Doing a google search for free dog food recipes gives thousands of results for unbalanced (and sometimes outright dangerous) recipes. In order to determine if a recipe is safe to feed I have come up with a list of red flags to look for. If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to ALL of these questions, be very cautious of using the recipe. 

1. Does the recipe specify what life stage the recipe is for?

All life stages have significant differences in their nutritional requirements. A recipe should explicitly state whether it is formulated for all life stages, adult maintenance, or growth. Furthermore, if it is formulated for all life stages or growth, it must specify whether it is or is not formulated for large breed growth. Without this knowledge, you have no clue if the diet is going to meet your dog’s nutritional requirements

2. Does the recipe state what nutritional standards were used to formulate the recipe (NRC, AAFCO, FEDIAF)? 

All 3 of these nutritional standards provide guidelines for what the diet should be providing. In the US and Canada, AAFCO is the more popular standard. NRC is more appropriate for homemade/ fresh food diets. If nutritional requirements are used to formulate the recipe, it should be mentioned. If it’s not, there’s a good chance that the diet was just thrown together. Always reach out to the author if you are unsure or if you have questions! 

3. Does the recipe state that it must be fed as written? 

Every food will have different nutritional properties to them. Not only will the vitamin and mineral profile vary, but they can also be wildly different in caloric density. Therefore, changing ingredients will change the nutritional profile and balance of the diet.  

PS: this is also a huge issue in base recipe mixes!

4. Does the recipe give a calorie breakdown AND give feeding guidelines? 

Knowing how many calories the diet will supply to your dog is important. While it may seem like it’s not useful knowledge, it is actually really important when switching to a new diet. Feeding recommendations are important to follow, but when deciding on a new food it can be helpful to calculate the calories that the dog has been maintaining a healthy weight on and mimicking those in a new diet. 

For example, if your 50lb dog has been maintaining a healthy weight on 3 cups of kibble, you want to be providing the same amount of the new diet. However, with the moisture content of homemade food, 3 cups will be much less calorically dense.

In this example, the kibble is 363 calories per cup so the dog is eating 1089 calories per day. In order for your dog to maintain weight on the new, homemade diet, you’ll want to be sure that your dog will still be consuming the same amount of calories. To take it further, that amount of calories should fit within the recipes’ feeding guidelines for your dog’s current weight- if it doesn’t, you’ll want to find a new recipe where they can eat within the feeding guidelines. 

To move on to the second part of this, if the recipe does not provide feeding guidelines then how are you supposed to know how much the dog should eat to be receiving all of the nutrition that they need? One size fits all feeding amounts do not exist because how much food the dog needs to consume depends heavily on the nutrient density of the food. 

5. Are the feeding guidelines dependent on the weight of the dog? Are they given as weights (ie. grams, pounds, ounces)?

Feeding guidelines based on a percentage of your dog’s weight are NOT feeding guidelines. Going back to the discussion on calories, 2 lbs of one food may provide far more or far less calories than another. This very often leads to unwanted weight gain and loss.

Feeding guidelines given as cups will be highly inaccurate as well. How much food fits in a cup depends heavily on how small pieces of meat are cut, and how much moisture there is. If carbs are included it will also change depending on how they were cooked, etc. Each meal should be weighed out using a kitchen scale. 

6. Are the ingredient amounts listed as grams, ounces and/or pounds? 

Like explained above, it is a huge red flag to have ingredient amounts listed in cup measures. 1 cup of meat can weigh drastically different amounts depending on the size of the chunks or if it’s ground. 

7. Are the ingredients specific? 

Each ingredient in the recipe should be specific to fat content, animal protein, and whether it’s cooked or raw. 

As an example, the recipe should say 90/10 ground beef, not ground beef. If organ meat is in the recipe, it should state what protein it is such as beef, chicken, lamb, etc., not just listed as ‘liver.’ 

Any carbohydrates included in the diet should specify whether the weight listed is for dry or cooked weight. 1 cup of uncooked rice is very different from 1 cup of cooked rice both calorically and nutritionally. 

8. Are any supplements listed with dosing and/or brand information? 

Similar to number 7, all supplements should have specific doses if brands are not given. Very often, I’ll see recipes that just list ‘canine multivitamin’ without stating what brand to use, or what brand was used to formulate the diet. These are all VERY different. 

Other examples would be writing ‘1 zinc tablet’ rather than 1, 15mg zinc bisglycinate tablet. Zinc tablets can range anywhere from 15-100+mg and many different forms have varying absorption rates. 

If a recipe uses cod liver oil, it should give a brand. Some brands can have quite high levels of vitamin A and vitamin D. Both of these nutrients are toxic at high levels. They are also stored in the liver so long-term high doses can create serious problems as well. 

9. Does the recipe use a lot of spices, herbs, and seeds rather than nutritional supplements? 

These ingredients are often touted to be good sources of several minerals, which technically on paper they are. However, the amounts needed are usually in amounts that aren’t palatable to dogs. Many of the commonly used ones also contain high levels of antinutrients such as oxalates and phytates which block the absorption of minerals.

10. Does the recipe contain a vitamin E supplement?

Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant and preservative. It is not found in appreciable amounts in foods so it must be supplemented with a naturally derived supplement. Vitamin E requirements are not a static number- they increase depending on the amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) that are present in the diet. That means that a dog eating a high-fat diet will have higher vitamin E requirements than a dog eating the same number of calories of a low-fat diet.

Whole food sources of vitamin E typically also contain PUFA’s so, as you add the vitamin E supplement, the needs keep increasing. For this reason, not including a vitamin E supplement is a huge clue that the formulator is not familiar with nutritional requirements! 

Conclusion

Hopefully, this gives you some insight on how to determine if an online recipe is suitable for long-term feeding. Supplying a balanced diet is crucial for supporting your dog’s health as best as possible! Diets formulated specifically for your dog are always going to be the most beneficial so do reach out if you’re interested in this. You can contact me here or find out more information on my formulation services here.

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