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Calcium — The Importance of Calcium In Natural Homemade Pet Food
The preceding pages have outlined some of the simple principles that will guide us while preparing and making wholesome homemade pet food for dogs and cats. However, if you only fed homemade pet food as described thus far, then you would not provide all that your dog or cat requires nutritionally. There are certain nutrients that are missing, need to be replaced and/or added in the form of nutritional supplements.
The single most important supplement, when feeding a wholesome raw meat diet, is
calcium. I repeat, the single most important supplement is calcium. You must add calcium to the diet, but using human calcium supplements is not suggested since they do not provide enough calcium nor any of the necessary supportive nutrients. So please keep reading to learn more about calcium and the importance of calcium in homemade pet food. Later, I will even teach you how to make your own calcium supplement (if you want to do it).
Now, in the past, I used to always tell people that our pets would obtain calcium by eating some or all of the bones of their prey. But the bones are no longer in most of the meats we buy. Therefore, in the past, myself and many others would suggest adding bonemeal as the source of calcium. The supplemental bonemeal was meant to simulate the bones our pets would eat naturally in the wild.
Using bonemeal as a calcium supplement is how I used to do things, but no more. I also prefer not to feed bones on a regular basis to my pets as a source of calcium.
Why do I not like bonemeal? Why do I prefer not to feed bones on a regular basis? Why do we want a high calcium and low phosphorus supplement? All of these questions will be answered and explained as you continue to read (:
Some say that carnivores get their calcium only from bones. While it is true that bones will provide the largest single source of calcium, the reality is that carnivores don't eat bones every day. A cat, as an example, will eat the meat and bones of a mouse while ignoring the head. Should a cat catch a rabbit, then since the bones are larger in size, the cat will eat the meat and leave the bones. An arctic wolf will eat the bones and meat of the arctic hare, but if the wolf caught a musk oxen, then the wolf would only eat the meat and leave the massive bones. Lions will feast on a zebra by eating the meat but the lions will leave the bones for the hyenas. If the lions caught a young animal, then they would eat the meat and the bones.
So in nature, carnivores simply don't eat bones every day.
One could argue that some days a carnivore eats a lot of bones and on other days the carnivore eats less. The result being that the amount of calcium is naturally balanced over a period of time rather than balanced daily. This might be how it works in nature, but for us humans, it's better or easier to try and balance the calcium needs of our pets daily.
Realizing that carnivores don't eat bones in nature every day, I can't help but wonder — do carnivores get additional calcium from other sources? Although carnivores may not eat bones every day, one thing is for sure, carnivores eat blood with every meal. While the amount of calcium in blood may be significantly less than bones, there is calcium (and other nutrients including phosphorus).
So is it possible that carnivores can get calcium from sources other than just bones? Mother Nature knows the answer but unfortunately she is not returning any of my phone calls!
Without extensive research we will never know what percentage of calcium comes from bones, blood, etc. Without extensive research we will never know what percentage of the diet should be bones. Since there is no money to be made in promoting natural homemade pet food, the pet food companies and veterinarian associations will not invest the money needed to do the research to get the answers. But really, it doesn't matter — we have solutions and alternatives that allow us to provide enough calcium daily and naturally. Again, just keep reading (:
So we know that carnivores in nature can get calcium from bones and potentially other sources like blood, maybe even the dirt on the prey, etc. But that's nature. We buy our meat from the unnatural grocery store. The meat we buy has the blood drained and the bones are either no longer fresh or not part of the meat we buy. In nature, bones are hard of course, but they are also naturally soft or more supple. But once oxidized (exposed to oxygen), the bones become dry and brittle. A dog or cat can still eat bones that have been oxidized (even cooked), but we want to avoid this. Ideally, if we were to feed bones, the bones would be fresh so they maintain their moisture and suppleness.
When feeding cooked or oxidized bones, there are also potential health issues — not immediate health issues but more long term issues such a colon or digestive problems. Additionally, what if your pet has no teeth? What if your pets won't eat bones? What if your pet is older and the bones crack their teeth?
Not all pets can eat bones. Not all pets want to eat bones. Not all pets should eat bones. So if we rely solely on bones as the source of calcium, what can we do if our pets won't or can't eat bones? If the bones that we feed are oxidized and can potentially lead to other health problems, what can we do to still ensure our pets get enough calcium?
Simple — we simply want to ensure our pets get additional calcium through the use of a good calcium supplement.
The importance of supplemental calcium cannot be stressed enough. Without calcium added to the diet, calcium related health problems will begin. Examples of such problems include dental problems, osteoporosis, kidney problems and more. Now, I know what you are thinking — you are wanting to know right now, if calcium is so important, then please tell me now what sort of calcium supplement I should provide my pets!
To satisfy your curiosity, the calcium supplement I now use is finely ground egg shells because they are extremely high in calcium, contain negligible amounts of heavy metals and contains almost no phosphorus. Okay, now I know you are wondering — what's the deal with phosphorus? Why do you mention phosphorus?
Let's take four steps backwards for a moment and talk a little more about the history of calcium supplementation for our pets. Let's start from the beginning and work our way forward so that you better understand why good calcium supplementation is extremely important for our pets.
When I first started feeding a wholesome raw meat diet in 1993, bonemeal was used. Why? Because at that time, that's all that was available. Additionally, the idea of feeding bones was not widely promoted. In fact, in 1993 I can't remember anyone promoting or suggesting that people feed bones to their pets.
Over the years, as homemade pet food started to get more popular, advances have been made in terms of supplements for our pets. Bonemeal, slowly but surely, was no longer viewed as a suitable or acceptable form of calcium supplementation for pets.
So when it comes to bonemeal, even though bonemeal contains calcium, bonemeal is no longer considered a good source of calcium but why?
It's important to note that when I talk about bonemeal, I am not referring to the bonemeal you find at your favourite garden center (unless you want your pet to flower). Bonemeal used for gardening purposes would be poisonous to your pet. When I talk about bonemeal, I am talking about nutritional grade bonemeal that is for human consumption and that is found at your local health food store.
There are numerous reasons why bonemeal and bones are not suitable as a calcium supplement for our pets:
- Bones, by nature, store nutrients including heavy metals such as lead and mercury. Bonemeal can therefore be high in heavy metals.
- For those that don't know, the ancient Romans made their water system using lead pipes. At that time, lead was known by its Latin name which is
Plumbum. The individuals who worked on these plumbum (lead) pipes became known as
plumbers. Since the pipes were made of lead, the water the Romans drank was also high in lead which lead to many health problems including infertility. This was one reason why the Roman Empire fell apart (see, not just a pet book, but a history book too!)
- For those that don't know, the ancient Romans made their water system using lead pipes. At that time, lead was known by its Latin name which is
- Now, since bones can store such nutrients as lead and other heavy metals, it is important to ensure the bonemeal being fed is low in lead.
- In order to make low lead bonemeal, one needs to use the bones of young cows and many, including myself, do not feel totally comfortable doing this.
- Since lead is a concern, this is one reason for not feeding bonemeal.
- Bones can also contain some toxic elements due to the fact that toxic elements, when ingested, can be stored in the bones.
- Most bonemeal supplements are made from bones that have been first boiled, usually to make gelatin. As a result, by the time the bones are ground into bonemeal, most of the nutrients have been boiled out. Therefore, bonemeal may not provide as much nutrition as one thinks.
- Last but not least, bonemeal is now difficult to find, more expensive to have shipped due to its weight and because larger doses are needed, you actually spend more money when compared to ground egg shells.
But wait, here's the most important reason why you should not consider bones and/or bonemeal as a good calcium supplement for your pets. This is where phosphorus, as mentioned above, becomes a factor and where the mathematics start to happen!
- Meat is naturally low in calcium and extremely high in phosphorus.
- Bones are not only a source of calcium, but bones are also an abundant source of phosphorus. Stunningly, bones and teeth contain approximately 85% of phosphorus in the body — that's a whopping amount of phosphorus in bones.
- Pets need a 2:1 ratio between calcium and phosphorus (nobody knows the exact ratio — some say 1:1, some say 1.5:1, but I still use 2:1. So going by the 2:1 ratio, this means for every 2 parts of calcium in the food, there should be 1 part phosphorus. As an example, if the food contains 2 grams of calcium, the food should contain 1 gram of phosphorus.
- Do you follow so far?
- When using something like bones as a calcium supplement, your pet can actually becomes calcium deficient. Why?
- To understand why, it's important to read #1 and #2 again.
- When reviewing #1 and #2, we see that meat is low in calcium and high in phosphorus while bones provide both calcium and phosphorus. As a result, by feeding bones as a calcium supplement, you may potentially fail to adjust the calcium to phosphorus ratio enough to create the 2:1 ratio. Instead, you might find the ratio of calcium to phosphorus still contains more phosphorus than calcium.
- One therefore needs to ideally feed a calcium supplement that is high in calcium and low in phosphorus to help create a balance in the daily calcium and phosphorus intake.
- Our pet's body must have a 2:1 ratio of calcium and phosphorus to be healthy and if this ratio is not achieved, then your pet's body will be out of balance. This simple nutritional imbalance can then affect other aspects of your pet's health especially the kidneys.
- Using a good calcium supplement to help counter balance the high phosphorus content of meat is the single most important supplement you can give to help improve the health of your pets.
Okay, so that's why I neither use bones nor bonemeal as a
But, I know what you are asking — what about those people who say bones are a good source of calcium?
Well, it is true that many do feed bones to their pets for the calcium. So, are these people wrong or right? Quite frankly, it's hard to say one way or the other with 100% certainty. Ultimately, it's a personal choice. Myself, I simply feel more comfortable using ground egg shells as the source of calcium for the reasons mentioned above.
There are still a lot of
unknowns regarding carnivore nutrition and you will always find many differences of opinions. Over the years, I have come to worry less about obtaining perfection. Instead, I simply focus on providing good nutrition and letting the body do the rest.
Although there are still lots of
unknowns, there are two things that are relatively absolutely certain:
- Of all the reports I have seen, no–one has ever said that our pets need less than a 1:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus.
- Raw meat is extremely low in calcium while extremely high in phosphorus. As a result, even to meet the minimum ratio of 1:1, a lot of calcium is needed.
Realizing our pets need calcium, I ultimately ask myself this one simple questions — are bones a good source of calcium?
When I ask myself this question and when I think beyond the calcium to phosphorus ratio... when I just think that bones today can be high in heavy metals and toxic elements... when I think that bones are dry and dehydrated... when I think that bonemeal can be extremely expensive... when I think that not all pets will eat bones or can eat bones... when I think about all of this, I naturally find myself disinterested in bones as a calcium supplement even though they contain calcium and even though in the wild, bones are the single largest source of calcium.
Instead of thinking of bones as calcium source now, I think of bones as a mineral source. Bones provide plenty of minerals to our pets but at the same time, bones can also provide the body with too many heavy metals especially lead, mercury, etc.
I would like to quickly mention that you should never feed cooked bones to your dog or cat because they can splinter. If the bone splinters, it can get stuck in the throat, stomach, intestinal tract, etc requiring emergency surgery. Fresh bones have not been exposed to oxygen for too long and thus are, relatively speaking, soft and supple. But old bones can splinter due to oxidation and/or cooking.
When I do give bones to my dogs, I personally prefer to feed chicken necks or backs because they can be easily crushed without us having to worry about them getting stuck or splintering — even if the chicken necks or backs are slightly older and slightly oxidized. In addition to chicken bones, I sometimes also feed a duck carcass which includes the bones.
You see, I still give the occasional bone or bones to my dogs. My cats, they are not actually interested in eating bones. If I fed my cats meat with bone, they won't eat it. Anyway, I am not opposed to bones. Instead, I see bones more as a mineral supplement and something that should be fed maybe once a week. If I had access to fresh prey whereby the bones were also fresh, then I would happily feed bones to my pets on a regular basis — but alas my dear friend, that is not the reality of my situation and probably not the reality of your situation.
So with all of this realized, what's the alternative to bonemeal and/or bones?
I personally use and recommend finely ground egg shells.
Why? Why use finely ground egg shells?
- Finely ground egg shells are not boiled like bones to make bonemeal, thus there is full nutrition in the ground egg shells.
- With ground egg shells you do not need to be concerned about mad cow's disease.
- Finely ground egg shells can be made by yourself.
- If you do not have your own supply of egg shells or if you don't have time to make your own finely egg shell powder, then you can buy finely ground egg shells at a very affordable price. Since ground egg shells are a more concentrated source of calcium than bonemeal, ground egg shells are far more economical — translation — you save money.
- The most important reason for using finely ground egg shells is this...
- Egg shells are extremely high in calcium and contain virtually no phosphorus! There's that word again — phosphorus.
- By using finely ground egg shells as the calcium supplement for our pets, we can very easily balance our pet's body so there is more calcium than phosphorus in their body.
Let's take a deep breath for a second — because not only are we talking about pet nutrition at the moment, but we are talking about mathematics in the form of ratios! If you were like me and asleep during class, then this whole ratio thing might have confused you a little. If this is the case, then let me summarize by saying the following:
- Meat is low in calcium and high in phosphorus.
- Our pets need twice as much calcium in their diet as phosphorus.
- The best way to ensure your pets are getting twice as much calcium as phosphorus is by using finely ground egg shells as a calcium supplement.
- If our pets do not get enough calcium in their diet, then our pets are more susceptible to health problems relating to excess phosphorus in the body including kidney problems.
- Providing finely ground egg shells as a supplement is the single most important supplement you can give your pet that is eating a wholesome raw meat diet.
- You can buy finely ground egg shells or you can make your own egg shell supplement by collecting and grinding the egg shells yourself.
I've been personally using and suggesting ground egg shells since about the year 2000. I've enjoyed greater success helping people and their pets by suggesting ground egg shells than I ever did by using bonemeal. So until something better comes along, I will continue to use and suggest ground egg shells.
Please note, all of the above information is for pets eating a wholesome raw meat diet only. Since the raw meat diet stimulates the highly acidic stomach of a carnivore — and since calcium requires acid to be extracted from the food so the body can absorb it, only those pets eating a raw meat diet should have a calcium supplement added to their diet. Pets eating cooked meat and/or commercial pet food will not make enough acid thus causing the calcium to be stored, often in the joints leading to arthritis, etc.
Martha Stewart, Here We Come
So that was interesting. You've just learned about the single most important supplement — calcium. You also just read that you can make your own calcium supplement. So for all of those Martha Stewart fans, put on your apron, it's time to get cracking!