I cook for my family. Should I cook for my pet too?
Taking time to prepare food for family, friends, and houseguests is often considered a loving gesture. It’s no secret that as pet owners, we love our furry companions and consider them to be family members. Therefore, some pet parents wish to extend this same service to their pets, equating home-prepared food with love. Unfortunately, there are many risks to feeding homemade diets to pets. Pet owners must understand these dangers and therefore consider the difficulty and expense of choosing homemade over commercial diets.
Why homemade isn't always the best option
Home-prepared diets can work wonderfully when they are formulated properly, but can be disastrous for your pet’s health if not. Pet diets are nearly impossible to get nutritionally complete and balanced without the help of a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. Unbalanced diets can lead to life-threatening nutritional deficiencies or excesses of certain nutrients (see Nutrient requirements for more information). Online recipes and cookbooks, even when written by veterinarians, do not yield properly balanced diets (see How to find reliable nutrition information to learn more). Multiple scientific research studies have found that there are no nutritionally adequate recipes online or in cookbooks. Creating recipes yourself is not such a great idea either. Board-certified veterinary nutritionists train for years to learn all about animal digestive physiology, nutrient requirements, and formulating diets for both healthy and sick pets.
It's different than feeding people
Cooking for your pet is not as simple as cooking for your family. For starters, human foods are fortified with extra nutrients to levels that are required by humans (e.g., fortified rice or enriched pasta). These levels are not the same as what our dogs and cats require. Likewise, human food labels have nutrition facts and daily recommended values for humans. Again, these requirements are very different from our pets’ requirements. Additionally, humans usually eat three meals per day, plus snacks. We eat a wide variety of foods, and we are therefore less likely to become deficient in certain nutrients since our diets are fortified and constantly changing. Even so, humans are notoriously bad at feeding ourselves, and many people become overweight or unhealthy due to their poor eating habits.
Preparing pet food at home is extremely time-consuming, especially with the right recipe and direction from a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. Cooking one or two extra meals every day, completely separately from your own food, takes time and careful planning. Pet food also has to be cooked differently than human food: everything is boiled and unseasoned, not baked, broiled, or fried.
Preparing pet food at home also gets expensive. Nutrition consultations with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist can really add up. Your pet will also need to see the veterinarian more regularly for check-ups to make sure they are staying healthy on their homemade diet. The nutritionist will also direct you to buy specific vitamin and mineral supplements to add to your home-cooked pet diet. They may even suggest you buy unfamiliar, more costly ingredients which may be needed to appropriately balance the diet.
Pets who should not eat homemade diets
Puppies, kittens, and pregnant or lactating mothers should not eat homemade diets. It is very hard to meet their nutritional requirements, and even small errors in nutrient proportions can cause serious and lifelong consequences.
Obese pets who need to lose weight should not eat home-prepared diets; it is extremely difficult to meet their needs while keeping them on calorie restriction. Obese pets should eat a therapeutic weight-loss diet instead, which has been formulated to be low-calorie and nutrient-dense.
Pets with health conditions or chronic diseases should not eat a homemade diet unless it is formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. Pets with diseases or illnesses have special nutrition requirements, and their conditions can be made worse when fed improperly formulated homemade diets.
Where pet parents often go wrong when feeding homemade
Not working with a nutritionist
There are so many ways homemade diets can go wrong, with the first being not working with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. These experts know exactly what your pet needs and how to formulate a complete and balanced diet for them, which includes all the nutrients they need. Pet parents who don’t work with a veterinary nutritionist cannot guarantee they are preparing a diet that is complete, balanced, safe, and effective for their pet.
Homemade diets can be dangerous if they contain raw or undercooked meat, bone, or egg products. Raw meat can contain pathogens such as bacteria like Salmonella, E. coli, or Listeria, which can pose health risks for your pet, yourself, and your family. Bones can also cause tooth breakage or puncture your pet’s intestines. Raw eggs contain an enzyme which prevents the absorption of biotin, a B-vitamin, and this can lead to skin and coat problems. (Go to Raw diets for much more information.)
No organ meats
Another way homemade diets can be unsafe is if they contain only muscle meats, or the cuts of meat usually found at the grocery store (like chicken breast, steak, pork chops, etc.). Dogs and cats require organ meats, also known as by-products, to balance their diet (see By-products and meat meal for more information). Eating a diet of only muscle meat can cause severe metabolic disease due to mineral imbalances.
Lack of variety
Improperly formulated homemade diets may also lack variety. If a vitamin and mineral supplement from a board-certified veterinary nutritionist is not used, diets with only one or two ingredients will not provide adequate levels of essential nutrients, especially vitamins, minerals, and fats. Properly formulated homemade diets will often have five or more ingredients to get the right levels of all your pet’s essential nutrients.
Some pet parents may cook food for their pet as if they were cooking for another person, adding oil, butter, salt, and seasonings. This is another way homemade diets can become dangerous, or even deadly. Adding oil or butter can increase the fat content to unsafe levels, causing pancreatitis and diarrhea. Using too much salt can cause dehydration and neurological symptoms. Seasonings should never be used in homemade diets because they do not add nutrients, and some could even cause health issues in your pet. Seasonings like onion and garlic can be deadly to dogs and cats. (See What not to feed: unsafe foods for pets for more information.)
Kibble + food toppers
One way some pet parents feed “homemade” is by feeding only a small amount of commercial complete and balanced kibble, then adding lots of food toppers which are not complete and balanced. If the food toppers make up more than 10% of the pet’s daily caloric intake, this can be unsafe because the pet is not getting enough nutrition from the small portion of kibble. Feeding this way can be just as dangerous as feeding a wholly unbalanced homemade diet. (See Treats, table scraps, and food toppers for more information.)
Adding a multivitamin
Another way pet parents may believe they are balancing a homemade diet is by simply adding a multivitamin and/or mineral supplement to an unbalanced home-prepared diet. This can be unsafe because it is more than likely the diet will still not have enough nutrients, but you could also be adding too many of some nutrients, which can potentially negatively impact your pet's health. Dietary supplements for homemade diets should not be used unless a board-certified veterinary nutritionist prescribes them to you. (See Supplements for more information.)
Just table scraps
Some pet owners may simply feed their dog only table scraps, or feed their cat only canned tuna. This can cause calorie deficits, vitamin and mineral imbalances, and metabolic disease, as well as digestive problems like pancreatitis or diarrhea. Dogs and cats should always be fed a complete and balanced diet that is formulated appropriately for their species.
The dangers of unbalanced homemade diets are not always obvious. A recipe may seem safe and balanced, but can cause issues in your pet’s body that you do not see. It can take weeks, months, or years for nutritional imbalances to show up and start causing symptoms. Therefore, it is safest not to feed a homemade diet unless the recipe was created by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist.
Why to trust commercial
Commercial pet food manufacturers are required to follow the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines and are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). AAFCO, the FDA, and your state government all work together to regulate pet food. AAFCO sets guidelines and standards for labeling, defines ingredients, and facilitates cooperation between pet food manufacturers and regulatory bodies. The FDA regulates pet food on a national level, enforces the guidelines set by AAFCO, ensures compliance by pet food companies, and has the authority to fine manufacturers and recall diets if they are substandard. Your state and local governments help the FDA with pet food regulation, and may pass other laws in addition to those set by the FDA. The laws, guidelines, and regulations put forth by these entities control pet food labeling, as well as ingredient definitions, marketing, inspection of facilities, and much more.
There are certain commercial pet food manufacturers that are more trustworthy than others. Learn how to assess pet food manufacturers to see if they are reliable and science-based by visiting How to pick a pet food, part 1.
Many pet parents are wary of commercial pet foods because they believe the ingredient list tells them all there is to know about the quality of the diet. However, ingredients don’t tell us if a food is “good” or “bad.” (For more information, visit How to read a pet food label and Nutrient requirements.) Additionally, just because you buy meat for your pet at the grocery store does not mean it is of higher quality than the meat found in a bag of kibble.
Some pets require a therapeutic diet to treat a specific disease. Therapeutic diets are designed to treat or prevent certain common diseases in dogs and cats, such as kidney disease or bladder stones. These diets are formulated by reliable, science-based manufacturers, and are regulated by the FDA. Therapeutic diets are safe and effective, and should be the first choice when treating a pet with a common disease that responds to nutritional therapy. (See Therapeutic diets for more information.)
When homemade diets may be necessary
Pets may require a homemade diet for a couple of reasons. For example, some pets are very finicky and refuse to eat commercial kibble or canned foods. This is very rare, but if you’ve tried every flavor and type of food and your pet still wants only “people food,” you may be thinking of switching to a homemade diet.
Some pets have complicated health conditions or diseases that are not well-managed by commercial or even therapeutic diets. For example: a pet with a combination of diseases that need to be managed by nutrition in different ways. All pets with health conditions should be seen by their regular veterinarian, and then referred to a board-certified veterinary nutritionist if the primary veterinarian believes the pet would do best on a home-prepared diet.
Certain pet parents have religious beliefs and customs that they extend to their pets. For example: meats needing to be prepared according to halal or kosher tradition. These pet owners may want a homemade diet for their animals, so they know their pet is eating food that aligns with their beliefs.
Still want to feed homemade?
Pet parents who are determined to feed homemade should talk to a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, especially if their pet has a health condition. Boarded nutritionists can be found on their website ACVN.org, at a local veterinary college, or through private consulting services. Your pet’s usual veterinarian can also get you in contact with a board-certified nutritionist.
If your adult pet is healthy and you would like to access recipes and buy dietary supplements online, you can visit BalanceIT.com. This site is operated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, and all the recipes are complete and balanced.
If your pet is eating a home-prepared diet, make sure they visit the veterinarian every 6 months, and more often if they have a health condition. The veterinarian will make sure your pet remains at a healthy body condition, stable weight, and stays in good health while they are on this diet. Your veterinarian will also consult with a board-certified nutritionist throughout the process on your behalf.
If you are feeding a homemade diet formulated by a board-certified nutritionist, make sure you follow the recipe, ingredients, measurements, and cooking instructions exactly. Deviating from the recipe can lead to serious health consequences for your pet, even if you don’t see them immediately!
Pet Food Institute: “Choosing a Pet Food”
Tufts University: “FAQ about home-cooked diets for pets”
Tufts University: “Think Twice: Reasons to Avoid a Home-cooked Diet”
Tufts University: “Should you make your own pet food at home?”
Tufts University: “Cooking Up Trouble: Common Home Cooking Mistakes”
UC Davis: “Homemade Cat Food Diets Could Be Risky”
UC Davis: “Is Homemade Food Good or Bad for Your Dog?”
Watch the video
Johnson, LN. et al. (2015). Evaluation of owner experiences and adherence to home‐cooked diet recipes for dogs.
Stockman, J. et al. (2013). Evaluation of recipes of home-prepared maintenance diets for dogs.
Wilson, SA. et al. (2019). Evaluation of the nutritional adequacy of recipes for home-prepared maintenance diets for cats.