THE DETAILS: Pet food, even brands labeled "natural" or "organic," may contain 4D-grade meat. This type of meat could come from animals that were dying, disabled, or diseased before being slaughtered, or even decaying carcasses, "It's an animal-grade, rancid product," says naturopathic doctor Lisa Newman, ND, PhD, author of Three Simple Steps to Healthy Pets: The Holistic Animal Care LifeStylehttp://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=marsfarcoukit-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1420863835. She notes that shoe leather, used restaurant cooking oils, animal hair and skin, and even euthanized cats and dogs are regularly used in the pet-food industry. This rather sickening fact, along with the melamine-tainted dog-food outbreak several years ago, has prompted some dog owners to invest in preparing healthy homemade dog food for their pups. However, that can be very dangerous if you don't do it right, warns veterinarian Kathryn E. Michel, DMV, MS, DACVN, associate professor of nutrition at Philadelphia School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. "You may produce a good meal for yourself, but not a balanced meal for your pet," she explains. A healthy diet for you probably lacks proper nutrition for dogs, who need more protein, calcium, and certain amino acids to stay healthy. For instance, a small dog needs 800 milligrams of calcium a day, the same as a grown woman, and a big dog needs even more, explains Dr. Michel. [UPDATE: Since this story posted, Dr. Michel has expressed disagreement with the above contentions about the content of commercial pet food.]
Another pitfall? Nutritious, home-cooked meals for your dog can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with a large-breed dog.
WHAT IT MEANS: With the rise of doggy spas and canine-friendly mainstream hotels, it's clear the humanization of pets is a growing trend in this country. But Dr. Newman, who holds a doctorate degree in nutrition and developed the holistic pet-food and supplement line Admira, hopes people pamper their dogs in the food department, too. She believes the lack of quality ingredients in many brands is leading to a rise of health problems in dogs, including irritable bowel disease, allergies, arthritis, and certain cancers.
Here's how to work healthy homemade dog food onto your pooch's menu.
• Find a reputable recipe. The Internet is chock-full of recipes for healthy homemade dog food, but some of them can be quite dangerous, warns Dr. Michel. If your dog is in good health and you want to find a reputable recipe, she recommends visiting the Balance It pet lovers' site, where you can pick key ingredients, and they will provide you with a healthy food/supplement recipe for $20. The cost is lower the more recipes you buy. You can also find reputable healthy homemade dog recipes at PetDiets.com. If your pet has a medical issue, Dr. Michel recommends consulting with a credentialed veterinary nutritionist. One who is board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition is a good choice. And it's always a good idea to run a new diet—store-bought or homemade—by your veterinarian first. Also, don't forget to talk to your vet about using supplements from vet-recommended companies. "You'll never be able to make a complete and balanced diet without adding supplements," Dr. Michel says.
Cat owners: It's important to note that you shouldn't try to make your own cat food at home because of the very unique dietary needs of felines. Dr. Michel says only vets with a strong background in nutrition should do this; even then, cats often turn up their noses at the food because they don't like the texture.
• Realize it's not all or nothing. If this sounds like a lot of work, Dr. Newman suggests this: 70 percent of your dog's food should be high-quality dry dog food (see how to find this below), and 30 percent homemade. To make the homemade portion, you can lightly cook ground turkey, beef, or chicken in a slow cooker. If you'd like to add vegetables, shred carrots and beets together, and steam lightly before tossing into the cooker. (Onions are toxic to dogs—never include them in any recipe for your dog.) For a 50-pound dog, you'd use a half cup of the meat mixture and about two tablespoons of the shredded vegetables per feeding. Some people also like to add a little water to the slow cooker and add whole grains like barley or couscous. To get a discount on meat, ask your local farmer or butcher if you can buy in bulk. Some will even store the meat for you until you need it. You can also talk to your vet about adding a high-quality garlic pearl supplement to your dog's food. Dr. Newman says this will provide some tick-repelling properties.
• Know when it's OK to share. With Thanksgiving right around the corner, many pet owners are tempted to share the meal with their pets. However, if you only feed your pets commercial food, this isn't a good idea because the sudden change will likely bring on stomach upset and diarrhea. If you do feed your dog healthy homemade dog food sometimes, then it's OK. Dr. Newman suggests giving them a little cooked turkey with no skin and absolutely no bones. Beware of enhanced or brined turkeys that could contain excess salt and herbs. And no matter how good the drumstick looks, don't give it to your pooch (poultry bones tend to splinter, and the fragments could cause internal bleeding). Dogs can also eat a small sampling of sweet potatoes or green beans. "The idea is moderation," says Dr. Newman.
• When it comes to labels, play detective. Since it's tough to supply your dog with 100 percent homemade dog food, it's important to know how to read dog food labels to make sure you're getting the highest quality food possible. The problem is, labels won't tell you if the company uses 4D-grade meat. For starters, when you're trying to figure out the quality of a dog food, call the company and grill them. Dr. Michel suggests inquiring about how the company sources its ingredients, how it establishes vendors for the ingredients, how it tests for nutrition and safety and establishes shelf life, and what type of system it uses for reporting adverse effects. "It's a warning sign if they can't answer questions, or if they don't know anything about the product's manufacturing," she says.
Here are some other things to look for on the label:
• Check the information panel of the label, found on the back or side of canned or bagged food. Look for the nutrition adequacy statement, and see what species and life stage the nutrition is balanced for. (You don't want puppy food for a senior dog.) The Association of Feed Control Officials develops nutrient profiles for dogs and cats for growth or maintenance, and the label will say if the food meets that profile. The company could also make the claim that they've done feeding trials, and although it's a minimum standard, it shows that the food can at least support that life stage of the dog or cat in reasonable health, Dr. Michel says.
• Beware of meal-posing supplements. More and more, boutique-style dog treats look like balanced pet food these days. But if you look on the label, you'll see they are listed as supplemental foods, not complete meals.
• Avoid certain ingredients. Dr. Newman suggests avoiding any dog food with soy products because it can lead to bloat, a potentially fatal affliction in dogs. As for any ingredient that’s listed as a by-product, "Forget it. It means it's a waste product that wasn't fit for humans," says Dr. Newman. "Make sure you have meat listed as the first ingredient, and clearly listed as lamb, chicken, or beef. If it says beef meal, it's even better." (It's dehydrated, so you'll get more protein bang for your buck.) "If it says beef by-product meal, though, run," she adds.
• Avoid repeat ingredients. If you see a huge list of grains, especially ones listed in multiple ways (like barley, then barley flour, then barley bits, the company is likely using it as cheap filler. What you want to see is something like whole ground barley, or other whole grains.