Have you ever sat down to eat a delicious dinner made up of a wholesome array of fresh foods and flavors, only to meet the large, questioning eyes of your dog staring at you over a bowl of everyday dog kibble? Perhaps this led you to wonder what those dry little bits of canine crunchies are actually made of ... and how you would feel eating the same thing every day for the rest of your life.

It's a valid thought. As many of us continue to lead healthier lives, eat a variety of fresh foods, and cut down on or eliminate processed ingredients, an increasing number of dog owners are asking their veterinarians about their companion animals' dietary needs as well. "Over the last ten years, we have definitely seen an increase in the number of clients who are asking for advice on alternative methods of feeding their dogs," says Eliot Kaplan, DVM, a specialist in canine and feline practice at the VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital.

Although commercially processed dog food provides convenience, questions linger about ingredient quality, preservatives, and other additives. Just as people foods do, dog kibbles vary dramatically; some promise optimal nutrition for the life of your pet, whereas others can't claim much more than a way to fill the food dish and are suspiciously vague on nutritional quality. Fortunately, a growing number of natural and nutritionally sound dog foods can now be found lining the pet aisles at the grocery store along with mainstream varieties. But lack of variety in the diet remains a concern. In fact, some animal nutritionists advise changing brands of commercial dog food every few months to guard against potential nutritional deficiencies.

Home-cooked Meals
For adequate nutrition, store-bought dog food can suffice. However, a growing number of people are making the switch to a home-prepared doggy diet using ingredients they prefer, such as organic meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Even though it can be more expensive to feed your dog a diet you cook yourself—not to mention more time-consuming—the benefits can be worthwhile. A properly balanced homemade diet, combined with informed supplementation, can result in a healthier skin and coat, little or no "doggy" odor, a strong immune system, a well-toned body, and abundant energy.

"People want their dogs to live longer and healthier lives and are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve this," Kaplan says. If you're dissatisfied with your bagged-food options, consider whether homemade may be right for your pet; you just might be surprised at how much you enjoy it. "My husband says that I spend more time cooking for the dogs than I do for him," says Nancy Hurley, owner of Four Leg Gourmet in Charleston, West Virginia, and a home-cooked-food adherent.

Check The Chow
Before switching from commercially processed food to a home-prepared diet, do some research to find credible information on canine nutrition, and be sure to discuss your plans with your vet. It's critical to have a thorough understanding of what foods are suitable for dogs. For example, although lean beef is a fine choice for the protein component of a meal, leftovers, such as chunks of gristle off your dinner steak, contain too much fat. Another example is garlic: This pungent herb is fine in small amounts, but it can be toxic if a dog ingests too much.

To bone up on canine nutrition, check out these resources.

Books:
Better Food for Dogs by David Bastin, et al. (Robert Rose, 2002)
Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats by Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, PhD, and Susan Hubble Pitcairn (Rodale, 1995)
Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets by Donald R. Strombeck, DVM, PhD (Iowa State University Press, 1999)

Online:
Nutrient Requirements of Dogs (National Academy Press, 1985) www.nap.edu/books/0309034965/html/
USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp

—D.B.

With a plethora of information available on the Internet regarding homemade diets and with so many conflicting views on how dogs should be fed, many people are now feeding diets that may be inappropriate for their dogs, that may not be properly balanced, or that are lacking in proper supplementation. "What people need to realize is that dogs have different nutritional requirements than [people] do," says Grant Nixon, DVM, an integrative veterinarian at the Lindsey Veterinary Hospital in Penticton, British Columbia, and co-author of Better Food for Dogs (Robert Rose, 2002). "In feeding a home-prepared diet, people must be certain that the diet is properly balanced and contains the required supplementation."

Because animal supplements vary widely, check labels carefully to know what you're giving your pet. Many supplements, designed for use with commercial foods that already contain vitamins and minerals, have fairly low nutrient levels. If you go the home-cooked route, look for supplements with higher nutrient levels or consult your pharmacist regarding use of human supplements. Always check with your vet to ensure that the supplement meets your dog's needs without nearing toxic levels.

Happy Tails
Because dogs are as individual as people, work closely with your veterinarian to monitor the suitability of your dog's diet, be it home-prepared or commercially processed. Schedule regular wellness exams to ensure your dog is getting the nutrition that he or she needs to maintain overall health.

If you do make the commitment to cook your dog's meals yourself, you may find the wags outweigh the whines. Nancy Hurley is convinced. "When I see how much more alive my dogs seem since I've switched them to a home-prepared diet," she says, "and when I hear the positive comments from my veterinarian and from my friends, I know that, although it may be a bit more time-consuming to cook the dogs' meals, it is nothing more than I would do for any of my other family members."

David Bastin is president of the Licks and Wags Dog Bakery in Summerland, British Columbia, and co-author of the award-winning book Better Food for Dogs (Robert Rose, 2002).