It’s one of veterinary medicine’s dirty little secrets: many of us veterinarians are so cozy with the concept of commercially canned and kibbled food that we’re unwilling to consider any other approach to meeting our patients’ nutritional needs. So much so that we largely overlook the possibility that the kind of good old-fashioned home cooking considered best for ourselves and our human families might not actually be most appropriate for our pets too.
To be sure, it’s comforting to know that pets are receiving a predetermined, nutritionally-balanced diet based on years of science (even if that science remains a little squishy given the serious limitations to our understanding of nutrition in general –– and not just for pets!). Which is why the common veterinary view in support of commercial feeding is absolutely understandable. More so when you consider that some of us have seen more problems from feeding home-cooked diets than from feeding commercially prepared diets.
Nonetheless, the tables have started to turn on this issue so that it’s become a topic of great controversy in animal medicine. More so in recent years because of the following factors (among others):
the massive pet food recall of 2007, in which at least a few thousand animals lost their lives due to the inclusion of a Chinese-sourced, melamine-tainted, protein-boosting ingredient
the since-then ongoing increased oversight of commercial pet diets, with its multitude of mini-recalls (chicken jerky has been an especially fraught menu item)
salmonella infections in humans via kibbled diets
the current kerfuffle over the American Veterinary Medical Association’s recommendations urging pet owners to eschew raw food diets (which are most often home-prepared)
Fundamentally, the conflict within veterinary medicine is over the issue of pet safety in general and, increasingly over the role of human health (but only where raw foods are concerned). Yet from a pet owners’ perspective, the concept of a veterinarian protecting their pets’ safety seems oddly misaligned with physician recommendations to feed our human families fresher foods and higher quality ingredients.
Given the current cultural shift toward free-range, organic, and fresh in general, it only makes sense that a rift between vets and pet owners would emerge on the subject. And, to be fair, veterinary medicine has been slow to respond to this shift in attitude. Indeed, the bulk of veterinary medicine remains entrenched in its staunch position against home cooking –– raw diets, especially –– but all home-prepared diets are subject to this same bias.
It’s true that in-the-know pet owners can, to some extent, rightly blame our veterinary education in nutrition –– in particular, it’s lack thereof and/or its sponsorship by commercial pet food companies –– for our reticence on the subject of home cooking. But it’s also undeniably true that home cooking has its pitfalls. Here’s my list (for a list of reasons against raw diet feeding, in particular, reference the aforementioned AVMA recommendations on raw feeding):
Nutritional balance matters - Veterinarians generally recommend that pet owners feed commercial diets that are labeled “complete and balanced.” These words are the signal that a pet food has been determined by the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) to meet the currently accepted balance of nutrients our pets require for optimum health.
There is no such guarantee when it comes to home prepared diets. How do you really know you’re feeding a diet with the correct nutritional balance?
Oversight is peace of mind - AAFCO also requires that all commercial pet foods meet eight criteria before pet foods can receive AAFCO-certified labels. This oversight also gives veterinarians confidence that the foods are safe and effective as well as nutritionally complete and balanced.
Oversight is an issue for veterinarians who want independent confirmation of a product’s track record. We would hate to recommend any food that wasn’t defensibly considered safe and effective. Can you always say the same for your home-cooked fare?
The inconvenient truth - Making your own pet food can be expensive, time-consuming and just plain inconvenient.
Nightmare scenarios - Any veterinarian in practice more than a couple of years will have encountered at least one patient with a nutritional disease. In my experience, most of these have suffered malnutrition due to neglect or abandonment. Others, however, have been the victims of the altogether too common “he’ll only eat this” diet. A shocking lack of bone density and concurrently severe unthriftiness is the most typical finding among our “he’ll only eat this” patients, with some pets even suffering fractures as a result.
A veterinarian faced with such a dramatic example of malnutrition due to home feeding is more likely to take issue with all kinds of home cooking. So might you if you’d seen one of these unfortunate animals.
But this is not necessarily the kind of home cooking we’re talking about here. When undertaken in concert with a veterinarian’s directives –– especially when consultation with a veterinary nutritionist is part of the plan ––home cooking has many points to recommend it:
Safe and tailor made
You know what your pet likes. Your veterinarian understands your pet’s individual medical needs. Should the two of you decide to create a very specific diet for you to cook at home, the furthest either of you need look is to the American Academy of Veterinary Nutritionists.
Here you can seek out the services of a board-certified veterinary nutritionist (either by yourself or along with your vet) so you can come up with a safe diet tailored to your pet’s individual medical needs.
Much is made of freshness in human nutrition –– especially when it comes to preventing chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. But, in contrast to this newer thinking on the human side, freshness doesn’t figure much in veterinary circles. Again, that’s because achieving the ideal nutrient balance is considered veterinary science’s gold standard for feeding our pets.
Unfortunately, we don’t really know enough about animal nutrition to properly evaluate the role of fresh ingredients. Because science is based on what we do know and can measure, and because relatively few pet owners are willing to cook fresh foods for their pets … the world may never know for sure whether fresh is best for our pets. We can, however, rely to a large extent on human nutrition, which currently considers the increased consumption of fresh foods to be a very good thing.
I find that lots of pet owners who choose home cooked diets over commercial acquire a great deal of knowledge and confidence in their pets’ healthcare. The greater sense of control they feel over what they feed their pets means they’re more engaged pet owners who are, on average, better able to advocate for their pets’ health.
But it’s up to you. Whatever you decide, just be sure to seek professional help.
Apart from the American Academy of Veterinary Nutritionists, pet owners are also free to ask their veterinarians to recommend the nutrition services of a local veterinary school. Two additional resources commonly cited include: