A Conundrum: Adding Human Food to Commercial Pet Food

By Ken Tudor, DVM on May 16, 2013

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


Ken Tudor, DVM


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