Home Cooking for Pets 101

What format of food do you feed your pet; kibble for your canine companion, canned food for your cat?

This article is meant to inform you of the merits of choosing home-prepared foods and treats over most commercially-available options.

A Brief History of Pet Foods and the Rise of Life-Threatening Health Problems

Commercially pet food has only been available since the early 1900s, so until its appearance, our pets simply consumed whatever their masters were eating.

Canned dog food ruled the market prior to the 1940s when tin and meat were rationed by the government during World War II.  The extrusion process used to make breakfast cereal for humans was repurposed to produce commercially-available dry pet food (kibble), which fostered the growth of kibble as the largest pet food market share.  Statista reports that in 2014, $13 billion was spent in the U.S. on kibble-based cat and dog diets.

Yet, with this transition of feeding our pets food from our tables to feeding meals consisting of commercially-available, processed, and feed-grade ingredients, veterinarians are seeing a commensurate rise in pet obesity, obesity-related health problems, cancer, and other ailments.

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) 2015 survey, 98 million pets (58% of dogs and 54% of cats) living in the United States are overweight or obese.  Arthritis, cardiovascular disease (heart failure, high blood pressure, etc.), metabolic disorders (diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, hypothyroidism, etc.) and other potentially-avoidable conditions are associated with being overweight or obese.  Research has proven that dogs consuming a calorie-restricted diet live two years longer than their overfed canine counterparts and are less-likely to suffer from inflammation-related ailments like arthritis.

The Morris Animal Foundation reports 1 in 2 dogs will develop cancer and 1 in 4 dogs will die of the disease.”  That’s 50% of dogs having cancer and 25% of dogs dying from cancer.  Although there is no single cause of cancer, there are many correlating factors including being overweight or obese (which promotes inflammation in the body), exposure to carcinogens (cancer-causing agents), genetics, lifestyle, and more.

Although we can’t definitively say that processed pet foods and treats will make your pet fat or cause him to develop cancer, such is the consensus of many veterinarians (especially holistic vets).

But I Thought Pet Food Was the Healthiest Option for My Pet?

You may be blissfully unaware, but at every meal or treat dispensation, your beloved pet could be consuming ingredients having been deemed unfit for human consumption that contain health-harming substances.

Most commercially-available pet food and treats are made with ingredients considered feed-grade instead of human-grade.  Unfortunately for our pets, feed-grade ingredients have potential to suddenly or gradually cause a variety of ailments.

Feed-grade ingredients are lower quality than human-grade foods and have higher allowable levels of a variety of toxins.  One such common toxin is mycotoxin, which is a mold-made poison that ends up in pet foods during the manufacturing process or when molds grow on proteins, grains, and fat when appropriate environmental conditions of moisture, darkness, and warmth are present in a food bag, can, or other container.  Aflatoxin and vomitoxin are the most common mycotoxins and damage the liver, kidneys, digestive tract, and immune system and are carcinogenic (cancer-causing).

Feed-grade pet foods and treats may contain chemical preservatives (BHA, BHT, Ethoxyquin) to prevent spoilage.  A frustrating concept about pet food and treat production for we guardians of animal health is if the chemical preservative is added before the ingredient arrives at the final food production site, it doesn’t have to be included on the product’s label.

To make pet foods and treats appear more like human food, artificial colors may be added.  Blue 2, Red 40, and Yellow 5 and 6, and others contribute to hypersensitivity (allergic-type) reactions, behavior problems, and cancer in humans.  Caramel color that lends the appearance of real meat contains 4-methylimidazole (4-MIE), a known animal carcinogen.

The potential for your pet to be seriously sickened by his commercially-available food and treats should motivate owners to seek human-grade, whole food options for their pets.

Why Don’t More People Cook for Their Pets?

We live in a fast-paced society and the concept of home cooking our own meals has become somewhat foreign for many people. With the availability of grocery-store prepared foods, fast food facilities, restaurants with delivery services, and abundant junk foods there are so many means by which people can consume calories.

So many owners hear messaging from pet food companies and veterinarians that unless cats eat cat food and dogs eat dog food, nutritional deficiencies will develop and pet health will be negatively affected.  Yet, by losing perspective of how pets truly should eat per their genetics, owners have inadvertently created the number one nutritional disease affecting pets; obesity!

On more occasions than I can recall I’ve heard people say but I don’t even cook for myself, how can I cook for my pet?”  Alternatively, I’ve also heard “I don’t cook for myself, but I would gladly do so for my pets.”  When it comes down to it, the process of preparing homemade foods and treats for your pet doesn’t have to be overly complicated.

How Do I Go About Making a Home-Prepared Diet for my Pets?

Fortunately for your pet, you’ll start with human-grade ingredients like fresh or frozen protein, vegetables, fruit, and grains.  Homemade pet meals and treats typically lack preservatives and artificial flavors and colors.

Unlike commercially-available kibble and canned foods, home-prepared diets for pets may not be nutritionally complete and balanced unless a recipe is followed.  Dogs are omnivores (capable of eating both animals and plants) and shouldn’t eat a 100% protein and fat diet as they have a nutritional requirement for and have evolved to digest carbohydrates.  Conversely, cats are obligate carnivores (meaning they must eat meat in order to survive) and can thrive on diets almost exclusively composed of protein and fat.

I recommend owners receive instruction on food preparation so appropriate levels of protein, carbohydrates, fat, fiber, and vitamins and minerals for their pet’s needs are included in each meal.  Your veterinarian can facilitate a nutritional consultation with a university’s Veterinary Nutrition Support Service (University of California Davis and University of Tennessee are excellent options) which is great for pets having medical problems requiring dietary modifications and for healthy pets.  Owners can also get recipes from a service that doesn’t require input from a veterinarian like Balance IT.  I also refer clients to make pet diets and treats based on instruction given in Dr. Cathy Avinoli and Susan Thixton’s book Dinner PAWsible, Dr. Richard Pitcairn’s Complete Guide To Natural Health For Dogs and Cats, and Lucy Postin’s Dog Obsessed.  The Honest Kitchen’s blog also contains a number of healthy and easy recipes.

If you don’t want to go through the effort of making a home-prepared diet you can do a semi-home prepared version.  The Honest Kitchen has multiple, grain-free base mixes for dogs including Preference and Kindly) to which you add your own protein and warm water, wait three minutes, and then serve.

Although I don’t advocate kibble-based diets for my canine and feline patients, if owners feel as though they need to continue feeding meals partially based in dry food form then fresh, moist, whole foods can always be added to each meal to reduce the portion of kibble.

What Human Foods Can My Pet Eat?

Fortunately, there are many pet-appropriate human foods that can serve as mealtime ingredients or treats, including:

  • Vegetables – Beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, mushrooms, spinach, sweet potato and ripe tomatoes can be fed raw or steamed and finely chopped or pureed and added to any food. Any vegetable that you would cook before eating (beets, sweet potatoes, etc.) should also be cooked before serving to your pet.  Vegetables having skins should have the skins, especially any areas of discoloration or “eyes” (like on sweet potatoes), removed before serving.
  • Fruits – Apples, bananas, blackberries, blueberries, cantaloupe, cherries, melon, pear, raspberries, and watermelon are not only are tasty, but they also provide essential moisture, fiber, minerals and vitamins. Vitamins in the format created by nature are generally absorbed better than synthetic vitamins that don’t fit binding sites inside the digestive tract as well as their natural counterparts.

Vegetables and fruits should be washed before serving.  If available, always choose an organic option to cut down on potential pesticide exposure.

  • Meats – Cooked, defatted, low-sodium proteins like chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, and fish are great options to use as the basis of home-prepared meals. Preservative-free and U.S. sourced meat jerky, tuna water or meat-broth cubes can be given as snacks.

Before feeding your pet any human foods besides those mentioned above, reference the ASPCA’s People Foods to Avoid Feeding Your Pets.

Any time you’re going to make a food change, do so by gradually transitioning your pets onto their new diet.  Abrupt changes can cause mild to severe digestive tract upset (vomit, diarrhea, inappetence, pancreatitis, etc.) and other illness.  Ideally, allow 10 days to make the change by removing 10% of your pet’s normal diet and incorporating 10% of the new diet.  Pets already eating whole food based diets (either in-part or exclusively) usually make the transition showing less digestive tract upset than those eating only dry or canned pet foods.  The Honest Kitchen’s Perfect Form digestive supplement can help reduce loose stools caused from transitioning to a new diet.

Are you now psyched to make your own pet meals and treats?  Go for it, but make sure to do so with patience and the guidance of your veterinarian and a pet-appropriate recipe.

Meet the Author: Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).

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