Real Food For Your Dog & Cat

Healthy Dog Food Choices

By Jo Bighouse, Owner, Midas Touch Naturally Healthy Pets, LLC

I rank dog food options in the following order:

  1. Homemade, balanced raw diet
  2. Frozen pre-made raw diet
  3. Dehydrated or freeze-dried raw diet
  4. Homemade, balanced cooked diet
  5. High quality canned food
  6. High quality kibble

Homemade Raw Diet

You can make your own raw diet by sourcing all of the ingredients yourself or by adding meat to a base-mix.

In her book, Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats, The Ultimate Diet, Kymythy Schultze has the following recipe for a 50 pound dog:

¾ – 1 cup muscle meat; 1 turkey neck or 6 chicken necks; 3 tablespoons pulped vegetables; 2 teaspoons kelp/alfalfa; 1 teaspoon cod liver oil; 2 teaspoons essential fatty acids; 3,000 to 6,000 mg Vitamin C

Examples of muscle meat are ground beef, lamb, pork, or chicken.  Vegetable suggestions are carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, squash, celery, parsley.  Starchy foods such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squash need to be cooked.  Other vegetables can be run through the food processor or blender.  Essential fatty acids can be fish oil such as salmon, herring, or sardine.

If you prefer the convenience of a base-mix instead of sourcing all of the raw ingredients yourself, I recommend any of the following:

The Honest Kitchen Preference – a dehydrated whole food base containing sweet potatoes, organic alfalfa, cabbage, organic coconut, apples, spinach, zucchini, bananas, celery, organic kelp, honey, vitamins and minerals.

Sojourner Farms Original – a freeze dried base containing rolled oats, rye flakes, barley flakes, ground pecans, tricalcium phosphate, dried kelp, parsley leaf, carob powder, basil, alfalfa, and Vitamin D3.  (Sojos makes a grain-free version which I do not recommend because some of the ingredients are sourced from China.  The owner of Sojourner Farms has been staying in contact with me and advises he is investigating sources other than China for all of his ingredients.  If he is successful, the grain-free Sojos will be on my recommended list.)

Dr. Harvey’s Veg-to-Bowl – a grain free pre-mix containing sweet potatoes, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, broccoli, green beans, peas, beets, parsley, calcium citrate, fennel seed, fenugreek seed, ginger, papaya leaf and peppermint leaf.

Dr. Harvey’s Canine Health – a pre-mix containing organic rolled oats, barley flakes, triticale flakes, spelt flakes brown rice flakes, kamut flakes, sweet potatoes, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, peas, green beans, beets, broccoli, parsley leaf, calcium citrate, lecithin granules, nutritional yeast flakes, alfalfa leaf, rose hips, red clover blossoms, oat straw, flax seed meal, rosemary leaf, dandelion root, peppermint leaf, ginger root, fenugreek, and fennel seed.

Using any of these pre-mixes is easy.  Just add water, your choice of meat, and fish oil to make a complete and balanced meal.

Frozen Pre-made Raw Diet

This option provides the nutritional benefit of a real-food raw diet without you having to do any preparation.  They are available in their natural form from companies such as Aunt Jeni’s Homemade 4 Life, Bravo, Vital Essentials and some of the Primal varieties.  Other companies offer raw diets that have been processed with high pressure pasteurization (HPP) which is advertised to be safer than totally raw food.  Although I would consider these diets to be minimally processed, some advocates of raw feeding do not agree that HPP meats are actually raw.

Dehydrated or Freeze-dried Raw Diet

There are a number of companies that make a complete meal that you rehydrate and serve.  These are similar to the pre-mixes mentioned above but they include the protein such as chicken, turkey, beef or fish so it is complete and balanced.  They are available in patties, nuggets, sprinkles, diced and shredded form.  Those I recommend are:

  • The Honest Kitchen
  • Vital Essentials
  • Primal

These are a convenient option for feeding raw food when you travel and the nuggets make excellent training treats that can be considered part of your dog’s daily food ration.  They are also a good choice in lieu of canned food or as a topper on a kibble diet.

Homemade, Balanced Cooked Diet

Recipes that are available for a raw diet can be used and the meat can be cooked if you are not comfortable with raw.  I would suggest cooking the meat rare to preserve as many of the nutrients as possible.  If you cook the vegetables in water, be sure to include that water in your dog’s meal.  Some of the nutrients that are lost during cooking remain in the water.

Raw meaty bones such as chicken necks, wings and backs cannot be fed to your dog cooked because cooking makes the bone brittle and dangerous to consume.  In a homemade raw recipe, these bones provide calcium, phosphorous and other essential minerals.  If you make a home cooked meal and do not include raw meaty bones you will need to add a calcium supplement.  My recommendation is Animal Essentials Natural Seaweed Calcium supplement.

Canned Foods

Canned food has a high moisture content which is important for your dog.  The food is usually cooked in the can so most of the natural nutrients survive.  When choosing a canned food I like to see real meat as the first ingredient.  There should be no byproducts or fillers.  And if the recipe includes only real food with no added vitamins, I consider it a plus.  Many vitamins added to pet food are synthetic which are not utilized by the body as well as food based vitamins.

There is a concern about the possible adverse health effects of BPA used to seal cans.  Some pet food companies are reacting to this by advertising their cans to be BPA free.  As a general rule, small cans (for example 5 ounces) do not contain BPA because the can is made from a single sheet of metal and there are no seams requiring the BPA sealant.  If a company states that their larger cans are BPA free I would ask for a written statement disclosing the sealant they are using.  It is not uncommon for a pet food company to use multiple canning facilities.  So the statement should list each facility and verify that no BPA is used – including BPA as a sealant on the seams of the can.  It is possible for a company to state their cans are BPA free while still using a BPA sealant on the seam.

A common ingredient in canned food is carageenan.  The safety of this ingredient has not been proven to my satisfaction.  Carageenan is fed to lab animals to induce inflammation to enable drug companies to test anti-inflammatory drugs.  It is also implicated in stomach and intestinal disorders.   Unfortunately, it is difficult to find carageenan-free canned food.  My recommendation is to read the labels and keep carageenan a minimal part of your pet’s diet.  (Check the labels on your own food also – it is in products where you may not think to look, such as half-and-half and cottage cheese.)  At Midas Touch Naturally Healthy Pets you will find three canned food lines that are carageenan-free:  Pet Guard, Canine Caviar and Tiki Dog.

If you store leftover food in the refrigerator, I would recommend taking it out of the can.  My preference is to use glass canning jars for storing food.

High Quality Kibble

Kibble is on the bottom of my list because it is the most highly processed of all of the food choices.  If you use kibble I encourage you to add some components of my top 4 choices as often as possible.

To determine if a kibble is high quality it is important to read the label.  The marketing buzz words that are printed on the front of the bag will not give you the entire picture.

Ingredients are listed by weight so you should not assume a pet food with meat as the first ingredient is good quality. Fresh meat can be 70% water and heavy so a very small amount can put it at the top of the ingredient list. If you find a food with chicken as the first ingredient and byproduct meal as the second, there is actually more byproduct in the food than chicken. By contrast, a food with chicken meal as a first ingredient followed by chicken, vegetables and good quality grains is a healthier choice.

If you are avoiding specific proteins for your allergic dog it is especially important to read the label closely.  A popular well-known brand has three varieties, one of which is Buffalo.  “Buffalo” is prominently displayed in red on the front of the bag and “Chicken Meal” is included in smaller letters.  You may pick this up because you would like your dog to have buffalo as their primary protein.  But when you read the label you will see “Buffalo Deboned, Chicken Meal, Potato Dehydrated, Turkey Meal…”  At a quick glance this appears to be a buffalo based kibble.  But after reading the ingredient panel you learn there is actually more chicken, and probably more turkey, in the recipe than buffalo.

An example of a low quality kibble with an outstanding marketing program is Beneful.  I decided to purchase a bag from the grocery store and take a look at the ingredients.  The label reads:

  • Ground yellow corn, chicken by-product meal, corn gluten meal, whole wheat flour, animal fat, preserved with mixed-tocopherols (from Vitamin E), rice flour, beef, soy flour, sugar, propylene glycol, meat and bone meal, tricalcium phosphate, phosphoric acid, salt, water, animal digest, sorbic acid, potassium chloride, dried carrots, dried peas, calcium propionate, L-Lysine monohydrochloride, choline chloride, added color (Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 2), DL-Methionine, Vitamin E supplement, zinc sulfate, ferrous sulfate, manganese sulfate, niacin, Vitamin A supplement, calcium carbonate, copper sulfate, Vitamin B-12 supplement, calcium pantothenate, thiamine mononitrate, garlic oil, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin supplement, Vitamin D-3 supplement, Menadione sodium bisulfite complex, calcium iodate, folic acid, biotin, sodium selenite.

The ingredients I do not like to see in a dog food include:

  • Ground Yellow Corn Since this is listed as the first ingredient on the label there is more corn than meat in this product. A dog is a member of the Canidae family, which includes wolves, foxes, and coyotes. Members of the Canidae family are carnivores. The definition of carnivore in the Webster dictionary is: an order of Mammallia “adapted by their structure to feed upon flesh. The teeth are large and sharp, suitable for cutting flesh.” Animals adapted to eating corn have large flat teeth.
  • Chicken by-product meal – is defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials as “the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered poultry, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs, and intestines, exclusive of feathers.” On The Animal Feed Resource Information Systems web site I found the following statement, “This meal is a combination of all poultry by-products processed together in the same proportions as they occur in the processing plant. Composition can be quite variable from plant to plant and batch to batch, depending upon what is being included.” (Emphasis is my own.)
  • Corn gluten meal – An inexpensive by-product of human food processing which contains some protein but is used mainly as a binder.
  • Animal fat – The AAFCO definition includes the statement:  Obtained from the tissues of mammal and/or poultry in the commercial processes of rendering or extracting.  The animal source does not have to be identified and is not required to originate from slaughtered animals.
  • Sugar – In her book, “Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats” Kymythy Schultze writes, “Cancer cells thrive on sugars.” “Sugar is addictive, damages the pancreas, and drains vitamins and minerals from the body. It is implicated in hypoglycemia, diabetes, obesity, behavior problems, cataracts, tooth decay, arthritis, allergies and cancer. Yeast also thrives on sugar. In a 1993 study, unhealthy candida yeast overgrowth was 200 times greater in animals receiving dextrose than in control groups that did not receive the sugar.”
  • Propylene glycol – is a synthetic chemical produced from propylene oxide. In their propylene oxide storage and handling guide, Dow Chemical states, “The second largest use of propylene oxide is the production of propylene glycol and lesser amounts of co-produced dipropylene glycol and higher propylene glycols. Propylene glycol is one of the most widely used synthetic chemicals, finding its way into such diverse applications as the manufacture of thermoset polyesters for building boats, home construction components, additives for human and animal foods, and pharmaceutical excipients. It is also a primary ingredient in cosmetics and laundry detergents.” Propylene glycol is not approved for use in cat food because it affects the red blood cells. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined that propylene glycol in or on cat food has not been shown by adequate scientific data to be safe for use. Use of propylene glycol in or on cat food causes the feed to be adulterated and in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. 21CFR589.1001. (But it can be in our food and our dog’s food!)
  • Meat and Bone meal – The parts used can be from any species of animal, including road kill and euthanized animal, and do not have to be identified. 
  • Animal Digest is defined by AAFCO as “material which results from chemical and/or enzymatic hydrolysis of clean and undecomposed animal tissue. The animal tissues used shall be exclusive of hair, horns, teeth, hooves and feathers, except in such trace amounts as might occur unavoidably.” The source of the animal tissue does not need to be identified.
  • Added Color These are chemicals added to make the dog food more attractive to the buyer. They have no nutritional value and the continual consumption of these chemicals may have adverse affects on your dog. Yellow 5 has been demonstrated to provoke an allergic reaction in some people and there are FDA regulations that require all prescription medications to post a notice if they are formulated with Yellow 5.

As you can see by the label, Beneful contains very little meat. Since meat is the most expensive ingredient, this food can be sold for less and looks like a bargain to the consumer at about $1.71 per pound. But be prepared for the possibility of spending more on medical care. A dog fed a steady diet of corn, wheat, sugar, chemicals and meat by-products will not be in optimal health. Maladies you may have to deal with as a result of a poor diet include excessive shedding and itching, rashes, ear infections, hot spots, diabetes, and behavior issues.

If you use processed food for your dog here are a few things you should know:

  • Made in the USA on the label means that the components of the food were assembled in the USA.  It does not mean that all ingredients are from the United States.
  • The majority of the synthetic vitamins used in pet food come from China. If a company states their vitamins are supplied from a country other than China, it is highly possible that their supplier actually gets their raw material from China.
  • If a pet food manufacturer purchases fish meal that has been preserved with ethoxyquin they do not have to list this dangerous chemical on the label.   Ethoxyquin has been implicated in birth defects, stillborn puppies, liver failure, infertility and cancer.
  • Byproduct meal can include meat unfit for human consumption including euthanized animals from shelters and condemned carcasses from farms, marketing barns and feedlots.
  • Dogs and cats are designed to eat food that is about 70% moisture.  Kibble has a moisture content of about 10%.
  • Propylene Glycol is often added to semi-moist food and treats to keep them soft. The Material Safety Data Sheet from the Department of Commerce provides the following warning regarding ingestion of propylene glycol: “May cause gastrointestinal irritation with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Low hazard for usual industrial handling. May cause emoglobinuric nephrosis. May cause changes in surface EEG.”
  • Animal fat (as opposed to chicken fat or beef fat) can come from any species of animal including horses, rats, road kill, euthanized shelter animals, and from restaurant and grocery store refuse.
  • Meat and bone meal (as opposed to chicken meal or beef meal) can be obtained from any source and can include any species of animal, including euthanized pets and diseased farm animals.

Here is what I do for my own dogs:

Breakfast

I alternate between Sojos Original Dog Food Mix, The Honest Kitchen Preference, and Dr. Harvey’s  as the pre-mix base for my dogs’ meals.  I fix the food according to the package directions for the weight of the dog but I use ½ of the meat that is recommended because I serve a raw meaty bone for dinner.  The meat I use in the pre-mix is raw ground beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, rabbit or venison.  I find that ground meat works best because the dogs cannot pick out the meat and leave the vegetables behind.  Ground meat allows you to blend it all together like a mash.

Each day of the week I add one of the following to the mash in addition to the meat (these quantities are for my 60-70 pound dogs and they do not have to be exact):

  • Cottage Cheese – ¾ cup
  • Plain whole fat yogurt or Kefir  – 1 cup
  • Raw Egg (free-range) – 1
  • 2 ounces of raw liver (from local grass-fed cows or free-range chickens)
  • 2 ounces of raw beef heart, kidney or tongue (from local grass-fed cows)
  • 1 can sardines
  • When I feed Sojos I add two tablespoons of green leafy vegetables or fruit (run through the food processor) twice a week

Each day I also add to the mash:

  • Grizzly salmon oil or cod liver oil or Aunt Jeni’s fish oil according to package directions for weight.  I rotate to provide variety
  • Coconut oil – the dosage is ¼ teaspoon for small dogs and 1 teaspoon for large dogs
  • 1 tablespoon Braggs Apple Cider Vinegar

Dinner

For my large dogs I feed one raw turkey neck, chicken thigh, chicken back or turkey wing for dinner so they have the benefit of teeth cleaning as they chew.  Smaller dogs can be given one or two chicken necks or chicken wings.  It is important these be fed raw as cooking will make the bones too brittle for safe eating.

About once a week my dogs receive a large raw marrow bone to chew on for entertainment.  I discard it before they are able to break off pieces.

Healthy Cat Food Choices

There are a few things to keep in mind when choosing an appropriate diet for your cat.

  • Cats are obligate carnivores that naturally eat raw meat.  As you can see from their sharp teeth and nails, they are genetically equipped to capture and eat live prey.  When feeding our cats we should attempt to recreate a prey animal for them.  (Muscle meat, bone, organ meat and a small amount of pre-digested vegetable matter.)
  • Because cats evolved as desert animals, they are designed to obtain most of their fluid intake from their food.  (Commercial kibble cat food has a moisture content of only about 10% so you will not find this option on my recommended list.)
  • Fish can be a good addition to a cat’s diet but should not be used as the main protein source.  Fish is low in vitamins E and B1 so using fish as the mainstay of a cat’s diet can cause a deficiency in these important vitamins.  Vitamin E deficiency can cause steatitis, a disorder that causes the nerve endings to be excruciatingly sensitive.  Vitamin B1 deficiency can cause vomiting, weight loss and brain damage.
  • It can sometimes be difficult to transition a cat to a new diet.  Introduce the new diet slowly by adding a very small amount, possibly only ½ teaspoon, to the current food.  This will let him get used to the new smell and texture.  Gradually increase the amount of new food and decrease the original.  The key is to go slowly.  It may take up to a month of gradually increasing the new food before your cat will accept it.
  • Cats may refuse to eat a new food if it is introduced too quickly.  Fasting can be dangerous for cats.  Rapid weight loss causes the liver to become overwhelmed. This results in a dangerous condition known as hepatic lipidosis, which can lead to liver failure.

I rank cat food options in the following order:

  1. Homemade, balanced raw diet
  2. Frozen pre-made raw diet
  3. Dehydrated whole food diet
  4. Homemade, balanced cooked diet
  5. High quality canned food

Homemade Raw Diet

In her book Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats, Kymythy R. Schultze has the following recipe for a 10 pound cat:

  • Raw meat:  1/4-1/2 cup muscle meat (plus organ meat or egg)
  • Raw bone:  1-2 chicken necks
  • Veggies : ½-1 tablespoon, pulped
  • Kelp/alfalfa:  ½ -1 teaspoon
  • Cod-liver oil:  ¼ teaspoon
  • EFA’s:  ½ teaspoon
  • Vitamin C:  up to 500-1,500 mg

Examples of muscle meat are ground beef, lamb, pork, or chicken.  Vegetable suggestions are carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, squash, celery, parsley.  Starchy foods such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squash need to be cooked.  Other vegetables can be run through the food processor or blender.  Essential fatty acids can be fish oil such as salmon, herring, or sardine.

In addition to raw chicken necks, the tips of chicken wings can be served as part of the meal.  They are an excellent toothbrush and a source of exercise and entertainment when your little hunter “kills” his chicken wing tip before consuming it.

If you prefer the convenience of a base-mix instead of sourcing all of the raw ingredients yourself, I recommend Dr. Harvey’s Veg-to-Bowl for a Healthy Cat.  You rehydrate Veg-to-Bowl with water for about 10 minutes and add your own raw meat and oil for a complete meal.  The ingredients are dehydrated or freeze dried sweet potatoes, carrots, diced potatoes, zucchini, broccoli florets, green beans, peas, beets, parsley, calcium citrate, fennel seed, fenugreek seed, ginger, papaya leaf and peppermint leaf.

Frozen Pre-made Raw Diet

Frozen prepared raw diets allow you the convenience of a premade meal while retaining the nutritional benefits of a raw diet.  Options you will find at Midas Touch Naturally Healthy Pets are:

  • Rad Cat – a grain and vegetable free diet that contains free-range meat and organic ingredients.  (Stop by our store for a free sample.)
  • Bravo – grain free diets with a single protein of antibiotic-free poultry or grass-fed meat and Grade A vegetables.
  • Primal – a grain free formula with antibiotic and hormone free meat and certified organic fruits and vegetables.
  • Aunt Jeni’s – grain free diets with single meat and organ source, fruit, vegetables and herbs.  (Aunt Jeni’s feline varieties are also suitable for ferrets.)

Dehydrated or freeze-dried raw diet

Dehydration results in a concentrated, nutrient-dense food.  Because the fresh raw food has not been subjected to the heat of a cooking process, the natural vitamins and minerals remain.

The Honest Kitchen has two dehydrated whole food feline diets that are rehydrated with water to make a complete meal.  Grace contains cage-free turkey, eggs, pumpkin, potatoes, parsley, dandelion greens, cranberries and rosemary.  Prowl is made with free-range chicken, eggs, potatoes, sweet potatoes, organic flaxseed, zucchini, spinach, cranberries and rosemary. (Stop by our store for free samples.)

Homemade, Balanced Cooked Diet

Recipes that are available for a raw diet can be used and the meat can be cooked if you are not comfortable with raw.  I would suggest cooking the meat rare to preserve as much of the nutrients as possible.  If you cook the vegetables in water, be sure to include that water in your cat’s meal.  Some of the nutrients that are lost during cooking remain in the water.

Raw meaty bones such as chicken necks and wings cannot be fed to your cat cooked because cooking makes the bone brittle and dangerous to consume.  In a homemade raw recipe, these bones provide calcium, phosphorous and other essential minerals.  If you make a home cooked meal and do not include raw meaty bones you will need to add a calcium supplement.  My recommendation is Animal Essentials Natural Seaweed Calcium supplement.

Dr. Harvey’s Veg-to-Bowl for a Healthy Cat can also be used with cooked meat for a complete meal.

High Quality Canned Food

Canned food is usually cooked in the can so most of the natural nutrients survive.  When choosing a canned food I like to see real meat as the first ingredient.  There should be no byproducts, corn, sugar or fillers.  And if the recipe includes only real food with no added vitamins, I consider it a plus.  Many vitamins added to pet food are synthetic which are not utilized by the body as well as food based vitamins.

There is a concern about the possible adverse health effects of BPA used to seal cans.  Some pet food companies are reacting to this by advertising their cans to be BPA free.  As a general rule, small cans (for example 5 ounces) do not contain BPA because the can is made from a single sheet of metal and there are no seams requiring the BPA sealant.  If a company states that their larger cans are BPA free I would ask for a written statement disclosing the sealant they are using.  It is not uncommon for a pet food company to use multiple canning facilities.  So the statement should list each facility and verify that no BPA is used – including BPA as a sealant on the seams of the can.  It is possible for a company to state their cans are BPA free while still using a BPA sealant on the seam.

A common ingredient in canned food is carageenan.  The safety of this ingredient has not been proven to my satisfaction.  Carageenan is fed to lab animals to induce inflammation to enable drug companies to test anti-inflammatory drugs. It is also implicated in stomach and intestinal disorders. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find carageenan-free canned food.  My recommendation is to read the labels and keep carageenan a minimal part of your cat’s diet.  (Check the labels on your own food also – it is in products where you may not think to look, such as half-and-half.) At Midas Touch Naturally Healthy Pets you will find two canned food lines that are carageenan-free:  Pet Guard and Tiki Cat.

If you store leftover food in the refrigerator, I would recommend taking it out of the can.  My preference is to use glass canning jars for storing food.