Adding Fresh Foods to a Commercial Diet

by Mary Straus

One of the best ways to improve the quality of whatever diet you feed is to add fresh foods. As long as you feed at least half kibble, you don't need to worry too much about balancing the foods you add, though variety is always better than always feeding the same thing. The more fresh food you feed, the more important it is to provide a variety of foods in appropriate proportions in order to maintain a balanced diet (see Balancing a Homemade Diet for more information).

It is better to add foods from animal sources rather than plant foods (grains, legumes and vegetables), since commercial diets are usually high in carbohydrates, for which dogs have no nutritional need, while protein provides a number of benefits (see High-Protein Diets for more information). Good foods to add include eggs, meat, organs and dairy. If you are feeding a large percentage of homemade food, then it's OK to add some carbs, such as pasta, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, etc., but animal products should always be at least half what you add.

Most dogs do fine with fresh foods, whether raw or cooked, but a few may have problems. If your dog develops diarrhea or any other digestive problems when you add fresh foods, try feeding the two types of food separately. You can also experiment with different foods and different ways of preparing them -- some dogs may do better with raw food, for example, while others do best when the food is cooked.

Foods to Add to a Commercial Diet

Eggs: Feed eggs raw or cooked, such as lightly scrambled, soft- or hard-boiled. Whole raw eggs are fine, as the yolks contain plenty of biotin to make up for what the raw egg whites destroy, but the whites are more easily digested when cooked. One of the healthiest and easiest to add foods.

Muscle Meat (including Heart): Add any kind of meat, either ground or in chunks (small enough to avoid choking). Feed raw or lightly cooked (never feed cooked bones). Add 1/2 tsp. ground eggshell (you can grind them in a clean coffee grinder or blender), or around 1,000 mg calcium from any other source, per pound of meat to give the proper calcium/phosphorus ratio. Adding calcium  is not necessary if the added meat is only a small portion of the diet, or if you are adding raw meat with bone that is consumed.

Liver and other Organ Meat: Feed small amounts of liver at a time, as it is rich and can lead to diarrhea, but it is loaded with beneficial nutrients and good to feed. Kidney is similar, but not as rich. Most other organ meats, like hearts and gizzards, are nutritionally more like muscle meats and can be fed in greater quantity, though a few dogs will react to these as well if too much is fed at one time.

Canned fish with bones: Sardines (preferably packed in water rather than oil), Jack Mackerel and Pink Salmon are wonderful additions to the diet. Full of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and trace minerals. Bones are cooked to softness and are safe to feed (no need to ever add calcium to this food, since the bones supply it). Never feed raw salmon or trout from the Pacific Northwest (California to Alaska), as it may contain a parasite that can be fatal to dogs. I don't recommend feeding much tuna, as it is more likely to be contaminated with mercury, and does not include bones, which are nutritious. Sardines can be used to replace fish oil supplements; one small sardine has over 100 mg of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.

Yogurt: Some yogurt products provide probiotics, beneficial bacteria that can help with digestive issues. Look for yogurt that state specifically that they include probiotics (otherwise, the "live cultures" refers to bacteria used to make the yogurt, not probiotics). Whole milk (rather than low- or non-fat) is fine unless your dog needs a low-fat diet. Kefir is another cultured milk option with probiotics. Dogs who have problems with cow's milk products may do better with those made from goat's milk.

Cottage Cheese or Ricotta Cheese: Use low-fat or whole milk.

Garlic: May help repel fleas (although this is anecdotal) and has other health benefits as well. Garlic can be toxic in  large quantities. Give no more than 1/2 to 1 small crushed clove (one small part of a bulb) per 20 pounds of body weight daily.

Canned Pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix): great for digestion, helps both diarrhea and constipation. Use in small amounts, as too much can also cause diarrhea.

Vegetables: Raw vegetables must be pureed in a food processor, juicer or blender in order to be digestible by dogs, since they don't chew their food to break down the cell walls. Whole raw veggies, such as broccoli or carrot sticks, are not harmful but can't be digested by dogs so they don't get any nutritional value from them. Vegetables can also be steamed, which serves to break down the cell walls so that pureeing is not needed. Good veggies to feed include carrots, celery, all kinds of greens (kale, collard greens, mustard greens, bok choy, dandelion greens, cabbage, spinach, chard, parsley, cilantro, etc.), lettuce (anything but iceberg, which is not very nutritious), broccoli, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, asparagus, turnips, parsnips, etc. Do NOT feed onions. Warning: If your animal is having any symptoms of arthritis, inflammation, respiratory problems or any other conditions that involve swelling or mucous, stay away from the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant).

Pasta, Grains and Starchy Vegetables: Some dogs with allergies, digestive problems, seizures or arthritis do better if grains are removed from the diet (this may also apply to starchy veggies). Dogs who need to lose weight will do better with added high-protein foods rather than carbohydrates (see Senior and Overweight Dogs for more info). Commercial foods are high in carbohydrates, so it's best not to add more unless you are feeding a high percentage of homemade food -- if so, it's OK to add some carbs, but animal products should always make up the majority of what you add. Grains and starchy veggies, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squashes, need to be cooked in order to be digestible. Grains include white rice, brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, barley and more.

Fruit: Banana, apple, melon, pear, blueberries, etc. are all fine to feed to dogs. Note that avocado pits and skin are toxic to dogs. The fruit from Guatemalan avocados is also somewhat toxic, while the fruit from Mexican varieties is not. The popular Hass variety is a hybrid with some Guatemalan heritage, I'm unsure what it's level of toxicity is.

Green Tripe: Not the bleached kind you get from the supermarket (which is not harmful but has very little nutritional value). Green tripe smells awful, but dogs adore it and it's quite healthy for them. See my list of known green tripe suppliers and Raw Food Resources to locate a supplier near you.

For more information on foods to add to kibble and getting started with a more natural diet, see An Introduction to Home-Prepared Diets for Dogs.

Recreational bones can help keep the teeth clean, avoid gum disease, and provide a great deal of chewing pleasure and exercise. I like to give large beef ribs, and take them away once all the meat has been removed, but these bones may be consumed by larger dogs and more aggressive chewers. Knuckle bones are good recreational bones, especially for large dogs. Marrow bones are OK but can be a problem if dogs get them between their molars and crunch down, as they are very hard and can cause broken teeth. The marrow is also very rich and may cause diarrhea (you can scoop some of it out with a spoon before feeding to help). Bones get harder as they dry out, so to avoid problems with broken teeth, it's better to take the bones away after a reasonable amount of time (anything from a few hours to a day or two). Bones should always be fed raw, as cooked bones become hard and brittle, which can be dangerous if consumed.

Foods to Avoid or Restrict

While most foods safe for people are also safe for dogs, there are a few notable exceptions. Here are some foods you should not feed your dog:

  • Onions: Can cause a form of anemia. Reaction is dose-dependent and will build up over time. Small amounts are not harmful, but there's no reason to feed them.
  • Grapes and raisins: Cause kidney failure in a few dogs for unknown reasons.
  • Macadamia nuts: Toxic to dogs, even in very small amounts.
  • Raw salmon, trout and related andromadous fish from the Pacific Northwest (California to Alaska): Can carry a parasite that causes salmon poisoning in dogs. Cooking will destroy the parasite. Note that canned salmon is cooked and therefore safe.
  • Chocolate and caffeine: Toxic to dogs.
  • Xylitol: A natural sweetener, xylitol is toxic to dogs. It is found in some water additives, such as C.E.T. AquaDent and Petrodex Breath Spray For Pets, made by Virbac Animal Health, BreathaLyser Plus and AQuala, made by imRex, Inc.. It is also found in many human products, including sugar-free gum, mints and children's vitamins.

The following foods should be restricted:

  • Garlic: Beneficial in doses up to 1 small clove per 20 lbs of body weight, but can cause anemia if given in larger quantities.
  • Avocado: Fruits of Guatemalan species are mildly toxic to dogs, causing digestive upset, while fruits of Mexican species are safe. Note that the popular Hass variety is a hybrid and toxicity level is unknown. Pits and rinds of all species can be toxic.
  • Cruciferous vegetables: Very healthy, but can suppress thyroid function if large amounts are fed raw. Feed in limited amounts, or cook first. The cruciferous family includes include arugula, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, turnips, turnip greens, watercress, rutabaga, daikon, kohlrabi.
  • Spinach and swiss chard: Should be fed in limited amounts due to their high oxalate content.  Cooking removes some of the oxalates, though in this case you should not feed the water, as that's where the oxalates go.
  • Potatoes (the regular kind, not sweet potatoes), tomatoes, peppers (all kinds) and eggplant: May aggravate arthritis pain, but are otherwise fine to feed. Grains and starchy veggies may also aggravate arthritis and other forms of inflammation.  

Thanks to Mary Straus for giving Against The Grain Pet Nutrition LLC permission to publish her article on their website. (9/12/10)


Against The Grain Pet Nutrition is a company that does things differently. We are a small business that is excited about offering pet owners better choices in pet nutrition. We believe that choosing appropriate pet food (be it commercial, raw or home prepared) is the most important factor in any pet's preventative health, convalescence and longevity.  Our name - Against The Grain - reflects our strong passion to provide pet owners with the knowledge to make healthy decisions about pet care even if we go ‘against the grain' of popular thinking.

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