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DIY Dog Food: Spend a little more and get a lot more

Condo Blues responded with a little clarification of a post I linked to yesterday, in which she described some doggy treats she’s invented. Her discussion of doggy food allergies brought me back to one of my favorite hobby horses: dog food.

Commercial dog food, besides being equivalent in human terms to a steady diet of cheap hot dogs and processed dry cereal, is full of ingredients that are common dog allergens. Corn, for example, is one of the top offenders among canine allergens, and yet most commercial dog foods are full of it, because it’s very cheap. Fish is another common allergen for dogs, yet it’s touted as a main ingredient for some very fancy, very expensive premium dog foods.

Overall, though, the problem with dog food is that it isn’t food. It’s fake food, an even feebler imitation of food than the fast food and junk snacks that humans favor for themselves. While it will sustain most animals, it may not sustain them well.

This fact came to my attention during the late, great Chinese melamine dog food scare. While that was going on, you couldn’t tell what commercial dog foods, if any, were safe—every time you turned around, another brand was being yanked off the shelves. So, I decided to feed my German shepherd and my greyhound human food: real food purchased from the grocery store’s counters of human food. The result was amazing.

I did a fair amount of research to find out what dogs eat and don’t eat. Humans routinely consume a number of foodstuffs that are toxic to dogs, notably onions and chocolate. Condo Blues provides a useful link to a list of dog no-no food items. Interestingly, domestic dogs are unlike cats in that dogs are not “obligatory carnivores.” A cat is: it must have a diet high in animal protein. Dogs, however, having evolved with humans for many tens of thousands of years, thrive on a diet similar to an omnivorous human diet. Apparently they started down that road before they started hanging around with humans: wolves have been observed eating berries and other vegetable matter in the wild.

Understand, this does not mean that dogs are vegetarians (although some people feed pet dogs vegetarian diets without much obvious harm). A look at the teeth should clue you to this: a dog’s mouth is full of tools designed to rip meat, whereas a human has, in comparison, a limited number of teeth designed for tearing meat. Clearly, the animal needs meat as a large part of its diet.

I’m not going to try to track down the research I unearthed just this moment. If you’re interested, google topics such as canine diet and canine nutrition with edu as part of the search string. Adding “edu” will help bring up serious research papers and articles posted by leading veterinary schools. Use some common sense about what you believe: there is a LOT of woo-woo out there—as much woo-woo surrounds the subject of pet diets as you’ll find about human foods. But in addition to New-Agey silliness, you’ll also find ream after ream of propaganda emanating from the pet food industry, and you will discover that many veterinarians buy this propaganda, as many human doctors buy into what Big Pharma tells them. Pet food corporations conduct scientific research, too, and unsurprisingly that research tells them dogs should be eating nothing but dry kibble.


Dogs should eat about what you eat, with a larger proportion of meat or (if the animal can digest it) cheese. Dogs, like humans, need starches, vegetables & fruits, and animal protein; a healthy ratio of these ingredients (for a dog, not for you) is about 1:1:1. That is, 1/3 starch, 1/3 veggies, and 1/3 animal protein. A little more meat and a little less of the others won’t do any harm.

Don’t even think about trying this on your cat! Cats are not dogs, and their metabolism is different from a dog’s. A cat’s nutritional needs are weird, and you will need expert advice to build a feline diet from scratch.

Corn is indigestible for many dogs, and it should be avoided because it often kicks up allergies. Onions and garlic are toxic. Avocadoes are said to be bad for dogs, too. Otherwise: almost anything goes. Like humans, dogs need a variety of veggies: mix green and yellow items, and don’t feel shy about giving the dog squash one day and spinach the next. I’ve been buying Costco’s frozen “Normandy Style Vegetable Blend.” This gives you a lifetime supply of dog and human veggies. It contains broccoli, cauliflower, and two kinds of carrots. For convenience, I microwave a plateful of the veggies and run them through the food processor, providing a week’s worth of finely chopped, easy-to-serve dog vegetables. Unground, they’re mighty good served up to humans, too.

Starches include rice, oatmeal, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and peas. In a pinch, I’ve substituted a little bread. Cook potatoes and sweet potatoes well—you can zap them in the microwave, because the dog can’t tell the difference between cooking methods. Rice and oatmeal are easy to cook on the stovetop. Be sure the stuff is cooled off before feeding.

Meat: some people like to feed their dogs raw meat. My own practice is never to feed my dog anything I wouldn’t eat myself, and I do not think raw meat is safe to eat. You have enough vet bills without deliberately exposing the animal to staph, C. difficile, and E. coli infections. So, I feed cooked meat. For the same reason, egg also should be cooked. When I cook a meal for myself, I cook up enough extra meat for the dog to last for several days. A barbecue grill is particularly handy for this purpose.

Hamburger is amazingly overpriced. Watch the meat sales. You can buy roasts marked down, and most butchers will grind it for you. Keep the bones for the purpose I’ll describe below. And taste the fresh-ground hamburger yourself—it’s much better than what you get off the counter. Last week Safeway was selling hamburger for over $2 a pound, but chuck roast was $1.47 a pound. I got enough ground chuck to feed me and the dog for a week. Rump roast is leaner and also sometimes comes on sale at a substantial mark-down. Chicken is often marked down, too—thighs are easiest to debone after cooking.

There’s no need for meat to be ground. You can cut it up into manageable chunks by way of discouraging the dog from setting it on the living-room carpet to chew it up—I use a pair of scissors to snip cooked meat into pieces for Cassie the Corgi. But if you want to grind it, a food processor will grind raw meat for you in a matter of seconds.

If you have a roast ground, ask the butcher to give you the bones. You can use these to make soup for yourself or, if that’s more work than it’s worth, simply drop a bone into the water you use to cook the dog’s rice. This flavors the rice to the dog’s taste, and it also cooks up the last few bits of meat, which you can shave off and add to the rice. Do not, do not, DO NOT let your dog chew on cooked bones! And never give your dog chicken or turkey bones! A dog’s jaws are strong enough to splinter bones, especially cooked bones; the splinters can lodge in the dog’s mouth or perforate its intestines.

And yes, I KNOW wolves and wild dogs eat bones. In the wild, wolves commonly die of perforated intestines.

Because no one really knows all a dog’s nutritional needs—remember, in the wild they’ll eat anything, including insects and some things you’d just as soon not know about—it’s a good idea to add a dog vitamin to one meal each day. Sometimes Trader Joe’s carries dog vitamins, relatively inexpensive compared to the same thing you get at the vet’s office or PetSmart.

Interestingly, as soon as I put the German shepherd and the greyhound on real food, their health changed. Visibly and drastically. The decrepit Ger-shep perked up. She began to move around with a great deal less discomfort, and where before she could only hobble after the beloved Toy, soon she was chasing it at a fast trot. The grey, a far more low-key character, also seemed healthier and happier. He was allergic to corn—a sensitivity that manifested itself as ear infections—and fixing his food myself meant I knew exactly what was and what was not in his dog dish.

It’s a lot of work to turn enough food out of your kitchen to feed a 90-pound dog (to say nothing of two of them…), especially if you’re not in the habit of cooking your own meals all the time. However, a smaller dog is very easy to feed this way. You can prepare several meals at once and store the food in the fridge.

I feed Cassie, who weighs 23 pounds, about 5 ounces of food twice a day, evenly divided between a vegetable, a starch, and meat, egg, or cottage cheese. I refrigerate the cooked ingredients in separate containers and then combine them at mealtime. Microwaving the food about 30 seconds at a medium setting to take the chill off seems to please the dog, though she will eat it cold. If you try this, be sure none of the food in the bowl is too hot, as microwaving heats unevenly.

If you change your dog over from kibble to real food abruptly, your pet likely will have diarrhea for a day or two. This is normal: dogs get enteritis when you change from one fake food to another, and the same effect occurs when you take them off fake food. Afterwards, though, you’ll find that once the animal is acclimated to eating real food, you can introduce a wide variety of foodstuffs without causing any stomach upset.

Real food may cost a little more than commercial pet food (although given the cost of some of the premium brands…maybe not!), but it’s way worth it in terms of the animal’s health and the savings in veterinary bills. Feeding your dog fake food is a classic case of penny-wise and pound-foolish.

11 thoughts on “DIY Dog Food: Spend a little more and get a lot more”

  1. Thanks for this post. I’ve been contemplating this myself for a while. My pug, actually my son’s left behind pug (!), is allergic to absolutely everything and eats only prescription dog food. I think this “real food” alternative might actually be cheaper than that. You are inspiring me to give it a try.

  2. Some dogs respond well to lamb (yeah, i know…don’t we all?). Also allegedly duck is fairly nonallergenic, because dogs get so little of it they don’t have an opportunity to build up sensitivity. Try feeding something other than beef & chicken for a while.

    Sometimes you can get those fatty lamb chops on megasale–not the succulent little three-bite gems but the flat ones that look like little chuck roasts and are kind of rubbery when you grill them. If you can score these on sale, the price isn’t too blinding. Also, lamb neck bones are generally cheap. They have a lot of meat on them–simmer them in some water until the meat falls off the bone and you have both meat and wonderful lamb broth.

    Avoid canned broths because they’re full of salt and usually have onion in them. Onion is really bad for dawgs.

    Some dogs, like some humans, are allergic to wheat. See if the dog can tolerate rice. All my pooches have liked yams & sweet potatoes, too–these also are apparently low on the allergen scale.

  3. Unfortunately neither lamb nor duck appear in our grocery store. If they did make an appearance, I suspect they would be at a premium price! I tried a batch of dog food today. Threw a bunch of cut up potatoes and carrots in my big roaster, topped with two chickens and popped it in the oven for a couple of hours. Needless to say, pug dog was very happy with my efforts. I’m estimating price per serving at about .50 vs. about .44 for the prescription food he currently eats. If it makes him feel better, it will be worth it. I think this batch will last him about 15 days, long enough to determine if it’s the right thing for him. We’ll see. If he gets worse, I can always eat it! Thanks for the tips!

  4. I get so confused with all the opinions about what to feed my puppy. Right now it appears he has C-Diff. from antibiotics given by the vet. I’m giving him probiotics to help with this and Flagyl.

    Problem is I don’t know what to feed him at this time. First I thought his problem might be coming from the so-call superior puppy foods I’v bought until I found out that C-Diff was causing his diarrhea.

    I guess my question is I’ve read the article about giving him people food, but my confusion comes in when I read that change in foods (even puppy and dog foods) must be a gradual process. So, if I start giving him different people foods will that upset his stomach with so much variety and turnover of different foods?

    • @ Rosie: C. difficile is not caused by antibiotics! It’s a bacterium that causes an extremely dangerous infection, and it is resistant to most available antibiotics. People (and dogs) get C. difficile by ingesting it in food, most frequently through raw or undercooked meat.

      If your pup still has diarrhea, please take him back to the vet immediately! And give him the antibiotics the vet prescribes. If you distrust your present veterinarian, find another one.

      Don’t try to change your dog’s food if he has severe diarrhea. Changing from one brand of dog food to another or from dog food to real food is likely to cause more intestinal problems.

      In my experience, feeding my dogs a wide variety of real food — by that, I mean something that I would eat myself, not commercial pet food — does not cause diarrhea, once the animal is accustomed to eating real food. You can expect that abruptly stopping the use of dog food will cause some mild gollywobbles; this passes in a day or two.

      All of my dogs have had diets that include beef, pork, lamb, chicken, duck, canned salmon, canned tuna, rice, bread, pasta, quinoa, oatmeal, potatoes, yogurt, cheese, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, peas, yams, squash. Once the dog is accustomed to eating actual food, shifting ingredients that are real food does not seem to cause any gastric distress. Because I buy what’s on sale, Cassie’s food changes frequently. Her gut functions quite normally all the time.

      I’m not a veterinarian, but IMHO you should keep your pup on whatever you’re feeding until he is completely well. Then if you decide to change his diet, do it slowly. But don’t try it until you’re sure he’s over what’s ailing him. If you decide to feed him real food, be sure the stuff is cooked. The fact that a dog can contract C. difficile, which is increasingly common in factory-farmed meats, demonstrates that you should avoid feeding raw meat.

  5. Thank you so much for your information.

    I have to say that in the past I had C-diff. Never had anything like it before. My dentist had given me an antibiotic due to the work being done on my teeth. Anyway a day latter I had the worse case of diarrhea ever. I was scarred. Went to my family dr. and he told me it came from the antibiotic given to me and I needed to take an antimicrobial drug called metronidazole (Flagyl) to eliminate C. difficile. Also, told me to take Culturelle, a probiotic. All this worked and cleared up in no time. In fact, I was told anytime I need an antibiotic to make sure I take Culturelle at the same time to prevent this from happening. My puppy is now taking metronidazole with a probiotic. Just started this. Hope to see the results soon.

    I understand diarrhea can be caused by various things and from doctors and researching what vets had to say on line I feel, hopefully, this will clear things up.

    In the past with previous pets, I’ve had holistic vets tell me to put them on raw meat. I disagreed with this after realizing that bacteria in uncooked meats can be dangerous. So much info. out there it’s hard to sort through it all.

    I had been giving my dogs some foods I prepare for my family cause I’m very careful about diet due to serious health problems in my family. So I only give them what I know is healthy. However, the controversy out there about giving commercial dog foods by various companies is mind boggling.

    Appreciate the list of foods you mentioned and I will certainly incorporate them into my puppy’s diet as soon as all this mess is over with.


  6. @ Rosie: Well, I spoke too fast:. You appear to be right: It’s not really that the antibiotic causes the infection, but by killing off other microbes that keep the clostridium under control, it allows the more baleful microbe to run amok, making you good and sick.

    Dogs can eat most but not all things that humans eat. It’s important to recognize that onions, garlics, and leeks are harmful to dogs. They cause a type of anemia that can lead to liver damage and ultimately do the dog in. So, be careful not to share things like beef stew, chicken cacciatori, or any of the other delicious oniony things we like to eat. Be careful with commercial chicken and beef broth: these usually contain onion. And I’m sure you know that chocolate is very toxic to dogs. Never let your dog eat chocolate! Caffeine is also harmful to them; some sources also say not to feed grapes or avocados.

    Otherwise, a dog should have healthy, real food — NOT JUNK FOOD OF ANY KIND — that consists of about half starch & vegetables and half cooked, unadulterated meat. Do not add salt, do not add sugar.

    Veggies can be cooked to soften them. I zap a few handfuls of frozen vegetables in the microwave until they’re just al dente. Then I chop them in the food processor or blender. If the dog was in the wild, it would eat the vegetative matter found in its prey’s stomach; so, imagine vegetables that have been chewed and partly digested (which is what cooking does to them).

    Sweet potatoes and yams are very good. Dogs like them & they’re full of vitamins. Cut a sweet potato into several chunks and microwave until soft all the way through. Be sure it’s cool before feeding it to the dog. I count sweet potatoes as a kind of starch, but I’ve been known to add it to rice and pretend it’s a vegetable.

    IMHO, meat should be cooked; my veterinarian concurs in this theory. Hamburger is the easiest, because you don’t have to cut it up. Chicken thighs are easy, because a thigh has only one bone to remove.

    ALWAYS remove any bones in the meat you feed a dog. Do not feed a dog cooked bones of any kind. It’s preferable not to give them bones, period.

    Dogs need a source of calcium. They are not evolved to digest dairy products, although some do OK with hard cheese or yogurt. In the wild they would obtain calcium by consuming bones and cartilage. You can provide calcium in vitamin pills — use vitamins made for dogs, available in pet stores and veterinaries. You sometimes can find these at Trader Joe’s at a much better price.

    The main thing is not to feed them junk food, packaged human snacks, sweets, or stuff from fast-food restaurants. In a pinch you could order a dry hamburger and give the dog the meat patty, but bear in mind that restaurant food is heavily salted and may contain onions, neither of which is good for the dog. Do not feed deep-fried foods. Some fat is desirable, but the meat of domesticated cows, hogs, and chickens is much higher in fat than wild game, and so your dog should get enough fat from plain baked or water-cooked meat.

    Some dogs, cutely, will lap beer. Never allow this. Alcohol is toxic to dogs. It’s toxic to humans, too: that’s why we call it inTOXICated.

    Otherwise, it’s pretty easy. Don’t feed the dog anything you wouldn’t eat (or that you know better than to be eating), and don’t feed it onions, garlic, or chocolate. Everything else is fair game. As it were.

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