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Dangers of Feeding Dogs a Homemade Diet Nutritionists Want You to Know

Updated on August 25, 2015
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Dangers or raw diet in dogs, dangers of homemade diet in dogs
Dangers or raw diet in dogs, dangers of homemade diet in dogs

Raw and Homemade Diets for Dogs The Other Side of the Story

You may have heard how feeding dogs a raw diet allows dogs to thrive or you may have heard how feeding dogs a homemade diet is the healthiest way to go. You may have also heard stories of dogs with a dull coat, dogs with allergies and even dogs with serious medical conditions feeling better once a raw or homemade diet is introduced. This article is to offer another side of the story. Something important that veterinary nutritionists want you to know. No, this article is not about how dogs on a raw diet may get salmonella or how dogs may choke or get an intestinal blockage from swallowing pieces of bones. This article is about a more likely risk that can perhaps even make feeding a raw diet worse than feeding that cheap commercial kibble sold at your local supermarket.

As with other of my articles tackling health or nutrition, this article is not to be used as a substitute for professional veterinary or nutritional advice. In this article, we will take a look at what the experts in nutrition have to say about raw and homemade diets. If you are planning to feed raw or are already feeding raw, or if you are looking for recipes for homemade diets for your dog, it's important to keep into consideration this important factor that is too often overlooked.

Who's Behind Your Dog's Nutritional Advice?

There are many websites offering recipes for dog raw diets, e-books and groups discussing dog nutrition. As much as these supportive resources may seem good, it's important to see the credentials behind those offering advice. Reputable dog food companies often have board-certified veterinary nutritionists on board to ensure quality and balanced nutrition. These professionals have made studying pet nutritional science their area of specialty. After becoming veterinarians, these professionals further study to become diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN). This involves undergoing intensive clinical, teaching, and research activities lasting at least two years along with passing a written examination in order to obtain board certification.

On top of that, the Association for American Feed Control Officials details what ingredients a dog food must contain so to be considered complete and balanced. While AAFCO isn't responsible for shutting down a tainted facility or fining a food company for using substandard ingredients, it's role is important to ensure that the kibble and canned food you feed your dog is nutritionally complete.

So one must rightfully wonder who is behind the raw and homemade diet e-books being sold off the internet? Who are those folks offering nutritional advice on internet groups? Who are the owners of websites giving out recipes for homemade diets? If we would look at many people's credentials we will likely find out that a great majority are simply dog owners with no qualifications whatsoever in the dog health or nutrition department.

This doesn't mean that all the advice given on websites, e-books and Facebook groups is necessarily bad! It simply means that one must be careful before entrusting somebody else in giving out nutritional advice for ones beloved dogs. Just as we wouldn't be asking a plumber how to cure our diabetes, we shouldn't take advice for our dogs' health and nutrition lightly. Because nutrition and health are so closely interconnected, it's important to realize the health implications associated with feeding dogs a diet that is not suitable for that individual dog, or worse, lacks fundamental nutrients.

Dangers of Raw and Homemade Diets for Dogs, What Nutritionists Say

While there are many great stories of dogs feeling better once fed a raw or homemade diet, there are also many untold stories that warrant attention and that vets see from time to time. According to a study conducted in Europe in 2011 by Dillitzer et al, 95 homemade raw diets were evaluated for nutrient content. The study revealed that an outstanding 60 percent of the diets had major nutritional imbalances. These nutritional imbalances may involve nutrient excesses, nutrient deficiencies and imbalances such as incorrect calcium and phosphorus ratios. Veterinary nutritionist, Lisa P. Weeth, warns that regardless of the ingredients used, more than half of the home-prepared diets lacked a sufficient source of essential macrominerals, lacked essential omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids linoleic acid and arachidonic acid; and provided inadequate amounts of essential fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins E, D, and B12,

Another study revealed that dogs fed the bones and raw-food diet (BARF) showed signs of deficiency in calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. On top of that, the diet was found to contain excessively high amounts of vitamin D. What health conditions could these deficiencies or excesses cause? Following are a few examples:

  • Insufficient calcium could lead to nutritional hyperparathyroidism and long term effects may involve muscle weakness, lethargy and osteoporosis
  • Insufficient zinc could lead to dermatoses.
  • Insufficient iron could lead to anemia.
  • Excessive calcium may lead to developmental orthopedic conditions.
  • Excessive vitamin D could lead to hypercalcemia.

According to board-certified veterinary nutritionist Lisa M. Freeman, there are no scientific studies showing the benefits of raw diets. It appears that their popularity is mainly derived from word of mouth, testimonials and perceived benefits spread across the boards. On top of that, those who theorize that raw is what dogs used to eat in the wild must consider that wolves who live or lived in wild live/lived only for a few years. This is quite similar to the theories raised by those promulgating the Paleo "caveman diet" in humans, when humans back in those days died decades before the age of 79, which is today's average lifespan in the USA!

And even though this Hub was meant to mostly tackle nutritional imbalances, it would not be good practice ignoring the risks for fractured teeth, intestinal blockages and perforations that are sometimes (not always!) associated with raw meaty bones. Not to mention the risks for Salmonella, Clostridium, Campylobacter and other bacteria found in raw meat diets that dogs may sometimes be susceptible to.

While it's true that healthy dogs may be capable of coping with the ingestion of these bacteria, one must consider that the very young dogs or the, old immunocompromised ones (such as those suffering from cancer) may not, explains veterinary nutritionist Marjorie L. Chandler. Turns out, an all-raw diet is not actually good for dogs with cancer.This is a reason why Dr Dressler in his book "the Dog Cancer Survival Guide" recommends cooking meat with low temperatures, just long enough to kill the microbes. Also, contrary to popular belief, dogs do not have a more acidic stomach or a shorter gastrointestinal tract that allows them to ingest bacteria with no harm. Their GI system is actually proportionate to their size, explains Lisa Freeman.

How a Commercial Diet Saved a Dog's Life

We often hear about how dogs thrive on raw or homemade diets, but it's important to also consider the other side of the story. According to an article by the Clinician's Brief, an 8-month old Saint Bernard presented with bilateral osteochondritis dissecans of the shoulders, tetanic seizures, and hyperthermia. According to the owner, from the age of 11 weeks, the dog was fed a homemade diet made of cooked hamburger, rice, apple, broccoli, commercial dry food, raw egg, and vitamin/mineral supplement. Turned out the dog was suffering from significant deficiencies in the standards set by AAFCO for growing puppies. Once a commerical diet crafted for canine growth was initiated, along with calcium carbonate, calcitriol, and taurine, after 4 weeks the dog lameness resolved. The moral of the story is that owners who elect to feed a homemade or raw diet, should not take the choice lightly, they should ideally have it formulated by a veterinary nutritionist so to avoid serious imbalances, especially in young, growing dogs.

Tips for Feeding Dogs a Homemade or Raw Diet and Doing it Right

One may assume that warning about the dangers of home-made diets may be a strategic scare tactic by vets and food reps advocating certain brands of kibble. However, several veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists have nothing against raw or home-made diets. Board-certified veterinary nutritionist Joe Bartges, for instance, believes that raw diets can be fed safely to dogs as long as dog owners are counseled on how to properly prepare and handle them and that they are fed appropriately.

A big concern is meeting the nutritional needs of a growing puppy or kitten, also because there's not much literature providing guidelines about feeding raw food diets during growth. Dr. Bartges adds that while it's true that commercial pet foods have been contaminated causing sickness and death in many pets, it's also true that issues with homemade diets aren't reported by people. It must be considered that about 85 percent of pets are fed commercial diets, therefore, when issues arise, they're much more magnified compared to an individual pet eating a diet specifically crafted at home for him.

Korinn Saker, another board-certified vet, is also concerned about home-prepared raw diets because they're neither sent to a laboratory nor fed to a test group to ensure health and well-being. These diets may be fine to feed short term, but problems may occur when fed long term and the consequences can be significant, says Saker.

So what should a dog owner do if he or she wants to start a home-made or raw diet? Here are some tips to do it right.

  • Don't rely on iffy websites, e-books and groups for dog nutritional advice--and don't trust your groomer, friend at the dog park or neighbor for nutritional advice!
  • Consider that young dogs, dogs with compromised immune systems and dogs with chronic medical conditions, such as kidney problems, diabetes, or intestinal disease, may have a hard time tolerating the fluctuations in ingredients and nutrient intake associated with the feeding of home-prepared diets, warns veterinary nutritionist Lisa P. Weeth.
  • Have your dog see the vet for regular examinations so potential deficiencies or excesses can be addressed.
  • Ask your vet for a referral to a board-certified veterinary nutritionist for tips on how to create a nutritionally balanced diet meant to be fed long-term.
  • When following a nutritionist's recipe, consider that each ingredient has its place for balancing the diet so refrain from omitting or changing them without your nutritionist's advice.
  • Consider that several board-certified veterinary nutritionists may not believe in the benefits of feeding raw diets. Another option may be consulting with a holistic veterinarian.
  • If you're not comfortable starting a homemade diet, consider consulting with your vet about the option of feeding a high-quality commercial diet supplemented with fresh fruits and vegetables, suggests veterinary technician Amanda K. Jones.
  • Veterinary nutritionist Rebecca Remillard offers customized home-made diets for dogs and cats for a fee on her website.

As seen, there are many things to be careful about when feeding a raw diet or home-cooked diet. While this article is not about condemning the raw diet or the homemade one, or discouraging owners from feeding it, it's main purpose is raising awareness about the risks for imbalances and deficiencies. If you are feeding or planning to feed raw or a home-made diet, please conduct as much research as you can and consult with a nutritionist for guidelines on feeding a balanced diet.

Disclaimer: this article is a product of my research on the topic and not to be used as a substitute for professional nutritional, holistic or veterinary advice. By reading my article you accept this disclaimer.

Alexadry© all rights reserved, do not copy

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2015 Adrienne Farricelli CPDT-KA, Dip.CBST


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