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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

A Conundrum: Adding Human Food to Commercial Pet Food

A recent survey study in the U.S. found that 59 percent of dogs receive table scraps in addition to their regular diet. This supplementation amounted to 21 percent of the total daily caloric intake. The point of the study was to evaluate owner feeding patterns and pet obesity.


For the past three weeks I have manned a booth at a major pet expo and at other minor pet events. I had an opportunity to chat with people about the feeding habits of their dogs. These conversations suggested that the research survey above may have underestimated the amount of human food being added to the average canine diet. Almost all of the over 200 people we talked with added meats, vegetables, and carbohydrates to their dogs’ kibble.


Why Dog Owners Supplement With Human Food


Many reasons for supplementing kibble were cited. Some added ingredients thought to be beneficial for specific health problems. Others supplemented based on their beliefs of nutritional or health benefits of specific ingredients or types of food. The common theme was that owners doubted the quality of commercial food and felt that any addition of wholesome, human food added quality that was missing from the regular diet. And they are correct to be wary.


The history of commercial pet food parallels the economic prosperity of America following World War II. New wealth creation and population growth meant supermarkets chains replaced country or corner markets. Processed foods became the norm, not the exception. All of these changes created massive amounts of agricultural waste from slaughterhouses, grain mills and processing plants. This waste provides inexpensive ingredients that can be used in pet food. These are not quality ingredients, but they are adequate and readily available. This is why pet food is less expensive than human food. If your dog’s lamb and rice kibble was made with the same prime USDA lamb chop that you eat, you simply couldn’t afford it. If it is good enough for a human it will be sold to a human at much higher prices per pound, not put in pet food!


Despite the quality problems and some of the inherent short comings of processing commercial pet food, these foods do contain the necessary amounts of all 42 daily nutrients needed for pets. Most of the people we talked with realize that and it is the reason they continued to feed commercial food. They know that the human food they add, although wholesome, is not nutritionally complete, and think the commercial pet food supplies the adequate quantity of necessary nutrients to their dogs. Unfortunately, supplementing commercial food with human food has two possible undesirable outcomes: malnutrition or obesity.


Why Human Food Upsets a Dog’s Health


Commercial pet food is formulated based on calorie ingestion. In order to receive the necessary amounts of the 42 essential nutrients a pet must consume the label’s directed calories (cups or cans). By supplementing with human food and decreasing the amount of commercial food, pets will meet their calorie requirements before completing their nutrient requirements. Human food alone cannot provide those nutrients. Because the feeding programs vary from owner to owner there is no one veterinary vitamin/mineral supplement that will be adequate for every pet.


Adding meat also adds excess phosphorus without calcium and upsets that delicate balance. Vegetables and carbohydrates add precious little in the way of vitamins and minerals unless provided in quantities that would add so much bulk to a diet that it would alter feeding behavior. Although well intentioned, this feeding program will result in long term nutrient deficiencies.


The alternative of feeding the prescribed amount of commercial pet food and then adding human food to the dog’s diet results in excess calories. We all know where that leads.


That was the interest of the study cited above.


The Alternative to Feeding Human Foods to Dogs


Before you feed human foods to your dog, seek advice from a veterinarian who is board certified in nutrition, or a veterinarian with both nutritional training and familiarity with USDA food databases and NRC and AAFCO standards. Work together to formulate a complete and balanced human food alternative. That way every bite your pet takes, human or commercial, is nutritionally adequate. It also makes calorie control easier so that excess weight gain can be avoided.


Or better yet, with the same help from a veterinary nutritionist, formulate an entire complete and balanced homemade diet so there is no need to add any commercial pet food. That way there is no doubt about the quality of the ingredients; you control it.


Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Ed Schipul / via Flickr

Comments  3

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  • I've Heard....
    05/17/2013 08:54pm

    I've heard that the rule of thumb is if you feed your critter commercial food, no more than 5% of the pet's diet should consist of "anything else" (which includes people food and treats).

    Feeding our critters is obviously a complex subject and takes a lot of work and know-how.

    It's my opinion that if your critter is the proper weight, is healthy*, looks good and feels good - if it ain't broke, don't fix it - keep doing what you're doing.

    *Don't ever underestimate the value of a full veterinary exam!

  • Delicate balance?
    10/21/2014 04:02pm

    Of course human food can meet the nutritional requirements of dogs. Human food includes meat, vegetables, and grains. Dogs can eat meat, vegetables, and grains. Fresh, basic foods can meet the nutritional requirements of any mammals. The pet food industry pushes people away from feeding their pets fresh foods through articles like this one.

    Ask yourself whether you as a human would do better on a diet that included fresh foods, or on a diet that was entirely based on extruded food pellets made in a factory.

    Ask yourself whether your pet should get some healthy fresh foo:d appropriate for the type of pet you have, or if, as this article recommends, you should only feed a commercial pet food. Here are the ingredients of a popular grocery store dog food, with the highest volume first, in descending order:

    Ground yellow corn
    Chicken by-product-meal
    Corn gluten meal
    whole wheat flour
    animal fat
    rice flour
    soy flour
    propylene glycol
    meat and bone meal

    Ask yourself if the inclusion of vitamins and minerals in the above diet, and the use of corn gluten as a cheap substitute for animal protein, is a good enough substitute in your carnivorous dog's diet. Ask yourself if articles like this have your pet's best interests in mind when it recommends that you don't feed any fresh food to your pet. Ask yourself why you are guilted into thinking you will upset some perceived delicate balance in your pet's diet by adding fresh foods. Look at the ingredient list above and ask yourself why this is pushed as being a superior diet for your pet.

  • 10/21/2014 06:26pm

    Totally agree with you, Mairs. I get scraps from hunters this time of year to make "dog stew" (with fresh or frozen vegs. & fruits) throughout the year. They also get vitamins.

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