Homemade Dog Food - Balanced Diet for Dogs
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Homemade Dog Food: Is Balance Possible (or a Pipe Dream)?

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Can Homemade Dog Food Be a Balanced Diet for Dogs?

While many may tell you homemade dog food is not a balanced diet for dogs, I am here to tell you it absolutely can be.

But is “balance” our goal when feeding our dogs?  

If you are like me and have been the victim of dog diet fear-mongering, keep reading.  

The trendy word that is cast from both raw and kibble proponents is about to take on a whole new meaning.  

BALANCE.

What is a Balanced Diet for Dogs?

Homemade Dog Food: Is Balance Possible (or a Pipe Dream)? While many may tell you homemade dog food is not a balanced diet for dogs, I am here to tell you it absolutely can be.

Consider the wise words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Balance according to Dictionary.com, is defined as having equality or equivalence in weight, parts, etc.; to be in equilibrium.

Sure, some people do use the word “balance” in terms of an equitable balance of certain nutrients.  The ratio of calcium to phosphorus is one such example where a ratio imbalance can result in serious orthopedic consequences in dogs.

[READ: Feeding Giant Breed Puppies for Dummies – The Protein Myth & More]

But where both sides go wrong, is when the word “balance” seems to take on new meaning.  When the word is used to mean healthy, optimal, or species-appropriate. 

Let me illustrate my point with a story.  

My Mastiff, Junior, has battled Wobbler syndrome, Valley Fever, and a severe toe infection over the last year.  

He has been fed both kibble and raw over that time.

After spending tens of thousands of dollars at his regular vet, I made an appointment with an internal medicine specialist hoping to get some answers as to why he now has some protein in his urine.  

Vet Tech: How’s he feeling?

Me: Great! Silly as ever.

Vet Tech: How’s his appetite and his stool?

Me: Well he’s raw fed, so I’m pretty obsessed with poop. Haha!  I watch it pretty closely and his is great. On occasion it’s loose, but nothing concerning.  90+% of the time he’s got great healthy stools.

I realized my fatal error as soon as the vet came in.  She obviously read through the tech’s notes and immediately started asking me questions about Junior’s stool.  

There were no questions about what or how I was feeding.  The only thing that seemed to matter was that I said the word raw.

And for the next 30 minutes, I was told: “raw diets are dangerous for dogs and humans despite what everyone tells you.”  

She spent 15 minutes showing me a website called BalanceIT where I could formulate a cooked homemade dog food diet that would be a “safe,” “appropriate” and “balanced” alternative.  

She failed to mention, and I later learned, was that the only way to get these homemade cooked diets to balance is by purchasing the BalanceIT supplement for $80/month!  

To make a very long and frustrating story short, not only did I NOT get an answer or solution to my urgent concern about Junior’s urine, but I apparently paid $414 to find out my dog may have IBD and needs a $1,000 a year supplement to “balance” his diet.

Are you freaking kidding me?!  

This woman not only wasted my time and my money, but she insulted my intelligence!

I teach my children to always tell the truth, however, I wonder if this appointment would have been different had I said I was feeding Pro Plan or Science Diet?


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Are Commercial Dog Foods Balanced?

Homemade dog food - balanced diet for dogs

If you ask 98% of veterinarians, they will say yes, commercial dog food is a “complete and balanced” diet for dogs.  They say this because commercial dog foods on the store (and veterinary clinic) shelves have all been stamped by the AAFCO seal of approval.  

While for some that AAFCO seal of approval may garner a warm and fuzzy feeling, it is nothing more than lipstick on a pig.

Here are a few questions for those who believe commercial dog food is a balanced diet for dogs:

  1. How many dog owners are feeding solely and exclusively what is in a bag of commercial dog food?  No dog treats. No table scraps. Nothing but what is in the bag?
  2. Because the logical answer to #1 is NO ONE… Is it not true that when dog owners start to add dog treats, table scraps, omega 3 fish oils, probiotics in goat milk, or anything else, that causes the “balance” to shift?  
  3. How do you explain the necessity for over 2,200 commercial dog food formulas that all claim to be “complete and balanced?” Why would an adult dog on a typical maintenance diet need to switch formulas if all of these are providing everything that dog could need or want in a food?
  4. If commercial dog food is a complete and balanced diet for dogs, why have chronic disease and cancer rates in dogs dramatically increased in the last 100 years?  

Not only are commercial dog food diets as a whole not necessarily balanced (#1 and #2), but there is a big difference between a diet that is balanced based on minimum standards and a homemade dog food diet which attempts to exceed them.  

What is happening when people throw the terms “balanced diet for dogs” around, is that they equate that “balance” with being right.  

The right way to feed a dog.  The gold standard.

Don’t misunderstand.  It is critically important for dogs to have the correct ratios of certain nutrients as I mentioned before.

However, let us not confuse the terms “complete and balanced” with ideal or healthy.  

Optimal health for a carnivore will never be found in a bag of processed kibble.

According to this study by the Institute for Chronic Disease published in Veterinary World, the contemporary canine diet that is primarily a kibbled meal-based diet, results in “an accumulation of AGEs [advanced glycation end products] and progressive metaflammation that is linked with many cancers [and chronic disease] in dogs.”[9]

But let’s set that aside for a minute so we can better understand the nutritional requirements for dogs according to the experts.  

According to them, what makes dog food, homemade or commercial, balanced.

Let us not confuse the terms “complete and balanced” with ideal or healthy. Optimal health for a carnivore will never be found in a bag of processed kibble. Click to Tweet

Nutritional Requirements for Dogs Explained

In the United States, there are two sets of nutritional standards that are used when formulating dog and cat food; AAFCO and NRC.  And in Europe, the FEDIAF guidelines are used.

Let’s take these one by one.

AAFCO: The Association of American Feed Control Officials

AAFCO establishes the nutritional standards for “complete and balanced” pet foods, in part based on NRC guidelines, but does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods in any way.

According to the AAFCO website, it is the “pet food company’s responsibility to formulate their products according to the appropriate AAFCO standard.”[2]

The actual regulation and enforcement of these guidelines is done at a state level and can vary from state to state.  AAFCO guidelines were last updated in 2014.

On homemade dog food, here is a portion of what AAFCO has to say,

  • These are not recommended because of the difficulty in balancing vitamins and minerals required by different species
  • Dogs and cats have different nutritional needs and preferences
  • Mismanaged calcium can cause skin and bone problems
  • Mismanaged fat intake can lead to obesity problems
  • What is “complete and balanced” food depends on the age, breed, size, and level of activity of the animal.

While several of these statements are debatable, I will concede that commercial dog foods are in equilibrium with minimal standards for our dog’s survival.  

The proof is there.  Dogs eat it. And, yes, many survive just fine.

But is this survival the implied meaning of the word “balanced” as you understand it?

Interestingly, when you dig a little deeper into what is allowed on the “balanced” commercial dog food label you find things like this:

  • “Plants and byproducts are a large proportion of many feeds”
  • “Often contain undesirable components”
  • “Inclusion [of USE BY dates] could prevent questions concerning guarantees with an out-of-date product,” but they aren’t required.
  • Probiotics added to food “May or may not be viable when consumed by animals,” but are put there because “scientific literature suggests beneficial effects” and they “mirror consumer interest in natural foods.”  They go on to say, “many organisms are adversely affected by heat in pelleting and storage.”[3]

How are you feeling about that AAFCO seal of approval now?

FEDIAF: The European Pet Food Industry Federation

FEDIAF is the trade body representing the European pet food industry with 18 member countries and 5 company members (Affinity Petcare, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Mars PetCare, Nestlé Purina Petcare, and Wellpet).

They state their mission in part,

“To be the credible and responsible voice of the European pet food industry collaborating with authorities, regulators and academics for achieving favourable conditions for the supply of safe, nutritious and palatable products.”[6]

In July 2012 the FEDIAF Nutritional Guidelines for Complete and Complementary Pet Food for Dogs and Cats were published. 

Their fact sheet on homemade diets states, “Providing a pet with a ‘complete’ pet food is akin to a person having their meals routinely put together by a human nutritionist.”

They go on to say, “Balancing the right quantities of protein, fat, fibre and carbohydrates along with the specific vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids is complex but that is the day in day out responsibility of pet food manufacturers.”[7]

I can’t help but state the obvious in response….   

If it is the responsibility of the pet food manufacturers to feed our dogs, who’s responsible for feeding our human children?  

You know, since none of us Big Dog Moms or Dads out here are actual human nutritionists and all.

How is it that feeding our dogs a “complete and balanced” diet is SOOO complex that we need to rely on “experts” to feed them, yet no one is losing sleep over what parents are feeding their children?

Things that make you go hummm….

… or show me the money?

How is it that feeding our dogs a “complete and balanced” diet is SOOO complex that we need to rely on “experts” to feed them, yet no one is losing sleep over what parents are feeding their children? Click to Tweet

NRC: National Research Council

Sponsored by The National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration, and Pet Food Institute, The National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council revised dietary recommendations from the mid-1980s in 2006.

These revised guidelines are what we call the NRC Guidelines.  

In a 450-page report entitled Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats, the NRC lays out a comprehensive assessment of the daily nutrient and calorie requirements for dogs and cats with the goal of “keeping them healthy” according to the AVMA.  

“The report reviews and summarizes thousands of scientific papers published over the past 25 years and makes science-based recommendations on specific nutrient requirements. Recommendations are based on an animal’s physical activity level and stage in life. The report also looks at how nutrients are metabolized, indications of nutrient deficiency, and diseases related to poor nutrition.”[4]

In the NRC Guidelines, there is a whopping one page out of 450 dedicated to homemade diets for dogs.  

Because I haven’t read the entire book, I can only surmise the lack of information on homemade dog food in the NRC guidelines is due to two things:

  1. NRC guidelines were established a few years before the rise in popularity of homemade dog food and raw diets for dogs.   
  2. Homemade dog food, whether raw or cooked, is not recommended by them.  

How Do AAFCO, FEDIAF, and NRC Guidelines Compare?

Put simply, the three sets of “standards” for dog food in the United States, and the FEDIAF in Europe may use much of the same information on which to base their minimum requirements.  But they are written in such a way that it is very challenging to decipher the differences between them.

In fact, I attempted to mathematically convert one set of guidelines in order to pull together a side-by-side comparison for you, but it was futile.

Board-certified Veterinary Nutritionist, Dr. David Dzanis states in his article in Petfood Industry,

“there is no discernible pattern to suggest that any one organization is intentionally or unintentionally manipulating the data. Sometimes NRC recommends the highest value, sometimes AAFCO, sometimes FEDIAF. Experts can disagree!”[14]

Should Dog Owners Follow AAFCO, FEDIAF or NRC?

Obviously, products sold as “complete and balanced” in the US must follow the AAFCO Nutrient Profiles.

That is a matter of law.

But before you select your standard of choice, consider the following as it relates to all three sets of guidelines.

How Much is Too Much of a Good Thing?  

The single biggest issue with all of these guidelines for pet food is that the label of “complete and balanced” leads to a false sense of security for dog owners.

Remember, balance is for survival, NOT optimal health.  

In this investigatory article by the Truth About Pet Food, the public records for laboratory testing of 27 brands of commercial dog food showed some shocking increases in certain pet food ingredients like fat, sodium, iron, and manganese.  Some of these nutrients showed increases of over 2,000%!

The problem is this…  

AAFCO, FEDIAF, and NRC establish minimum nutrient requirements for dogs, but no maximums.  Here are the definitions used by the NRC:

  • Minimal Requirement: …”the minimal concentration or amount of bioavailable nutrient that will support a defined physiological state.”
  • Recommended Allowance: “The concentration or amount of a nutrient in a diet formulated to support a given physiological state based on Minimal Requirement and, where applicable, includes a bioavailability factor.”
  • Adequate Intake: “amount required by the animal of a nutrient that is presumed to sustain a given life stage when no Minimal Requirement has been demonstrated.”[5]

Because very few nutrients have stated maximums, pet food manufacturers are at liberty to formulate their products as they wish.  

As long as the minimum requirements are met, that product can receive the AAFCO stamp of approval.  

In other words, with very few maximum allowable amounts listed, there are no limits.

Consider the danger of what this means for our dogs.  Dogs who, when fed an exclusive diet of “complete and balanced” kibble, are on the receiving end of these disparities on a daily basis.  

What health consequences do pets suffer from these dramatic nutrient differences?

Is Balancing Homemade Dog Food Possible?

As a raw feeder for the last 5+ years, I am increasingly annoyed by the number of people on both sides who claim to know EXACTLY what dogs need and how to “balance” a diet.

What I am finding is that many of these people have something to sell you when you buy in.

“…you’re going to get to the point where you really need to know what you’re doing to balance the meals properly. You basically need to learn how to formulate dog food if you really want to do it accurately.” said a gentleman to me about raw feeding my dogs.   

A nice guy selling his service.  

Likewise, many veterinarians stake claims in what is “balanced.”  Raw diets not included of course.  

In some respects, I feel for them.  Many wonderful practitioners have seen and experienced dog owners who feed their dogs nothing but raw chicken legs and then have to heal the damage caused by that imbalance.

I get it.

But my empathy ends there.  

When someone uses the verb “balanced” to mean “appropriate,” “safe” or “healthy,” when describing commercial dog food out of a bag, they have lost all credibility.  

Here’s my point.  

Nutrition isn’t an exact science.  None of these people really know what our dogs need for optimal health.  

If they did, my Junior wouldn’t have protein in his urine, and I wouldn’t be out $414.

Even the expert veterinary nutritionists disagree about what is needed in a dog’s diet, hence the need for three different sets of nutritional guidelines!

But while all of this is true, it doesn’t answer the question about our ability to balance a homemade dog food diet.  

The “experts” will tell you no.  But I say, yes. Yes, you can!

When someone uses the verb “balanced” to mean “appropriate,” “safe” or “healthy,” when describing commercial dog food out of a bag, they have lost all credibility. Click to Tweet

8 Laws of Health for Dogs

Thomas Sandberg, CSAN, CCNC, ADDP, is a board-certified Animal Naturopath and a Carnivore Nutritional Consultant by the American Council Of Animal Naturopathy.  He is the founder of Long Living Pets Research Project and Foundation, a 30-year study on longevity and cancer prevention in dogs. 

8 Laws of Health for Dogs - Long Living Pets
Image credit to Thomas Sandberg, Long Living Pets

In his book, Learn How to Add Years to Your Pet’s Life, he includes this graphic.

While diet is one of the most important factors, the health of our dogs is not simply a function of what we do or don’t feed them.

“Balance” is important, only not in the sense that the “experts” want to sell you.

The fact is our dog’s bodies, like humans, want to remain in homeostasis.  

Meaning they are fed a nutrient-dense diet, given ample exercise, allowed rest, water, and air, and have an owner that isn’t worrying every time some “expert” tells her she is not knowledgeable to do this on her own.  

When all of these factors, or Laws as Thomas describes here, live in concert, slight fluctuations or variations in any one of them tend toward balance over time.  

And that leads me to my second and last point.

Kimberly at Keep the Tail Wagging is a passionate big dog mom (x4) who shares regularly how she balances her dog’s meals and the approach she takes in raw feeding.  

BALANCE OVER TIME.

“It’s near impossible to provide a perfectly balanced diet.  While balancing per meal seems like the best idea, I strive to balance my dogs’ raw diet over time, which I find to be a lot easier because I’m not always able to grab all of the ingredients I need to create a balanced meal per day.  …So if calculating the 80/10/5/5 ratio when feeding your dog is complicated, then do what I do – balance over time.”[8]

Homemade Dog Food Recipes

If you would like to learn more about how to structure a homemade diet for your dog, I’ve pulled together some of the top resources to help you learn more and get started.

1. Pack Lunch Raw has a wonderful spreadsheet you can use to input the components of your dog’s diet to check for any nutrient gaps that may exist. 

2. Perfectly Rawsome – Ronnie LeJeune has some of the best resources available for helping dog owners who would like to make their dog’s food at home.  She offers complete nutrient breakdowns, calculators, and assistance with meal planning if you need it. You will want to bookmark this one! 

3. Scott, The Dog Dad offers 1:1 consulting and free coaching for the students of his Raw Feeding 101 course for new raw feeders.  His YouTube channel is also a wealth of information!

4. Believe it or not, there are veterinarians as well that are fully supportive of homemade dog food and can help you formulate a diet for your specific dog.  Dr. Lorie Coger is a wonderful veterinarian that I have consulted with in the past and she is a wealth of great information.  She is the founder of the Healthy Dog Workshop.

5. The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association can help you find a veterinarian in your area that may be able to help address your dog’s specific health needs as it relates to formulating a homemade dog food diet that is right for you.

6. And if you prefer to buy a pre-made raw diet for your dogs, here are a few of my favorite brands to get you started:

Homemade Dog Food: Is Balance Possible (or a Pipe Dream)? While many may tell you homemade dog food is not a balanced diet for dogs, I am here to tell you it absolutely can be. Save up to 33% with Bundle Deals -  Shop Now

Summary

The word “balance” is used to scare you.  To intimidate you. And to make you feel inadequate.  

Experts use the word “balance” to sell their products and services once they’ve convinced you of your incompetence.

The real question is, are you going to believe it?  

My goal here is not to sell you on raw feeding your dog.  That is your choice.

You should feel empowered to make that decision for you and your dog without judgment or repudiation.

That said, do not let the nebulous and substandard concept of “balance” stand in the way of your dog’s health and longevity.  

After all, balance should not be your goal when feeding your dog.

Optimal health and wellness should be.

Don't let the nebulous concept of “balance” stand in the way of your dog’s health and longevity. After all, balance should not be your goal when feeding your dog. Optimal health and wellness should be. Click to Tweet

Homemade Dog Food – Your Turn

Homemade dog food

Now it’s your turn.  

Do you make homemade dog food for your dog?  Have you ever been told balancing a dog’s diet is the most important thing?

Share your experience in the comments below.

Resources

  1. AAFCO and NRC Guidelines – Easy to Read
  2. AAFCO Dog and Cat Food Nutrient Profiles
  3. AAFCO: Microbes and Their Uses in Feed  
  4. NRC issues new nutrient requirements for dogs and cats – October 2003
  5. Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats: (NRC Guidelines) 
  6. FEDIAF, Nutritional Guidelines for Complete and Complementary Pet Food for Dogs and Cats
  7. Are Homemade Diets a Viable Alternative to Prepared Pet Food?  
  8. How to Create a Balanced Raw Diet for a Dog
  9. Does contemporary canine diet cause cancer? ; A review  
  10. 2000% Increase by Truth About Pet Food 
  11. Latest on Dog Food and Cancer
  12. The origin of current omega fatty acid standards in pet food 
  13. American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association 
  14. Which pet food nutrient values should you follow?
  15. Pack Lunch Raw Spreadsheet for Homemade Raw Diets
  16. Link to Join Long Living Pets 

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8 Comments

  1. I work at a pet store and it all seemed like bull**** i have been making my own dog food since before i started there thankyour for confirming things for me

  2. Joy Eriksen says:

    Hmmmmm, what did people feed their dogs 100 years ago? They were fed table scraps, and some raw food. Nobody worried about or even heard about “complete and balanced”. That term was created by the pet food industry. And those dogs 100 years ago were living a lot longer than they are now. This is a great article Stephanie. Not sure I could add a whole lot to it. It does break my heart to see dogs dying of cancer at the rate that they are right now. And at such young ages, even puppies. I love that put up the link for Thomas’ study. He is such an amazing and generous man.

  3. Joy Eriksen says:

    Forgot to answer your question. I have been making my dogs their raw diet for almost ten years. I have never told a vet what I feed so I have never been told the tale. I have years of training , a lot more than the vet, in Canine nutrition to become a CSAN. I don’t need them to tell me what they don’t know.

  4. Sharon Spradlin says:

    I have a bottle of the BalanceIt. Their recipe calculator has you pick out a choice of protein, veggies, carbs whatever. Each recipe seems to vary a lot with even the same ingredients but using a different protein. The company states not to change anything and strictly adhere to the recipes. Each dog must have individual recipes made. I would have to be a scientist to figure it out. I now have two dogs. Talk about complicated! I wanted to use 93% ground turkey and they don’t have a recipe for that. But they do list ostrich and kangaroo. Go figure..

    1. Haha, thank you, Sharon. I couldn’t agree more! I could barely figure out the website, much less get an actual diet formulated. Honestly, I think it’s a waste of money and totally unnecessary. There are other sites you can use if you have a dog with kidney issues that are much more helpful and user-friendly. And if you just want to cook for your dog, that doesn’t take a nutritional science degree. There are so many calculators online, and with a scale and some fresh food, you are set.

  5. Great article! I’ve been crock pot cooking for my dogs about 4 months now. I read so many different things regarding raw, homemade food versus kibble. So many opinions. But, I share two important points: first I raised three healthy boys who I cooked for without needing a degree or giving them vitamins. And second there was no commercial dog food when dogs were first domesticated.
    My vet cooks for her dogs also so that makes me feel vindicated and secure in the decision.
    I do feed them kibble in the morning and cooked home made in evening.

    1. Thank you so much, Denise! I could not agree more. Your point about feeding your children is spot on! I never worry about the day to day balance with my kids. But rather, I focus on giving them a variety of whole foods, while limiting processed ones, to create a balanced, healthy diet over time. No, my microbiology degree is not in nutrition, but somehow my 4th grader hasn’t missed a day of school in 4 years due to being sick. I do not think it’s much more complicated for our dogs. You are doing the right thing, and I know the crockpot cooking is serving them very well. 🙂

  6. Great article! I currently feed my dog homemade dog food using Dr. Harvey’s premix. Not feeding him raw yet, I do cook the meat over low heat.

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