Common Nutritional Problems with Home-Prepared Pet Diets

Roxanne Hawn

Veterinary researchers found some common nutritional problems when they analyzed 200 home-prepared dog diets. Sometimes, home-prepared diets provided too little of certain nutrients. Sometimes, the diets provided too much. In other studies, researchers found similar issues in homemade diets for pets with cancer or kidney disease.

The Research

Researchers collected 200 recipes from 34 sources, including books, websites, and veterinarians.

Due to a lack of recipe specifics on things like cuts of meat, cooking methods, type of vitamin and mineral supplements to use, and feeding instructions, the research team sometimes made certain assumptions – typically using ingredients and supplements easily available in stores in most communities.

The team analyzed the recipes through computer-based analysis, which calculates common nutrient levels of ingredients. They also sent some actual prepared diets for laboratory assessment. The lab work is cost prohibitive, so researchers only tested 15 of the 200 diets in a lab.

Researchers then compared test results to National Research Council (NRC) recommended allowances and, when available, Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) minimal requirements for adult dogs.

The Findings

All essential nutrients. Of the 200 recipes tested using computer-based analysis:

  • Only 3 recipes provided all essential nutrients in concentrations meeting or exceeding NRC recommended allowances.
  • Another 2 recipes provided all essential nutrients in concentrations meeting or exceeding NRC minimal requirements.
  • All 5 of these diets came from veterinary sources.

Nutrient deficiencies. Of the 200 recipes tested using computer-based analysis:

  • 95% of recipes resulted in at least 1 essential nutrient deficiency.
  • 83.5% of recipes had multiple deficiencies.

Based on the NRC’s recommended allowances and minimal requirements, these nutrients were most commonly deficient in home-prepared diets:

  • Zinc – 69% of the recipes
  • Choline – 64.5% of the recipes
  • Copper – 54% of the recipes
  • Combination of EPA plus DHA (fatty acids) – 53.5% of the recipes
  • Calcium – 35% of the recipes

In some cases, there wasn’t enough information to determine levels of Vitamin D or Vitamin E. However, in the 167 recipes where information was available:

  • 61.1% were too low in Vitamin D.
  • 45.1% were too low in Vitamin E.

Some deficiencies didn’t even reach 50% of recommended allowances.

Why worry? The study’s authors wrote: “Deficiencies in these recipes may translate to adverse clinical effects when fed on a long-term basis. For example, diets deficient in choline can cause weight loss and fat accumulation in the liver, and vitamin D deficiency may cause substantial musculoskeletal abnormalities, particularly in growing puppies. For some nutrients (eg, zinc and vitamin E), clinical signs of deficiency may appear only after a prolonged period of feeding a deficient maintenance diet.”

Exceeded recommendations. Of the 200 recipes tested using computer-based analysis:

  • 100% of recipes exceeded NRC recommended allowances for crude protein, arginine, and pyridoxine.
  • 100% of recipes exceeded AAFCO guidelines on pyridoxine.
  • 9 recipes surpassed the safe upper limit for Vitamin D.
  • 6 recipes surpassed the safe upper limit for the combination of EPA and DHA (fatty acids).

Computer vs. Lab Tests

Lab test cost constraints limited the number of recipes and the number of nutrients assessed. While there were laboratory differences in nutrient concentrations compared to the computer-based tests, computer analysis was “highly predictive of deficiencies or excesses of nutrients as measured via laboratory methods.”

Diet Rotation Theory

A common response to possible home-prepared diet deficiencies is that it all works out over time, if the diet is varied and rotated. This theory assumes, however, that each diet is deficient in different ways.

The authors wrote: “Many proponents of less structured recipes for home-prepared diets assert that although each day’s meal is not necessarily complete, rotation and variety will provide a balanced diet overall. Our analysis indicated that this assumption was unfounded because evaluation of 3 recipe groups, each of which comprised 7 separate recipes, did not eliminate deficiencies. In addition, many recipes had similar deficiencies, with 14 nutrients provided at inadequate concentrations in at least 50 recipes. Thus, even the use of a strategy for rotation among several recipes from multiple sources would be unlikely to provide a balanced diet.”

Do you feed your pets food you make yourself?

Tell us how you ensure the right balance of nutrients.


Jonathan Stockman, DVM; Andrea J. Fascetti, VMD, PhD, DACVIM, DACVN; Phillip H. Kass, DVM, MPVM, PhD, DACVPM; Jennifer A. Larsen, DVM, PhD, DACVN, “Evaluation of recipes of home-prepared maintenance diets for dogs.” JAVMA, No. 11, June 1, 2013. 

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