Guidelines for Making a Complete and Balanced Diet for Dogs
Steve Brown is a renowned dog nutrition expert who has been in the raw dog food industry since its start. He’s been called the Godfather of Raw Dog by many, but is most known for his book “Unlocking the Canine Ancestral Diet” and “See Spot Live Longer.”
Guidelines for Building Complete and Balanced Meat-Based Diets for Dogs Using Whole Foods
Formulating a complete and balanced meat-based canine diet can be surprisingly tricky. Attempts can easily come up short on nutrition or long on calories if they don’t follow well-designed guidelines. In this article, I present guidelines and supporting tables that anyone can follow to simplify the formulation process. Follow these summary guidelines1 and choose our recommended ingredients to easily formulate a diet for your dog that meets AAFCO (the pet food regulators) guidelines and our own more rigorous standards, which we call Optimized Nutrient Recommendations (ONR).
I provide detailed directions using whole foods for beef recipes, growth and adult, and for adult bone-in chicken recipes. Bone-in growth recipes are more demanding to formulate, hence we offer the alternatives of whole foods or copper and zinc supplements.
How to use these guidelines and tables:
Build your recipe with the following steps. The most important part is the first, choosing your meats wisely. We give complete examples of how to use the tables in the sections below on how to balance the fats and balance the manganese.
1. Choose meats and organs
2. Choose vegetables
3. Estimate the amount of calories in your recipe, and add 20%
4. Balance the fats
5. Balance the minerals and vitamins
Meat-based canine diets should consist of 60 – 85% meat, including muscle meats, organs and glands from the same species, or at least ruminant organ with ruminant muscle meats, poultry organs with poultry meats.
Meats with no bone
The muscle meats that you chose form the base of the recipe. For growth stages, from pregnancy, weaning through fully grown, choose 87 – 93% lean meats. In the recipes we’re building for pregnant bitches and puppies we use 90% lean. For adults, choose 85 – 93% lean meats. We use 85% lean in these recipes.
What to look for at the grocery store:
For growth stages, it is important to look for meats that have at least two times more protein, in grams, than fat. Examples: a 100 gram package of boneless, skinless chicken thighs lists 22 gm of protein, 8 gm of fat; 100 gm of 90% lean ground beef lists 20 gm of protein, 10 gm of fat.
For adult stages, look for meats that list 20% more protein than fat. Examples: meats that list, per 100 gm, 15 gm of protein and 12 gm of fat are acceptable, those that list 14 gm of protein and 14 gm of fat are not acceptable. 85% lean ground beef provides 19 gm of protein and 15 grams of fat.
Bone-in poultry, for adult and growth
Follow the 50/50/50 rule, which helps balance the protein, fats, calcium and phosphorus needs of dogs for growth and adult recipes.
✓ 50% thigh meat with skin and separable fat removed
✓ 50% necks (or backs), with 50% skin and separable fat removed
Organs from the same species should consist of 15 – 30% of the weight of the muscle meat. It’s okay to exceed this guideline if using hearts, but not with ruminant livers (beef, bison, deer, lamb), which are very high in copper and should consist of no more than 10% of the amount of muscle meat. For copper-sensitive breeds, keep the ruminant livers amount to 2.5% of the muscle meats. (See my article on Copper.)
With the boneless meats recipes that we’re building in this blog series, we’re using 5 pounds of muscle meat, 0.5 pounds livers, and 0.5 hearts. For the more demanding growth recipes, we’ve use more hearts and less muscle meats.
Recipes after choosing meats and organs:
✓ 5 pounds of 90% lean ground beef
✓ 0.5 pounds of beef livers
✓ 0.5 pounds of beef hearts, with any separable fat removed.
✓ 5 pounds of 85% lean ground beef
✓ 0.5 pounds of beef livers
✓ 0.5 pounds of beef hearts, separable fat removed.
Bone-poultry, growth and adult
✓ 2.5 pounds chicken dark meat, skin and separable fat removed
✓ 2.5 pounds of chicken necks, with 50% of the skin and separable fat removed.
✓ 0.5 pounds of chicken livers
✓ 0.5 pounds of chicken hearts.
Between 10% and 20% by weight of the meats should consist of freshly ground seeds and nuts and vegetables that have had their cell walls broken down. For an understanding why vegetables are a natural and important component of the canine diet, please see Yes,Vegetables for Dogs.
We are adding 0.5 pounds of spinach, a nutrient-dense vegetable, and 0.5 pounds of carrots to our recipes, adding about 125 kcal to each recipe. The recipes are now seven pounds.
Estimate the number of calories in your recipe:
We will add fats, minerals and vitamins based upon the caloric content of the recipe, so we need to estimate the number of calories. It’s okay to be inexact, as long as you always overestimate calories and round up. When we overestimate calories, we add more nutrient dense foods, helping to ensure a complete, balanced diet.
Our three 7- pound recipes with 5 pounds of muscle meats (and bone), 1 pound of organs of the same species, and 1 pound of vegetables:
Beef, growth 4,500 kcal
Beef, adult, using 85% lean 5,400 kcal
Bone-in chicken, growth and adult 4,400 kcal
Increase the estimated calories by 15 – 30%
Balance fats, minerals, and vitamins:
To balance the fats, minerals and vitamins with whole foods, we are going to add foods with critical nutrients which adds calories to the recipes, even though we are choosing foods with the most nutrient per calorie. (If you add foods just looking at the amount of the micronutrient you need, without paying attention to the calories they add, your recipe can quickly get too high in calories. As long as we choose foods near the top of the tables below, we are going to add just 20% more calories to the recipes. We are going to base how much nutrient-dense foods to add based upon these caloric contents:
Beef, growth: 5,500 kcal
Beef, adult 6,500 kcal
Bone-in chicken, growth and adult 5,300 kcal
We will take the guidelines, which are all based upon 1,000 kcal, and multiply them by 5.5 for the beef, growth, 6.5 for beef adult, and 5.3 for bone-in chicken recipes. I’ll show examples throughout. That’s all the math that’s involved!
If you are using 1 pound of muscle meat, 0.1 pounds (1.6 oz.) of livers, hearts, and 0.1 pounds of two different vegetables, here are the approximate caloric content and use the following multipliers.
Beef, growth 1,100 kcal. Multiply guidelines by 1.1
Beef, adult 1,300 kcal. Multiply by 1.3
Bone-in chicken 1,100 kcal. Multiply by 1.1
Calories a typical dogs needs:
A typical 40 pound moderately active dog consumes 1,000 kcal (kilocalories, or Calories) per day. More details on this topic will be coming soon to Darwin’s blog.
✓ 10-pound dog 350 kcal / day
✓ 20-pound dog 600 kcal / day
✓ 40-pound dog 1,000 kcal / day
✓ 80-pound dog 1,600 kcal / day
This is a general guideline and, of course, will vary depending on the activity level, age and breed of your dog.
Balancing the Fats
The most important step in balancing the fats is rotating poultry, which includes birds such as chicken, duck, quail and turkey, and ruminant, which includes cattle, sheep, and deer meats.
Why? Because rotating improves the balance of the fatty acids, minerals, vitamins, and amino acids. Improved balances means better nutrition. Rotating provides a better balance of nutrients than either poultry or ruminant meats can provide by themselves.
If you are rotating poultry and ruminants, whether on a daily or weekly basis, we only need to be concerned with the long chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, which we primarily get from fish or fish oils. These fats are especially important for growth stages.
To provide these essential fatty acids, add:
✓ 1 gram of krill or quality fresh fish oil per 1,000 kcal for adults, and
✓ 2 grams / 1,000 kcal for growth.
Note the “fresh” for fish oil; fish oil is incredibly fragile and can interact with the air to oxidize, that is, become rancid.
If you are not rotating poultry and ruminant meals:
When feeding just ruminant foods, we are concerned about not getting enough LA, an omega-6 fatty acid and the first fatty acid to be considered essential, and ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid. When feeding only poultry meats, we are concerned about too much LA, (that’s why we use lean poultry meats), and not enough ALA. You will add seeds to help balance the fats and provide minerals and vitamins.
Follow these guidelines:
If feeding only ruminant meats:
Add LA & ALA: 12 grams of hempseeds (or 3 g hempseed oil)/1000 kcal. In our recipes, we add 65 g of hempseed to the beef growth recipe, and 78 grams to the adult recipe.
If feeding only poultry meats:
Add ALA with minimum LA: 12 grams/1000 kcal flaxseed or chia seeds (4 grams oil) / 1000 kcal. In our 5,300 kcal recipe, that’s 64 grams (12 times 5.3)
The recipes we build in this blog series assumes we are not rotating. Each recipe will be complete and balanced on its own.
For alternatives to hempseed, you can use 2/3rd sunflower and 1/3rd flaxseeds, same amounts.
Minerals and Vitamins
Calcium (Ca) and Phosphorus (P)
The bone-in poultry recipe, following the 50/50/50 guideline, has the proper amounts and ratio of Ca and P. We need to add calcium to the beef adult and calcium and phosphorus to the beef growth recipes. Here are the summary guidelines, for more complete information, see Darwin’s blogs:
✓ Growth: add 10 g of typical bonemeal/1000 kcal. 55 g in this recipe
✓ Large and giant breed growth: Add 8 g of typical bonemeal to meet FEDIAF standards, or 44 g to this recipe.
✓ Adults: add 3 g of calcium carbonate (oyster shell, egg shell, coral calcium, plant-based calcium) /1000 kcal. For our 6,500 kcal recipe, we add 6.5 times 3 grams, 19.5 g (call it 20g) of any of these powders. (For those adding other forms of calcium, the recipe needs about 8 grams of Ca).
Trace minerals and vitamins
Most ruminant and poultry recipes following the above guidelines are short manganese, iodine, vitamin D and E for adult and growth stages; copper and zinc for all poultry recipes; and iron, sodium and chloride for growth stages only. We are going to show you how to add these essential nutrients using whole foods, perhaps except for vitamin E.
All natural foods contain a multitude of vitamins and minerals. While we break down each food by the specific nutrient we need, all whole foods add other nutrients as well. Oysters are high in zinc and copper, but we use them in these recipes primarily to meet the zinc standards. The effect is cumulative, and therefore the recipes probably need less of the nutrients than we specify. But I still urge you to stick to the guidelines. For example, the oysters you use may not have the high zinc content of the oysters that were tested at the laboratory for the USDA data. Using several foods that contain moderate amounts of zinc, as we do in the recipes we create here, helps ensure that your recipes will have sufficient zinc.
Note: Due to space limitations, the tables in this article list only 10 – 15 foods. For more complete tables, please see the Darwin’s blogs. They sponsored the research. The complete tables are available only on the Canine and Feline Diet Formulator™, www.dietformulator.com
I start the trace mineral section with manganese because almost all homemade and prey model diets, and many commercial raw diets, are deficient in manganese. The reason is that in wild prey animals, especially small animals, most of the manganese is found in the hair, feathers, and wool (see Darwin’s manganese blog). These are parts that are difficult for commercial manufacturers and homemade recipe makers to get and use. For more details and an expanded table of manganese-rich foods, see my past blog on Mn.
The vegetables you choose contain various amounts of manganese, so I provide a range of amounts of Mn required. For example, if you are feeding all spinach use the lowest number, if all celery, use the highest number. (If not feeding vegetables, add an additional 1 mg / 1000 kcal of Mn rich foods.
To meet our optimized nutrient recommendations (ONR) for the beef and chicken recipes, add:
✓ Growth, 0.5 – 1.25 mg /1000 kcal (we use 1 mg in our recipes)
✓ Adult, 0.25 – 0.75 mg / 1000 kcal (we use 0.5 mg
Choose the Mn-rich foods you want to feed from the table below, and multiply by the number of thousands of calories in the recipe, which I call the multiplier, to add the proper amounts. Remember, always round up. Our 6,500 kcal adult beef recipe has a multiplier of 6.5; the beef growth, with 5,500 kcal has a multiplier of 5.5; and the 5,300 kcal bone-in chicken recipe has a multiplier of 5.3
Beef, growth, using 90% lean
Our recipe, with spinach and carrots, needs about 1 mg of Mn per 1,000 kcal. Our entire recipe, when completed, will have about 5,500 kcal requires 5.5 *1 mg / 1000 kcal or 5.5 mg of Mn.
Choose the food you want to use, and multiply the number in the column headed “To add 1 mg, add, in grams” by 5.5. I will use blue mussels as an example. 29 grams of blue mussels provide 1 mg of Mn. We need 5.5 mg, so we multiply 29 by 5.5, and round up to 160 grams of mussels.
Beef adult, using 85% lean
Adult dogs require less Mn than do puppies, so we only need to add 0.5 mg / 1000 kcal. Since the recipe using 85% lean beef has 6,500 kcal, use 6.5 as the multiplier. (If you use 90% lean beef in your adult recipe, the recipe is the same as growth, so use 5.5 as the multiplier.). We need to add 6.5*0.5 or 3.3 mg of Mn.
29 g of mussels provides 1 mg of Mn. To provide 3.3 mg, multiply 29 g * 3.3, which equals 96 grams, or about 3.5 ounces of blue mussels.
Our chicken recipe has 5,300 kcal, so we use 5.3 as the multiplier. The chicken growth recipe needs 1 mg/1000 kcal. 5.3 * 1 mg = 5.3 mg of Mn needed. Add 5.3* 29 grams of mussels, or 154 g, 5.5 ounces, of blue mussels.
Our chicken adult recipe has 5,300 kcal, same as chicken growth. But the standards for Mn are less for adult than growth, therefore we need only 0.5 mg of Mn/1000 kcal to meet the demanding ONR. The recipe needs 0.5*5.3 = 2.7 mg of Mn. 2.7 * 29 grams of mussels per 1 mg of Mn = 79 grams of mussels, or about 3 ounces of mussels.
Choose Mn-rich foods from this table:
Whole Foods High in Manganese3
Recipe makers must ensure that there is sufficient iodine in their recipes. In the dogs’ and cats’ natural diet, 75% of the iodine came from consuming the thyroid gland of their prey. Look for more detailed information on iodine in my future blog on Darwin’s blog.
Many of the ingredients in meat-based diets may contain small amounts of iodine, but the data are not available. Our approach is to add just enough iodine-rich foods to meet ONR, which is more demanding than is AAFCO.
The three most common ways to add iodine to a fresh meat based diet are iodine-rich kelp, iodized salt (which has been very effective in eliminating goiter in humans), and an iodine supplement, usually ethylenediamine dihydriodide (EDDI). Please note that not all kelp contains significant amounts of iodine. If you use kelp, make sure that the kelp supplier lists the minimum amount of iodine per gram or teaspoon. If they do not list the iodine content, ask them. If they do not provide an answer, don’t use this source of kelp.
To meet ONR for growth and adult recipes,
✓ add 0.35 (350 mcg) to 0.5 mg (500 mcg) per 1000 kcal (we use 350 in our recipes).
✓ 0.6 – 0.8g of high-I kelp
✓ 1.5- 3 g of moderate-I kelp
✓ ¾ – 1 typical Iodine capsule
5,500 kcal. Needs 5.5 *350 mcg = 1925 mcg for the entire recipe. That’s about 10 – 12 grams of a typical moderate-I content kelp. If using a high-I kelp, about 5 grams.
6,500 kcal. Needs about 6.5* 350 =2,275 mcg for the entire recipe. That’s about 12 – 15 grams of a typical moderate-I content kelp.
Chicken, adult and growth
5,300 kcal recipe. Needs about 5.3 * 350 =1,855 mcg for the entire recipe. That’s about 10 – 12 grams of typical moderate-I kelp.
I use a high-iodine content kelp in the recipes we build, Maine Sea Coast kelp blend, with 450 – 500 mcg per gram.
✓ chard, swiss, raw 21 273 48
✓ raspberries, raw 21 149 48
Unless one adds vitamin D or vitamin D-rich foods, homemade and prey model diets will be short in vitamin D. For full details and an expanded table of vitamin-D rich foods, see Darwin’s blog.
To meet ONR amounts, add 300 IUs/1000 kcal. To meet AAFCO minimums, add 100 IUs/1000 kcal. For dogs with kidney issues, consider adding 500 IUs/1000 kcal.
We’ll use canned pink salmon as an example. Look at the “for 100 IU, add in oz.” column in the table below. 0.6 oz. of typical canned pink salmon contain 100 IUs of vitamin D.
Our beef, growth recipe has 5,500 kcal, and therefore needs 5.5*300 =1,650 IUs of vitamin D. To reach 1,650 IUs of vitamin D, we need (1650/100)*0.6 oz. of canned salmon, or about 10 ounces. To reach AAFCO minimum for vitamin D, we need 5.5 * 0.6 or about 3.5 ounces of canned salmon.
Beef adult, with 6,500 kcal in the recipe, needs about 1,950 IUs of vitamin D (6.5 times 300 IUs). Since 0.6 oz. of canned salmon provide 100 IUs, we need 19.5 * 0.6 oz., or about 12 ounces of canned salmon. For AAFCO minimum, about 4 ounces.
The chicken recipes, with 5,300 kcal, need about 1,600 IUs of vitamin D. That’s about 10 ounces of canned pink salmon. To reach AAFCO minimum, feed about 3.5 ounces of canned salmon.
Almost all of the homemade recipes we’ve seen lack vitamin E. Vitamin E is difficult to add using whole foods because most vitamin E sources are high in calories. The best whole food vitamin E source we’ve found is from Standard Process, who do not sell to the public. Ask your veterinarian to get their fortified wheat germ oil for you.
Standard Process fortified wheat germ oil has 50 IUs per gram, or 25 IUs of vitamin E/kcal. Most wheat germ oils contain 0.25 IU/kcal (4 kcal per IU). You may want to consider adding vitamin E drops, which often have 20 IUs per drop (but some have much more, read the labels. Too much vitamin E can become pro-inflammatory.)
For both Growth and Adult
The lower number reaches AAFCO minimum; the higher number reaches ONR.
✓ Ruminant recipes: add 8 to 15 IU/1000 kcal.
✓ Poultry recipes: add 12 to 22 IU/1000 kcal
Most adult ruminant recipes that follow our guidelines meet AAFCO for zinc content. Because the zinc content of whole foods can vary significantly, I recommend that you add zinc rich foods at least once a week.
The beef growth recipe meets AAFCO for zinc, but not ONR. To meet ONR, we need to add 9 mg of zinc / 1000 kcal. For our growth recipes, that’s about 50 mg (we always round up).
We’ll use oysters, one of my favorite foods for pregnant dogs. 2.5 grams of eastern wild oysters contain 1 mg of zinc. For 50 mg, multiply 50*2.5g; feed 130 grams or about 4.5 oz. of wild oysters. Note that the zinc content of oysters varies, that’s another reason to feed a variety of foods. When using the high-zinc oysters at the top of the table, consider adding 20% more, assuming the oysters you use have 20% less zinc.
Poultry recipes, with and without bone:
5 mg/ 1000 kcal or 16 mg of zinc for our 5,300 kcal recipe; 26.5 grams, round up to 30 grams, about 1½ ounces of oysters.
20 mg / 1000 kcal or 106 mg of zinc for our 5,300 kcal recipe, or about 10 ounces of oysters.
Adult beef recipe now complete! If you are making beef diets for adult dogs, your recipe now meets AAFCO and the more demanding ONR standards.
For the complete recipe and analyses, see the PDF. Here’s the beef, adult recipe.
Chicken adult recipe needs iron, and growth recipes also need to consider iron, zinc, and sodium. Here are the guidelines and tables when appropriate for these nutrients. Use them the same way as the tables above. The full tables are at Darwin’s blogs.
Sodium and Chloride
Adult recipes are fine.
Growth, beef, needs 0.15 – 0.25 g / 1000 kcal
Growth, chicken needs 0.15 – 0.35 g / 1000 kcal.
Add from ½ to 1 gram of salt per 1000 kcal.
If feeding seafood, use smaller amount.
Adult recipes are fine. The growth recipes require more iron.
Beef growth- Needs 5 mg per 1000 kcal
Beef spleen, with 439 mg of iron per 1000 kcal, is the most iron-rich food we can get. If you cannot find spleen, replace 1.5 pounds of 90% lean with beef hearts, separable fat removed.
The 5,300 kcal chicken recipe needs 6 mg of iron per 1000 kcal or about 32 mg. (If one is not feeding seafoods, a little less). Chicken liver has moderately-high amounts of iron, and, unlike ruminant liver, is not extremely high in copper, so we add 0.75 lbs. of chicken liver to the recipe and remove 0.75 pounds of the thigh meat. The recipe now contains 1.25 pounds of chicken liver.
High Iron Foods
All recipes with no ruminant liver:
Growth: add 2.5 mg / 1000 kcal for growth
Adult: 1.0 mg
Beef recipes, with liver, have ample copper. The chicken recipes need additional copper. If you are rotating, one day beef with beef liver, and the next day chicken, using copper-rich mussels for manganese, and cooper-rich oysters for zinc, the overall copper content of your dog’s diet, adult and growth, will be fine. Follow these guidelines if you are not rotating often, every 1 to 3 days.
Chicken growth recipes usually require 2.5 mg of additional copper per 1,000 kcal. This 5,300 kcal recipe needs 13.25 mg of additional copper (actually less because we are using foods, such as mussels and oysters, with moderate to high amounts of copper.
It takes work, but we can build complete and balanced recipes for our dogs using whole foods. Fresh is best!
Thank you to Scott Luplow, who helped me write this. He is a better communicator than I am.
1Full articles at https://www.darwinspet.com/author/steve-brown/
2We use Atwater factors
3Based upon USDA Food Composition Database.
Steve Brown is a dog food formulator, researcher, and author on canine nutrition. In the 1990s he developed one of the leading low-calorie training treats, Charlee Bear® Dog Treats, as well as the first AAFCO-compliant raw dog food. Since 2003 he has focused on research and education. He is the author of two books on canine nutrition (See Spot Live Longer, now in its 8th printing, and Unlocking the Canine Ancestral Diet (Dogwise Publishing, 2010); and a 40-page booklet, See Spot Live Longer the ABC Way.