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Homemade Diet Products and Updates

A Homemade Diet Stew: A medley of new products, updates, and answers to your FAQs.

Article by Mary Straus published in the Whole Dog Journal, September 2007

Also see these related articles:

See also:


Introduction

When we first planned a series of articles for the Whole Dog Journal on homemade diets, WDJ Editor Nancy Kerns and I had no idea that massive pet food recalls would erupt almost simultaneously with the publication of the first article, and continue to expand over the following months.

Throughout the aftermath of the recall, I saw a variety of recipes for home-prepared diets, to be fed as a safer replacement for potentially contaminated commercial foods. Presented in newspapers, magazines, and online, most of these diet recipes provided incomplete nutrition, lacked any source of calcium, offered no variety, and were heavily laden with carbohydrates rather than the protein that dogs require to thrive.

As more and more owners made the decision to switch to homemade diets rather than risk feeding contaminated food to their dogs, I grew increasingly aware of the importance and urgency to supply appropriate guidelines that could help people create homemade diets that would meet the nutritional needs of their dogs.

Over the past five months, I’ve presented information on homemade diets, both cooked and raw, with whole bones, ground bones or boneless. During that time, I’ve learned about some new products, read a great new book, tried out some sample pre-mixes and freeze-dried foods, and responded to questions from people about issues raised in my articles and points that would benefit from clarification. I’ll discuss these topics in this final installment of our series, and recap the resources that have been listed in prior articles.

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New cooked diet book

There seem to be an infinite number of cookbooks with recipes for human diets, and lately I’ve seen quite a few of them for dogs, too. But I just finished reading the first cookbook I’ve found with recipes for people to share with their dogs.

Carol Boyle, who discussed the diet she shares with her husband and her two Great Pyrenees in “Reality Cooks” (WDJ July 2007), has published a book on the topic. Natural Food Recipes For Healthy Dogs: Everything You Need to Know to Make the Greatest Food for Your Friend is delightful, easy to read, and filled with recipes for dishes you can share with your dogs.

Boyle’s simple but thorough guidelines for how to feed a healthy diet to your dogs, as well as to the humans in your household, made me begin to think that maybe even I could learn to cook! While I haven’t yet gone that far, I have found myself making larger portions and sharing them with my dog when I feel the meals I’m eating are appropriate, rather than just offering a few tidbits as I’ve done in the past.

Be sure to get the newly revised version available from naturaldogfood.com and Dogwise, not the older edition found elsewhere.

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Supplements for limited diets

Two new supplements designed to balance out limited homemade diets were introduced to the market since I wrote about them, also in July’s article. Steve Brown, the creator of Steve’s Real Food for Dogs, has developed a new product called See Spot Live Longer™ Homemade Dinner Mixes. Designed to balance out a meat-based diet, this product can be used by owners who are unable to feed their dogs the variety needed to create a complete diet, or those who simply feel more comfortable using a supplement to ensure that AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials) and NRC (National Research Council) nutritional guidelines are met.

A second product, Vitamins & Minerals for Home-Cooked Dog Food made by Furoshnikov's Formulas, is designed to balance out a diet that is higher in carbohydrates. This product is also guaranteed to meet the AAFCO guidelines for a canine diet when used according to directions.

Both of these new products, as well as the two mentioned in previous articles, Wysong’s Call of the Wild (designed for meat-based diets) and Balance IT (designed for high-carbohydrate diets), supply calcium as well as other needed vitamins and minerals, so there’s no need to add a separate calcium source when using any of them. Because of this, they are not appropriate to use with diets that include edible bone. See Dog Food Mixes for up-to-date information on these and other supplements designed to balance homemade diets.

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Green beans not toxic

Also in July’s article, I said, “Legumes (including green beans) should always be cooked due to a toxin they contain while raw (though small amounts would not be harmful.” Correction: This warning does not apply to green beans after all. It is only the mature beans, such as kidney, lima and fava beans, that contain significant amounts of toxin prior to cooking. Green beans (also called string beans, snap beans and French beans) are immature and are fine to eat raw.  

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Grinders

I’ve discovered three new sources for electric meat grinders since writing about them in WDJ’s May article on raw diets,“A Raw Deal.” Several raw feeders have recommended stainless steel grinders made and sold by Cabela’s, especially the 1 and 1½ horsepower models.

“My 1 HP Cabela's meat grinder will grind up veggies, whole chicken parts, and turkey wings and backs (I haven't tried legs as their bones are quite thick),” says Cary Branthwaite of Durham, North Carolina. “We grind and butcher quite a bit of venison, so we needed the 1 HP capacity, but a ½ HP grinder would be adequate also.”

Mary Waugh Swindell of Boyd, Texas, had a mechanical problem with the larger 1¾ HP model that she bought at Cabela’s in Fort Worth, but raved about the store’s customer service and willingness to take it back with no questions asked. She exchanged it for the 1½ HP model, which both her best friend and her dad have been happy with, and says, “It works like a dream. I needed something big and fast, as I’m feeding six large dogs. I would wholeheartedly recommend their grinder.”

These Cabela commercial-grade stainless steel grinders run $400 to $600, plus shipping (which is expensive on these heavy items) if you can’t find them locally. Cabela’s also sells lower-priced models, but I’ve heard no feedback about them.

Heather Smith, of Fayetteville, Pennsylvania, recently purchased a ¾ HP LEM stainless steel grinder from Bass Pro Shops (they’re also available directly from the manufacturer), and says, “It was about $350 and has worked great on chicken quarters, chicken wings and necks, turkey wings and necks, and oxtails. If you can fit it down the chute, this grinder will grind it.” LEM also makes smaller grinders, but again, I’ve not heard feedback about them.

Another recommended grinder is the 1.35 HP grinder from Gander Mountain, which costs about $150. Check with local stores specializing in outdoor gear and hunting and fishing equipment to see if any offer electric meat grinders, often used by hunters to process wild game.

In the past, many people recommended the Tasin grinders sold by Northern Tool, but, according to reports I’ve heard from dog owners, the quality of those has declined in recent years, so if you’re thinking about a grinder, you may want to try one of those listed above instead.

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Commercial alternatives

My dog, Piglet, volunteered to test samples of the four different varieties of dehydrated diets made by The Honest Kitchen, and gave them high marks. I’ve been integrating them into her diet as part of her breakfast every three days, for variety and because she likes them so much.

Laura Fulton, who told us about the diet she feeds her two Weimaraners in last month’s article, “Keeping It Raw,” also offered some samples from The Honest Kitchen to her dogs and reports that they love it. Her dog Violet, who is prone to gassiness and digestive upset, has had no problems with these foods. Fulton has fed all but the Verve variety, which is beef-based, as Violet is allergic to beef.

Another friend, Sheryl Matzen, of Gold River, California, tried Embark, the variety approved for puppies, mixed half and half with fresh foods, to feed her new German Shepherd moose . . . uh, puppy, Apollo, and she, too, reports that he loves the food and is doing extremely well with it. She wanted to feed him a homemade diet, though she was worried about getting it right for a large-breed puppy; happily, she feels comfortable using the pre-mix. Matzen was cooking the added meat, but a recent heat wave convinced her to try feeding raw instead. In fact, she even gives him meat that is still frozen, as he enjoys chewing on it, and it helps to distract him from the rocks that he otherwise wants to eat.

Piglet also tried some samples of Stella & Chewy’s Freeze Dried Steaks. This is a complete diet, which comes in both frozen and freeze-dried form. It is available in beef, chicken and lamb flavors, using free-range meats and human-grade ingredients.

The company recently opened its own processing plant in order to maintain control and ensure the safety of their products. I rehydrated the patties with warm water before feeding, and Piglet whimpered pathetically while waiting for them to be served. The result was a complete success: she ate with enthusiasm and tried to convince me I had not fed her enough. Complete packaged raw diets are too expensive for most people to serve all the time, unless you have very small dogs, but they can be handy to have on hand for quick and easy meals, and freeze-dried foods can be great for traveling, especially camping and backpacking.

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New organic raw diet

I just learned about a new, certified organic line of frozen raw diets called Paw Naturaw. These are complete diets meeting AAFCO nutritional guidelines for all life stages. Beef, bison, chicken and turkey varieties are all grain-free and made with 100% human-grade ingredients. Meat is mostly pasture-raised on family farms. The company makes its foods at its own processing plant, to ensure quality control. These foods can be ordered from Amazon.  

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Elemental calcium

A question was raised about the amount of calcium in eggshells due to the difference between calcium carbonate and elemental calcium. “Elemental calcium” is just a way of saying pure calcium, and this is what you will find listed in the nutritional analyses of most supplements.

Eggshells are 95 percent calcium carbonate, and calcium carbonate is 40 percent elemental calcium. A large eggshell provides about 5,500 mg (about 1 teaspoon) of ground eggshell. So, 1 teaspoon of ground eggshell provides about 5,225 mg of calcium carbonate, or 2,100 mg of elemental calcium. Thus, the recommendation to add ½ teaspoon ground eggshell per pound of food (when you do not feed edible bones) supplies about 1,000 mg of elemental calcium.

If a supplement says it contains 500 mg calcium, that means 500 mg elemental calcium, though the amount of the calcium compound used to make the supplement, such as calcium carbonate or calcium lactate, will be greater. That’s why it doesn’t matter what form of calcium you use, as long as you give the proper amount of elemental calcium as shown on the label.

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Vitamin A

One of the sample diets described in July’s article mentioned limiting the amount of liver in the diet due to concerns about vitamin A, and this is a worry I’ve heard voiced by many other people as well. Vitamin A is fat soluble, so an oversupply of this nutrient can be toxic. The reality, though, is that you would have to feed huge amounts of vitamin A for many months in order to cause toxicity. A diet that was all or mostly liver could lead to vitamin A toxicity over time, but a diet that includes small amounts of liver on a daily basis will not.

Liver is one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can feed, providing not only vitamin A, but also all the B vitamins, choline and inositol, vitamins D, E and K, and the minerals iron, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium and potassium, as well as essential fatty acids and high-quality protein. Don’t skimp on this nutritious food due to an unreasonable fear of too much vitamin A. Around five percent of the total diet should be liver, if possible.

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Whole food vs synthetic supplements

Whole food supplements use beneficial foods and herbs rather than synthetic vitamins. Examples include nutritional or brewer’s yeast (source of B vitamins, chromium, selenium and trace minerals), cod liver oil (source of vitamins A and D), organic apple cider vinegar (provides some trace minerals), and garlic (offers numerous health benefits). Green blends are whole food supplements that include primarily green foods, such as kelp, alfalfa and spirulina, which provide trace minerals and other nutrients.

It is hard to quantify the benefits of whole food supplements, as little in the way of measurable nutrients will show up on a nutritional analysis. Synthetic supplements generally offer much higher amounts of vitamins. If you want to give megadoses of vitamin C, for example, you will have to rely on synthetic supplements to do so. Whole foods may offer superior nutritional value due to the combinations of nutrients, which may act synergistically and which the body may be better able to utilize than isolated nutrients, and their structure, which may be more bioavailable than synthetics.

As with foods, it can be helpful to rotate among different supplements rather than always using the same one. Different brands, even those with similar ingredients, each offer their own unique combinations of nutrients, so once again variety can help to ensure that all nutritional needs are met while nothing is given in excess.

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Recipes vs diets

One criticism of my raw diet guidelines provided a spreadsheet analysis of a single recipe, and stated that it was incomplete. I don’t doubt that any single recipe derived from the guidelines I offered may be incomplete, due to the fact that the diets I recommend strive for balance over time, not in every single meal.

I cannot stress enough the need to feed variety, rather than feeding the same foods all the time. A diet that is half chicken wings will not meet all of your dog’s nutritional needs, and will be higher in fat than is desirable. A diet that includes meals of chicken wings rotating with meals of other types of raw meaty bones will have a reduced amount of fat and provide additional nutrients. In addition, of course, the other half of the diet should also include a variety of different foods such as muscle meat and organ meat of various kinds, along with eggs and dairy.

While fat is a good source of energy for dogs, too much can lead to weight gain, reduced nutrition (if the amount of food has to be limited to keep your dog at the optimal weight), and digestive upset in some dogs. Unless your dog is quite active and has trouble keeping weight on, the diet you feed should not contain an abundance of fatty meats and skin.

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Menadione

There has been a lot of concern lately about the use of menadione, a synthetic form of vitamin K, in pet foods. Menadione has been banned for use in human over-the-counter supplements because it is toxic at excessive dosages. This problem was seen primarily in human infants when they were injected with vitamin K to prevent deficiency.

Since synthetic vitamin K has double the potency of natural vitamin K on a per weight basis, this resulted in toxicity. One nursing encyclopedia says that “prolonged consumption of megadoses of vitamin K (menadione) results in anemia,” and that “a daily injection of 10 mg of menadione into an infant for three days can kill the child.” It was this tragic discovery that led to its use being banned.

In comparison, the amount of menadione in commercial foods is extremely tiny. The Balance IT supplement, which is meant to supply nutrients at AAFCO recommended levels, contains 0.0774 mg menadione per scoop. One usage recommendation I’ve seen is to use 3 scoops for 900 calories (for a 35 lb dog), which would be 0.2322 mg daily. This amount is just over 2 percent of the dosage that would be considered toxic to a much smaller infant.

Many substances, even water, are safe in recommended amounts but toxic when excessive amounts are ingested. While I agree that the natural forms of vitamin K, phylloquinone (vitamin K1), and menaquinone (vitamin K2), would be preferable to the synthetic form, my feeling is that the risk presented by feeding foods or supplements that use menadione (vitamin K3) is minimal, and I would not avoid a food just because it contains this ingredient.

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Fish and fish oil concerns

Many people worry about the amount of salt in canned fish. It is true that canned fish is salty, but dogs require a certain amount of salt, and a homemade diet is naturally low in salt, so the amount in canned fish that is fed once or twice a week should not be a concern. If your dog suffers from heart disease or needs a low-sodium diet for some other reason, you can rinse the fish to remove most of the salt.

Concerns also arise over possible contaminants in fish and fish oils, such as mercury, PCBs and dioxin. Mercury contamination is mostly a concern in larger fish, such as tuna, swordfish and king mackerel. Salmon, jack mackerel (not the same as king mackerel) and sardines are all low in mercury. Farmed salmon (almost always Atlantic salmon) is much more likely than wild-caught salmon to be contaminated with PCBs and dioxin. Canned salmon is almost always wild-caught Pacific (Alaskan) salmon. Check the label if you’re unsure.

Both Consumer Reports and ConsumerLab.com have conducted tests on a variety of fish oil supplements and found that none contained a significant amount of mercury, PCBs, or dioxins. They also found that almost all, including the less expensive brands, were fresh and contained the amount of omega-3 fatty acids promised on the label.

If you’re still concerned, look for pharmaceutical-grade oils, as they are guaranteed to be free of all impurities.

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Arsenic and antibiotics in chicken

Arsenic and antibiotics are fed to some chickens to encourage rapid growth. While the residual amount of arsenic left in the meat was considered too low to be a concern for human consumption, recent studies have shown that levels are higher than previously acknowledged. Adding arsenic to chicken feed also contributes to environmental contamination, while the indiscriminate use of antibiotics can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

There are many brands, including supermarket brands, that do not contain arsenic or antibiotics. Organic chicken contains neither arsenic nor antibiotics as well. Check with the supplier to verify that the brands you use are both arsenic- and antibiotic-free.

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Food weights

There is often confusion between different ways of expressing amounts, such as cups vs pounds. While a cup is a measure of volume and a pound is a measure of weight, the general rule of thumb (and the way to remember it) is, “a pint’s a pound, the world ’round.” A pint is 16 ounces, which is two cups, so a cup of food will weigh around 8 ounces. This will vary depending on density, but it should give a good approximation for fresh food, which has a high moisture content.

Other measurements and conversions that may be helpful:

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Cutting up raw meaty bones

A few people objected to my advice to owners who are concerned about the risk of their dogs choking on raw meaty bones. I said that owners could optionally cut up raw meaty bones into bite-sized pieces. Some owners argue that the way to prevent choking is to feed large pieces that are too big to be swallowed whole. They feel that cutting up raw meaty bones actually makes it more likely that dogs will choke.

In my experience with two dogs who have had problems chewing raw meaty bones, feeding large pieces doesn’t always help. If your dog’s teeth are too worn to be able to slice off pieces to swallow (as was the case with my dogs), it doesn’t matter how long they chew on the piece, eventually they still try to swallow it whole. Even if your dog is able to chew off pieces, that large piece then becomes smaller, and your dog may still try to swallow it when it is large enough to cause choking, particularly if you have a dog who tends to gulp his food.

It is important to cut food up into chunks that are too small to cause choking, even if swallowed whole. For example, turkey necks (or chicken necks for small dogs) need to be cut lengthwise rather than or in addition to crosswise, so that you don’t end up with short pieces that are still too thick to go down comfortably. When I cut up raw meaty bones for my dog, Piglet, she still chews the pieces, but has no problem swallowing them despite the fact that her teeth are too worn to chew a large piece into smaller pieces.

Another objection is that pieces of bone that are swallowed whole without being crushed by chewing are more likely to cause obstruction. In my experience, obstruction from raw bones is quite rare, and dogs have no problem digesting them, even if the bones are not crushed. However, if your dog swallows pieces whole and you see pieces of bone in his stool, you may want to invest in and use a grinder.

For those who do want to cut up their dog’s food, I’ll say once again that my Joyce Chen Unlimited Scissors work far better than any of a number of poultry shears that I’ve purchased over the years. They’re also great for cutting up gristly meat that is otherwise almost impossible to saw through.

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Q&A

The following are questions that I received from readers about earlier installments in this series.

* Eden Le Bouton of Cleveland, Ohio, writes, “In May’s article on raw diets, you say, ‘RMBs should make up 30 to 50 percent of the total diet.’ Later in the same paragraph you say, ‘While a reasonable amount of raw bone won't harm an adult dog, more than 15 percent is not needed and reduces the amount of other valuable foods that can be fed.’ My confusion is: should RMBs make up 15, 30 or 50 percent of the diet and is that the daily diet?”

The confusion lies in the difference between “bone” and “raw meaty bones” (RMBs). Raw meaty bones are, by definition, at least half meat, and so therefore no more than half bone. If you feed a diet that is 30 to 50 percent RMBs, the amount of bone in the diet will be 15 to 30 percent or less, depending on the ratio of meat to bone in the parts that you feed.

Dogs need no more than 15 percent bone, so if you feed the higher percentage of RMBs, you should try to use parts that are more than half meat. There is no need to feed an exact percentage of bone on a daily basis, though this is one ingredient that often works best when similar amounts are fed daily, as too much bone at one time can cause hard stools and constipation, while feeding no bone at all one day may lead to looser stools the next.

* David Logue of Allen, Texas, writes, “My wife and I have three rescued Maltese who have no teeth. We feed the dogs a home-prepared diet, but with little variety. What suggestions could you offer us?”

Most foods can be fed to dogs who lack teeth. The only real exception is whole bones. You can purchase products that include ground bone, or buy an inexpensive grinder that will grind softer bones, such as from chicken and rabbit, and do it yourself. Or you can feed a diet that doesn't include bone, and use a different calcium source instead.

Remember that no more than half the diet should be raw meaty bones, so even if you can't provide much variety in that area, you can still feed lots of different kinds of meats, organs and other foods, including eggs, cottage cheese, yogurt, canned fish with bone (jack mackerel, pink salmon, sardines) and healthy leftovers in the other half (or more) of the diet.

* Brenda Stoner of Henderson, Arkansas, asks, “What is your opinion on giving vitamin supplements made for humans to dogs? Is it OK to use yogurt or cottage cheese and eggs every day as long as I use a variety of meats?”

Human supplements are okay to use, as long as the amounts are appropriate. Adjust as needed for the size of your dog. For example, a large dog could take an adult human dose, while a medium-sized dog would take half that much, and a small dog one quarter or less.

It is fine to feed yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, or any other food on a daily basis, as long as the rest of the diet provides adequate variety. No one food should ever be more than half the diet, but there’s no problem adding the same healthy foods daily, particularly in small amounts. A medium- or large-breed dog could eat an egg every day with no problem, but a whole egg every day would be too much for a toy breed, as it wouldn’t leave enough room for a variety of other foods.

* Gerda Alexander of Newville, Pennsylvania, asks, “Can I use eggshells from boiled and uncooked eggs?”

Yes, eggshells from either cooked or uncooked eggs can be used. Just rinse them out and let them dry overnight before grinding in a clean coffee grinder. Ground eggshell will keep a long time if you remove the inner membrane before grinding. There’s no need to refrigerate it, as ground eggshell is just minerals.

* Winnie Laning of Toronto, Ontario, writes, “If I feed a home-cooked diet and add canned salmon, will this take care of the calcium requirement so that I don’t need to add a supplement? Also, is it beneficial to add sunflower oil to the diet?”

No, you can't use a single form of meat with bones to provide all the calcium your dog needs. You would end up feeding too much canned salmon (not enough variety), and too little calcium. Canned fish with bones has far more calcium than plain meat, but it actually has more phosphorus than calcium, so it can't be used to balance the phosphorus in the rest of the diet.

It's easy to add ground eggshells or any other form of calcium supplement when you don’t feed edible bone, at a level that provides around 1,000 mg calcium per pound of food. It’s fine to feed canned salmon some of the time, maybe once or twice a week, but don’t feed it daily, unless you feed very small amounts.

I don’t recommend adding vegetable oils to dog diets, especially in large amounts. Vegetable oils such as safflower, corn and sunflower oil are high in linoleic acid (LA), a form of omega-6 fatty acids that is usually plentiful in the diet (the exception would be an all-beef diet), and that can lead to inflammation when too much is given. Fish body oil is high in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are anti-inflammatory and hard to find in food (other than fatty fish). Note that flaxseed oil and carmelina oil are not good choices to replace fish oil, as the form of omega-3 fatty acids found in plant oils (alpha linolenic acid, or ALA) must be converted in the body to the forms that dogs can utilize (EPA and DHA), and dogs are not able to make this conversion very well, if at all.

If you do add plant oils, the best kinds to use are borage oil and evening primrose oil, as the gamma-linoleic acid (GLA) they contain is preferred over the LA found in vegetable oils. Olive oil, which provides omega-9 fatty acids, is also okay in small amounts. Remember that you need to add some vitamin E when you supplement with either plant or fish oils (the tiny amount of vitamin E included in most supplements is not enough). See Vitamin E for my current recommendations on vitamin E supplementation.

Note that some of the oil supplements sold for dogs are mostly vegetable oil. For example, Derm Caps are mostly safflower oil (up to 72 percent linoleic acid). Be sure to check the label before making a selection.

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Final note

I hope that the guidelines offered in this series of articles on homemade diets will help you get started feeding healthy foods to your dog, whether you feed a raw diet with bones, a raw or cooked boneless diet, a diet based on pre-mixes, or just a commercial diet with fresh foods such as eggs, meat, and dairy added.

It’s important to realize that it is no more difficult to feed your dog a healthy diet than it is to do the same for your family, though there are differences in their nutritional needs. It’s not necessary or desirable to feed only “complete and balanced” commercial foods, nor that every meal be complete and balanced, as long as balance is achieved over time.

Just as with our own diets, fresh, wholesome, species-appropriate foods offer superior nutrition to processed, packaged foods. Remember the three basic rules – variety, balance over time, and calcium in appropriate amounts – and open the door to improving your dog’s health in the most natural way possible.

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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

   


Rocky is a Yorkie-Poodle mix who had suffered from digestive problems his whole life. Click on his image to read about the diet his owner finally found to help him.
Pashoshe Fisher, a Chihuahua, was a wonderful, joyful companion to his owner for 19 & a half years. He was on a high quality raw diet for over half his life.
This is Ella, my Norwich Terrier.