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Dr Jean Hofve
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Jean C. Hofve, DVM

Commercial food is a great convenience to pet owners. Responsible pet owners who want the best for their animal companions have a bewildering array of foods and claims to choose from. How do you know what’s best for your animals?

The most reputable manufacturers of “superpremium” and “natural” foods agree with holistic veterinarians that the very best diet for your animal companion is one that you make yourself. A homemade diet, carefully balanced nutritionally and using raw and organic foods, is closest to what Mother Nature intended. However, many of us do not have the time or energy to do home cooking, especially for multiple animals or large dogs. So, for those of us who rely, partially or entirely, on commercial foods for our animals, here are some guidelines to use in selecting a good-quality diet.

CONTENT. The name of the flavor is strictly defined and tells us what is actually in the food. “Chicken for Dogs” must contain at least 95% chicken (excluding water). Similarly, “Fish and Giblets for Cats” will be 95% fish and giblets together, and there must be more fish than giblets, since fish appears first on the label. If the label says “dinner,” “platter,” “entrée,” “nuggets,” “formula,” or similar term, there must be 25% of the named ingredients. That is, “Fish Dinner” must contain 25% fish. If more than one ingredient is named, such as “Fish and Giblets Entrée,” the two together must comprise 25% of the total, and the second ingredient must be at least 3%. Ingredients labeled as “with” must be present at 3%, such as “Fish Dinner with Giblets.” An ingredient labeled as a “flavor,” such as “Beef Flavor Dinner,” may not actually contain beef meat, but more likely will contain beef digest or other beef by products that give the food a beef flavor.

WHAT’S A BY-PRODUCT? Even on premium brands, you will notice one of the major ingredients listed is “by-products” of some sort. By-products are basically defined as “parts other than meat.” These may include internal organs not commonly eaten by humans, such as lungs, spleens, and intestines, other parts such as cow udders and uteri, and in the case of poultry by-products, heads, beaks and feet. By-products must be from “freshly slaughtered” animals, although there is some question as to how fresh they really are by the time they reach the pet food manufacturer.

THE 4D’S. Animals that are dead, dying, diseased, or disabled prior to reaching the slaughterhouse are known as “downers” or “4D” animals. These are condemned for human consumption, and are generally sent for rendering along with other parts and items unsuitable for human use, such as out-of-date supermarket meats (along with their plastic wrappers), cut-away cancerous tissue, and fetal tissue (which is very high in hormones). Rendering produces two major items: animal fat or tallow, and a processed product usually called “meat meal” or “by-product meal.” Rendered ingredients vary greatly in quality. Many rendering facilities are closely associated with slaughterhouses, which are in turn connected with feedlots or poultry farms. Such rendering facilities are more likely to produce a good quality, relatively pure meal. They are likely to be designated with the name of the source animal, such as “chicken meal” or “lamb meal.” Virtually all “natural” and “superpremium” foods use meals as the first ingredient. Meals do contain higher proportions of protein that plain meat, since the fat and water have been removed.

Independent renderers are reported to accept for processing such items as road kill, euthanized shelter dogs and cats, and other unappetizing ingredients. These items are not supposed to find their way into the food chain but are theoretically converted for use in fertilizers and industrial applications. However, over the years there have been numerous unproven reports of this material being processed into dog and cat food. The Center for Veterinary Medicine, a branch of the Food and Drug Administration, admits that dead dogs and cats are commonly rendered, and although there is no legal prohibition against it, they do not “condone” the practice.

“COMPLETE AND BALANCED.” A food may be labeled as “complete and balanced” if it meets the standards set by a group called AAFCO, the American Association of Feed Control Officials. These standards were formulated in the early 1990s by panels of canine and feline nutrition experts. Standards set by AAFCO have been adopted by most states, which are then responsible for enforcement. However, in many cases, state enforcement is negligible.

A food may be certified by AAFCO in two ways: (1) meeting published standards for content, or (2) feeding trials.

(1) Nutrient Profiles. These standards set the required amounts of protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and so forth. These theoretically have the benefit of extensive research behind them. However, according to researchers at the University of California at Davis, the fundamental research supporting standards for adult cat food includes one study on protein requirements, one study on amino acid requirements, and ZERO studies on vitamin requirements. Yet AAFCO publishes standards specifying exactly how much of each vitamin must be included in adult cat food. Where do these values come from? They are interpreted and extrapolated from research in kittens (which has been more extensive) and from research in other species, mostly chickens and rats. Is this valid? We do not know.

Moreover, any manufacturer can synthesize a food containing sufficient amounts of each ingredient according to the standards, yet an animal will ultimately starve to death on it. How could this happen? Because the standards do not address the issues of “bioavailability” of nutrients to the animal. Certain forms of vitamins and minerals, for example, are poorly absorbed from the digestive tract. A noted veterinary nutrition textbook claims that a food can be created from old leather boots, wood shavings, and crankcase oil that will meet the technical requirements for protein, carbohydrates, and fats, yet would be completely indigestible. Unfortunately, given the ingredients used by some manufacturers, “Old Boot” may be closer to the truth than anyone wants to admit!

(2) Feeding Trials. These are considered the “gold standard” of pet food formulation. However, when you look at the actual AAFCO protocols for an adult maintenance diet, a manufacturer must feed exclusively the test food to only six animals for six months. (Eight animals are required at the outset; however, two of them may be dropped from the trial for non-diet-related reasons.) Foods intended for growth and reproduction must be tested for only 10 weeks. Most of the large, reputable pet food producers, such as Iams, Hills, Walthams and Purina, maintain large colonies of dogs and cats, and test their foods on hundreds of animals over years or even multiple generations. Other manufacturers rely on facilities that keep animals for this purpose to do the studies for them. It is easy to see how a poor quality diet could be fed for only six months without seeing adverse health effects, and legitimately be labeled as meeting AAFCO standards. In fact, studies have confirmed that even foods that pass feeding trials may still be inadequate for long-term maintenance.

Keep in mind, too, that the standards, such as they are, set only “minimums” and “maximums,” not “optimums.” Commercial foods are designed to be adequate for the average animal, but may not be suitable for an individual animal’s variable needs.

ADDITIVES. Virtually every commercial pet food contains additives and preservatives. Some of the worst include BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin. Monsanto, manufacturer of ethoxyquin (a rubber stabilizer), in 1993 was ordered to conduct a new study of this preservative due to faulty test protocols and alleged doctoring of data in its initial report. Not surprisingly, the new study, completed in 1996, found no problems associated with ethoxyquin in pet food. Given Monsanto’s track record, do you believe this? Ethoxyquin is banned from nearly all human food products (except certain spices) due to its cancer-causing properties. A barrel of ethoxyquin straight from Monsanto is labeled with skull-and-crossbones and the word “Poison” prominently displayed. It used to be that if preservatives such as ethoxyquin were added to fats by the renderer or processor, prior to their final destination at the pet food plant, they did not need to be labeled. This rule was recently changed due to consumer pressure, and now preservatives added to fats must be disclosed. However, ethoxyquin is still added to fish meal, a prominent ingredient in most cat foods, but you won’t find it on the label. Furthermore, other additives and preservatives in non-fat ingredients are not required to be labeled.

CONTAMINANTS. Another concern is pesticide residues, antibiotics, and molds contained in pet food ingredients. Meat from downer animals may be loaded with drugs, some of which are known to pass unchanged through all the processing done to create a finished pet food. One toddler who habitually snacked from the cat’s bowl of dry food died of an allergic reaction to penicillin, which was found to be in the cat food at levels over 600 times that allowed in human food products. In the past four years there have been two major recalls of dry dog food by different manufacturers due to mold contamination of grain ingredients. Some fungal toxins are very dangerous. The second recalled food killed more than 20 dogs before action was taken.

WHAT TO DO? When selecting a commercial food for your animal companion, be sure to read the label. Although percentages are misleading due to the variable moisture content of processed foods, they are the only data available. Never buy a food containing “by-product meal” of any kind. In general, select brands promoted to be “natural.” While they are not perfect, they are better than most. Several brands are now preserved with Vitamins C and E instead of chemical preservatives. While synthetic preservatives may still be present, the amounts will be less. Stay away from “light” or “senior” or “special formula” foods. These foods may contain acidifying agents, excessive fiber, and inadequate fats that will result in skin and coat problems. Avoid generic or store brands; these may be repackaged rejects from the big manufactures, and certainly contain cheaper—and consequently poorer quality—ingredients. Change brands or flavors of dry food every three to four months to avoid deficiencies or excesses of ingredients, which may be problematic for your animal. Cats in particular need at least 50% of their diet in the form of wet food to reduce the workload on the kidneys and keep the urine dilute. Above all, supplement with organic raw meats (meat should be frozen for 72 hours, then thawed prior to use; follow safe meat-handling procedures at all times) and lightly steamed, pureed or finely grated vegetables (most cannot be very well digested by carnivores raw). Dogs may be supplemented with tofu and cooked grains; however, cats should receive minimal carbohydrates in the diet. (Plant products tend to raise urine pH and may predispose cats to urinary tract disease.) Other helpful supplements include acidophilus, digestive enzymes, and Vitamins C and E. There are many excellent books, articles, and websites available for more detailed guidelines on ingredients, proportions, and preparations).

© copyrightJean Hofve, DVM 1999. All Rights Reserved.
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Jean C. Hofve, DVM
Copyright © 1999,  Jean C. Hofve, DVM, All Rights Reserved

Before you start to feed your companion animal a home-prepared diet, Dr. Jean strongly recommends that you discuss your decision with your veterinarian or a holistic veterinarian in your area. (For a list of holistic veterinary practitioners, contact the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association at 410-569-0795, or check the directories at

Dr. Jean also suggests you obtain one or more of the following books, so that you have a more complete understanding of canine and/or feline nutritional needs. It is essential that you follow any diet's recommendations closely, including all ingredients and supplements. Failure to do so may result in serious health consequences for your animal companion.

  • Dr. Pitcairn's Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats. Richard Pitcairn, DVM, and Susan Pitcairn. Rodale Press. ISBN 075962432.
  • Natural Cat Care. Celeste Yarnall. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc. ISBN 1885203632.
  • Natural Dog Care. Celeste Yarnall. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc. ISBN 1885203470.
  • The Holistic Guide for a Healthy Dog. Wendy Volhard and Kerry Brown, DVM. Howell Book House. ISBN 0876055609.
  • Give Your Dog a Bone. Dr. Ian Billinghurst. Bridge Printery. ISBN 064610281.
  • Home-Prepared Dog and Cat Diets: the Healthful Alternative. Donald R. Strombeck, DVM. Iowa State University Press. ISBN 0813821495.
  • It's for the Animals! Natural Care & Resources. Helen L. McKinnon. C.S.A. Inc. Available from It's for the Animals!; P.O. Box 1913; Fairview, NC 28730; toll-free 1-888-339-IFTA (4382);

These recipes are intended to get you started, to supplement a commercial diet or to suffice until you can obtain more information or a book on the subject. They have not been balanced for long-term use.

These are "mix-and-match"diets. Select one ingredient from each category (protein, starch if applicable), and add up to one cup of puréed raw or lightly steamed vegetables (up to three or four at a time of the following: broccoli, squash, sweet potato, cabbage, peas, carrots, green beans, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale). Ingredients may also be split, 1/2 of one plus 1/2 of another from the same category. Use organically-raised meat sources whenever possible to minimize antibiotic and hormone residues; this is required if feeding liver. The importance of variety cannot be overstressed. (This applies to any and all diets and recipes!) Do not get in the habit of feeding just one or two combinations of ingredients. Pay attention to your animal companion's health: his weight, activity level, skin and coat quality. If these are not maintaining or improving, consult your veterinarian about changing elements of the diet.

To make a large batch of food, mix protein source, starch source (if applicable), oil, vegetables, and calcium together. Freeze in meal-sized portions. The other supplements should be added fresh at each meal.

The vitamin-mineral supplement should be a good quality, human-type supplement. Some of the cheaper human supplements, particularly those with a heavy coating, are not well digested by people and will not be by animals. To check, submerge a tablet in a glass of water with a splash of vinegar in it. ( This mimics the acid environment of the stomach.) The tablet should dissolve within about 20 minutes. The average human supplement is designed for a 150-pound adult. A cat should get about 1/6 to 1/10 of a human supplement. A dog dosage can be calculated from the weight of the dog compared to 150 pounds. Do not overdose! Some vitamins and many minerals are toxic at high doses.

Alternatively, you can use a specially made dog or cat vitamin supplement, such as Pet Tabs or Nu-Cat. There are many good animal supplements available today that can be found at your local feed store or health food store.

Many supplements from the health food store require that a human take 4-6 tablets a day; a single tablet might be perfect for a smaller animal's daily needs. You can grind up the supplements with a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle to add to the food; or get one that comes in capsules, and open the capsule to empty the powder into the food.

Bone meal must be an edible, human grade. Do not use bone meal intended for gardening or plants.

Probiotics include acidophilus and other "good" bacteria. They help maintain your companion animal's normal bacterial population and prevent colonization by disease-causing bacteria. Digestive enzymes are important to keep the pancreas from being overworked, and to aid digestion so your animal companion gets the greatest benefit from the food she eats.

Meat may be fed cooked or raw. (While many holistic veterinarians recommend feeding raw meat, there are potential risks to your companion animal's health from bacterially contaminated meat. Please discuss this issue with your veterinarian before feeding raw meat.) If feeding raw, it is recommended that meat be frozen for 72 hours at -4 degrees F prior to use. Most meats can be refrozen one time safely, so once you mix the meal, it can be put back in the freezer until thawed for feeding. Always follow standard safe meat handling procedures.



Feed an adult cat as much as she will eat in 20-30 minutes. Refrigerate leftovers promptly. Feed adult cats twice a day. Recipe provides approximately 3 servings.

(meat amounts given in raw weight)

  • 1/2 pound boneless chicken breast or thigh, minced
  • 6 oz ground turkey, or minced turkey (dark meat)
  • 1/2 pound lean beef, minced
  • 1/2 pound beef, chicken or turkey heart, ground or minced
  • About 3 times a week, include 1 chopped hard-boiled or scrambled egg
  • Optional: once a week, substitute 4 oz organic liver for 1/2 of any meat source
  • Optional: once every 2 weeks, substitute 4 oz tuna (packed in water, no salt), 6 oz sardines (canned) or 5 oz salmon (canned, with bones) for any meat source. Do not use canned fish as a protein source for cats who are prone to urinary tract problems.
  • Optional: for cats needing a lower protein diet, add cup cooked white rice.


  • 2 tsp olive oil, or 1 tsp olive and 1 tsp flaxseed oil
  • 300 mg calcium (as carbonate or citrate), or about 1 slightly rounded tsp bone meal (human grade) (if using canned fish with bones, decrease calcium to 1/4 regular amount)
  • 1-2 tbsp puréed vegetables -- many cats prefer their veggies lightly steamed -- or vegetable baby food (without onion powder)
  • 1/4 tsp salt substitute (potassium chloride) -- give 3 or 4 times a week
  • 1 cat-size dose of multiple vitamin-mineral supplement (human quality) or cat vitamin
  • 1 probiotic/digestive enzyme supplement

80 mg taurine (about of one 250 mg taurine capsule or tablet, powdered) (omit if using cat vitamin)



Amounts given are adequate for one day's feeding of a 20-35 pound dog (depending on age & activity level). Adjust amounts proportionally for your dog's weight. Starches may be decreased or omitted in case of digestive problems or for weight loss.


Animal Proteins:
(meat amounts given in raw weight)

  • 1/3 pound boneless chicken breast or thigh
  • 3 large hard-boiled eggs
  • 1/3 pound lean beef
  • Optional: once a week, substitute 4 oz organic liver for 1/2 of any meat source

Vegetarian Proteins:

  • 1 cup cottage cheese
  • 1/2 cup tofu, firm
  • 1 cup soybeans, cooked
  • 1 cup lentils, cooked


With Animal Proteins:

  • 2 cups cooked macaroni
  • 3 cups cooked potato, with skin, chopped or mashed
  • 2 cups cooked rice
  • 2 cups rolled oats, quick, cooked

With Vegetarian Proteins:

  • 2 cups cooked brown rice
  • 2 cups cooked potato, with skin, chopped or mashed
  • 2 cups cooked macaroni
  • 1 cup cooked rice
  • 1 cup plus cooked black-eyed peas
  • 2-1/2 cups rolled oats, quick, cooked (1-1/4 cup raw)
  • 1-1/2 cups cooked brown rice plus 1 cup cooked kidney beans


  • puréed veggie mix (up to 1 cup)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, or 1/2 tbsp olive and 1/2 tbsp flaxseed oil
  • 400 mg calcium (elemental, as calcium citrate or carbonate)
  • or 1200 mg (approximately 1-1/2 tsp) bone meal powder (human grade)
  • 1/4 tsp salt substitute (potassium chloride) -- give 3 or 4 times a week
  • 1 multiple vitamin-mineral supplement (human quality)
  • 1 probiotic/digestive enzyme supplement

Vegetarian dogs should get Vitamin B12, carnitine (250 mg) and taurine (250 mg) once a week. Vegetarian dogs of breeds prone to developing dilated cardiomyopathy should get supplemental Carnitine (50-100 mg) daily.