Bug (short for Bebe pug) is my 11-year-old second-born daughter. (The first being my 12-year-old pug.) She’s a purebred, born from a line of AKC champion pugs, but with that came the typical hereditary joint diseases of overly bred “perfect” pugs.
Don’t get me wrong; Bug is perfect in every which way and I wouldn’t trade her in for anything. But raising her these last few years, especially, has taught me a lot about dog health and nutrition as both my girls settle into their senior years.
Just before she turned 8, Bug started showing signs of degenerative joint disease. Her hips would give out a little every time she walked. She grew up in one-story homes with hard floors, and after the move to our current house, the split-level rooms and terraced yard seemed to exacerbate her condition.
Over the years, her weak hips eventually gave out and she lost the use of both of her back legs. At home, she moves around by dragging her body with her front legs (she has the strongest front legs of any dog I know!). When she’s out and about, she rolls around in a wheelchair and we can barely keep up with her. I almost expect her wheelchair to have flame decals!
If you just saw her sitting, you wouldn’t know that she had a handicap; she’s full of smiles and high spirits, and doesn’t seem to realize that she can’t walk on all fours like her sister can. She’s still a speedy little thing, especially when it’s meal time or beach day!
Bug wasn’t always like this though. In the month her hip dysplasia finally advanced, she was weak, tired, frustrated, and we thought for a moment that we were going to lose her. Since she no longer had control of her hips to squat and potty, she became incontinent for a few weeks. Because of her age, and the fact that she showed no pain in her joints (just lameness), we opted to skip any kind of corrective surgery and approached her condition more holistically. One of our changes was in diet.
Cooking Our Way to a More Healthful Dog Diet
Ever since I started raising my own dogs, I’d always wanted to make their food at home but thought it would be too expensive or too time consuming, or that they wouldn’t get the nutrition they needed. During the month of Bug’s doggy depression, I vowed to make her precious life (or what I felt might have been the final stages) as comfortable as possible.
Both of my pugs had a range of health issues growing up. My older one had persistent hot spots and itchiness that no commercial dog food could cure (and I’ve tried them all, from grain-free kibbles to lamb, veal, fish, and many more things she would simply spit out). Bug was overweight for a while when she was younger, even though she ate the recommended amount of food for her target weight. Eventually, I settled on Wellness kibbles and they did well with that brand. But, I wanted to explore other options. I wanted to give them real food — fresh, nutritious ingredients that I recognized and could even eat myself.
I’ve mentioned in my post on homemade whole-grain chicken feed that the entire household (my husband and me, our dogs and our chickens) all share the same whole grains and seeds that we buy in bulk, as well as the bounty that comes from our edible garden. Everything our animals eat, we can eat. (Well, I’ll admit that entomophagy is not our thing, but our chickens love it!)
When it comes to homemade food for our chickens, we stick to a tried-and-true formula that works for every layer: 16 to 17 percent protein, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids from a wide variety of grains and seeds, and free range of a pasture for greens and insects. These numbers vary depending on the age of your chickens, but for optimal health and egg production, it’s easy to devise a diet that fits within those parameters.
Dogs, on the other hand, aren’t bred for a standard function the way chickens are. Like humans, dogs’ dietary needs can vary wildly based on age, breed, health history, and activity level. What works for one dog may not work for another.
When I first started thinking about this post, I almost hesitated to share my recipe for homemade dog food since it’s so tailored to the needs of my pugs. But, I wanted to show other dog owners that homemade, wholesome, healthful food is possible, and does not take much more time than preparing your own meal at home. Depending on how many dogs you have and how much they eat, you may only need to prepare their food once or twice a week.
A General Guideline for Homemade Diets
My homemade dog food recipe is more of a general guideline, rather than an exact meal plan that I follow each week. My dogs’ diet changes the same way ours does, depending on what we do and what we buy or grow. But we almost always stay with this basic formula:
50 percent cooked protein
25 percent raw vegetables
25 percent cooked complex carbohydrates
Fats and supplements
Protein is always meat and usually chicken, though we’ve also used turkey, pork, and beef. We feed any and all parts of the animals, but most commonly, we saute chicken breasts or chicken thighs in coconut oil and ground turmeric.
Coconut oil has a host of health benefits for dogs, such as improving the skin and coat, increasing energy, aiding digestion, reducing allergic reactions, promoting wound healing, preventing yeast and fungal infections, and supporting arthritis or ligament problems.
Turmeric has long been studied for its powerful medicinal properties, including its use as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. We add it to the coconut oil since it is fat soluble, and use it to support our pugs’ joint health. (Turmeric-spiced dark meat chicken happens to be quite delectable to a dog!)
Speaking of dark meat, we feed thighs and breasts interchangeably. While we’ll remove the skin from poultry and trim off excessive fat from red meat, we don’t worry about buying the leanest meat possible for our dogs. A little fat is necessary for a well-rounded diet. (If your dog is prone to being overweight, you might want to stick with only lean meats.)
Raw vegetables come from whatever is currently growing in our garden. Sometimes we’ll even throw a few pieces of fruit in there, like in the fall when cranberries are in season. (Bug has a history of urinary tract infections, so we typically give her a cranberry supplement as a preventive measure.)
We vary the vegetables each week so the pugs don’t eat too much of any one thing. In one meal they might get broccoli, celery, green beans, beets, and nasturtiums. Sometimes apples, bananas, grapefruits, or figs that we pick off our trees… and even herbs, like oregano or parsley. This component provides fiber to support digestive health, as well as antioxidants and phytonutrients. In general, the darker the vegetable, the better it is nutritionally. We feed our dogs all the same vegetables we feed ourselves, and this includes black kale, red carrots, and purple bell peppers. (They are garden foodies just like we are!)
While this might sound like a lot, keep in mind that we only need small amounts of each vegetable — a few broccoli florets or stems, a rib of celery, half a carrot. They tend to be the “leftovers” in our produce bin, so we never have to buy, say, a whole head of cauliflower just for the dogs.
We usually focus on broccoli as the primary vegetable because it is exceptionally nutrient dense. A recent peer-reviewed medical study has found that a compound in broccoli, sulforaphane, helps slow the progress of osteoarthritis. To a lesser extent other cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage and brussels sprouts, also contain sulforaphane, but it’s most prevalent in broccoli. In our household, with two aging dogs, joint health is a priority.
The only vegetable we definitely do not feed our dogs is onion, which contains a toxic compound called thiosulphate. Even if ingested in small amounts, thiosulphate can damage a dog’s red blood cells and cause hemolytic anemia.
Complex carbohydrates typically come from brown rice, wild rice (or any number of Asian rices the hubby and I make at home, like red or black rice), oats, lentils, split peas, or starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash. Wild rice, split peas, and lentils, in particular, have the advantage of also being high in protein.
These complex carbs provide energy and aid in gastrointestinal function, so don’t think of them simply as filler. We switch up this component every week to give some variety, and sometimes combine a grain with a starchy vegetable (say, brown rice with sweet potatoes).
Fats and supplements round out our homemade diet, and they’re specific to our pugs’ health needs. Eggshells (from their chicken sisters!) are an important source of calcium and added during the preparation of their food. (Unless you regularly give your dog raw meaty bones to chew on, you should always supplement with calcium.)
We dole out the rest of their requirements between two meals a day. Wild Alaskan salmon oil (for omega-3 fatty acids), liquid glucosamine (for joint health), and powdered cranberry extract (for urinary health) are given in the morning, while brewer’s yeast (for immune system support) and coconut oil (for overall health) are given in the evening.
Brewer’s yeast is also thought to be a natural method for controlling fleas, as its sulfur compounds purportedly make a dog less palatable to them. (The jury is still out on that one, but I do believe in brewer’s yeast for its vast array of B vitamins; I even add it to my chickens’ diet.)
Preparation of Our Homemade Diet
All of the information above might seem intimidating, but I assure you that making the actual meals for our dogs takes no more than 20 minutes of actual hands-on time.
First, we cook our complex carbs, whether they’re grains, legumes, or starchy vegetables.
While that pot is simmering on the stove, we cook the meat in a separate pan in coconut oil and ground turmeric. After it’s cooled a bit, we add chunks of meat to our food processor and pulse until they’re broken down into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces.
Then, we gather whatever vegetables or fruits we have at home (usually an assortment of five or more things), chop them up as needed, and toss them into the food processor. We also add a few clean, crushed eggshells to the mix. A few pulses turns all this food into smaller pieces, making them more digestible for our dogs.
Finally, we add the cooled, cooked carbs to the food processor and do a couple more pulses to combine. Everything should have a finely crumbled texture by this point. (If you have a heavy hand and accidentally make this mix on the mushy side, that’s okay too.)
Since dogs have short digestive tracts, it’s crucial that you break down the food to increase its bioavailability — that is, making all the nutrients in those wholesome ingredients more digestible in a dog’s system.
I prepare enough food to last my two pugs an entire week. It’s unbelievably easy, and I like knowing exactly what goes into their food. Friends will watch us feed our pugs and remark that it looks good enough for them to eat!
Feeding of the Homemade Diet
As a general rule, dogs will eat around 2 to 3 percent of their ideal body weight in fresh food daily. Larger breeds may need as little as 1 1/2 percent, and smaller breeds may need as much as 4 percent.
This works out to be approximately:
- 2 pounds of food per day for a 100-pound dog (2 percent of body weight)
- 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of food per day for a 50-pound dog (2 to 3 percent of body weight)
- 1/2 to 3/4 pound of food per day for a 25-pound dog (2 to 3 percent of body weight)
- 5 to 6 1/2 ounces of food per day for a 10-pound dog (3 to 4 percent of body weight)
There is much variation in what the ideal amount should be as it depends on how much your dog weighs and how active she is. I feel that the best approach is to feed and watch; if your dog is losing weight, give more, and if your dog is gaining weight, give less.
For our pugs, we feed a scoop each in the morning and a scoop each in the evening, plus all their supplements. We have an easy system for this: homemade food is refrigerated in a sealed container with a measuring cup (always the same one, as it portions out the exact amount of food needed), and all the supplements are lined up together in a cupboard in the kitchen. Keeping your ingredients organized and accessible will make feeding time fast and smooth.
Compared with feeding commercial food, where you might scoop out kibbles or open up a can, feeding homemade food with all the supplements takes maybe 10 seconds more. And even if it took 10 minutes more, fresh wholesome food for our babies is worth it.
Transitioning to Homemade Dog Food
Most dogs don’t have a problem making the switch to homemade food. If yours is prone to digestive issues, start slowly by mixing a little bit of the homemade food with the commercial food. Over the course of a week or two, gradually increase the amount of homemade food while decreasing the commercial food.
If your dog vomits or has diarrhea, try introducing only a couple of new ingredients at a time. For dogs with health issues, please consult with a vet (preferably a holistic one) if you aren’t sure what kind of supplements are needed. Use your best judgment, the way you would when feeding yourself or your family.
Where We All Ended Up
Back to the story of Bug… After only a couple of weeks of feeding her a homemade diet, the hubby and I were blown away by how much her mental and physical health improved. And we wholeheartedly believe she was able to bounce back because of her new food.
She went from an ailing, exhausted, incontinent, tail-down dog to a happy, energetic, curious, communicative pup. While she isn’t miraculously walking again, her hip dysplasia also hasn’t progressed or caused her any pain. We’ve learned to watch for signs that she needs to relieve herself (by the way she barks or sits) as we’ve realized she knows when she has to go, she just can’t get there without our help.
We feed both of our pugs the same food, with the hope that we can stave off any potential health problems for our older one. When we travel, we’ll bring their homemade food on the road or, on occasion, we’ve even ordered their dinner from a restaurant when we ran out of food (a beef patty, steamed veggies, and softly scrambled eggs can be found almost anywhere). If we’re camping, we’ll usually just feed them whatever we’re grilling — they love corn on the cob, hobo packs (potatoes and other vegetables cooked in foil packets), and the whole assortment of tri-tip, sausage and ribs that we’ve usually got going on.
Homemade dog food gives us the flexibility to fine-tune their diet as needed. I’m forever grateful for the extra time we were given with our beloved Bug as a result of the food we chose to feed her. Since the switch to a homemade diet several years ago, neither of our pugs has suffered from her previous issues; no dermatitis, no weight gain, and no urinary tract infections. They’ve slowed down in their old age, but their spirits are still as young as can be.