibilities we have for our companion animals isn’t long, but each item on it is important. Among the most basic is how (and what) we feed them. In the spring of this year, as the Menu pet food recall grew from a few isolated brands into an industry-wide avalanche, we began taking a close look at the topic of canine nutrition. To understand the topic’s background and context, we interviewed two nutrition veterans, Donald Strombeck, DVM, and Ann Martin (see “Trust the Hand That Feeds You,” June ’07 and online at thebark.com).
We continue our exploration in this issue, delving into the essentials of homemade diets with Catherine Lane, founder of The Possible Canine. For more than a decade, both formally and informally, Ms. Lane has studied complementary and alternative care, herbalism, and canine nutrition, and consults for Dr. L. E. Beltran, BVM, PhD, a holistic veterinarian at the Blair Animal Hospital in Ottowa. In an early conversation, Ms. Lane noted that that people who had never given too much thought to nutrition, aside from purchasing a decent brand of food and limiting treats, were inspired by the recall to start making their dogs’ food themselves. In this interview, she shares her point of view on the topic of homemade diets for dogs.
“What I believe is this: that the health and overall potential of dogs, like humans and other living organisms, rests on the cornerstones of nutrition, emotional well being, responsible veterinary care, and a clean, toxin-free living environment. The companionship of dogs, their intelligence, loyalty, service to humanity in so many capacities, even their role as guides for our spirit, if we choose to see them this way, has been invaluable to our own species for thousands of years. As we push further into uncharted territory of human health—medical advances, nutrition, mind/body medicine, answers to global environmental issues—we all want to bring our best friends along with us.” —Catherine Lane
Q: What did you observe as the recalls spread?
A: There’s no question about it—the recall was one tough and heartbreaking way to bring to people’s attention the advantages of homemade diet, which those of us in the natural health field have been promoting for years. As it expanded, membership on canine nutrition Internet groups increased by leaps and bounds; for example, on Totally Home Cooking, a well-established Yahoo group that focuses on homemade diets for dogs, over 100 new members joined in the space of a week. This would normally constitute a group’s annual growth. Requests for recipes, guidelines, protein percentages, and “good and bad” food lists poured into veterinarian’s offices and canine nutrition discussion groups, and a plethora of canine cookbooks appeared out of nowhere—some quite good, some questionable and others downright worrisome.
Q: Most people accept that feeding our dogs homemade food is desirable. But over the years, dog food manufacturers and vets have drummed it into us that commercial food is best because it’s balanced. Does every meal have to be precisely balanced, or can a healthy balance be achieved over a period of time?
A: While a balanced diet is important, it needn’t be nutrient-perfect every day—there’s wiggle room. Look at the nutrient content over the course of, say, a week and ask yourself, Okay, is anything a little low here? And then add only what your dog needs. If you feed the same diet all the time—for instance, a batch of food that’s portioned out over several days—this is relatively easy because each meal will contain about the same amount of nutrients, give or take. If you vary the diet week to week, you may want to spend a bit of time figuring out what you need that particular week. There are many ways to do this effectively. My main point is that tossing things together in the belief that variety equals adequacy is not likely to prove good for your dog over the long-term. I’m not a fan of guesswork when to comes to something as important as feeding our dogs.
Q: What about palatability? Not all dogs are early—or easy—adapters, and some are downright suspicious of new foods. Do you have any tempting tips or tricks to help with the transiiton?
A: For the most part, homemade food sends dogs into raptures of ecstasy, but there are individual dogs who would rather have kibble; dogs with serious health issues (and sometimes dogs of particular breeds) can also be reluctant to try something new. I suggest introducing foods slowly, much as you would introduce a new commercial food, substituting the new food for about one-third of the old food over a period of a week or so, until your dog has been completely transitioned. Before cooking a huge batch, try a small amount as a snack and see how your dog responds. For serious palatability issues, a stock reduction made from the meat source (leftover lamb, beef or turkey bones) flavors the food and can often entice even the most picky canine. Just be sure to skim off all the fat and use only a small amount as a seasoning. With their powerful sense of smell, most dogs will pick up the stock aroma and dig right in.
Another idea is to use very simple, basic recipes at first, because if you’re adding a number of new things to the food, it’s hard to tell which specific item your dog objects to. For the finicky dog, start with one carbohydrate source, one or two protein sources, and a very small amount of vegetables. Add supplements only after you’re sure the diet itself is a hit. (Chronic lack of appetite can be a sign that something else is going on with your dog, and a visit to the vet may be in order.)
Q: Are premium ingredients required?
A: Ingredients are only the first step to optimal nutrition—food quality alone doesn’t ensure a top-notch homemade diet. It’s also important to understand, at least in a general way, canine dietary requirements. There is no getting around the fact that this takes time, research and a little strategic planning. However, the long-term results are well worth the initial effort. And the good news is that many affordable foods—eggs, legumes, brown rice, organ meats (liver, heart and tongue), sardines and tripe, for example—are not only economical but are also good for your dog.
Q: What do we need to take into account in order to provide our dogs with a healthy diet?
A: At its most basic level, a homemade diet needs to supply nutrients—protein, fat, fiber, vitamins and minerals—in the correct amounts for our particular dog’s optimal well being. A good nutrition book, such as Donald Strombeck’s Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets or Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, is a must. A holistic veterinarian or nutritionist can help with more complex issues—for example, diets for dogs with special needs.
It’s also important to tailor the diet to your individual dog. Factors including life stage, activity level, size, breed, even climate can affect energy requirements. A large-breed puppy has a very different nutrient profile than an active adult dog or a senior; toy and giant breeds need unique diets, as do pregnant or lactating females and working dogs—sprinters, sled dogs, herding dogs and others often require a high number of calories to offset the energy their activities consume. So, before embarking on home feeding, I recommend that you carefully evaluate your dog’s condition and situation and use that as a starting point for developing an optimal program.
Q: Where do we start?
A: The ticket to a successful home-prepared diet is to follow a few simple rules, which apply to either a raw-food or a cooked-food approach. First, figure out precisely what your dog needs to maintain (or achieve) good health and weight, and second, determine the nutrient content of foods you plan to use. This will give you an idea of what the food is providing and what may need to be supplemented. While the type of food is extremely important, as important are the amounts, so start with daily energy requirements—in other words, calories (see chart on p. %%).
Q: Can you outline the general elements?
A: Protein is needed for multiple tasks, including growth, cellular regeneration and repair, tissue maintenance and regulation, and hormone and enzyme production. It also provides amino acids and nitrogen and needs to be supplied in foods that are highly digestible: for dogs, this generally includes eggs, fish, muscle and organ meats, and poultry. Fats supply energy and are needed to utilize fat-soluble vitamins as well as for skin and coat health, among many other functions. Carbohydrates, while often maligned as unnecessary for the canine, can in fact be extremely useful for intestinal health, since they are a source of fiber (as well as sugar and starch). They also a source of energy, which allows protein and fat to be used for other functions. Many experts feel that gluten grains (wheat, rye and barley) can create problems in the bowel if overfed, but cooked sweet potato, rice, quinoa and legumes are generally well-digested and provide not only energy and fiber, but a whole assortment of micronutrients as well. Any slack can be taken up by supplements, though I like to remind people that, in some cases, an excess can be as much of a problem as a deficiency. Again, this is where educating yourself is of great importance.
There are numerous schools of thought on the ideal percentage breakdown for each of these elements. In my practice, I generally recommend that protein makes up 25 to 30 percent of the diet; fat, 30 to 35 percent; and carbohydrates, 30 to 35 percent. This applies to the average, healthy adult dog; these percentages can shift based on a dog’s individual needs and condition, of course.
In all cases (with the exception of a diet that includes raw meaty bones), supplemental calcium will be needed. It’s available either from organic powdered eggshells (which you can sterilize and grind yourself), or as a good commercial supplement in powder form, such as a citrate, which is well digested by most dogs. Vitamin A and D can be supplied through judicious amounts of cod liver oil (only fish liver oil supplies these vitamins), and the ever-complex mineral issue will sometimes mean adding a little zinc, selenium or copper—again in amounts that complement what is already in the diet. When considering supplements, it’s important to make a clear distinction between those used to round out the diet, and others—such as glucosamine—that may be helpful but are not essential.
Q: How do we figure out things like calories and nutrient content?
A: The USDA National Nutrient Database and the Nutrition Data sites can be used to work out both of these elements, online groups and sites offer tutorials on home feeding, and of course, there are books on the subject. Look for those that emphasize an understanding of canine nutritional science. Recipe books with clever names and appealing dishes are fine for occasional use—a doggie birthday party, for example—but be cautious about using them for the total diet.
Q: What if we’re not quite sure we’re making the best choices?
A: Go slowly and ease into it; there are excellent commercial foods that can be safely used as back-up while you increase your knowledge and confidence. If you elect to utilize a commercial food, always check the manufacturer’s website for more information, and don’t be afraid to contact the company with any questions you may have. If the company is reliable, someone will get back to you. Also, talk to your vet and get a feel for his or her opinions on diet.
Q: Once we develop a diet that our dog likes and seems to do well on, can we just “set it and forget it”?
A: Good nutrition is a dynamic process, and throughout our dogs’ lifetimes, both the amount and the components may need to be adjusted up or down. Again, age, activity levels and health issues all affect what our dogs require.
Q. Do you have a “take-away” message?
A: Experience has taught me that every dog will both fit a template and deviate from it in ways that sometimes surprise and baffle. The science of nutrition consists of knowing what your dog requires and which foods meet these needs. The art is watching how he or she does on a given diet and letting that, as well as textbooks, be your guide.