Treat Tips

In addition to cooking main meals for my dogs, I like to bake treats too. Because I cook for my dogs, their food is soft so I like to give them crunchy treats. I finally found a great way to crisp up the treats without blackening the edges, and so simple! After you turn off the oven, let the treats cool in the oven. I bake my treats for 2 to 2 ½ hours (sometimes more if the batter is very moist) at 250o. If you bake at a higher temperature, when you turn off the oven leave the treats inside and crack the oven door slightly while they cool.

Tasty Treats

What I like best about baking my own treats is knowing what’s really in them. My dogs don’t have gluten sensitivities so I use wheat flour sometimes, rice flour, or teff. Here’s a favorite recipe.

Crunchy Peanut Butter and Banana Bites

1 cup peanut butter 1 teaspoon vanilla
1 or 2 very ripe bananas 1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 eggs, whipped 1 to 1 ½ cups flour

Mash the bananas and mix with peanut butter. Mix in the whipped eggs, vanilla, and cinnamon. Fold in the flour. Grease the bottom of a baking sheet with butter and press the batter flat on the pan. I don’t worry about making it look pretty. I go for about ¼-inch thickness, but press to your preferred thickness. Score the dough by running the blunt edge of the knife across the dough to create square shapes.

Bake at 250o for 2 to 2 ½ hours. Longer baking = crispier treats. When the dough is hardened (but not burned on the edges) turn off the oven and let the treats cool in the oven. When the treats are cooled, break them into pieces along the scored edges. Enjoy!

Tummy upset

Maybe I should have saved this entry for a holiday because that’s when my puppy medical emergencies always seem to happen—when the cost of care doubles. Well, it’s almost the weekend, and that’s the boyos other favorite time to develop lumps, bumps, or tummy grumps and grumbles.

While I prefer natural and homeopathic remedies whenever possible, I’m not against vaccines or pharmaceuticals. And while antibiotics have their place and do clear up a plethora of tummy ills, I feel that antibiotics are like taking one step forward and two steps back. The offending bacteria, germ, or parasite gets killed but so do all the good guys. The immediate problem is solved, and that’s good. But the boyos’ ability to naturally fight off those microscopic intruders is compromised. In the end, I can’t help feeling we’re solving one problem but creating a bigger one.

Each of my boys have different susceptibilities, and Sammie suffers more often from tummy upset. We go to the vet, we get XXX, we pay a few hundred dollars, we go home and follow the regimen, and the vomiting and bloody diarrhea go away. Sounds like the perfect solution. Until the symptoms come back.

The last time Sammie suffered from this recurring illness, one which has attacked him once or twice a year since he was almost a year old, I decided to try a different protocol.  I did my research, and some of the options sounded scarier than the vet’s go to pharmaceuticals. In the end I landed on some that were natural, food-based, and sounded safe. And they worked!

I’m not a vet, but I did share what I tried with my new homeopathic (but traditionally trained) vet, and she explained to me why they helped. I can’t—and wouldn’t want to—say this will work for every situation, but I do think these natural remedies are worth considering. Here’s what I added to Sammie’s food at each meal.

  • Parsley water, 1 tsp.
  • Ground pumpkin seed, ½ tsp.
  • Cooked canned pumpkin, 1 heaping tablespoon

My boys weigh between 25 and 30 pounds, so the amounts should probably be adjusted based on size and weight. And I always watch them closely when I introduce any new food. It’s only been about six months, so I can’t say anything about long-term effects. But I am happy that Sammie’s tummy troubles cleared up without antibiotics. And I feel like I’m helping his system get stronger and fight those bugs better without drugs. Two steps forward, right?

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?

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.

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.

 

Choosing Between Cooked or Raw Food Diets for Dogs

When I was first researching feeding options for my pups, I was introduced to a wonderful woman who was feeding her dogs raw food. After all, it’s nature’s way. I did try feeding raw meat to my boyos but decided to go with home cooked food for three reasons:

  • Raw foods carry potentially dangerous parasites and bacteria like eColi
  • My guys tried to swallow such large chunks of meat that they nearly choked on more than one occasion
  • Cooked vegetables are easier for my guys to digest

Supporters of feeding raw say that dogs have natural protections against bacteria and parasites that humans don’t have. Some of the vets I know and respect say that’s not necessarily true. I prefer to err on the side of caution so I decided to go with cooked meals. I’ve also found that cooked veggies are easier for my dogs to digest. In other words, there’s a lot less waste!

Eat Your Own Dog Food

When I first started cooking for my boyos (Tino on the left and Sammie on the right) I’d eat the food I prepared for them. I figured I should be willing to eat the food I was going to feed to them. An unexpected benefit came out of that “taste testing” exercise–I lost 5 pounds in 2 weeks, eating their high protein, low carb diet.

I sometimes still do share their stew, but I also enjoy foods that aren’t recommended for dogs. Even though some foods don’t set well with our pets, a wide variety of healthy foods suit both species. Some of our favorites include:

Protein

  • Ground turkey
  • Chicken
  • Ground beef
  • Buffalo
  • Liver and other organ meats
  • Sardines (great source of calcium too)
  • Cottage cheese

Grains

  • White, brown, wild rice
  • Pearl barley
  • Quinoa
  • Oats

Not all pets—or people—handle grains well, and dogs don’t have a dietary requirement for simple carbs so grains don’t necessarily have to be included in homemade pet food. Pumpkin makes a great substitute to ensure you’re getting fiber into your pet’s diet.

Research is also cautioning against high levels of arsenic in rice. This is a risk for people as well as pets. I’ll be posting more on this topic, but soaking the rice for a few hours or overnight can help lower arsenic levels.

Vegetables

  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Green beans (high in omega-3 fatty acids and calcium)
  • Peas
  • Zucchini
  • Sweet potato (another great source of calcium)
  • Beets
  • Squash (acorn, butternut)
  • Pumpkin (vitamin A, antioxidants, and fiber)
  • Spinach and kale (high in iron)
  • Lettuce
  • Parsley, cilantro

Dogs like veggies but you may notice these foods coming out the other end undigested. Cooking can help, but using a blender or food processor to “pre-digest” these foods will make it even easier for your dog to digest. As far as cats go, they have almost no need for fruits or veggies in their diet according to what I’ve read.

Some of the research I’ve found suggests staying away from cruciferous veggies (broccoli and cauliflower, for example) because these kinds of veggies have been linked to impeding thyroid function. I’ve fed them to my dogs without problem, and I’ve seen them recommended on reputable sites. Moderation and careful observation of how your pet does on these foods would be wise.

Fruits

  • Cantaloupe (great for eyesight and cancer prevention)
  • Apples (seeds and core aren’t recommended)
  • Blueberries (anti-cancer and cardiovascular support)
  • Watermelon (cancer prevention and support for good eyesight)
  • Bananas
  • Strawberries

These foods are some of our pack’s favorites, but every canine is different. I watch my dogs for signs that a particular food isn’t sitting well with their system—loose stools, gas, and a grumbly tummy all clue me in that a food might not be the best choice.

If you’re cooking for your pets, what fruits and vegetables do you cook with? Which are your pets favorites? Do you have any cautions to share?

Raw, Cooked, or Kibble?

In the last years of Max’s life, the vet was more and more often recommending a cooked diet to help ease Max’s digestive upsets. I’d cook some chicken or hamburger and rice, feed this home-cooked stew to Max, and he’d quickly improve.

I’d say to the vet, “I think I’ll just keep Max on this diet because he’s doing so well.”

And the vet would reply, “Oh, no. He needs his kibble to ensure a balanced diet.”

Back and forth, round and round we’d go. Max would improve on the home-cooked diet and relapse on the kibble.

Not to mention that Max loved the home-cooked selections. I just couldn’t see how dried kibble that could sit out for months, if not years, and still be “edible” was better for Max than real food. Nervously I continued to feed Max his chicken and rice, and I hope my choice made his last years more comfortable and healthy.

Later, when I decided to adopt two beautiful Sheltie pups, I was determined to learn more about pet nutrition and provide my boys with the best possible diet I could. I’m not a certified pet nutritionist, but most of us aren’t. Whether we’re feeding pets or humans, we learn as we go and do the best we can.

My goal with this blog is to share some of what I’ve learned along the way about cooking for your pet. I’ve focused on cooking for my dogs. The guidelines for cats’ nutritional needs are a little different, but many of the basics apply to both.