Alternative Diets for Dogs and Cats

By: Catherine Lenox, DVM, Diplomate ACVN

TVMA Member
Houston, TX

Published June 2014

Many pet owners are now feeding their pets alternative dietsDiets including homemade diets, raw diets, grain-free diets, and vegetarian or vegan diets; diets that deviate from conventional pet foods such as home-cooked diets, raw diets, grain-free diets and vegetarian or vegan diets. The reason for choosing such diets vary widely and may include fears due to pet food recalls in recent years, picky appetites of dogs and cats refusing to eat conventional commercially available diets, ethical beliefs, hot topics in human nutrition and medical necessity. This article will discuss each alternative diet type and will discuss the pros and cons of each one.

Homemade Diets

The term “homemade diet” generally refers to home-cooked diets, which can be a good alternative for patients with a specific combination of diseases that make commercial diet selection difficult or for animals that refuse commercial diets. Homemade diets, however, can be a lot of work for pet owners and need to be formulated properly in order to avoid nutritional issues. While homemade diet recipes can be found in books and on the internet, studies on the nutritional adequacy of homemade diet recipes revealed that the majority of those found in books and on the internet are either deficient in nutrients or contain nutritional excesses.1,2 Following a homemade diet that is formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist is the only way to ensure your pet is receiving proper nutrition. A veterinary nutritionist can be found at Homemade diets for dogs and cats typically include a protein source, a source of essential fatty acids, a carbohydrate source and a vitamin and mineral source but can also include fruits, vegetables and other food ingredients.

Raw Diets

Raw diets can include meals prepared at home with raw meat as well as commercially available raw diet selections. Home-prepared raw diets can include raw animal meat with or without bones and plant products. Proposed benefits include improved oral, gastrointestinal, skin and coat health. Risks of raw diets can include nutritional excesses and/or deficiencies, gastrointestinal perforation or obstruction from bones and food safety issues including salmonella infection. These risks are more of a concern with home-prepared raw diets but are also associated with commercially available raw diets as well.

Grain-free Diets

Grain-free diets are quite popular in the animal nutrition world. While wheat allergies are a hot topic in human nutrition, gluten sensitivity is rare in dogs and cats. Irish Setters can have gluten sensitivity, but it is very uncommon in other breeds. Wheat-free pet foods are frequently recommended to owners with severe wheat allergies to avoid contamination in the household. Grain-free diets may be low in carbohydrates and high in protein and fat. The high-fat aspect of these diets can make them more likely to cause weight gain and obesity in pets and can cause pancreatitis in at-risk patients. Many grain-free diets contain alternative carbohydrate sources such as potatoes, sweet potatoes or peas. These alternative carbohydrate sources, especially for cats, can cause the same medical issues as having the grains in the diet.

Vegetarian and Vegan Diets

While many humans who are vegans or vegetarians find the idea of feeding a similar diet to their pets appealing, the safety of vegetarian and vegan diets depends on the species in question as well as the diet in question. Vegetarian diets are not safe for cats; cats are obligate carnivores and require nutrients, including a specific form of vitamin A, that are not found in plant products. However, dogs can safely eat some vegetarian and vegan diets, depending on the diet composition. Commercially available vegetarian and vegan canine diets are likely safe for dogs, as these will contain essential nutrients for dogs. However, home-prepared vegan diets for dogs can lack essential nutrients and should be used cautiously or under the advice of a veterinary nutritionist.

In conclusion, there are alternative diet options for dogs and cats, which can vary in safety, ease of use and nutritional adequacy. When using an alternative diet, please consult your veterinarian and/or a veterinary nutritionistA veterinarian who specializes in animal nutrition after completion of residency training in nutrition; more information can be found at to ensure that your pet’s nutritional needs are met.



 1. Stockman J, Fascetti AJ, Kass PH, Larsen JA. Evaluation of recipes of home-prepared maintenance diets for dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2013;242:1500-1505.

 2. Heinze CR, Gomez FC, Freeman LM. Assessment of commercial diets and recipes for home-prepared diets recommended for dogs with cancer. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2012;241:1453-1460.

Dr. Catherine Lenox owns a consulting business, Lenox Veterinary Nutrition Consulting, PLLC.  She does nutrition consults (mainly homemade diet formulation) and acupuncture for pets and owners in Houston.

2 Responses

  1. […] C., DVM, Diplomate ACVN, 2014, “Alternative Diets for Dogs and Cats,” […]

  2. With the DCM scare surrounding grain free diets, it feels like there’s really no way for the average owner to find the “perfect” food, especially with so many new products coming onto the market. Personally, I’ve seen a lot of benefits from feeding raw, even though I only feed half raw, half kibble. It’s not easy, I had to get a standalone freezer, but at the same time, it’s been so helpful for my chihuahua mix Matilda’s teeth, I’m saving a lot of money on dentals, so it’s been worth it.

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