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Feeding Fido Homemade Chow

Our dogs are bona fide members of our families. For some, this means preparing homemade meals. But homemade food may not provide proper nutrition.

eHow spoke to Dr. Jennifer Larsen, DVM, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Clinical Nutrition at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at University of California, about the benefits, disadvantages and misconceptions of becoming your pooch's personal Gordon Ramsay.

Quality Control

Many pet owners are moving toward the homemade diet, knowing the food they just prepared is going directly from countertop to canine. With salmonella poisoning and pet food recalls making the news recently, a little peace of mind goes a long way.

"For a lot of owners, some things are really important, like controlling the ingredients that their pet eats," said Larsen, who alternates feeding her own dog kibble and home-prepared meals. "Some people don't want to use preservatives; they want to use organic foods, they want to incorporate variety. There are a lot of different reasons why owners want to do a home-prepared diet."

By making your own dog food, though, you're also giving up some protections due to regulation. Despite (and as a result of) the recent recalls and salmonella outbreaks caused by some isolated manufacturing practices with commercial dog food, requirements for the pet food industry have never been more strict. A legislative body called the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) essentially ensures that for a dog food to be marketed in the United States, it must meet certain vitamin, mineral and protein requirements. AAFCO is obviously not regulating the food that you make.

"It depends on the values and priorities the individual pet owner has," Larsen said. "Anyone interested should be prepared for the financial as well as the time demands that a properly formulated home-cooked diet requires. I strongly advise someone to work with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to accomplish that. I've seen many recipes -- in books and online -- that aren't balanced."

What Goes In and Why

A home-prepared diet can be a tricky but evidence shows that, done properly, homemade dog food can potentially outshine even the best kibble on the marketplace.

"Anyone interested should be prepared for the financial as well as the time demands that a properly formulated home-cooked diet requires. I strongly advise someone to work with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to accomplish that." Dr. Jennifer Larsen, MS, DVM, Assistant Professor of Clinical Nutrition at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine

"One of the major benefits of a commercial diet is convenience and consistency," Larsen said. "In my opinion, one of the major benefits of a home-prepared diet is the ability to customize it, and that's a huge difference between that and a commercial food."

Protein sources abound (beef, pork, chicken, tuna, egg, lamb, even crab) as do sources of necessary carbohydrates (barley, rice, pasta, potato), but it's not so much what goes in, as what your dog's specific needs are.

"When I'm building a home-cooked diet for patients, I decide how many calories I want to feed the pet,"

Larsen said. "Then I decide what proportion of the calories I want from fat, protein and carbohydrates, and I work with my ingredients to try and meet those goals."

When it comes to preparing food for your dog, it becomes less of a question of "what?" and more of a question of "why?"

"Some carbohydrates like quinoa or oatmeal are higher in fat than other carbohydrates like barley and rice," Larsen said. "The important thing is to be precise about what the goals of your diet are." Again, consult a veterinary nutritionist, who can advise you about the nutritional requirements for your pet.

Supplement the Diet

What you're serving your dog may have a modicum of vitamins and protein, but it is neither mineral- nor vitamin-dense, and therefore lacks the essentials that your pet needs. Few people who tackle home cooking for their dogs have the wherewithal to add needed iodine or thiamine, for instance, to their pet's meal.

"A lot of times it's a supplement issue," Larsen said. "And people may be using an inappropriate supplement or they may be using the wrong combination of supplements, so they're seeing a deficiency in minerals or vitamins."

Your dog has specific needs, which go beyond what you may get yourself in a simple one-a-day vitamin.

"Dogs require 10 to 11 amino acids, depending on the situation," Larsen said. "Home-cooked diets are not always adequate in all of these, although many provide protein and amino acids in amounts that are much higher than needed. Diets for dogs must also have adequate amounts of fat and essential fatty acids, in addition to 12 different minerals and about a dozen different vitamins."

If you go the homemade dog food route, consult with your veterinary nutritionist about what minerals to include and how to incorporate them.

Avoid These Foods

Most dog owners know the dangers of chocolate (specifically the food's primary alkaloid, theobromine), which is toxic to your dog even in small quantities. But there are other seemingly innocuous foods, ones you may use every day in your own diet, that may pose a threat to your dog's health.

Onions and garlic share a compound that can cause the destruction of red blood cells in canines.

"There are a lot of people who do feed garlic to their pets," Larsen said, "and while they appear to tolerate it just fine, I've also heard reports of dogs that eat small quantities and do have problems -- so they're not things that I would recommend."

Also to be avoided: grapes and raisins. They're staples of a healthy human diet, but they are proving more and more to be a food that you should never give your dog.

"We have become aware, in the past five or eight years, that there is some sort of acute kidney injury that occurs when some dogs eat grapes and raisins," Larsen said. "It doesn't seem to be dose-dependent or associated with a fungal or chemical toxin, but we don't know what the toxin is at this point, so we just recommend avoiding them."

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