Pet food cookbooks and numerous pet food recipes posted on the Internet have become easily assessable to the public. Well-intentioned pet owners who enjoy cooking for human family members put their culinary skills to work for their pets as well. Commercial pet food recalls have also stimulated the increased usage of homemade diets. Unfortunately the majority of homemade pet diet recipes is imbalanced, nutritionally deficient and may cause serious long-term health problems for cats and dogs.
The Pet Food Institute's website article, "Cooking Up Trouble" states: "Most pet food products on the market are designed to provide total nutrition to pets. Such complete and balanced products contain the right balance of protein, fat, fiber, and carbohydrates. Complete and balanced products provide between 42 and 48 required nutrients, including specific vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids."
The Veterinary Information Network (VIN) summarized an abstract published in the June 2013 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association that presented an overview on home-prepared maintenance diets for dogs. The study was completed by a team of researchers at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. The team analyzed 200 different recipes for homemade dog foods that were selected from websites, veterinary textbooks and pet care books. The findings revealed that 95 percent of the recipes were deficient in at least one essential nutrient and 84 percent were lacking in multiple required nutrients. The study noted that recipes written by veterinarians were nutritionally inadequate, but the four recipes written by board-certified veterinary nutritionists were balanced. Ninety-two percent of the recipes contained vague or incomplete instructions. Dr. Jennifer Larsen (a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and one of the veterinarians who conducted the study) expressed the concern that rotating between different homemade diets over time is unlikely to make up for the deficiencies because so many recipes share the same deficiencies.
How can nutritionally deficient and unbalanced diets affect the health of pets? A sad case was reported in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association and written by a group of veterinarians from the Tufts (University) Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine Foster Hospital for Small Animals.
The case involved an 8-month old Saint Bernard puppy who became seriously ill after consuming an unbalanced homemade diet prepared by his new owner over a 5-month period that consisted of cooked hamburger and rice (supplemented with raw apple, cooked broccoli, raw egg and a vitamin/mineral supplement). At 7 months of age, the puppy was evaluated by his regular vet for painful shoulder joints and a 2-month history of lameness in both front legs and diagnosed with osteochondritis dessicans (a disease that affects the cartilage surrounding various joints in a dog's body).
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs were prescribed and the puppy was referred to the Foster Hospital at Tufts. The vets at Tufts noted generalized mild muscle wasting along with the shoulder pain and lameness, then following the physical exam the puppy developed partial seizures, a rapid heartbeat, and his body temperature rose to 103 degrees. A biochemical analysis revealed low levels for calcium, blood sodium, chloride ion, abnormally high blood phosphate levels, vitamin D and taurine deficiencies. The seizures were attributed to the low calcium levels. X-rays revealed widespread bone demineralization (loss of bone strength).
The veterinary team investigated the puppy's diet by comparing the nutrients in the homemade diet with the dietary requirements for growth in dogs and determined that the puppy's diet had "multiple and substantial deficiencies <50 percent below minimum requirements set by the National Research Council and American Association of Feed Control Officials."
The puppy was treated with medications, supplements and a nutritionally complete commercial diet to resolve the dietary deficiencies and seizures. After three days of hospitalization he was released and his owner chose to feed the pup a commercial diet that met the minimum requirements for growth in dogs. The puppy's biochemical levels were monitored for several weeks and his lameness was resolved. It is possible that this dog may suffer from bone and joint problems for the remainder of his life.
According to the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, "pregnancy, lactation (nursing) and growth are the most nutritionally demanding times in an animal's life. Nutrient concentrations that may be adequate for adult animals at maintenance could cause serious harm to a pregnant or growing animal. In fact, most cases of severe health problems due to nutritionally inadequate diets are seen in growing puppies and kittens fed home-prepared diets."
Balanced and nutritionally complete homemade diet recipes and supplements are available for pets at different life stages ages and those with specific health issues. If you are considering a homemade diet, please begin by consulting a board-certified veterinary nutritional specialist (trained at institutions like Tufts or Virginia-Maryland veterinary schools) or visit the following websites which can provide advice, recipes and products for balanced and nutritionally complete diets: