I remember thinking: "Cook for my dogs? Not me. I've got 160 pounds of total dog divided into three uneven packages of varying ages, breeds, and medical conditions. Raw food? Never! Can't afford it." A few weeks later, I bought a freezer because I no longer had space for people food in the fridge.
What happened to change my thinking? For starters, the pet food recall that began in March. It went on for several weeks and now includes about 100 dry and moist dog foods and treats. Once the story had its big media play, recalled items added every few days didn't make the news, so you might not know that almost every major brand has had one or more products recalled - my latest dog's canned food included.
That got me studying the labels on the different dry and moist foods I was buying for my furry friends. I discovered that the prescription food for twelve-year-old Alfie, who almost died of pancreatitis a year ago, had meat by-products and corn meal in the top five ingredients. I had read that dogs find corn difficult to digest, and digestion was Alfie's problem, so why was I feeding him corn! I wasn't sure what those meat by-products might be, but I was pretty sure they were unfit for human consumption or they wouldn't be in dog food.
Clearly some change was in order, so I had to become better educated. Peter Wilson, Humane Services Director of the Benicia Vallejo Humane Society, kindly invited me to sit in on classes with dog chef Micki Voisard when she was recently in town. Alfie went with me and got up to sniff around Micki's work table as she blended cooked chicken (without bones) with veggies, and broth, and grated carrots, squash, and beets into a casserole with cottage cheese, eggs, and a dollop of thick meat soup. Then there were the beef muffins made with zucchini and organic oatmeal.
Micki sent me home with all the goodies she made, along with a beef heart she hadn't used. The dogs loved everything and could hardly wait for me to put down their bowls for the next several days. I soon noticed that Alfie, who also has severe arthritis, was livelier and could move better. He immediately stopped drinking bowls of water daily and his poop firmed up. Deejay, the new "bichoodle," stopped pooping ten times a day and got (somewhat) calmer. Lila stopped being a finicky eater.
This was all good, so I thought I'd try making a few of the recipes just for fun while I figured out a new way of feeding my pack that didn't break the bank or my back from standing and stirring for hours over a hot stove.
I admit I was nervous. Everyone I spoke with was truly alarmed that I was feeding Alfie anything but his prescription food. All his vets didn't want to touch the subject and referred me to specialists. The specialists wanted a fortune for more tests and $90 per recipe.
In response to my questions about cooking at home for my dogs, the experts all insisted that the only safe way to go was commercial dog food. They said that dogs and humans have different dietary needs. They said that I would not be able to provide balanced meals, and that only the dog food companies had it figured out.
During her lecture and cooking class, though, Micki had opened my eyes about what is put in pet foods - bargain brands and "designer" foods alike - to preserve them and make them attractive to humans. Things like sawdust, known carcinogens, and other dangerous substances.
And then there are the ingredients that don't appear on the label. "Decades ago we fought to have a preservative removed from dog food that is also used as a rubber hardener in tires," Micki said. "It's one of the worst carcinogens. We won. However, guess what? It's still in the dog food. Now it is put in the fat the dog food companies buy so they don't have to list it on their label."
So there I was, stuck between the doctors' dire predictions of harming my dogs with unbalanced diets and the alarming facts I was learning about allegedly balanced commercial foods. It occurred to me that the question of what constitutes a balanced diet for dogs doesn't have a simple and straightforward answer, any more than it does with humans. Deciding that feeding my dogs couldn't be more of a mystery than feeding myself and my children, I plunged in.
I started with Micki's recipes and did some research online. There is a wealth of information available via the Internet from knowledgeable people around the country. Anna Muldoon - an animal advocate, dog rescuer, and raw food vendor in Alabama - took my phone call and generously answered endless questions. She referred me to Lew Olson of Texas, a Ph.D. in Natural Health, who writes about dog nutrition and sells supplements online.
All three of these women had the same message, including a few major points that boosted my determination and confidence. We can only know what our dogs eat if we are buying and preparing it. We don't need to worry about every meal having a perfect balance; daily variety will achieve nutritional balance over time. Dogs need a lot less grains and more protein than they are getting in commercial dog food.
From my continuing research and kitchen experiments, I've come up with this list of pointers:
--There are other protein sources besides meat; substitute cottage cheese, yogurt, and eggs on occasion.
--It's fine if the result of your home cooking is a sloppy, half-cooked mess that no human would want to consume. Raw is far better than overcooked!
--Include a small amount of grains and colorful vegetables.
--Be sure your dog gets the proper amount of calcium and omega-3 fatty acids. Depending on what you are serving on a given day, you may want to add supplements.
--Ethnic neighborhoods are great places to find inexpensive meat products, and raw buying coops can help keep the cost down.
--Recipes are available free all over the Internet.
In making the switch from commercial to home-prepared meals for my dogs, I felt confused, overwhelmed, and scared at times. At first, there seemed to be a maze of differing opinions to sort through, but with persistence I came to understand the essentials. Once I made the commitment and just started cooking, everything got simpler.
My dogs love their new diets and seem to be thriving on them. As for me, no more worries about suspect ingredients and recalled brands. I am still learning, but it sure feels like I'm on the right track.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go re-organize my garage to make room for that freezer.
Sasha Futran offers private dog behavior modification consultations in the East Bay and classes in Berkeley. She can be found online at http://www.companyofdogs.com While she now sometimes eats her dogs' food, she has yet to gnaw on a raw bone.