Dogs have unique nutritional needs just like humans. And kibble dog food is often filled with by-products that aren’t ideal for your dog or even part of his ancestral diet. It’s easy and fun to cook for your dog! But if you do decide to feed a natural diet, there are guidelines to which you must adhere to keep your dogs healthy. Here are some guidelines on a natural diet for dogs.
A Little Background
I have always been an animal lover. Some of my first memories are becoming fast friends with the family dogs, and I don’t remember a time growing up when I wasn’t surrounded by dogs, cats, and later, horses.
By the time I was 5, I had taught Holly (a cockapoo, pictured above) every trick in the book. Eventually I moved on to horses, training and competing them until my early 20s.
Nowadays, I share a home with my primary canine companion, Shaia, my labradoodle (lab-poodle mix), and her boyfriend Chewy, a lab-hound mix.
I’ve had Shaia since 2007 when I got her at 8 weeks old, and she suffered with digestive issues and colitis in her early years (I joked about her having sensitive “poodle guts.”) It’s taken me a while to heal her gut and nail down the perfect diet for her, and I often jest that I am a holistic nutritionist to dogs, having given many of my friends’ dogs “consults” about their ideal diet. Dogs are just as prone as people to leaky gut, food allergies, and dysbiosis.
My interest in animal nutrition began with my Rhodesian Ridgeback, Sadie, who suffered from numerous skin conditions that I later determined were a result of food allergies. Because I wanted to treat her naturally (versus the prednisone the vet was always trying to push), I studied Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats and decided to start cooking for Sadie. I eliminated chicken and switched her to lamb. Lo and behold, her skin conditions cleared up– and quickly! I also found that I could stop giving her flea meds, as she was naturally flea free.
Commercial Pet Food
Animals are no different from humans when it comes to nutrition: feed them crap food, and they’ll degenerate more quickly than on a whole foods-based, nutrient dense diet. Like humans, dogs are subject to diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and digestive issues. I’ve seen owners befuddled when their middle aged dogs start breaking down and needing meds for degenerative issues like arthritis. While some of these issues are certainly due to genetics and breeding, giving pets the most bioavailable nutrients possible for repair and regeneration keeps them healthy and can even reverse early degenerative issues.
Much like the conflicting information circulating out there about the best diet for humans, there is a lot of conflicting info about the best diet for your pets. (NOTE: As a “dog person,” I have spent much more time studying nutrition for canines than felines, so I will be focusing on dogs in this post). As with people, there is never a one size fits all approach! Every dog is different and has different nutritional needs depending on size, breed, or health issues. The market is full of holistic pet foods, raw foods, and specialty foods, but what really is the best diet for your dog?
First off, let’s take a look at how manufacturers craft pet foods. They need to create a product that meets accepted levels of various nutrients and the proper ratios of protein, fat, carb, and any other additions they choose to include. Many of the major macronutrients are poor quality, even for the brands that claim protein is the first ingredient; for example, “chicken by-product” is a popular protein source, and canola oil is often used for a fatty acid source.
Poor quality proteins are often not easily digestible, and dogs may only be able to absorb 75 percent or less due to fibrous tissue present. If you happen to take note of your dog’s poops, you may notice the output increases (and stinks way more) if you’re feeding a poor quality food. Like people, dogs should have well-formed stools that don’t stink too badly.
Most notably, processed pet foods are just that– refined and processed, so they’re missing vital nutrients. Most contain antibiotics, hormones, chemical additives and preservatives. Many brands use corn, gluten, and wheat flours as fillers, and they often appear among the first ingredients. These ingredients can cause major skin irritation, itching, and hot spots. Here is part of the label of one popular dry dog food:
Ingredients: Ground yellow corn, chicken by-product meal, corn gluten meal, whole wheat flour, animal fat preserved with mixed-tocopherols (form of vitamin E), beef, rice flour, soy flour, water, meat and bone meal, propylene glycol, sugar, salt, phosphoric acid, tricalcium phosphate, animal digest, potassium chloride, sorbic acid (a preservative), non-fat yogurt powder….
Yuck. I wouldn’t eat that, would you? Then why feed it to your dog? The smell alone in most of the kibble-based dog foods is enough to repel anyone. And the wet food? Though it contains less preservatives, it can make for stinky poops and contribute to tooth decay. So, what to feed your dog?
Natural Diet for Dogs
- Mix up the protein sources for variety and so your dog gets a good spectrum of nutrients
- Include organ meats. Liver is inexpensive, and look for heart and kidney too
- You must supplement with bone meal for calcium, or use the dry powder recipe I include below
- Add sea vegetables (like roasted nori or kelp) occasionally for iodine, or use kelp powder
- Feed a fatty acid supplement like fish oil
- Stick to minimal and easy-to-digest fruits like apple, banana, blueberries
First off, I want to bring attention to what you should NOT feed your dog. Do not use the following foods for homemade dog food or table scraps:
- Onions, alliums
- Grapes, raisins
- Xylitol (VERY toxic to dogs)
- Certain nuts: Macadamia, almonds
- Lemon & lime
- Dairy products: not poisonous per se, but can cause diarrhea
I also recommend avoiding nightshades like red peppers, tomato, potato (sweet potato is OK), and legumes.
Foods to Include on a Natural Diet
- A variety of all types or proteins and organ meats. Salmon and sardines are great anti-inflammatories for arthritic dogs, and are easy to digest. Lamb is good for skin issues; also very digestible.
- Raw meaty bones
- Goat or sheep yogurt, plain yogurt or kefir is OK if your dog tolerates dairy
- High antioxidant fruits like blueberries, apples, banana, melon
- Best veggies are dark leafy greens, sweet potato, cooked cruciferous
- Sea vegetables like kelp, a rich source of iodine: a 50 pound dogs needs 300mcg of iodine daily (source)
After careful research, I have arrived at a dog food recipe that meets the accepted dietary standards for dogs: about 22 percent protein; 17-20 percent fat; and about 53 percent carb (very rough ratios). Obviously these ratios should change for dogs recovering from illness, older dogs, puppies, or pregnant or nursing bitches. If your dog has kidney issues, you’ll need to reduce the protein.
Homemade diets can be dangerous for your dog if not properly balanced!
I’ve researched raw diets that range from a balanced blend of raw meat, fruits, vegetable and bone to just organ meats, raw meats, and raw bones. Proponents say it clears up skin conditions, allergies, and digestive upset. It’s expensive and not for everyone. If you choose to feed raw, please research it carefully so you can be sure your dog is getting a full spectrum of nutrients. I do NOT recommend feeding meat and bones only— dogs have evolved as scavengers and thrive on a diet that includes a variety of other foods beside meat and bone only. It’s possible your dog can develop deficiencies or become underweight.
My favorite recipe is a combination of cooked meat, vegetables, and bones. Some dogs do okay on grains; others will do better on a grain free diet. I always use only gluten free grains like oatmeal or brown rice. My Ridgeback did great on grain free (helped her skin immensely), but my labradoodle does well with some brown rice mixed in. She doesn’t do well on higher protein (again, neither do dogs with kidney issues).
I also make sure to include a daily dry supplement superfood mix and a daily oil mix. I got the dry supplement mix recipe from the Pitcairn book, and how much to feed will depend on your dog’s size and condition.
The dry powder contains
- bone meal (1.5 cups)
- spirulina powder (1/2 cup)
- brewer’s or nutritional yeast (2 cups), which helps to repel fleas.
- can also add kelp powder to this
For oil, I use this salmon oil. I have concerns that cod liver oil is too high in vitamin A for dogs.
Benefits of cooking for your dog
- better breath
- healthier skin, coat, no odor (dogs should NOT stink!)
- weight maintenance
- less stinky gas!
- less shedding
- less joint pain
- reduction in degenerative disease
- improved digestive function
- more energy
There are a few different options I note below. You can mix 1/2 the homemade mixture with 1/2 high quality legume-free kibble (I like Fromm and Go! brands, but they contain some gluten free grains) together with the dry and oil mix, OR just feed the homemade mixture with the dry and oil mix. Note that In 2018, the FDA published a warning about the possible link between high amounts of peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes to canine dilated cardiomyopathy. This condition, also referred to as CDM, results in weakening of the heart.
You’ll see the quantities listed below. I also include grain or grain free options. You might want to tinker with grain free if your dog has joint problems, weight problems, or GI issues. If your dog has trouble keeping weight on, try the grain version. OR if your dog is still super gassy on the grain free version, add back some grain. You can also use an egg yolk on top occasionally.
If you’re still not sure about doing the cooking, just use high quality holistic kibble without legumes and mix it together with bone broth, raw or cooked pastured egg yolk, cooked (or raw if your dog likes it) liver/heart, and the salmon oil.
Natural Diet for Dogs Recipe
(18 cups of this will feed a 60 pound dog for 3-4 days; longer if you supplement 1/2 and 1/2 with kibble)
TIME: 15-20 minutes prep, 3-4 hours in crock pot
- 3lb ground beef/bison or lamb (can use ground chicken or turkey if your dog tolerates that). Rotate proteins so your dog gets a variety! Dogs with skin issues do better on lamb and salmon, which is anti-inflammatory.
- 1lb variety of organ meats (hearts, liver– very inexpensive!)
- 3 big heads broccoli
- 2 sweet potatoes
- 1 big butternut squash OR 2-3 cups brown rice or oatmeal for grain option
- 1 bag frozen spinach
- 2 apples or a coupe cartons blueberries
- 6 carrots
- Bone broth or chicken broth– about 4-6 cups to cover contents
- Chop all of the veggies roughly into big 1-2″ cubes.
- Chuck everything in the crock pot; meat on the bottom.
- Cook on 3-4 hours for low. It needs to be quite mushy or it is not digestible. Make sure you check periodically to make sure it’s not drying out. Add more broth if needed.
- Wait til it cools, then ladle in Gladware bowls and refrigerate (lasts 5-7 days) or freeze until use (can last weeks).
- When serving, sprinkle dry supplement and oil over food. A large dog needs about 1 tbsp dry per feeding (I feed twice daily), and 1 tbsp oil mix.
- Add a probiotic once a day. You can also use a digestive enzyme for those with GI issues.
How Much to Feed?
As a general rule, dogs will eat around 2 to 3 percent of their body weight in fresh food daily (use cooked weights for foods that are cooked). Large dogs will tend to eat a lower percentage, and small dogs a higher percentage of their body weights. Toy breeds may need as much as 4 to 5 percent of their body weight daily, while giant breeds might eat as little as 1½ percent, or even less. (source)
This means a 50 pound dog will need about a pound of food (16 oz) per day, or 8 oz at breakfast, 8 oz at dinner.
You can use any leftover veggies you have (unless otherwise specified) and throw them in whenever you make this.
If you make your own bone broth, save the bones. You can throw them in too. You can also cook this in a bone broth and water mix for extra nutrients.
My dog LOVES coconut oil. I feed a spoonful to her as a treat, but you could add that to food if your dog likes it, too. Good for skin and coat and repelling fleas.
If you dog seems to have allergy issues, avoid all poultry and poultry products in kibble. Those guys seem to do best on beef, bison, lamb and salmon. They may do better grain free, too.
If your dog is arthritic, avoid high oxalic acid foods like beets, spinach, sweet potato.
As far as expenses go, this is apparently less expensive than feeding straight holistic kibble, but I haven’t crunched the numbers.
Supplement with raw bones for dental health, and use Primal liver treats.
Please note that I am not a vet, and you will have to make adjustments for your own dog’s needs.
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Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. In addition to her coaching practice, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and kick nagging digestive issues for good. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.