Variety is Best
Flexible yet balanced meals increase your dog's vitality.
Cook's Corner column by Mary Straus, published in Dog World Magazine, April 2010.
Many people who feed their dogs a homemade diet rely on a recipe developed using a spreadsheet, which calculates the individual nutrient values for all the ingredients in the recipe. But even recipes created by veterinary nutritionists might not provide everything your dog needs. Feeding a variety of different foods in appropriate proportions is a better guarantee of nutritional adequacy than following a spreadsheet or giving a multivitamin.
Most “pet nutritionists” (a title that is not regulated) use a spreadsheet to calculate the nutrients in a recipe and compare them to the guidelines established by the National Research Council (NRC) or the American Association of Feed Company Officials (AAFCO), to make sure the recipe is complete and balanced. This approach has a number of problems, including:
- Nutrition values used in spreadsheets might not match the food you are feeding. A food’s nutrient content varies depending on where it was grown or raised, how it was transported and stored, and how it is prepared.
- A dog’s nutritional needs vary based on such factors as age and activity level.
- Nutritional guidelines are estimates that change over time as we learn more about nutrient requirements and interactions. A recipe that provides minimum amounts of some nutrients could be deemed deficient by later research.
In addition, recipes often rely heavily on supplements to meet your dog’s needs. Whether that’s the nebulous “complete vitamin-and-mineral supplement,” or one that contains specific ingredients and dosages, we don’t know for sure that supplements can replace nutrients derived from foods.
When you receive a recipe created with a spreadsheet, you are warned not to alter the ingredients for fear that the diet will become “unbalanced.” Yet feeding a variety of different foods is the best way to ensure that your dog’s nutritional needs are met.
Marion Nestle, Ph.D., M.P.H., a nutritional science professor at New York University and author of books on both human and pet nutrition, writes on her Food Politics blog, “We know from studies using experimental animals that it is extremely difficult to induce nutrient deficiencies in animals that are fed a variety of foods providing sufficient calories.”
Dogs don’t need every single meal they eat to be complete and balanced any more than people do. If you feed a variety of different foods in appropriate proportions, the diet will be balanced over time, just as our own diets are. The only time a “complete-and-balanced” recipe is required is when you feed the same thing every day, and even then, there are no guarantees.
What to feed instead of a recipe
So, what do you do with that recipe that you’ve been using? If your dog is healthy, the first thing to do is ignore the rule about not making any alterations, but it’s important to make the right kind of changes.
You can increase the amount of meat in a recipe and decrease the grains and vegetables, but not the other way around. Most recipes limit meat to one-third of the total diet or less, with the rest made up of carbohydrates. Dogs thrive on protein and have no requirement for carbohydrates. There is no reason why you should limit protein in a dog’s diet, with the exception of a few specific health conditions, such as hepatic encephalopathy (a neurological condition that can result from liver disease) or glomerulonephritis (a form of kidney disease).
You can also replace some or all of the grains in a recipe with vegetables, but keep in mind that non-starchy veggies provide fewer calories than grains do, so you must increase the total amount of food you feed when replacing grains with green vegetables.
Organ meats provide many nutrients not found in muscle meat. Between 5 and 10 percent of the meat you feed should be liver because it's so nutritionally dense. It’s best to feed liver in small amounts regularly, rather than in occasional large quantities, which can lead to loose stools.
Instead of always feeding the same type of meat, it’s best to vary what you feed, using both poultry and red meat. Eggs, dairy and canned fish with bones are also good animal proteins to use in place of (or in addition to) the meat in a recipe.
Healthy leftovers, such as meat and vegetables (not fatty scraps), can be added to your dog’s diet, as long as you reduce meal size accordingly, so your dog doesn’t become overweight.
If the recipe you are using includes plant oils, such as corn or safflower oil, along with low-fat meat, consider feeding fattier meats instead. Chicken skin and dark chicken meat are better sources of the fatty acids found in plant oils; feed them instead of low-fat, skinless chicken breast and you won’t need corn or safflower oil. Also consider adding fish oil, which provides beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.
Don’t forget to always add calcium – approximately 1,000 milligrams per pound of food.
Dogs with special needs
If you use a recipe provided by a veterinary nutritionist to address a specific health condition, be careful about making changes. Variety is still better than always feeding the same recipe, but you must know the goals of the diet and how to meet them.
For example, dogs with kidney disease need a low-phosphorus diet. All Dalmatians and dogs with liver shunts must avoid foods that are high in purines (organic compounds found mostly in meat that can contribute to the formation of urate bladder stones) and dogs prone to calcium oxalate stones need a low-oxalate diet [see Calcium Oxalate Kidney and Bladder Stones for more information]. Do not modify these recipes unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing.
Variety is the spice of life
Regarding human diets, Nestle writes, “The best way to avoid nutrient deficiencies is to eat a variety of minimally processed foods. If you do that, you don’t have to worry about specific nutrients.” This sound advice also applies to dogs. Feed a nice variety of fresh foods, rather than a single, unvarying, “complete-and-balanced” recipe, to best ensure that all your dog’s nutritional needs are met. Variety is also more interesting for your dog, makes it less likely your dog will react unfavorably to new foods, and helps prevent the development of food allergies.
You can contact me if you have any comments, but I regret to say that I can no longer respond to questions about individual dogs. See my Contact page for more information. My name is Mary Straus and you can email me at either or