Nutrition pros join home-cooking debate

Home-cooking for dogs is every bit as controversial as feeding dogs a raw diet in some quarters. Many veterinarians discourage home-cooking for pets, saying that a home-cooked diet is nutritionally incomplete.

Although it is hardly mainstream, alternative types of feeding have been on the uptick since the height of the pet food recalls in 2007. Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, and Malden C. Nesheim, professor emeritus of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, weigh in on this subject in their 2009 book, "Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat" (Free Press, $16.99).

Mr. Nesheim has experience in both human and animal nutrition and has worked with Cornell's well-regarded veterinary program. In the book, he and Ms. Nestle say pet owners can cook well-balanced meals for their pets with care and the right supplements:

"To do this right, you will need a kitchen scale and measuring spoons. And, yes, you need to buy supplements at a grocery store or pet supply store. And, yes, you should give the supplements to your pet every day. But beyond that, nothing is all that complicated. "

The supplements Mr. Nesheim and Ms. Nestle suggest for canines are bone meal or dicalcium phosphate, potassium chloride and a daily multivitamin/multi-mineral tablet.

Other than that, give your pet a serving of cooked grains (potatoes, pasta, rice, oatmeal), a serving of meat/protein, some fat and some vegetables. This could come from your own table. A simple chart in the book is taken from a standard veterinary textbook published by an offshoot of Hill's Pet Nutrition. "Small Animal Clinical Nutrition" provides guidance on amounts of both food and supplements. (Information is also supplied for cats.) There are some foods to avoid, and the book discusses those.

When asked why the veterinary community at large is often opposed to alternative methods of feeding pets, Mr. Nesheim responded by email:

"I can only speculate why many in the veterinary community are so against cooking for a pet. Most veterinarians have little nutrition training, and some have had much of it sponsored by pet food companies. Often nutrition teaching is about nutritional deficiencies so they may be hyper-concerned about that."

Veterinarian Larry Gerson, owner of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic and the Post-Gazette's Pet Points columnist, said many veterinarians are opposed to pet owners home-cooking for their dogs and cats because mistakes can endanger their pets.

"Research and my experience is that many do not home-cook properly. The correct balance of calcium, sodium, phosphorus and protein are important," he wrote in an email.

He also strongly disputed Mr. Nesheim's contention that veterinary students get inadequate or biased nutritional information from pet food companies.

"Veterinarians take training in school on nutrition and formulation of diets. If one decides to home-cook long term, it is strongly suggested that they consult a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and not just follow a recipe or look it up on the Internet," he said by email.

Mr. Nesheim noted that in spite of the dire warnings about home cooking for pets, "Ph.D.-trained nutritionists can tell you it is extremely difficult to induce a nutritional deficiency in animals, or people, when following the fundamentals of nutrition -- balance, variety and moderation."

"Dogs and humans have similar nutritional needs and can use very similar foods. Overfeeding both of home diets and commercial diets is probably the major nutritional problem since obesity in pets is a problem, as it is in people," he said by email.

Just as humans the world over thrive on varied diets, there is more than one correct way to feed a pet, said Mr. Nesheim. "Home-feeding of pets is not rocket science."

Susan Banks: or 412-263-1516.