In the wake of an unknown toxin still present in dehydrated chicken jerky treats made in China that is causing death and illness in their pets, many pet owners are looking to cook their own diets for their pets.

I’ve had at least two clients mention it in the past 7 days, and I had to restrain their well-intentioned ideas by reminding them that it isn’t easy to formulate a nutritionally balanced diet, and that some pets have specific nutritional requirements that owners don’t know about. For example, if you don’t have enough taurine in a food formulated for your cat, it WILL get heart disease, and it WILL go blind. That’s old news for the veterinary community, but would be new news to the owner who gets the information for the first time in the veterinary visit, and it makes the point that any diet custom made for a pet must be nutritionally balanced.

A recent study published by the Nutrition Department of theWilliam R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at UC Davis, looked at the pet diet formulations available online and in nutrition books.

Dr. Jennifer Larsen, a veterinarian and assistant professor of clinical nutrition, and Dr. Jonathan Stockman, also a veterinarian and second-year resident in clinical nutrition at UC Davis, selected 200 recipes from more than 30 sources, including pet care books, websites — even veterinary textbooks. The results of their evaluation were released in the June 2013 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

What they found was that the home prepared diets were more expensive, more time-consuming, and less convenient than commercial diets. Well, that’s not too surprising, and most owners go into this project with those expectations. What owners don’t expect, however, is that in general, the instructions are not very clear in the recipes, and the owners had to make assumptions to interpret the instructions. And then, on top of it all, none of the recipes provided a calorie count so that owners could know how much to feed their pet; 13 of the recipes called for ingredients that are toxic to dogs; and only 9 out of 200 recipes analyzed were nutritionally adequate. Ouch!

In fact some of the deficiencies in the diet recipes were so severe that nutrient concentrations did not reach 50% of the National Research Council’s Recommended Daily Allowances. These diet recipes were deficient in vitamin D, zinc, choline and vitamin E.

Okay, some advocates of home-cooked meals say that if you rotate diets, then you can avoid these deficiencies. Well Dr. Larsen and her band of merry colleagues tested this hypothesis and found it to be bunk. They evaluated 3 recipe groups, each group comprising 7 different recipes meant to be rotated and fed on different days, and found that many of the recipes had similar deficiencies, with 14 nutrients provided at inadequate concentrations in at least 50 recipes.

“The results of this study…indicate that most available recipes for healthy dogs, even those published in books by veterinarians, do not provide essential nutrients in the quantities required by the dog,” Larsen noted.

“It is extremely difficult for the average pet owner—or even veterinarians—to come up with balanced recipes to create appropriate meals that are safe for long-term use.”

The conclusion of the study? Out of 200 recipes, only nine provided all essential nutrients in concentrations that met the minimum standards established for adult dogs by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Eight of those recipes were written by veterinarians.

Only four of the 200 recipes could pass muster when it came to meeting acceptable nutrient profiles of the AAFCO and the National Research Council’s minimum requirements.

Those four recipes were written by board-certified veterinary nutritionists.

So what to do if you want to make your own pet’s diet? Consult with a board- certified veterinary nutritionist. These individuals are specialists who have undergone additional training after veterinary school, and then passed a rigorous certification process. They will help formulate customized and nutritionally appropriate recipes, with easy to follow and understand directions, and commonly used measurements. When necessary, they will be able to provide the vitamin and mineral supplements in a convenient form so that you can add the correct nutrition to the pet diet you are making.

Where to find a veterinary nutritionist? Here are a few choices. They are fee-based, aA small cost compared to your potential veterinary bill in the event of a malnutrition case. Malnutrition is EXCEEDINGLY difficult to diagnose, because it takes some time for the deficiency to accumulate and result in symptoms. This is Dr. Rebecca Remillard’s site for veterinary nutrition counseling. She is a well respected veterinary nutritionist and a pioneer in nutritional consulting and diet formulation for owners who want to prepare their own pet foods.

www.balanceIT.comWe have referred our clients with pets that have maldigestion and malabsorption related illnesses to the BalanceIt website for their custom prepared nutritional supplement which helped address micronutrient needs in pet patients with specific illnesses. This website also has a nicely comprehensive list of veterinary nutritional specialists for consultation, sorted by region, and includes international veterinary nutritionists, as well.

Most all of the veterinary schools in the US have a veterinary nutritionist, so if there is a veterinary school in the state, give them a ring. Here is the link for the University of California at Davis: