Mix & Match
Find the right combination of fresh ingredients and commercial foods for your dog's diet.
Cook's Corner column by Mary Straus, published in Dog World Magazine January 2010.
Nothing beats a properly prepared homemade diet for nutrition and appeal, but not everyone has the time, knowledge and resources to do this for their dog. That doesn't mean commercial dog food is your only choice, though. There is another option: combination diets. By adding fresh foods to your dog's commercial diet, you provide improved nutrition and more tasty variety for your dog.
The value of adding protein
Dogs thrive on protein. It helps build lean muscle, contributes to skin and coat health, supports the immune and central-nervous systems, and aids in would healing. Puppies and seniors especially benefit from increased protein in the diet.
Dogs have no known nutritional requirement for carbohydrates. Yet most commercial foods, particularly dry kibble, are high in carbs and relatively low in protein. Carbohydrates are used in dog foods as an inexpensive source of calories and, in the case of kibble, to help hold the food together. Adding fresh, high-protein foods to a commercial diet can help correct this imbalance.
Good foods to feed
Foods high in animal protein, such as eggs, meat, fish and dairy, make good additions to your dog's diet.
Eggs are one of the healthiest and easiest foods to add. They can be cooked or fed raw. You can give a whole egg (without the shell) every day to dogs that weigh more than 20 pounds; smaller dogs can eat half an egg (or even less for tiny dogs).
Meat. A variety of muscle meats (beef, chicken, turkey, lamb and pork) are excellent sources of protein.. Heart is nutritious and relatively inexpensive. Certain organs, such as liver should only be fed only in small amounts; too much at one time can cause loose stools. Give no more than 2 ounces of liver to a large dog (more than 50 pounds), 1 ounce to a medium-sized dog (25 to 50 pounds), and ½ ounce to a small dog (less than 25 pounds) daily. Both muscle meats and organs can be cooked or fed raw.
Fish is a source of protein, as well as beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Canned fish with bones, such as jack mackerel, pink salmon and sardines, are better choices than tuna, which is known to have a higher mercury content. In most cases, it's best to avoid serving your dog raw fish. If you cook fish for your dog, remove the bones. The bones in canned fish have been pressure-cooked to softness, so they’re fine to feed.
Dairy. Plain yogurt is a great addition to your dog’s diet, supplying beneficial bacteria (probiotics) that are good for your dog’s digestive health. Kefir is another cultured milk product that provides probiotics. You can find kefir in the dairy section of most grocery stores. Other beneficial dairy foods include cottage cheese and ricotta cheese. Add a spoonful of any of these foods to your dog's meals.
Fruits and veggies
Many dogs enjoy vegetables and fruits, which provide valuable antioxidants and phytonutrients (organic plant compounds that are thought to improve health). You can share many vegetables with your dog, including broccoli, celery, zucchini, carrots, and all kinds of leafy greens. For a dog to digest vegetables, they must be cooked or pureed. Whole, raw veggies are not harmful and can be given as snacks; they just won't provide much nutritional value.
Most dogs like eating bananas, apples, melons and papaya. Avoid feeding grapes and raisins, however; these can cause kidney failure in dogs.
It’s OK to include healthy leftovers in your dog’s diet -- just be sure not to feed fatty scraps and sugary treats. Keep portions small, particularly starchy foods, such as potatoes and pasta. Reduce the size of regular meals if your dog eats a lot of extra food, especially if it's overweight.
How much to feed
You can replace up to one-quarter of your dog’s commercial diet with fresh foods, without having to worry about balancing the added foods.
To estimate one-quarter of your dog’s diet, multiply its weight in pounds by 8, then divide by 100 to get the ounces of fresh food. For example, if your dog weighs 50 pounds: 50 x 8 = 400 ÷ 100 = 4. So, for the average 50-pound dog, 4 ounces of fresh food would be about one-quarter of its diet. This amount is just an average; it will be higher for extremely active dogs and lower for couch potatoes.
When you add foods to your dog’s diet, reduce the amount of commercial food to prevent your dog from gaining weight. If one-quarter of the diet is freshly prepared, reduce the amount of commercial food by one-quarter as well. For example, if you feed 2 cups of food a day to your 50-pound dog, cut that to 1½ cups of commercial food, then add 4 ounces of freshly prepared food. Weighing fresh food is more accurate than measuring by volume.
Half-and-half combo diets
When the amount of freshly prepared food you feed approaches half your dog’s diet (8 ounces daily for a 50-pound dog), you must feed a variety of different foods, such as eggs, meat, fish and dairy, along with small amounts of liver, to provide needed vitamins and minerals. A 50-50 combination diet also requires additional calcium at the rate of 800 to 1,000 mg per pound of added fresh food (200 to 250 mg per 4 ounces of fresh food). You can use any form of plain calcium, including ground-up eggshell. One-half teaspoon of ground eggshells provides 1,000 mg of calcium, soy you would add 1/8 tsp per 4 ounces of fresh food. See Crash Course on Calcium for more information.
Don’t believe the hype
Adding moderate amounts of fresh foods will improve your dog’s diet, no matter what commercial food you use. Dogs don’t need the exact same diet every day of their lives any more than people do. As long as healthy foods are fed in appropriate proportions, the diet will be balanced over time, just like with our own diets. Freshly prepared foods provide added nutrients, and the added variety will cause your dog to enjoy its meals more, as well.