A Review of Diets Intended for Dogs with Cancer

Updated: November 08, 2016
Published: December 28, 2012
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Faced with a diagnosis of cancer in a beloved dog, many owners turn to dietary modifications as part of a treatment protocol aimed at maximizing the length and quality of their companion’s life. For my patients, I typically recommend a diet that is relatively high in protein and fat, low in carbohydrates, and supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids. Others promote raw diets, the avoidance of grains, and a variety of other supplements.

Commercial foods can fit the bill, as can some home-prepared diets, but a new report published in the December 1, 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association raises concerns with both of these options. Here are a few highlights taken from the paper:

Published recipes of home-prepared diets for pets with various health conditions are rarely nutritionally adequate. None of the 27 recipes identified and evaluated met NRC RA [National Research Council Recommended Allowances] or AAFCO [Association of American Feed Control Officials] nutrient profiles for all essential nutrients. In some cases, the recipes contained excessive, potentially toxic amounts of nutrients. Recipes formulated or provided by veterinarians were not more nutritionally sound than were recipes formulated or provided by nonveterinarians.

There is a paucity of experimental data that support specific nutrient profiles or ingredients for dogs with cancer. Dogs with cancer do not have higher or lower requirements for protein, fat, calories, or any other specific nutrients, compared with requirements for healthy dogs. Therefore, it is of concern that none of the recipes for home-prepared diets met NRC RA or AAFCO nutrient profiles for adult maintenance in dogs. Two of the commercial diets also did not meet AAFCO nutrient profiles (adherence to NRC RA could not be assessed). All of these inadequate diets have the potential to cause nutritional disease at a time when nutrition should be optimized to provide maximum metabolic support and immune system function and to help decrease adverse effects attributable to cancer treatments…

Commercial diets and recipes of home-prepared diets reflected the current popularity of grain-free diets. No data support health benefits of nongrain sources of carbohydrate over carbohydrates provided by grains; however, many manufacturers still tout the nutritional superiority of grain-free products. Grain-free diets are often marketed as lower in carbohydrate content, but this is not a consistent finding. Approximately one-third of the recipes of grain-free home-prepared diets and commercial diets did not meet the defined criteria for low-carbohydrate diets…

The number of recommendations for feeding raw meat diets to cancer patients is a concern because contamination with pathological bacteria has been reported for raw meat for human consumption and for commercial raw diets. Cancer patients, even those not receiving chemotherapy, likely have some degree of altered immunoregulation, and many dogs receiving chemotherapy are clinically immunosuppressed, which dramatically increases the risk of illness or even death from contaminated food sources. In humans, the risk of illness attributable to foodborne bacteria in cancer patients is such a concern that patients receiving chemotherapy are commonly advised to eat raw fruits and vegetables only when at home.

So it looks like a few over-the-counter foods and most readily-available recipes for cancer diets in dogs do not hold up to scrutiny. Make sure you feed your dog, whether he has cancer or not, either

  1. A home-prepared diets made using a recipe designed by a veterinary nutritionist (your local veterinary college, Petdiets.com, and BalanceIt.com are all excellent resources), or
  2. A commercially-prepared food with an AAFCO “complete and balanced” statement on its label that is made from wholesome ingredients.

Dr. Jennifer Coates


Assessment of commercial diets and recipes for home-prepared diets recommended for dogs with cancer. Heinze CR, Gomez FC, Freeman LM. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2012 Dec 1;241(11):1453-60