Feeding your pup a complete and balanced diet is so important – and I know so many people want to jump into cooking or home-preparing their dog’s food – which I think is wonderful. However I also know that people love to look around the internet for recipes. What you need to understand is that a majority of the recipes you will find online (and even in some books!) are not going to be balanced. And nutritional deficiencies, unlike other diseases or conditions, are very difficult to spot, and they can also take a very long time in order to take effect unless it is severe.
As someone that has homecooked for my dogs for many years – I know the compassion you have for your pup – and the time and effort you are putting into making sure your pup gets wholesome nutrition. But what I don’t want you to do is use a recipe that actually causes HARM to your pup rather than the benefits you are looking for.
So I’m going to give you 14 nutrients to look for in a recipe prior to using it as your homemade recipe for your pup – along with whole food examples of where these nutrients might be. Now ideally I would even recommend making an appointment to have your recipe analyzed by a board certified veterinary nutritionist to make sure your pup has everything they need – because that really is the BEST way to formulate and DIY recipe for dogs.
#1: Calcium in Dog Food
Any recipe that you see online should have a source of calcium – this may be bone, bone meal, eggshell, or a supplement like calcium carbonate. Any of them is fine, but the point is that the recipe should have this present – if it doesn’t – DO NOT use it.
Deficiencies in calcium long-term can cause loss of calcium within the bones and eventually heart and muscle problems that can lead to heart failure and even seizures. But most often we see pet’s that have calcium deficiency come in with under-mineralized bones that break easily OR heart problems (murmurs).
Now there is a lot more that goes into calcium levels within a diet – such as the ratio of calcium to phosphorus, and the digestibility of the calcium source. And these are things that a board certified veterinary nutritionist could tell you if they were adequate for your dog or not.
#2: Zinc in Dog Food
Getting adequate amounts of zinc into a diet is actually fairly difficult – this mineral is not found in sufficient quantities in organ meats ( such as liver, kidney or heart ). In the wild wolves actually get this mineral from the ingestion of eyes and rodent hair! But in our pups whole foods with good quantities of zinc are oysters – so if you don’t see that or additional mineral supplementation it could suggest that the recipe is unbalanced!
Deficiencies in zinc can cause loose stools, vomiting, and decreased appetite. It can also cause issues to the skin – such as poor wound healing, chronic skin infections, and a thin brittle coat. Severe deficiencies in zinc can cause heart problems, vision issues, and eventual blindness.
#3: Omega 3 to Omega 6 Ratio in Dog Food:
Recipes should have a balance between omega 3s and omega 6s. If you find that a recipe contains all meat, and no additional oils – this should be a red flag. Beef and chicken tend to be higher in omega 6s, and thus will require the addition of omega 3s like fish oil, phytoplankton, hemp seeds or flax seeds in order to balance out the recipes. Recipes that contain fish should be balanced out with omega 6s – like safflower oil, corn oil, walnut oil or other seed based oils, or chicken fat.
Unbalanced Omega 3 to 6 ratio can cause chronic systemic inflammation within the body leading to the exacerbation of a multitude of different diseases and conditions.
#4: Vitamin E in Dog Food:
Vitamin E is another vitamin that is very easy to NOT have in a diet that is not supplemented with additional vitamins/minerals. This is because vitamin e is not found in sufficient quantities in meat, or organs. In the wild wolves would actually obtain vitamin e by eating the gut contents of their prey! So if you see recipes without the addition of vitamin e supplementation OR without whole food sources of vitamin e, such as ground seeds/nuts, wheat germ oil, or dried oregano – then the recipe is most likely deficient. TIP: Vitamin E is very sensitive to heat, so never add these supplements while cooking, they should always be added after the food is fully cooled, and ideally right before feeding.
Deficiencies in vitamin e can be severe over time, but are often very gradual – long-term deficiencies are muscle weakness, muscle paralysis , poor vision and eventual bowel problems.
#5: Linoleic acid in Dog Food:
Often people use other oils such as coconut oil, olive oil, or fish oil for their homemade recipes – but ALL those oils are actually VERY low in linoleic acid. This essential fatty acid is most commonly found in plant-based oils (like hemp, safflower, corn, and walnut), but can also be found in poultry skin! So be very skeptical of recipes calling for a small amount of coconut oil (with no other oils listed) – in order to meet adequate levels of coconut oil within a 1000kcal recipe you would need to give almost 7 tbsp of coconut oil – which would not be possible while maintaining overall balance.
Deficiencies in linoleic acid can cause poor skin and coat, poor growth, and a weakened immune system.
#6: Manganese in Dog Food:
All recipes should have some sufficient source of manganese either via supplementation OR via whole foods. Whole foods sources of manganese (that are nutrient dense) are cloves, ginger, cinnamon, wheat germ, certain seeds and mussels.
Regular muscle meats, organ meats, bones and egg shells do not contain sufficient quantities in order to maintain overall health. In the WILD wolves get managenese largely from gut contents, and fur/feathers.
Deficiencies in manganese can cause poor joint and connect tissue health – pups with deficiencies can be more prone to ACL tears – along with other connective tissue diseases. Manganese also has a role in metabolism and deficiencies can cause issues with blood sugar regulation, blood clotting, and nerves.
#7: Vitamin D in Dog Food:
Unlike humans, dogs do not actually get sufficient quantities of vitamin D from sunshine. This is mostly due to the fact that dogs are covered in fur rather than humans who are mostly bare-skinned. Thus, dogs must meet their vitamin D needs from their diet instead of their environment.
If you see a recipe without vitamin D supplementation or without the addition of organ meats (in particular liver) – then the recipe is most likely deficient in this vitamin.
Deficiencies in vitamin D can cause problems with skeletal and bone development – especially in puppies (Rickets!) – and can also cause immune system problems, cognitive impairment and predisposition to certain types of cancers.
#8: Iodine in Dog Food:
This nutrient is very hard to find in most whole foods – a large majority of whole foods – like liver, kidney, heart, muscle meat, along with most produce DO NOT contain adequate quantities of iodine. Whole food supplementation to look for in DIY Homemade recipes will be kelp/seaweed, or thyroid glands. Otherwise separate supplementation will be needed for iodine in order to keep the recipe balanced.
Deficiencies in iodine can cause obesity, poor skin & coat (nutritional-induced hypothyroidism), behavioral changes – such as anxiety, aggression, and noise phobias, along with poor immune health which can cause chronic infections in dogs.
#9: Copper in Dog Food:
When you are looking at recipes what you need to consider is that certain types of organs will be more nutrient dense for certain vitamins/minerals than others. This is very apparent with minerals like copper. Which is found in abundance within ruminant livers, but is not found in sufficient quantities in chicken livers. This if you are looking at poultry only recipes and they do not use other items such as: free range goose liver, pancreas, or spleen – and there is no additional supplementation – the recipe is most likely deficient. HOWEVER you can also give TOO MUCH copper as well, which often happens when a recipe is too high in ruminant liver – more than an ounce or two of liver per 1000 kcal is usually too much and can cause problems if done long-term.
Deficiencies in copper can cause low white blood cell counts, muscle weakness or uncoordination, and nervous system abnormalities – such as confusion and listlessness. Excessive vitamin D supplementation can cause loss of appetite, increase thirst, excessive drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss – extreme excess can cause kidney failure.
#10: Iron in Dog Food:
This is another nutrient you need to keep an eye on if you are feeding a poultry only diet without additional supplementation. Iron tends to be higher in spleen, heart, kidney, ruminant (beef) liver, and in blood. If you see recipes without the addition of organ meats, or that use only chicken livers – then most likely it is deficient in this nutrient.
Deficiencies in iron can cause anemia, lethargy, shortness of breath and exercise intolerance.
#11: Selenium in Dog Food:
If the recipe is not supplemented for selenium and there is no kidney, oysters or mushrooms present within the recipe it is most likely deficient in this essential mineral. However, other organs that contain some selenium are heart, and liver (of ruminants – aka cows/bison).
Deficiencies in selenium are nail loss, skin/nail abnormalities, fatigue/tiredness, low immune system function, and even hypothyroidism.
#12: Folate in Dog Food:
When looking at homemade recipes always check for some type of vegetation or supplementation. Folate is one of those vitamins that can be deficient in some recipes that are meat-only products. Though some organ meats can have higher amounts, the best sources of folate come from plants such as mustard greens, turnip greens, broccoli, and asparagus.
Deficiencies in folate can cause issues with DNA synthesis and red blood cell formation – leading primarily to anemia.
#13: Thiamine or Vitamin B1 in Dog Food:
Though it is assumed that b vitamins come mostly from proteins – that is actually not entirely true! Thiamine or vitamin B1 is actually most abundant in plant sources. So if you are looking at a recipe that is all meat, organ and bone it might be lacking in Vitamin B1 if there is no additional supplementation. For those who do feed BARF – keep in mind that wolves actually do consume gut-contents which are made of vegetation and seeds!
Look for recipes that contain whole food sources of vegetation and seeds such as spinach, asparagus, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, peas and asparagus.
Deficiencies of vitamin B1 can cause a loss of appetite, nausea, and loose stools in the beginning stages, then can progress to neurological issues, uneven pupils, and generalized weakness.
#14: Potassium in Dog Food:
If you see a recipe that is only made with meat, organ and bone – potassium – is a major concern. In the wild wolves would obtain potassium from the blood of the animal or from the gut contents. But in our home cooked recipes additions such as spinach, mushrooms, parsley, beet greens, or chard are great whole food sources of potassium. So if you see a recipe that contains only meat, with no additional plant-sources or supplementation it is most likely deficient in potassium.
Deficiencies in Potassium can cause muscle weakness, tiredness, nausea, cramping, bloating, muscle cramps – and in severe cases – heart palpitations.
If you are looking for a full-proof way to choose a complete and balanced homemade recipe for your pup – the best thing you can do is to actually speak with a specialist! There are board certified veterinary nutritionists that will do recipe analysis for you to make sure the recipe you are feeding is balanced.
Be skeptical of any recipe you find online – I honestly feel like if you are going to be putting in all that time, money and effort into home cooking or home preparing a diet for you pup – taking the extra steps to check the recipe is so important. If you are looking for more information about the resources to create a homemade recipe for dogs – check out my blog post – where I talk all about it, and give some great beginner options for preparing diets at home.
And if you have questions feel free to reach out – comment below, email me, or joint the conversation over on Instagram! I hope to see you around my canine health nuts, til next time.
About the Author: Nikki is a Registered Veterinary Technician (Veterinary Nurse) and Dog Mom with over a decade of experience with dogs and cats. Since graduation from college (BS Biology, Dip. Animal Nutrition, AS Animal Science) she has adopted two mixed breed dogs – Ranger and Ash, and has focused her time learning about pet food and nutrition.
Nikki shares information on a range of dog nutrition topics: from how to create a homemade complete and balanced dog food recipes, to how to choose a dog food. Nikki strives to give dog parents the information they need in order to make the best nutrition decisions for their pup!
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