Condo Blues responded with a little clarification of a post I linked to yesterday, in which she described some doggy treats she’s invented. Her discussion of doggy food allergies brought me back to one of my favorite hobby horses: dog food.
Commercial dog food, besides being equivalent in human terms to a steady diet of cheap hot dogs and processed dry cereal, is full of ingredients that are common dog allergens. Corn, for example, is one of the top offenders among canine allergens, and yet most commercial dog foods are full of it, because it’s very cheap. Fish is another common allergen for dogs, yet it’s touted as a main ingredient for some very fancy, very expensive premium dog foods.
Overall, though, the problem with dog food is that it isn’t food. It’s fake food, an even feebler imitation of food than the fast food and junk snacks that humans favor for themselves. While it will sustain most animals, it may not sustain them well.
This fact came to my attention during the late, great Chinese melamine dog food scare. While that was going on, you couldn’t tell what commercial dog foods, if any, were safe—every time you turned around, another brand was being yanked off the shelves. So, I decided to feed my German shepherd and my greyhound human food: real food purchased from the grocery store’s counters of human food. The result was amazing.
I did a fair amount of research to find out what dogs eat and don’t eat. Humans routinely consume a number of foodstuffs that are toxic to dogs, notably onions and chocolate. Condo Blues provides a useful link to a list of dog no-no food items. Interestingly, domestic dogs are unlike cats in that dogs are not “obligatory carnivores.” A cat is: it must have a diet high in animal protein. Dogs, however, having evolved with humans for many tens of thousands of years, thrive on a diet similar to an omnivorous human diet. Apparently they started down that road before they started hanging around with humans: wolves have been observed eating berries and other vegetable matter in the wild.
Understand, this does not mean that dogs are vegetarians (although some people feed pet dogs vegetarian diets without much obvious harm). A look at the teeth should clue you to this: a dog’s mouth is full of tools designed to rip meat, whereas a human has, in comparison, a limited number of teeth designed for tearing meat. Clearly, the animal needs meat as a large part of its diet.
I’m not going to try to track down the research I unearthed just this moment. If you’re interested, google topics such as canine diet and canine nutrition with edu as part of the search string. Adding “edu” will help bring up serious research papers and articles posted by leading veterinary schools. Use some common sense about what you believe: there is a LOT of woo-woo out there—as much woo-woo surrounds the subject of pet diets as you’ll find about human foods. But in addition to New-Agey silliness, you’ll also find ream after ream of propaganda emanating from the pet food industry, and you will discover that many veterinarians buy this propaganda, as many human doctors buy into what Big Pharma tells them. Pet food corporations conduct scientific research, too, and unsurprisingly that research tells them dogs should be eating nothing but dry kibble.
Dogs should eat about what you eat, with a larger proportion of meat or (if the animal can digest it) cheese. Dogs, like humans, need starches, vegetables & fruits, and animal protein; a healthy ratio of these ingredients (for a dog, not for you) is about 1:1:1. That is, 1/3 starch, 1/3 veggies, and 1/3 animal protein. A little more meat and a little less of the others won’t do any harm.
Don’t even think about trying this on your cat! Cats are not dogs, and their metabolism is different from a dog’s. A cat’s nutritional needs are weird, and you will need expert advice to build a feline diet from scratch.
Corn is indigestible for many dogs, and it should be avoided because it often kicks up allergies. Onions and garlic are toxic. Avocadoes are said to be bad for dogs, too. Otherwise: almost anything goes. Like humans, dogs need a variety of veggies: mix green and yellow items, and don’t feel shy about giving the dog squash one day and spinach the next. I’ve been buying Costco’s frozen “Normandy Style Vegetable Blend.” This gives you a lifetime supply of dog and human veggies. It contains broccoli, cauliflower, and two kinds of carrots. For convenience, I microwave a plateful of the veggies and run them through the food processor, providing a week’s worth of finely chopped, easy-to-serve dog vegetables. Unground, they’re mighty good served up to humans, too.
Starches include rice, oatmeal, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and peas. In a pinch, I’ve substituted a little bread. Cook potatoes and sweet potatoes well—you can zap them in the microwave, because the dog can’t tell the difference between cooking methods. Rice and oatmeal are easy to cook on the stovetop. Be sure the stuff is cooled off before feeding.
Meat: some people like to feed their dogs raw meat. My own practice is never to feed my dog anything I wouldn’t eat myself, and I do not think raw meat is safe to eat. You have enough vet bills without deliberately exposing the animal to staph, C. difficile, and E. coli infections. So, I feed cooked meat. For the same reason, egg also should be cooked. When I cook a meal for myself, I cook up enough extra meat for the dog to last for several days. A barbecue grill is particularly handy for this purpose.
Hamburger is amazingly overpriced. Watch the meat sales. You can buy roasts marked down, and most butchers will grind it for you. Keep the bones for the purpose I’ll describe below. And taste the fresh-ground hamburger yourself—it’s much better than what you get off the counter. Last week Safeway was selling hamburger for over $2 a pound, but chuck roast was $1.47 a pound. I got enough ground chuck to feed me and the dog for a week. Rump roast is leaner and also sometimes comes on sale at a substantial mark-down. Chicken is often marked down, too—thighs are easiest to debone after cooking.
There’s no need for meat to be ground. You can cut it up into manageable chunks by way of discouraging the dog from setting it on the living-room carpet to chew it up—I use a pair of scissors to snip cooked meat into pieces for Cassie the Corgi. But if you want to grind it, a food processor will grind raw meat for you in a matter of seconds.
If you have a roast ground, ask the butcher to give you the bones. You can use these to make soup for yourself or, if that’s more work than it’s worth, simply drop a bone into the water you use to cook the dog’s rice. This flavors the rice to the dog’s taste, and it also cooks up the last few bits of meat, which you can shave off and add to the rice. Do not, do not, DO NOT let your dog chew on cooked bones! And never give your dog chicken or turkey bones! A dog’s jaws are strong enough to splinter bones, especially cooked bones; the splinters can lodge in the dog’s mouth or perforate its intestines.
And yes, I KNOW wolves and wild dogs eat bones. In the wild, wolves commonly die of perforated intestines.
Because no one really knows all a dog’s nutritional needs—remember, in the wild they’ll eat anything, including insects and some things you’d just as soon not know about—it’s a good idea to add a dog vitamin to one meal each day. Sometimes Trader Joe’s carries dog vitamins, relatively inexpensive compared to the same thing you get at the vet’s office or PetSmart.
Interestingly, as soon as I put the German shepherd and the greyhound on real food, their health changed. Visibly and drastically. The decrepit Ger-shep perked up. She began to move around with a great deal less discomfort, and where before she could only hobble after the beloved Toy, soon she was chasing it at a fast trot. The grey, a far more low-key character, also seemed healthier and happier. He was allergic to corn—a sensitivity that manifested itself as ear infections—and fixing his food myself meant I knew exactly what was and what was not in his dog dish.
It’s a lot of work to turn enough food out of your kitchen to feed a 90-pound dog (to say nothing of two of them…), especially if you’re not in the habit of cooking your own meals all the time. However, a smaller dog is very easy to feed this way. You can prepare several meals at once and store the food in the fridge.
I feed Cassie, who weighs 23 pounds, about 5 ounces of food twice a day, evenly divided between a vegetable, a starch, and meat, egg, or cottage cheese. I refrigerate the cooked ingredients in separate containers and then combine them at mealtime. Microwaving the food about 30 seconds at a medium setting to take the chill off seems to please the dog, though she will eat it cold. If you try this, be sure none of the food in the bowl is too hot, as microwaving heats unevenly.
If you change your dog over from kibble to real food abruptly, your pet likely will have diarrhea for a day or two. This is normal: dogs get enteritis when you change from one fake food to another, and the same effect occurs when you take them off fake food. Afterwards, though, you’ll find that once the animal is acclimated to eating real food, you can introduce a wide variety of foodstuffs without causing any stomach upset.
Real food may cost a little more than commercial pet food (although given the cost of some of the premium brands…maybe not!), but it’s way worth it in terms of the animal’s health and the savings in veterinary bills. Feeding your dog fake food is a classic case of penny-wise and pound-foolish.