Adding Fresh Food to a CommeRcial Diet
Fresh food can improve the quality of a commercial food tremendously. Thoughtful choices can compliment the diet and deliver nutrients that are particularly fragile in the manufacturing process. When I select foods for a processed diet, I base selections on traditional whole foods. Checklist and graphic at the end.
For those who are unable to feed homemade, I hope this guide is useful and helps you make meaningful choices.
How Much Food Can I Add?
This depends. Certainly, you want to make sure that you are first feeding comfortably within the feeding guidelines if you plan on replacing food. For example, if you have a 65 lb dog at ideal weight and the guidelines state 1-1 1/2 cup of food for a 65 lb dog,, you don’t want to feed less than 1 cup from the food. It is important to use feeding guidelines correctly.
If you are feeding well above the feeding guidelines for ideal weight and are struggling to reach that weight (in the context of no health issues present), you would want to first switch to a more calorically dense food that is better tolerated. The bottom line is that you want to make sure that the majority of the food being fed is high quality. You should not try to dress up a poor quality food with high quality toppers.
In the context of above, nobody can make an official statement on how much food is safe to replace. There are too many variables and not every nutrient falls in the middle of the acceptable range in commercial foods. A general consensus seems to be that replacing more than 15% of the food should only be done if it is formulated to be balanced. That being said, if you replace 15% of the food (or less) with a single ingredient consistently, this certainly will cause an unbalanced diet. It is my personal opinion that 15% or less is a safe area if the owner is being smart about the additions to the food and is providing a variety of foods. Please note that 15% is 15% of daily caloric intake. A nutritionist will help you replace more than 15% of the diet by creating balanced additions. If you are able to audit your diet or are savvy with food selection, this 15% number is quite flexible.
With that in mind, here is Feed Thy Dog’s guide on adding fresh food to a commercial diet.
What Is Already Present?
Consider first what is already being fed. Kibble is rich in starch- so I wouldn’t typically reach for starch here. However, if the commercial food is a high quality food rich in protein, some dogs may see improvements in energy and work with the addition of high quality, fresh, digestible carbohydrates. If you are feeding a commercial raw food diet that is balanced already (many are not), then likely bones, meat, and organs aren’t your top choices and plant matter may be of more importance.
If you are feeding a chicken based food and are unable to rotate in other proteins, you might consider adding other proteins besides chicken where appropriate. If limited to certain proteins, do add in more of the same protein if it means adding fresh food.
If you have little wiggle room for calories, you will want to select lower calorie foods to maximize the variety you are able to provide
The bottom line is that you want to be sure to add foods not already abundantly fed, with appropriate calories, that the dog is going to do well on. Read on to discover the different categories of food that can be added to a commercial diet.
This can come from beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, kangaroo, quail, duck, venison etc. You want to be mindful of protein and fat levels. The fat levels in cuts of meat can vary wildly and can easily pack a caloric punch. Duck is also going to add quite a few calories. Game meat, like venison, will be leaner as will kangaroo. Beef chuck for stew is a lean meat (as are other cuts from that are of the cow) while 80/20 ground is going to be rich in fat. Muscle meat will provide high quality protein and amino acids. Commercial food processing- kibble in particular- is prone to causing damaged amino acids so adding fresh protein is a great choice. This portion of the diet may be raw (with caution) or cooked according to your preference. Avoid canned foods and meats with added ingredients and solutions. Local products from reputable farmers will be superior to factory farmed products. Tripe also falls into this category and provides antioxidant nutrients. A terrific ingredient, though it adds quite a bit of fat and calories. This should only be a portion of the muscle meat.
Organ meat can be tricky. Many organ meats- like liver- are fantastic foods but are also very nutrient dense. Organ meats like liver and kidney should be added in small amounts because they will quickly drive up many minerals and fat soluble vitamins. However, these ingredients also contain the nutrients in their natural preformed forms and also contain non-essential nutrients that are also healthful. Heart can be added a bit more generously. You can feed these ingredients cooked or raw- but take care not to overcook them. To summarize, kidney, liver, pancreas, and other “secreting” organs need to be added carefully while other non-secreting organs can be given more generously. These ingredients are nutrient power houses and are key foods in the traditional foods family. As very general guidelines, I would not add more than 1/16-1/8 oz daily for toy to small breeds, 1/4 oz daily for medium to large dogs, and 1/2 oz daily for giant breeds as far as liver goes. Some liver is richer in vitamin A and copper than others, so use caution. If adding a second secreting organ, these rough guidelines should also work. For heart, no more than 1/4 of the muscle meat portion.
Raw feeders are going to be more familiar with bones. Bones should only be fed raw. However, you can still get some of these benefits by providing bone broth. Bones and bone broth provide non-essential nutrients that nourish the gut, support the body’s natural antioxidant defense system, and compliment essential amino acids required in balanced commercial foods. Bones are a forgotten food that is certainly a traditional ingredient. When feeding raw bones, be mindful that they contain high amounts of calcium but also phosphorus. Any disturbance to kidney function (which occurs naturally with age) indicates the need to be mindful of phosphorus. Feed bones away from meal times several times a week. Bone broth can be added fresh or frozen as treats. If you need help selecting a bone, please email me at savannah@feedthydog,com. Never feed bones without supervision and do not feed mechanically cut bones, weight bearing bones, cooked or smoked bones, or any bone your dog does not thoroughly chew. There is a risk associated with feeding raw bones regardless of how safe the selection is.
Feed the rainbow. Feeding fresh fruits and veggies provide phytonutrients and essential nutrients that are fragile and best fed fresh rather than from commercial foods. Phytonutrients can help modulate inflammation, support allergies, and support the gut. Even though many fruits and veggies are not perfectly absorbed, compounds found in plants have beneficial effects on the gut mucosa regardless of their absorption. Additionally, plant matter has been shown to have anti-carcinogenic properties. Which plant matter you choose deserves its own post (coming soon), but some generally safe choices here includes fresh pumpkin, squash, organic apples (with skin, no seeds or stems), blueberries, celery, watermelon (seeds removed), kale, spinach, beets (boiled and peeled), and broccoli. Some of these can interfere with mineral absorption, so go easy on the kale, spinach, and broccoli. For thyroid related issues, avoid broccoli likely altogether and cooking leafy greens in general. I tend to avoid the nightshade family. If your dog has a history of oxalates, you might consider further help in selecting food items for kibble. For starchier choices, cooked sweet potato is rich in digestible carbohydrates and flavonoids. Try adding one or two different plant ingredients at a time to determine tolerance. Read here for more information on selecting fruits and veggies.
Fish & Other Fat
There is a great deal of confusion when it comes to adding fat to the commercial diet. Often people are told to add coconut oil to support the coat. However, if adding coconut oil improves coat, it may indicate not enough or poor quality fats in the main food. This may be an indicator of the food’s quality. Coconut oil is rich in saturated fat while fish and fish oils are rich in preformed polyunsaturated fat. Both can be a healthful addition to the diet. When feeding fish and fish oils, avoid cod liver oil as it is rich in vitamins A and D- unless dosed by a nutritionist. As a general rule, it is best to feed cooked fish rather than worry about parasites or thiaminase containing fish. If adding fish oil, choose a high quality product as these products contain very fragile lipids. Remember that polyunsaturated fat increases antioxidant needs, so while they should make up part of the diet, it should be done so in moderation. Fat packs a caloric punch and should be added in moderation as it also has the potential to cause digestive upset. When selecting fish, go for fish lower in mercury. Sardines, mackerel, and herring make good choices. With all things, moderation is key. If you can, limiting canned sources or rotating out canned sources is ideal.
Eggs & Other Additions
Eggs are a fantastic food. Eggs are used as the standard when measuring the protein quality of other foods. They support healthy fat mobilization and digestion. They are rich in antioxidants and essential nutrients. For larger dogs, one egg a day is often no problem at all while a medium dog may do better with 1 every other day. For smaller dogs, you can hardboil the egg and feed some of the egg each day. Eggs can be fed raw or cooked. When feeding cooked eggs, opt to hardboil or softboil them to preserve nutrients. When feeding eggs regularly, avoid feeding the shell as it is rich in calcium. If your dog opts to eat the whole egg (many farm dogs), doing so away from meal times is best.
While many dogs do not tolerate dairy, dairy can still be a healthful addition for dogs who tolerate it. Opt for local dairy where possible and raw so long as the source is reputable. Dairy can help put on weight- so it is something to keep in mind if weight is either direction is an issue. Kefir, yogurt, and cottage cheese all make good additions if calories allow.
Don’t overthink it. If you are nervous, start small with safe ingredients like plant matter, eggs, and muscle meat! I am a detail oriented person by nature, so if you want to follow my process below it may help you understand the amounts related to my dog who is 65 lb. Please note that what your dog is eating, their weight, health, and environment will determine what is appropriate for them. The following is only an example. Not every food group should always be fed.
If you would like more direct guidance, please see my services here.
1. Determine how much to replace
Calculate how many calories your dog is optimally eating. For example, 1 cup of a Farmina kibble is 467 calories. Luca would need to eat about 2 1/2 cups (about 1080 kcal) to meet his calorie needs- which also falls within the feeding guidelines. The minimum he can eat from this food is 2 cups according to his goal weight. 2 cups is 934 calories. Here, I could reduce by 15-20% and be comfortable in the guidelines. 15% of Luca’s caloric needs is 0.15 x 1080= 162 calories I have to play with. 20% is 0.2 x 1080 = 216 kcals. So I will add an addition that replaces 162-216 kcals.
If you want to keep it simple, just multiply 0.85 x the amount of commercial food you are feeding and feed that much daily (as long as it is within feeding guidelines) and then multiply 0.15 x the total kcals your dog needs.
To know how many calories are in different food items, you can use Nutrition Data and easily log recipes. Regardless of the meal planner you are using, be weary of crowd sourced values such as in MyFitnessPal or Cronometer.
2. Select from appropriate food catagories.
Meat: I selected beef chuck for stew. It is lean and the kibble being fed is chicken based. I don’t have enough calories for tripe.
Organs: I am going to select beef liver, beef heart, and beef kidney for my organs. I am feeding different parts of the animal and is not found in the current food. I will only do about 1/4 oz per organ meat- 3/4 ounce total daily. I will mix these together and feed them in frozen molds or portion into containers and freeze.
Plant Matter: I do not want to add more starch here. I will feed cooked kale, cooked and peeled beets, and fresh pumpkin. All at about a half ounce each. Luca has no health conditions. These will be rotated out frequently.
Fish & Fat: Luca will rotate in and out sardines- averaging an ounce per day. Since we are feeding eggs, we already see a boost to the essential fatty acids. I will also add a bit of Green Pasture’s Butteroil blend as it contains non-essential fat soluble vitamins not rich in the current diet.
Bones: Luca will average about a half ounce of chicken wings (raw) a day. This means I will feed several ounces at a time, away from food, several times a week- averaging to about a half ounce a day.
Others: He loves eggs. He will get one egg every other day which provides a gentle boost in many essential nutrients. I am also going to add a vitamin E supplement because of the fish addition. He will get milk only sometimes as a treat- it won’t be a regular addition. It is only there because he is obsessed with it!
3. Prepare the food
Luca will be eating a lot of this raw. I will pull out a couple of frozen wings out at a time. Plant matter I will cook (where applicable) daily, or a few week’s worth at a time and freeze. Fish I will always feed fresh- averaging out to 1 ounce a day- feeding similarly to bones. The organs and meat will be prepped- cut up and portioned for a few weeks at a time. Eggs I will feed fresh as they are so easy to crack open and serve. If mixing eggs and freezing, hardboil them. All of these ingredients aside from the bones will be fed with his kibble. He is used to all of these ingredients, so I won’t introduce things slowly. However, if this was a new dog, I would test out the foods individually.
For Luca, 63 lb dog, he will be receiving the following in addition to his food:
1/4 oz lamb liver
1/4 oz beef heart
1/4 oz beef kidney
1 egg every other day, raw or occasionally softboiled, no shell
1/2 oz raw chicken wing
1 oz sardines, cooked
1/2 oz kale, cooked
1/2 oz beets, cooked, peeled
1/2 oz fresh pumpkin, cooked
Standard Process Vitamin E
And this provides…
A major boost to many of the b vitamins- most seeing 20% + increase from whole foods. A moderate boost to the fat solubles A, D, E, and K- in their varying natural forms rather than just one vitamer of each as found in kibble. A gentle boost to all of the minerals- but not too much as the kibble already provides sufficient amounts. The essential fatty acids see a 40-100% increase. These are coming from fresh sources and are not prone to oxidation like in the kibble. Each amino acid sees a minimum of a 50% increase! This addition provides 60% of daily protein needs and 35% of daily fat needs. All of this while not replacing more than 20% of the kibble. Finally. the plant matter adds a low amount of fiber with various different flavonoids.