Looking back – it’s crazy to think that I have been cooking for my dogs for almost 7 years now. I started cooking for Ash back when he was about a year old – he had chronic gastrointestinal issues, and we had tried a lot of different diets trying to manage his condition. And I will say – we did see him steadily improve with diet change on different kibbled & prescription diets – but he was never “resolved”.
As a registered veterinary technician I feel like I had more resources than most people do for figuring out what might be the best option for him. And I started taking a lot of continuing education in nutrition, and eventually stumbled into a lecture at a veterinary conference on homemade dog food.
Learning About Homemade Dog Food
Now it wasn’t all sunshine and roses – the lecturer – a board certified veterinary nutritionist – Dr. Sean Delaney – was speaking about the realities of homemade dog food recipes. A staggering 95% of recipes found online or in books were not complete and balanced (yikes!), and over 80% of those recipes carried multiple deficiencies (double-yikes!).
He also explained that though recipes written by general practice vets were less likely to have deficiencies than those written by dog owners/breeders/trainers – a majority of them did have deficiencies as well, but the deficiencies were usually less severe. There have been several different research studies done by different specialists looking at diets all around the world – and all of them have found the same/similar results.
Research Studies on Unbalance in Homemade Dog Food
Heinze, C. R., Gomez, F. C., & Freeman, L. M. (2012). Assessment of commercial diets and recipes for home-prepared diets recommended for dogs with cancer. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 241(11), 1453–1460. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.241.11.1453
Homemade dog food recipes can be risky business, study finds. (2016, January 24). UC Davis. https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/homemade-dog-food-recipes-can-be-risky-business-study-finds
Larsen, J. A., Parks, E. M., Heinze, C. R., & Fascetti, A. J. (2012). Evaluation of recipes for home-prepared diets for dogs and cats with chronic kidney disease. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 240(5), 532–538. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.240.5.532
Oliveira, M. C. C., Brunetto, M. A., da Silva, F. L., Jeremias, J. T., Tortola, L., Gomes, M. O. S., & Carciofi, A. C. (2014). Evaluation of the owner’s perception in the use of homemade diets for the nutritional management of dogs. Journal of Nutritional Science, 3. https://doi.org/10.1017/jns.2014.24
Pedrinelli, V., Gomes, M. D. O. S., & Carciofi, A. C. (2017). Analysis of recipes of home-prepared diets for dogs and cats published in Portuguese. Journal of Nutritional Science, 6. https://doi.org/10.1017/jns.2017.31
Pedrinelli, V., Zafalon, R. V. A., Rodrigues, R. B. A., Perini, M. P., Conti, R. M. C., Vendramini, T. H. A., de Carvalho Balieiro, J. C., & Brunetto, M. A. (2019). Concentrations of macronutrients, minerals and heavy metals in home-prepared diets for adult dogs and cats. Scientific Reports, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-49087-z
Stockman, J., Fascetti, A. J., Kass, P. H., & Larsen, J. A. (2013). Evaluation of recipes of home-prepared maintenance diets for dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 242(11), 1500–1505. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.242.11.1500Streiff, E. L., Zwischenberger, B., Butterwick, R. F., Wagner, E., Iben, C., & Bauer, J. E. (2002). A Comparison of the Nutritional Adequacy of Home-Prepared and Commercial Diets for Dogs. The Journal of Nutrition, 132(6), 1698S-1700S. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/132.6.1698s
But he gave a solution – a RESOURCE – to help create complete and balanced recipes for dogs. BalanceIT, which allowed anyone to create a recipe, and would tell them if ingredients didn’t work, or if formulation was wrong. The recipe generator allowed for complete customization of composition, choice between over a hundred ingredients, and even premade diets for different medical conditions.
Needless to say after a brief chat with Dr. Delaney after the lecture – I ordered the supplement and Ash has been on a home-cooked diet ever since. And with a bit of help with figuring out his ideal composition – he has been doing amazing. Since then I’ve actually transitioned my other dog Ranger onto a fresh food diet as well, and I’ve helped hundreds of other owners do the same both in veterinary clinic, and personally through online platforms.
I’ve also discovered many other resources for pet parents that they can use other than BalanceIT, so today I thought I would break down some of these resources for you so you can understand what is available, and choose what might be the best option for YOU and your dog if you are just starting out – or if you are a seasoned veteran looking for more options.
Base Mixes or Meal Mixes for Dogs
Probably the easiest way to cook for your dog is using a base mix, or a meal mix. These products usually require to add in a meat, and sometimes an oil to their mix. These mixes basically contain all the vitamins and minerals your dog needs – and you by adding the meat are supplying the protein and fat (also called the essential amino acids, and essential fatty acids) to the diet.
Depending on the meal mix – it mainly contains a variety of different ingredients – most contain a variety of fruits and vegetables. Some base mixes will contain dense carbohydrates, and others will not. So overall final composition between base mixes will vary.
My main issue when it comes to base mixes are the instructions: You can add ANY meat and ANY oil. As someone with a background in nutrition – unless they have over supplemented these mixes to account of the variety of vitamin/mineral profiles of different meats, and already supplied essential fatty acids within the base mix – ANY meat/oil will not due. Also certain meats are very HIGH in certain fat soluble vitamins, where others are very LOW in them – potentially causing accidental deficiency or excess.
So I’ve come up with a couple rules for the use of these base mixes.
- Use Proteins >90% Lean: this will make sure you supply your dog with all the amino acids your dog needs – fatty cuts of meats contain less amino acids, and we don’t want to accidentally cause a deficiency.
- Use an oil HIGH in linoleic acid: dogs require the essential fatty acid – linoleic acid – which is not found in high quantities in ALL oils. Examples of oils high in LA are: Walnut Oil, Safflower Oil, Sesame Seed Oil, Corn Oil or Canola Oil. Coconut oil and Olive oil are poor sources of linoleic acid.
- Do not use Low Calorie Meats: please do not use meats that are very low in calories like cod or tilapia – this could potentially cause a severe weight loss for your dog, and adding more meat that described within the “guidelines” will disrupt the calcium to phosphorus ratio which could cause bone abnormalities (aka calcium deficiency – as meat is high in phosphorus but lacks calcium).
- Do not use Exotic Meats: Please do not use meats like camel in a meal mix – some meats are not as digestible as others, and if we don’t have research/digestibility data for dogs on a meat DO NOT USE IT you could accidentally cause severe illness to your dog. Uncommon meats that we DO have data on are: Kangaroo, Venison, and Duck.
- Add Fish with Caution: Fatty fish such as Salmon is VERY high in vitamin D, where most meat is much lower. You can feed too much Salmon very easily and go over maximum allowance by AAFCO/NRC for dogs. If you’d like to include fish to a base mix – keep it to 10-20% of the meat added by weight.
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Multivitamins for Dogs
You should know that there are a TON of multivitamins available for dogs on the market today. And if you go to your local pet store you will see a handful of brands like PetTabs, NuVet, Zesty Paws, Pet Honestly, VetriScience, Pet Naturals – the list goes on and on. NONE OF THESE MULTIVITAMINS ARE MADE FOR HOMEMADE DOG FOOD. Let me explain.
These multivitamins are all created to be added on top of a complete and balanced diet (aka a kibble or canned food) to help “fill in nutritional gaps” or “support your dog’s immune system”. But if a supplement is made to top a complete and balanced diet – it cannot contain enough of ANY vitamin/mineral that could be stored within the body, or would unbalance the diet.
For example – if one of these multivitamins contained enough calcium for a homemade diet – they would cause severe unbalance to the calcium to phosphorus ratio. Too much calcium will impede digestibility of other minerals like Zinc and Iron – which would cause both skin, muscle, and heart problems and potentially anemia. Too much vitamin D and you could cause kidney disease, too much vitamin A can cause vomiting, diarrhea and seizures!
In order to not harm animals on a complete diet – any multivitamin labeled as being okay to be added on top of a kibble or canned – complete and balanced diet will not contain these vitamins/minerals in high amounts. Thus they will not be sufficient to fill in nutritional gaps in a simple homemade diet.
We do however have many different options for multivitamins for dogs on a home cooked diet. Each of these supplements has either a recipe software, book, or online recipe purchase required in order to use their supplements.
My Pet Grocer Dog MultiVitamin & PetDiets
The first multivitamin for dogs is My Pet Grocer – this multivitamin is available in both the US & Canada and the supplement itself is fairly inexpensive. The website for purchase also offers different exotic meats such as Kangaroo, and even Alligator for dogs who have allergies and need exotic protein sources. However My Pet Grocer supplements do not actually come with recipes.
For recipes you will need to purchase them from PetDiets.com – PetDiets is a website created by a team of board-certified veterinary nutritionists that do custom diet formulation. Though their custom formulations are expensive (>$500 last I checked), they also offer premade recipes for purchase starting at just $25. They do have both cooked and crockpot recipes available, which I know some people would prefer. Their recipes use the My Pet Grocer Supplements in order to create a balanced recipe.
In order to use PetDiets you will need to create an account and add your veterinarian’s information in order to purchase recipes, they do have puppy recipes available – but it requires veterinarian pre-approval.
BalanceIT Canine MultiVitamin
The BalanceIT supplements are available exclusively in the USA, however the software can be used internationally to create recipes using “human supplements”. BalanceIT was created by a board certified veterinary nutritionist, and it contains not just formulation information but ingredient digestibility information (using modified altwater factors) to help with formulation. It will will not allow you to create an unbalanced recipe for your dog.
Basically to use BalanceIT you open up their Easy Recipe Generator and choose the ingredients you would like in your recipe (hint – check out my tips for the base mix section on choosing LEAN meats, limiting fatty fish, and choosing oils!), then it will give you four different options for recipes.
You will have an option of an all protein/fat recipe, which will use their Carnivore Blend Supplement. Then you will have three additional options – a high protein/fat, a moderate protein/fat, and a high carb (low cost). Then the other recipes will have options to use both the BalanceIT regular or the BalanceIT plus. The BalanceIT plus was created to be able to be heated ONCE after being mixed into a recipe – which can be useful for dogs who are picky or nauseous due to medical conditions. No other multivitamin on the market has the claims of being able to be reheated in this way.
You can choose the premade option that fits your dog’s needs (and your budget), then “adjust recipe” to your dog by changing out the weight. Then just re-create the recipe in amounts suitable for your dog’s size. You can also change portion size to either weekly/ bi-monthly batches, or even down to meal-size.
Since this software has come out they have improved the customization features a lot, and you can create both very simple recipes that require the BalanceIT supplements, all the way up to recipes that just need a couple human supplements to balance out. If you need help with trouble-shooting a recipe, feel free to schedule a consultation so I can do private training with you. I also have several FREE pre-made simple recipes for beginners, along with more robust recipes for purchase on the blog.
With veterinary approval BalanceIT also offers a ton of different recipes for different diseases and conditions including: Kidney Disease, Liver Disease, IBD, Pancreatitis, and more. They also do offer recipes for puppies. All of these recipes do require veterinary approval.
Hillary’s Blend Dog Multivitamin
If you live in Canada – Hillary’s Blend is an excellent option. Developed by Hillary Watson, BS an Animal Nutritionist with over 30 years of industry formulation experience and former nutrition professor at Ontario Veterinary College. Hillary’s blend comes with both a book and software program to help formulate complete and balanced diets for dogs. As I am personally based in the USA I have not used this supplement myself, but from speaking with other veterinary professionals and animal nutritionists in Canada – the book and vitamin blend are excellent and high quality.
Hillary’s Blend supplements have three different varieties – one for healthy dogs, one for dogs with kidney disease, and actually one just for kitties! Each supplement has their own recipe book to use in conjunction with the supplement.
Just Food For Dogs DIY Kits
The Just Food For Dogs DIY Kits are extremely unique in the “multivitamin” space in the sense that these kits are actually the exact recipe that is used in the Just Food For Dogs premade gently cooked recipes. If you do have a dog with dietary restrictions being able to cut costs by cooking sometimes, then just purchasing premade when you are busy without significant diet change can definitely be a positive.
But what is so awesome about this is that all five of the Just Food For Dogs premade recipes have gone through both feeding and digestibility trials for dogs with excellent results – meaning that – if you use one of these kits you can feel assured that you are feeding a recipe that has gone through additional testing for balance and safety. No other multivitamin on the market has these claims – making this a unique feature of this product.
Each kit comes with a recipe, and the multivitamin supplement that is made exactly for the recipe. This means that unlike other multivitamins that are more generalized and then adapted within the recipe – the Just Food For Dogs Kits are made specifically for the ingredients listed in the recipe. So nothing is added that isn’t needed. But this does mean you have to follow the recipe exactly – no switching out ingredients when things go on sale, or something isn’t in stock. It also means you cannot use these kits interchangeably.
Two of these kits are balanced for “all life stages” so they are good for puppies – the fish recipes and the chicken recipe. And they do have a team of over 10 staff veterinarians including one board-certified veterinary nutritionist (Dr. Su) – so if you do have a dog with medical needs where you would like a custom recipe, they do offer a custom dog food recipe service (I believe they charge ~$250 last I checked).
Home-Prepared Diets for Dogs and Cats
This is a great book for those looking for not just recipes but general information on different disease and conditions that can be managed or supported nutritionally. The recipes are basic, and simple – perfect for beginners and use human supplements to fill in nutritional gaps. All the recipes are written by Patricia Schenck, who holds a phD in Small Animal Nutrition.
The only downside of this book is that it was published in 2010 – thus it may be slightly outdated as to the most current dietary recommendations for medical management of disease.
I also find that supplements listed in this book are generalized rather than giving specific brand recommendations – and though I appreciate this so that we can find supplements in our local area – vitamin and mineral supplements vary quite a bit between brands as to what they include (and do not include), and some supplements on the market may contain extracts that are not safe for dogs.
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A Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist
The gold standard as far as recipe formulation for dogs will always be a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, or someone with a phD in Small Animal Nutrition. There are about 100 individuals in the USA that have their board-certification and less than 20 of those do custom diet formulation for dog owners.
Thus, as you would expect, it can be a bit expensive (usually around $300-500 per recipe, with hourly rate for follow-ups). However if you have a dog with multiple concurrent medical conditions, or even a complicated medical case I would highly recommend speaking with a specialist to help you either modify your current recipe, or develop a new recipe all together.
If you do have a dog with a single issue ( like just kidney disease ) know there are many different options for both cooking for your dog, and for pre-made gently cooked diets as well. In particular at the moment Just Food For Dogs has an entire line of prescription gently cooked products, and both PetDiets and BalanceIT have pre-made recipes for purchase for different medical conditions. All of these options do require a prescription from your veterinarian.
We’ve come a Long Way in Gently Cooked Dog Food
Honestly since I’ve started cooking “back in the day” in 2014 many of these gently cooked dog food brands did not exist, or options were limited as far as purchasing or delivery. But things have changed – now there are many different gently cooked dog food options. So if cooking is not for you, or say you prefer to just cook sometimes – you have many different options to choose from – with a variety of different ingredients, and compositions available.
Of course, if you ever need a bit of help sorting through all those recipes – feel free to send me a message, and I can give you some resources of how to figure it out yourself, or you can always book a consult with me where we discuss which diet might be your dog’s best option.
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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