by Claudia Alarcon • Photography by Alison Narro
If the title of this article got your attention, we probably have a few things in common: Our dogs are part of our families; we’ll do just about anything to keep them happy and healthy; and when we read about illnesses and deaths caused by tainted commercial dog foods and treats, we panic. During one of these recent scares, I asked our vet if switching to homemade dog food and treats was a good idea. She said “yes,” but that there are things to consider before taking the leap—the most important, of course, being the pet’s continued good health. Dogs need to eat a complete and balanced diet, just as we do. It’s not necessary that every single meal is complete and balanced; the key is to feed a variety of foods at different meals to create balance over time. As with humans, too much of a good thing can end up being bad, but by the same token, things that many may consider unhealthy, like fats, are absolutely necessary in a dog’s diet. Lastly, but just as important, there are certain foods that dogs should never, ever eat.
Here are a few guidelines to consider when switching to a do-it-yourself diet for your dog.
• Meat. Whether raw or cooked, meat and animal proteins should make up at least half of your dog’s diet. If you choose to cook for your pup, use lean meats with no more than 10 percent fat. Dogs need fat to keep their skin and coats healthy, but too much can be dangerous. I suggest well-trimmed, skinless chicken thighs because they are less lean, more flavorful and less expensive than breasts. Heart, kidney, tongue and liver are also good choices, and usually inexpensive. Look for organic meats whenever possible—especially liver—and consider incorporating raw, meaty bones such as chicken necks and backs (note: bones must be raw, for safety, as cooked bones can shred, producing dangerous shards).
• Fish. Fish provides vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. Whole sardines packed in water and canned pink salmon are easy, tasty choices. If cooking store-bought salmon, be careful to remove all the bones. • Eggs. Unless your dog is allergic, eggs are an excellent addition—whether scrambled, soft-boiled or hard-cooked.
• Grains. Well-cooked grains, such as oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, barley and pasta, can be used as wholesome fillers that reduce the overall cost of a homemade diet.
• Fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables provide nutrition and fiber without adding extra calories. Carrots, peas, green beans, blueberries, melons, apples (without seeds), bananas and papayas are delicious choices. Avoid onions, avocados, grapes and raisins—these are toxic to dogs (as are alcohol and chocolate). Some sources suggest pureeing the raw vegetables to make them more digestible, especially if you are feeding a strictly homemade diet, but raw veggies can be used as treats. I give my dogs a crunchy sweet potato or carrot as a reward, and they love an ice-cold chunk of watermelon as much as I do.
• Herbs. Fresh herbs, such as parsley and rosemary, are excellent additions to your dog’s diet and are often included in high-quality commercial dog food. Controversy has long surrounded garlic, but recent studies show that it’s actually beneficial rather than toxic, depending on the amount.
The trickiest part of a DIY diet is providing the right amount of vitamins and minerals. Nutritional supplements are available at pet supply stores and should be included, because even highly varied diets typically lack certain elements. In fact, experts recommend that all DIY diets include added calcium and vitamin E. There are also all-in-one supplements available to help provide balance.
While I love cooking for my pups, they’re not on a strictly DIY diet. I feed them a combination of high-quality, grain-free kibble enhanced with what I call “additives.” These can be anything from a scoop of homemade food (see recipe) to a handful of frozen green beans, a tablespoon of canned (or cooked and pureed) pumpkin, chopped up fruit and bits of roasted chicken or turkey, carefully pulled from the bones after making stock. Other ideas for additives include natural yogurt, coconut oil, flax seeds, chia seeds and turmeric, all of which I alternate as health-boosting “toppings.”
Each dog’s needs are different, depending on its size, age, activity level and overall health, so consult your veterinarian or a dog nutritionist when creating a DIY diet for your beloved pup.