To understand how we came to make our own pet food—a topic chock full of politics and controversy—a condensed backstory is in order...
In 2005, after AK and I both finished grad school, we bought our first house. That enabled us to take in my childhood cat, Peppy, who at 16 years old was of declining health and no longer able to live with my dad. Peppy was soon diagnosed with diabetes by a vet who was a proponent of holistic pet care. He plainly told us that Peppy's diabetes was the result of a lifetime of poor quality high glycemic junk food, i.e. Purina Cat Chow.
He said the best possible maintenance for Peppy was homemade food- the only way to ensure her diet didn't contain any sugar. I would have gone to the ends of the earth for that cat, so making her food was a no-brainer. I read up on the subject (especially Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats), bought an old-fashioned food grinder, and began grinding whole raw chickens, bones and all. My dimly lit basement work table looked like a scene from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But Peppy did wonderfully on the new diet, so I kept grinding away. She had kitten-like energy and her blood sugar was easy to manage with low dose insulin.
Two years later we got our beloved Mia, a Yorkshire Terrier-Bichon Frise. Mia came to us on Royal Canin puppy chow which we quickly replaced with a raw chicken diet. Under the supervision of our new vet, the homemade diet was approved and Mia had excellent health.
Peppy lived to be 20 years old. After she died I altered Mia's diet slightly. Instead of grinding raw chickens, I began boiling whole chickens and deboning them. There were simply too many outbreaks of raw meat borne illness; and I couldn't trust that each and every chicken I bought was free from pathogens that could make her sick. Why introduce that risk when I could make her a tremendously nutritious cooked meat/raw veggie diet?
Since we got Mia she has had 4 wonderful vets (we move around a lot), all of whom have approved of her homemade diet. Despite posters on their exam room walls sponsored by Iams and Eukanuba, not one of those vets ever pushed a manufactured diet or even suggested alterations to Mia's ingredient list.
You don't have to look far in the pet food aisle to see grain-free, filler-free, and low-residue formulations. Manufacturers have jumped on a bandwagon akin to the human gluten-free stampede. But one size never fits all. And we learned the hard way. Or should I say the stinky way?
For years Mia had problems with her anal glands becoming full every few weeks. As smelly and gross as the process is, I don't mind expressing them for her but I felt bad that she was so uncomfortable. Then a vet proposed a simple solution: add more bulk to her diet. He explained that the new trend toward "no filler" diets—as would be the case with our homemade dog food—has led to diets that don't produce robust bowel movements. In other words, the dog's stool isn't large enough to push on the anal glands as it moves through the lower bowel. As stool flows through the intestine, it should push on the glands to squeeze out the gland excretions that can build up and cause irritation or even infection. Upon adding rolled oats to her food, Mia's stool bulked up and her glands needed to be expressed far less often.
Mia is now twelve. You’d think she's only two for all her energy. She recently had her teeth cleaned and the vet said it's rare for a small dog of her age to have such healthy teeth and no extractions.
Good genes? Good diet? Who's to say. All I know is that we've never had a pet food recall scare. We've never had to put her on a special diet because of food allergies or weight problems. And she absolutely loves her generous portions at mealtime - twice a day. Like us, dogs deserve delicious food and a varied diet.
Now I'm not interested in controversy or debate. I don't spend my evenings on pet food forums chatting about buffalo meat. I do what works and my eyes are open to what doesn't.
And here's what doesn't: Manufactured pet food. This topic is so far beyond debate it's a wonder the pet food industry still exists. Over the past year, Evanger's, Blue Buffalo, Against The Grain, Triumph, Wellness, PetSmart and others have been the subject of pet food recalls ranging from the presence of foreign products (metal shavings) to poisons (pentobarbital) in their foods. In recent years there have been stories where dozens, even hundreds of pets have died as a result of tainted pet food.
Here's a gallery of only a handful of recalls from recent years. Notice it contains both large conventional grocery store brands and small boutique brands in the natural and raw food space. (Images via DogFoodAdvisor)
In the same way that I don't trust these companies' food safety, nor do I trust that they have my pet's nutritional needs in their best interest. Many of the companies source their meat from low grade slaughterhouse discards, downer animals* (animals that are too sick, injured, deformed, or abused to stand on their own and thereby not suitable for human consumption), and unmonitored foreign imports. Livestock that are pumped with antibiotics because of rampant illness and filth in the slaughterhouses corresponds with food recalls due to high levels of antibiotics.
And yes, some of the filler products that I mentioned earlier can be terrible for a pet's health because they either take the place of vital nutritious ingredients or they are the source of carbohydrates/sugars that animals should not have in such quantities. We're talking corn, rice, wheat, and other grain meals.
Below is Purina's partial ingredient list for their Cat Chow. It sure doesn't resemble a feline's natural diet and I regret that we fed it to Peppy for 16 years. I should point out that this short list left off an interesting ingredient that can be found on their full ingredient list: "powdered cellulose". In other words, wood pulp.
Bottom line, here's what I believe:
I believe there isn't a single brand of pet food that can mass produce a product that's better than what I can make from scratch. Or what anybody can make from scratch with just a little bit of education.
I believe people resist making their own pet food because they find it scary, inconvenient, time consuming, and expensive. Or worse, they believe an animal isn't worthy of all the fuss (of course, I believe that person should not be a pet owner). But after making a batch or two, I believe everybody would see how simple and worthwhile it is.
I believe most pet's food related allergies/sensitivities can be solved with a homemade diet.
I believe our pets deserve variety of flavor and texture in their food, just like we want for ourselves. And I believe it's absolutely false in most cases that a dog's diet shouldn't be varied because “change” upsets their digestion. If a dog gets sick because its diet is changed, it's because the diet was flawed to begin with.
I believe the public is scared of making their own pet food because they have been so misled for so many years. They have been led to believe that a pet's nutritional needs are so complex that only a corporation could possibly muster up the expertise to get it right. And we can always trust corporations, can't we? Now I don't want my readers to feel shame for not making homemade food out of fear for their pet's nutritional needs. Good for you for wanting the best for your pet! But I beg you to consider that there's a better way.
I believe these corporations have their bottom line as their top concern- not our pets. To increase bottom line, they must decrease the quality of their ingredients and get by with the bare minimum quality control and regulatory oversight. That allows more money for marketing to convince consumers that they are making a safe and nutritious choice. Problem is, pet's are either dying prematurely, not living as long as they should, or suffering from diet-related disease.
I believe the big manufacturers are in bed with big agriculture and the inhumane animal slaughter houses whose abuse investigations have become so commonplace. It's a terribly abusive and environmentally destructive system.
Whether pet food or human food, I believe people should understand where all aspects of food comes from. To take part in the process that sustains us. Food does not come from a store. It comes from the ground and the slaughterhouse, or it comes from your backyard, or it comes from your dimly lit basement carcass grinding operation.
But I'm an honest witness to my own hypocrisy. I'm well aware that I'm a vegetarian who kills chickens to feed his dog, yet has pet chickens who've been rescued from a shelter to prevent their suffering. Why are my hens' lives valued more than those at the slaughterhouse? In all honesty, I don't believe they are. I wish I could rescue every chicken from every slaughterhouse. I wish I could feed my dog a vegetarian diet and be confident that a) her needs were being met and b) she was enjoying her meal. I wish there was a way I could have it all without moral conflict.
In fact, I tried for a time to transition Mia to a vegetarian diet. I experimented with various formulations but she wouldn't eat them. She was miserable and it was hard to keep up her weight. So, she's been on a cooked meat/raw vegetable diet ever since and I make the compromise without hesitation because she means everything to me. I pay more for fresh organic chickens from grocery stores, like Whole Foods, who claim their poultry is sourced from more humane suppliers. But I'm not naive. I don't pretend that those chickens live on green pastures. Yet I hope that by choosing such options I'm voting with my dollars for improvements to animal welfare. And as frustratingly slow as it has been, those changes are occurring. My state of California has led the way in passing laws improving the welfare of farmed chickens. Public awareness of animal abuse is at an all time high, consumers are demanding better, and companies are making changes... kicking and screaming along the way, of course.
You've probably read this far expecting to find my dog food recipe. So without further ado... I don't have one. That is to say, there is nothing written down and there are no precise measurements l follow. Even if there were, I wouldn't make them public because I'd just be opening myself up to lawsuits. I am not a veterinarian, I don't claim to be a pet food expert, and I am not responsible for anybody's pets but my own. I rotate ingredients in every batch of Mia's food, which I make approximately every 2 weeks and freeze in reusable containers. So all I can provide is my ingredient list, which should by no means be considered a formulation or a recipe.
If you're interested in making your own pet food, read Dr. Pitcairn's book and talk to your vet. If your vet thinks homemade food is a bad idea and can't be convinced otherwise, you have a vet who is either sadly misinformed or being courted by the pet food companies who make their rounds every month to her/his office with boxes full of those cute little sample bags of Beneful. Kind of like how our doctors are courted by pharmaceutical reps. In fact, yes, it's exactly like that.
Below is my ingredient list from which I rotate items to give Mia balanced nutrition and variety of flavor and texture. No two batches are exactly alike.
Anyway, the process is simple. I cook and chop the meat, pulling every possible scrap from the bone and use all organ meats and connective tissues. I chop the raw fruits, veggies, seeds, etc. in a food processor. I mix it all together and portion a couple days of food into storage containers. The end.
Whole chicken, cooked, deboned, and partially skinned. Must include organ meat. Fat skimmed off.
Chicken livers and hearts
Ground beef, cooked and fat skimmed off
Fish: herring, sardine, or mackerel
Pumpkin or squash
Nutritional supplements: lecithin powder, kelp powder, phytoplankton, nutritional yeast, egg shell powder, vitamin E, canola oil or sunflower oil.
Joint supplement: Green-lipped mussel, glucosamine, MSM
For comparison, here is the ingredient list from Primal Pet Food's raw frozen chicken nuggets. We have actually given this product to Mia on occasions when we've been traveling. As you can see, their list isn't much different from mine and most of it can be purchased on a single trip to the grocery store.
One final controversial note. We don't give Mia store bought dog treats. Not only does she turn her nose up at most of them, but most of them are tooth-rotting diabetes-causing crap. We are strong proponents of feeding dogs "table scraps", i.e. sharing from our plates. See why I saved this note for the end? A comment such as this is pure blasphemy! Outrageous! Feeding a dog from the table? Off with his head! Hear me out...
I would never eat one of those strange smelling, plastic looking, heavily dyed and processed dog treats. They are revolting. So why on earth would I give them to my dog who is essentially my child? She deserves nothing less than what I would feed myself... or in some cases she deserves much better! So unless what I'm eating is too spicy, too salty, or something that's poisonous to dogs, there's no reason she can't have some in moderation. Because her weight is so well controlled on the homemade food, she doesn't get fat from eating table treats. Usually it ends up being something like a piece of tofu, a stir-fried string bean, a dollop of potato soup, or a spoonful of ice cream. Is it bad manners? I couldn't care less. I've known humans with much worse!
And once again, for contrast, here's the ingredient list for the infamous Snausages dog treats. I'd call particular attention to the wheat flour, corn syrup, titanium dioxide, by-product meal, propylene glycol, salt, phosphoric acid, and BHA preservative. We may not be perfect pet parents but we can sure do better than that.
*For more info on "downer" livestock and foreign sourced ingredients, check out TruthAboutPetFood.com