The Processed Food Paradox

Everywhere we look these days, we’re being told fresh, whole foods are the healthiest option for humans. At the same time, vets often give me a sideways glance when I say I cook for my dogs. They tell me I have to be sure that my dogs’ meals are nutritionally balanced, and that most pet owners don’t take the time or have the knowledge needed to accomplish this goal. Not that I can guarantee the meals I prepare for my dogs are 100% nutritionally balanced, but I bet the meals I feed the boyos are more nutritionally balanced than what I feed myself.

And even if they’re not, I know I’m not feeding them cheap feed corn, sawdust, recycled restaurant grease, or road kill. Legally, dog food can contain all of those things and  “4-D” meat, including meat from dead, dying, or diseased animals.[1] Even euthanized animals can be “rendered” and added to what is labeled as animal or meat byproduct meal.

In addition to low-quality or contaminated meat, pet food manufacturers are also given a distressing amount of leeway in what they’re allowed to label as fiber. Animal hair, peanut hulls, and even ground-up paper can all be labeled as sources of fiber in pet food.[2]

While there are some foods humans thrive on but dogs shouldn’t have, the vast majority of healthy people food is also healthy dog food. The more I learn about what can be—and is—put in many dry dog foods, the less I worry about 100% “balanced” nutrition. This is not to say that ethical manufacturers don’t exist, but I guess we need to do our homework regardless of what we choose to feed the four-legged members of our family.

 

 

 

[1] Dog Food Advisor. The Shocking Truth About Commercial Dog Food. Accessed 6/12/2016 at http://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/dog-food-industry-exposed/shocking-truth-about-dog-food/

[2] Martin, Ann. Food Pets Die For. New Sage Press. 2008. p. 138.

Going Against the Grain…It’s been a scary journey

Opinions vary on what’s best for dogs—kibble, canned, cooked, or raw?  Most vets I’ve encountered advocate in favor of packaged foods like kibble and canned. The main argument being that those foods are “balanced.” The main reason I bring this up is because I chose to feed my dogs a cooked diet believing I could cook healthier foods than I could buy in packages. Packages that can sit on a shelf for months or even years and still be “fresh.”  The logic escapes me.

However, fresh food doesn’t automatically provide all the nutrients needed in a healthy diet. So where do we find support, encouragement, and direction?

Before I started cooking for my dogs, I read several books on the topic. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Food Pets Die For, Shocking Facts About Pet Food by Ann N. Martin
  • Becker’s Real Food for Healthy Dogs & Cats by Beth Taylor & Karen Shaw Becker, DVM
  • The Whole Pet Diet by Andi Brown

I’ve also found helpful information on these forums:

But books don’t provide encouragement or answer questions that come up along the way. Most of my support comes from a couple of friends who also cook for their dogs, but there are also online discussion groups and some vets who are interested and informed. In some cases you might be able to find a nutritionist who has specialized in raw or cooked diets for dogs and cats. Any of these could be good resources.

The reason I’m writing this post, though, is because it’s been a lonely and kind of scary journey. Judging the right path is a combination of intuition, observation, and doggy biometrics. My boyos are four years old; they’re happy, maintaining a healthy weight, and full of energy. They eliminate well and sleep well. Overall, they have good temperaments, though they are Shelties and tend toward the vocal and excitable. Blood tests done by their vet come back within normal range.

All the above leads me to believe I’m on a good path with their nutrition, but there are no guarantees. Many adverse effects of poor nutrition might not show up for years. I guess the same can be said of eating highly processed, preservative filled dry food. What are your thoughts on taking a road less traveled? Easy peasy or lonely and scary? How do you handle going against the grain?

Essential oils that are good for your dog

Not all essential oils that are safe and helpful for humans are safe for pets. Before using any essential oil with your pet make sure it’s safe. Also remember that our pets have a much more acute sense of smell. A little oil goes a long way!

Choose the right oils

Also, many dogs and cats groom themselves, and many essential oils should not be ingested. Use therapeutic grade oils when applying them externally. If you’re giving your dog or cat essential oils internally, make sure the oil is food grade and safe for your pet.

Our pets are especially sensitive to smell

You can help you pet adjust to the aromas without becoming overwhelmed by wearing them yourself or diffuse the oils in spaces where they spend time.

The oils listed here are generally safe for use with dogs. Cats react differently to oils, and not all oils that work for dogs are safe for cats. Take extra care when using oils with cats. Our pets are individuals so watch for potential allergic reactions.

Applying oils to the skin

  • Dilute the oils before applying because some (like peppermint) can irritate the skin if applied directly.
  • Avoid applying oils on or near sensitive areas like eyes, nose, ears, and genital area.

Some essential oils for dogs

  • Ginger—calms digestion, eases pain of arthritis, strains and sprains (use in small amounts, always dilute)
  • Lavender –antibacterial, helps with anxiety, car sickness, and insomnia
  • Niaouli— antihistaminic, antibacterial (safe alternative to tea tree oil)
  • Peppermint—stimulates circulation, helps with arthritis, strains and sprains
  • Roman Chamomile—relieves muscle pain and cramps, calming (not for cats!)

Herbs and spices that are good for your dog

Spice up your dog’s homemade meals by adding some healthy herbs and spices. Here is a list of herbs and spices that are generally good for your dog.

  • Basil (antioxidant, antimicrobial, antiviral)
  • Ceylon cinnamon (freshens breath, keeps teeth clean, reduces stomach gas, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic)
  • Ginger (anti-coagulant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, helps keep teeth clean, reduces nausea as in car sickness, digestive aid)
  • Oregano (antioxidant, antimicrobial, soothes stomach upset)
  • Parsley (breath freshener, soothes stomach; note that spring parsley, a member of the carrot family that resembles parsley is toxic to dogs)
  • Peppermint for stomach upset (high doses can be toxic!)
  • Rosemary (provides iron, calcium, and vitamin B6, antioxidant)

Check for cautions when introducing any new food into your pet’s diet. For instance, ginger has many wonderful benefits but isn’t recommended for pregnant or lactating dogs or cats, or if they have bleeding disorders, take anticoagulants, or have a heart condition.

Try to introduce only one new food at a time so you’ll be able to more easily identify the cause of any problems that arise.

Arsenic in Rice

In the last few years, information has been published about the dangers of arsenic in rice. The dangers are especially significant for children because of their smaller bodies. While I haven’t seen any research related to feeding rice to pets, I’m going to guess that the risk to our dogs is also higher because of their smaller bodies.

Amounts of arsenic in rice

Consumer Reports assigned “rice points” to different foods made with rice, and the new rules recommend no more than 7 rice points per week.  Half a cup of uncooked white basmati or sushi rice from California, India, or Pakistan equals 5 rice points. All other types of rice (uncooked) get 10 points per ½ cup. So, rinse your rice before cooking!

You’ll also get the added benefit of kicking off the sprouting process by soaking the grain, which makes the rice even easier to digest and provides additional benefits.

Rinse away the arsenic

Rinsing and soaking the rice before cooking can reduce the arsenic content by about 30% according to Consumer Reports. Use about 6 cups of water to one cup of rice, and rinse the rice after soaking.

Vary the grains you feed your dog

By varying the grains you feed your dog, you’ll also help reduce the risks associated with arsenic in rice. My favorite alternate grains include:

  • Pearl barley
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Buckwheat

 

Soaking Grains to Assist Digestion

Soaking and sprouting seeds and grains before consuming them is good for people and dogs. When you soak the rice, barley, quinoa, beans, or flax seeds you feed your dog a transformation takes place. These foods are typically hard to digest, but soaking grains and seeds activates enzymes, minerals, and other nutrients in these foods.

To soak grains before cooking, put them in a bowl and cover them with water. Leave the bowl at room temperature overnight. If you’re like me, and forget to soak these foods overnight, there is still benefit from a short soak. Try for at least 4 hours, but even 30 minutes helps to activate the beneficial enzymes and other nutrients.

You can also add 1 or 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to the water for even better digestibility.

Foods Not to Feed Your Dog

Cooking for my dogs made me more nervous when I first started down this road than cooking for my son when he was an infant. Based on everything I know now that I didn’t know back then about what foods are good—and what foods aren’t good—maybe I should have been more nervous. With my son, though, I felt pretty familiar with foods people could eat. I knew the basic signs of allergy. And when he spit something out, I took that to mean he didn’t like a particular food.

My dogs like a wide variety of foods, but just like babies, they spit out foods they don’t like. I guess that’s the first category of foods not to feed your dog. Skip the foods they tell you they won’t eat. Sometimes those aversions are caused by allergies.

Allergies can show up at any age. Signs of allergies would be an indicator of the second category of foods not to feed your dogs. According to WebMD, signs of allergies in dogs include:

  • Red, moist, scabbed skin
  • Itching or scratching
  • Red, runny eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Gassy, grumbly stomach

The third category of foods not to feed your dog are the ones that have been determined to be dangerous or toxic for dogs. These foods include:

  • Alcohol
  • Apple seeds
  • Artificial sweeteners, especially xylitol
  • Avocados
  • Baking powder and baking soda
  • Bones (cooked bones can cause choking and slivers can lacerate the digestive tract)
  • Candy, gum, and other sugary foods
  • Chocolate
  • Coffee, tea, and other products containing caffeine
  • Fat trimmings
  • Grapes and raisins
  • Milk and other dairy products, including cheese
  • Mushrooms
  • Nutmeg, paprika, and pepper
  • Nuts in general aren’t recommended, but especially macadamia nuts
  • Onions and chives (most broth contains onion so don’t make dog stew using broth from a store unless these ingredients aren’t listed. I’ve not yet found a broth without them.
  • Peaches and plums (the problem is the pits)
  • Raw eggs
  • Salt and salty foods like chips and salted popcorn (dogs do need some salt in their diet but not the amounts found in most snack foods)
  • Yeast dough

Although many sources recommend against garlic, there are others saying garlic is safe and beneficial.

This list isn’t exhaustive, so if you’re feeding a new food to your pet, it’s best to do some research beforehand. Just like people, your pet might have a food sensitivity or allergy even to foods that are generally considered safe for pets. Pay close attention to how your pet reacts to any new food and try to introduce new foods one at a time.

Let’s face it, some of these foods aren’t particularly good for people either, but most dogs are smaller than a full-grown adult and what seems like a small amount to us has a much greater impact on the dogs’ smaller bodies. Even small amounts of many of the foods listed above can cause organ damage, seizures, anemia, and a host of other problems. Whether feeding a home-cooked diet to your pets or supplementing kibble, the foods above should be avoided.

 

Detailed Costs of Cooking Homemade Dog Stew

Is cooking for dogs expensive?

When I tell people that I’ve been cooking homemade dog food for my Shelties for the past 4 years, the first question I get is: Isn’t cooking for your dogs expensive?

The short answer: It’s only a little more expensive than the high-end kibble on the market.

The long answer: Yes, it’s more expensive and takes more time, but it’s worth it because of several reasons.

  • My dogs and I enjoy cooking day. Tino lays down in front of the oven and guards his dinner while it simmers (proof is in the picture for today’s post).
  • I know what ingredients are in their food, and I’ve chosen high-quality meats and vegetables. I can’t afford all organic, but I do use mostly organic fruits and vegetables. I look for meats that are hormone and anti-biotic free.
  • Just as with people, healthy living starts with healthy eating. Healthcare companies for people are promoting healthy living as a way to reduce overall healthcare costs and reduce the risks of obesity and diabetes. If that works for people, might it not work for our pets also?

Are you wondering if cooking for your pet is right for your lifestyle? Check out these factors that I’ve found important to consider in the post Is Cooking for Your Dogs Right for Your Lifestyle?

If you shop for specials on meat, it’s possible to reduce the costs of cooking homemade dog food to less that what I’ve estimated my costs to be. When I shop for the ingredients I buy to make my home-cooked dog food, I buy in bulk so I’m pretty confident about the costs I’m sharing, but there are factors that will impact your per-pet costs. Four that come to mind are

  • the size of the dog,
  • supplements given,
  • inflation (as food costs go up, so will the cost of these recipes), and
  • the cost of the ingredients. Choosing organic ingredients definitely raises the cost.

To be sure that you have a good idea of how accurate these costs are, this information is based on prices I paid at a Costco store on January 21, 2016. I’ve also figured the weekly cost assuming only one type of meat is used, but more often than not I combine meats.

For example, I use half chicken thighs and half chicken breasts. To reduce the fat content of the stew cooked with red meat, I usually mix about ½ ground turkey with ¼ bison and ¼ ground beef. A stew made with all bison would cost a fortune!

I occasionally feed my boyos fish as well, but I haven’t made fish stew. If anyone has, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Keep in mind, there are a lot of variables. My numbers are based on my choice of ingredients, and I’m sure you can cook for less and still produce a tasty, healthy stew.

Chart of ingredients and costs per week based on the ingredients I use

Ingredient Quantity Cost per/[quantity] Total cost/week
Chicken thighs 5 pounds $1.99/lb. $9.95
Chicken breasts 5 pounds $2.99/lb. $14.95
Ground turkey 5 pounds 2.79/lb. $13.95
Organic ground beef (85% lean) 5 pounds 5.59/lb. $27.95
Lean ground bison 5 pounds 7.60/lb. $38.00
Veggies, frozen mix 2 cups 1.80/lb. $1.80
Grains (averaged because I use a variety of different grains including rice, quinoa, and pearl barley) 1 cup .10/oz. $0.80
Optional supplementation      
Yogurt 28 oz. .15/oz $4.20
Cottage Cheese 28 oz. .18/oz. $5.04
Canned pumpkin 32 oz. .19/oz. $6.08
Sardines 7.5 oz. .34/oz. $2.55
Calcium I grind up egg shells from eggs I consumed so consider this free
Vitamin 3.5 teaspoons .73/serving $2.55

You can take a look at one of the recipes I use with chicken thighs and breasts as the meat ingredients.

Summary of costs to cook homemade stew for dogs

Based on the above estimates, the total cost of the stew ranges from $15.05  to $33.06 per week. At most, I use an all red meat mix once a month. On average, the cost per month for two 25-lb. or one 50-lb. dog should be about $60 – $80.

Comparison to kibble based on one friend’s experience

A friend who feeds her 40-lb. Aussie mix a high quality kibble told me it costs her about $45/month for the kibble. She also gives Misty cottage cheese with each meal because Misty enjoys it. She supplements with a multi-vitamin on the advice of her daughter-in-law who is a vet.

Additional costs

Overall costs to feed your dogs will vary depending on the additional foods you give them and the type and quality of supplements. I’ll go into more detail about the extras I give my boyos in future posts. Not all are required, but from my research, it’s very important to supplement calcium when feeding a home-cooked diet. Calcium along with a good multi-vitamin should put to rest most concerns voiced by veterinarians concerned about a balanced diet.

A note for cat owners

I hesitate to write too much about home-cooked stew for cats, but I would venture to say that costs will be similar (adjusting for weight) because the main difference I’ve uncovered in my research is the protein requirement, which is higher for cats. The books I’ve read describe some heartwarming results for cats that weren’t doing well on commercial cat food. If you are a reader or visitor who has personal experience cooking for cats, I’d welcome your insights so please leave comments and share resources you’ve found valuable.

Is Cooking for Your Dog Right for Your Lifestyle?

First of all, the incredible photo of Sammie and Tino featured in this post was taken by Chip, the creator of BoonCompanions. He’s both an amazing photographer and storyteller. Check out his website!

In the four years since I started cooking for my dogs, I’ve realized that making a commitment to cooking for the boyos involved more than just a willingness to cook. A few considerations I’ve faced are time, travel, pet sitters and emergency situations, nutritional balance, and cost.

Time

  • It takes more time to cook for my dogs than it would to buy commercial dog food. I enjoy cooking a pot of stew for the boyos on Sunday afternoons—the aromas fill the house with warmth and comfort. I especially enjoy Sammie and Tino’s anticipation. They both help to keep the floor clean by snatching up any diced veggies that fall to the floor. Tino curls up on the rug in front of the stove and guards his dinner while it simmers. To help save time, I cook once a week and freeze the stew in portions that last 1 ½ or 2 days. The boys love the stew on any day of the week, but they seem especially eager for dinner on cooking day. Maybe the stew is just fresher or maybe anticipation adds a little spice to Sunday dinner.
  • There are weekends when finding time to cook can be a challenge, and it’s important to find a system—or dinner substitutes—for times when the stew doesn’t get on the stove or (if you’re like me) the stew doesn’t get from the freezer to the fridge in time to thaw. I’ve come up with a few workarounds, which I’ll share in a future post.

Travel

  • Dedicated dog chef that I’ve become, I take the boyos food with us when we travel. We’ve gone to Kansas, Illinois, and Oregon with our coolers packed with sandwiches for me and stew for Sammie and Tino. The space required for the coolers does take up about the same space as one passenger so it means one less person fits in the car. This hasn’t been a problem for us, but potential passengers might not be as understanding.

Pet sitters and emergency situations

  • Not all pet sitters have been enthusiastic about the extra work involved in feeding home-cooked stew to the dogs. Putting the stew in the bowl isn’t much more difficult than pouring in a scoop of kibble, but it does mean dishes and dog bowls have to be washed. And I give my dogs supplements to ensure balanced nutrition. I add pumpkin, yogurt or cottage cheese, calcium, and a vitamin to one or both meals every day. But the biggest challenge has been in emergency situations or extended time away where I’ve asked the pet sitter to cook up a pot of stew. Some are more willing than others to go that extra mile. Because of those situations, I’ve come up with some alternative feeding plans for emergency situations.

Nutritional balance

  • One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced has been to make sure the food I’m preparing for my dogs meets their nutritional needs. Just like humans, even if our pets are getting meals based on healthy ingredients, there are vitamins and trace minerals that might not be included in the basic stew. So I’ve added a multi-vitamin supplement.
  • If dogs aren’t eating raw bones, they probably aren’t getting enough calcium in a home-cooked stew. So I also add calcium to their meal. Finally, I add cottage cheese or yogurt, but neither of these have enough calcium—at least in portions appropriate to the size of my dogs—to meet their daily requirements.

Cost

  • Both my Shelties weigh about 25 pounds. The ingredients for the stew cost about $45/month per dog. They eat about one pint of yogurt a week between them and about one pint of cottage cheese a week. The cost of those foods will vary depending on the brand. I give my boyos the Whole Body Support formula made by Standard Process, and again costs will vary depending on the supplement chosen.
  • I’m planning a future post with more detail on food costs. There are certainly ways to reduce the overall cost because I include ground beef and buffalo in some of my recipes. Chicken and ground turkey are lower cost options.
  • A friend who feeds her dog a high-quality kibble estimates she spends about $45/month to feed her Aussie mix (who weighs about 35 or 40 pounds). She also gives Misty a multi-vitamin and mixes some cottage cheese into her food. By my estimate, cooking for Sammie and Tino costs only a little more than a high-quality kibble, but there is more effort involved.

 

Favorite Chicken Recipe for Home-Cooked Dog Food

Chicken, Rice, and Veggie Stew

Ingredients

2 ½ lbs. chicken breast ½ cup celery, diced
2 ½ lbs. chicken thighs ½  cup zucchini
1 cup rice, pearl barley, or quinoa ½ cup carrots
2 – 3 cups water 1 ½ cups greens (spinach or kale work well)
  1 teaspoon sea salt

Preparation

Combine chicken, rice (or barley or quinoa), and celery in large pot with water and bring to boil, lower heat and simmer for 2 hours. Finely chop or grind in blender veggies and salt and add to pot during last 10 to 15 minutes of cooking.

 

Servings

Approximately 32, ½ cup servings

Calories per serving   112 Calories from fat    44
Protein per serving      11g  

 

My Sheltie boys weigh about 25 pounds, and I serve them about ½ c. of stew twice a day.

I serve this with 1 – 2 tablespoons of pumpkin for fiber and overall digestive support and  ¼ cup of yogurt or cottage cheese.

I also add a multivitamin to each meal and ¼ teaspoon of ground eggshell once a day because dogs eating a home-cooked meal need a calcium supplement. Neither yogurt nor cottage cheese can provide enough of this mineral. A multivitamin is often recommended by pet nutritionists to ensure a balanced diet.

I like this recipe because chicken is the lowest cost meat to use of the common choices. The next most economical is ground turkey (both under $3/lb.). I also vary the boyos diet by substituting ground beef and ground buffalo or pork roast. To reduce the fat content of the red meat, I’ll use ½ red meat (beef or buffalo) and half ground turkey.