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Dog Food: The costs and benefits of making your own

 Cassie, the Little Dog, turns up her dainty nose at Science Diet’s best lamb and rice kibble. Won’t touch packaged doggy treats. Doesn’t think much of ultrapremium canned food, either, though she’ll gag down a few bites. After three days of hunger strike, she’d already lost about two pounds—a lot when you weigh 23 pounds.

At first I thought she was off her feed because of the stress of being dumped in the Humane Society shelter, a place as wild as a nineteenth-century madhouse, then yanked out by a strange woman, fussed over by the woman’s friends and relatives, dragged to two vets, sickened by bordetella, and dosed up with antibiotics and cough medicine. Concerned because she was eating almost nothing, last night I fixed her a dish of the same kind of food I cooked for Anna and Walt during the last year’s Chinese pet food scare: half a piece of steak grilled for my own dinner, a few spoonsful of boiled rice, some spinach, and some peas.

She inhaled the stuff and begged for more.

Makin’ It

Hot dang! Dollars to donuts, this dog has been eating real food. That would explain her perfect coat and teeth in such excellent condition it surprised both vets. It also would explain why she didn’t get the doggywobbles despite the stress and the changing food. When dogs eat real food, their tastes are catholic and versatile, and diversity in their diet does not trigger gastritis and diarrhea. Possibly her humans fed her the BARF diet: raw meat and bones. This is somewhat risky, given that pathogens are pathogens, whether they’re attacking people or dogs, and raw meat is full of pathogens. BARF is probably the most popular of the do-it-yourself dog feeding projects, though, and so chances are good this is what she ate.

A little undergraduate coursework in microbiology has left me unwilling to ingest raw meat or to feed it to a domestic mammal. So my idea of homemade dog food is a combination of meat cooked rare to medium (well-done for poultry or pork), starch, and veggies. If you cook your own meals rather than eating out all the time, it’s no problem to put a little extra on the stove for the dog.

Why Feed Dogs Real Food?

Commercial dog food, whether kibble, semi-moist, or canned, is not food. It’s no more food than is junk food for humans. The fact that you can swallow something doesn’t make it food. For a dog to spend its entire life eating kibble is about like a person starting in on hot dogs and dry packaged cereal in infancy and having nothing else to eat for the rest of his or her life. Think of that.

Dogs are not evolved to eat bizarre chemicals. Dogs have lived with humans and have eaten what humans eat for thousands and thousands of years. Commercial packaged or canned dog food came into being in the early part of the 20th century. DNA testing suggests dogs moved into human camps about 15,000 years ago. But in a scant 60 years, we’ve allowed merchandisers and a compliant veterinary industry to convince us that dogs can’t survive on “people food.” Really: does this make sense? If dogs can’t thrive on real food, how did they manage to survive for the 14,940 years before manufacturers started peddling fake food for dogs?

When I switched Anna and Walter over to real food during the 2007 scare, the improvement in their vigor and health was striking. Both 12 years old at the time, they each were showing signs of age. Before long, their coats looked great, they had more energy, their dog breath disappeared. Their dog mounds became more compact and normal-looking, and instead of having to collect upwards of a dozen giant mounds a day, I found myself picking up only a couple. It was clear as day that both dogs thrived when no kibble crossed their bristly lips.

Feeding two 90-pound dogs, however, meant cranking 28 pounds a week out of my kitchen. It wasn’t hard, but it could be messy, especially if I tried to cook an entire week’s worth in a single day. When, after several months, Walt started to lose weight drastically, I thought he wasn’t getting enough nutrition and switched both animals back to commercial food. This assumption was wrong: he was wasting away with an aggressive cancer, which soon ended his life. By then, though, Anna was obediently eating Trader Joe’s kibble, and so I took the path of least resistance and kept her on it.

To feed real food to this little dog, though, would be pretty easy. According to the instructions on the 13.5-ounce can of premium dog food I brought home, she should have about one can a day-less than a pound. By my own rule of thumb-daily ration = 2% of body weight-she should have about a half-pound of real food each day. That’s a little scanty, though a full pound may be a little much. It’s easy to schlep her to a vet’s office to be weighed, and that’s how you figure out how much to feed: follow the animal’s weight for a while and adjust the ration accordingly. The amount I made Sunday evening, which started with a cup of rice to which, after it was cooked, were added meat and a few vegetables, fed her for three meals.

After her second little feast, Cassie perked up considerably. She’s been tearing down the hall after her toys and boldly exploring the house and yard. The cough has subsided and she evidently feels much better.

So…how much does this cost?

Well, I’ll have to admit that preparing real food for two dogs as big as small horses was not cheap: a dog the size of a German shepherd or a male greyhound requires 14 pounds of food a week, of which five to seven pounds should be high-quality meat. Kibble doped with a small amount of meat or broth (the only way you can get a dog to eat that stuff) costs significantly less.

However, a home-made diet for a small dog like Cassie is cost-effective. In the first place, one will save a lot on vet bills if one is not forcing the animal to eat feed that is suspect at best and toxic at worst. But in the second place, the small amount such a dog eats costs no more than the best quality dog food you can get.

One can of Precise chicken dog food set me back $2.99; it will feed Cassie for just one day. A small bag of Science Diet and a bag of inedible dog treats rang up a $16 bill at PetSmart.

I returned the PetSmart foodoid—one thing you have to give to that outfit is that they will take back opened packages of dry dog food if your dog won’t eat it—collecting my sixteen bucks. Then I headed for Sprouts, where for $7.88 I got a package of hamburger (on sale for $1.99 a pound), a package of chicken, a bag of bulk converted rice, and some veggies.

Okay. That’s half of what I paid for the Science Diet and dog treats, all of which was going from the package to the dog bowl to the garbage. No matter what I put on the kibble, the dog flat wouldn’t eat it, and of course whatever I put on it quickly spoiled in the summer heat. So any money spent on the stuff effectively was tossed into the trash.

The hamburger, rice, and vegetables produced four days’ worth of Cassie food: that’s eight generous servings. For around five or six bucks, since the rice and veggies will go a lot further than that and I still have the chicken to convert into more dog food.

Once she’s over the kennel cough, I can occasionally substitute cottage cheese for meat, which will cut that cost, as will buying cheaper cuts of meat and having them ground or picking up meat at a better price elsewhere (at Safeway hamburger was selling for $1.70 a pound, but I learned of this after I was done driving through 112-degree heat). So, I expect I can feed her for a week for something between eight and ten bucks.

While this is high compared to dry dog food-which, bear in mind, isn’t food-it’s cheap compared to three dollars a can! One can whose ingredients resemble what I would cook lasts the dog for one day: that would be $21 a week, plus 8.3% tax. In Arizona, I pay no sales tax on human food.

From an early FaM post on making your own dog food:

How do you make dog food?

It’s pretty easy. Remember, over the past 15,000 years, dogs have evolved to eat what people eat. Like their wild ancestors, they’re nonobligate carnivores: this means they’re primarily meat-eaters but also can and do eat a fair amount of vegetable matter. Wolves have been observed scarfing berries and fruit, and you no doubt have watched your own dog munch things like cauliflower and popcorn.

The trick is to feed real food. By that I mean things that would be real food for humans, too: not junk food.

Real meat.

Real vegetables.

Unadulterated sources of starch.

Not junk food. Not hot dogs or leftover Big Macs or ice cream or pizza or peanut butter or any thing that comes in a can or a plastic microwavable package or as a mix to which you just add water. That leaves the entire world of real food:

Meat. Fresh or frozen veggies. Brown rice, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, yams, even real potatoes. Cottage cheese, yoghurt, and eggs are OK, too.

What’s not OK to feed dogs, in addition to junk food, are the following items:

  • 1. Onions (toxic; onion causes a life-threatening form of anemia in dogs)
  • 2. Garlic (ditto, no matter what people say about adding it for flavoring)
  • 3. Chocolate (poisonous to dogs)
  • 4. Corn (one of the most common allergens in dogs)
  • 5. Avocado
  • 6. Raw egg white (cooked is OK)
  • 7. Raw salmon (cooked is OK)
  • 8. Grapes
  • 9. Added sugar
  • 10. Added salt

About 30% to 40% of each portion should consist of high-quality protein: meat, eggs, or cheese. The rest of the ingredients should be divided about fifty-fifty between a source of starch (such as rice, oatmeal, potato, or sweet potato) and a wide variety of vegetables. Each serving should ideally contain both a green and a yellow or orange vegetable. Dogs can eat almost any vegetable except plants in the onion family (onions, leeks, chives, shallots, garlic), corn, and avocado.

Cook but do not overcook the meat; only chicken and pork should be well-done all the way through. Cook the starch; if the veggies are frozen, add them to the hot freshly cooked starch item to defrost them and cool the grain or potato. Mix in the meat. If the meat is a solid piece baked or grilled (as opposed to ground meat), cut it into small pieces before adding it to the rest of the food. Add a little olive oil or lard for coat quality and calories. Toss in a doggy vitamin-available inexpensively at Trader Joe’s—and you have dog food that more than exceeds ideal.

Take it easy with fish. Like corn, fish is a common dog allergen. And take note that this diet is for dogs only, not for cats, which are obligatory carnivores.

If you cook like that for your dog, the pooch likely will be eating better than you do.

Veterinary bills will drop to almost nil. Ear infections—often a manifestation of food allergies—will subside or disappear. Backyard cleanup will be hugely easier. Your dog’s coat and teeth will be healthier. And the dog will love you.

Ultimately, this is highly cost-effective. If your dog is healthier, any extra amount you spend on purchasing real food is recouped many times over in savings on the most costly item of pet ownership: veterinary bills. And if your dog lives longer, obviously you will spend less on pets, because over the long term you will have to buy fewer of them.

2 Comments left on iWeb site


Do you really need to take her to a vet to weigh her?You could put her in a box and weigh her on a human scale.

I wonder why people who had evidently been taking such good care of her left her.

Wednesday, June 18, 200803:55 PM


One of my eccentricities is that I don’t own a scale. Throughout my life, my weight has been very stable, never varying more than a pound or two from a set point, and so a scale is redundant and something else for me to find a place for.

Also it’s easier to get a dog on a scale with a large platform, such as veterinarians have. Vets generally allow you to walk in and weigh your dog for free.

The whole issue of why Cassie’s humans dumped her at a shelter gets curiouser and curiouser. It’s now developing that she DOESN’T bark much. She may yap for couple of minutes after I leave, but she quickly settles down. No matter when I come back—whether it’s just five or ten minutes later or several hours later—she’s quiet.

It’s clear she was a child’s pet. At the moment, my neighbor’s nieces and nephews are playing in the pool next door. When Cassie went outside, she heard their voices and SO wanted to get over there and play with them. In their paperwork, the previous owners said they had a seven-year-old daughter. So that means they got rid of their little girl’s little dog. It almost sounds abusive, doesn’t it?

The only thing I can figure is maybe they lost their home and were too embarrassed to discuss that with strangers, so they made up an excuse instead of admitting to a catastrophic financial crisis. There’s apparently more to the story than “dog barks.”

Wednesday, June 18, 200804:40 PM