What we’ve all been taught about dog food

We dog owners have been taught that feeding a “quality” kibble is the best way to care for our dogs, so of course, we’ve done it. We’ve been taught that dogs must be fed a “scientifically balanced diet.” And that such a task is too complex for us to attempt on our own. But what if such phrases are merely marketing tools?

Commercial pet food came into being to improve corporate profits. By marketing commercial pet food to the public, these companies found a way to utilize ingredients that didn’t qualify for human consumption. Sweepings off the granary floor, condemned meat, rancid fats.

Numerous chemicals must be added for flavor, color, texture, and to preserve these products. Some of these chemicals are added at the rendering plant and are never even listed on the label. So the chemical load grows and grows.

For more details, please see works like Foods Pets Die For by Ann N. Martin or Pet Food—What You Need to Know by Dr. Donna Spector. Additionally, there are lots of sites online that explain what’s really in commercial pet food.

I was shocked when I first read these things. I didn’t want to believe them. Some people even take offense when this information is brought to their attention, and I do apologize if I’ve caused any offense. That’s certainly not my intent.

My reaction was different. I wasn’t offended, I just wanted to know what I could do differently. So here at Bear Creek Ranch we’ve gone back in time.

We feed our adult dogs a modified raw food diet, just as farmers fed their dogs prior to the 1970’s. Think about that… If a chicken got butchered for Sunday dinner some went to the dog. If a kid didn’t finish his breakfast, or a little bit of pot roast was leftover, the farmer’s wife saved it all for the dog.

Feeding dogs does not have to be a science project as the pet food companies would have us believe. Wolves don’t eat a scientifically balanced diet. I don’t. I can barely remember what I ate for lunch yesterday. People have successfully fed their dogs for hundreds of years all by themselves.

Bear Creek puppies

Our puppies will be weaned on to real food rather than kibble. They may be fed some dairy products during weaning as well as chicken, free-range eggs, beef; and some vegetables but no cereals or grains.

Why no grains?

Prior to one year of age, a puppy’s intestinal tract is still permeable to large proteins (including the large proteins in grains). These large proteins can trigger the puppies’ immune system response and set the stage for autoimmune / allergy problems later in life. We encourage puppy buyers to avoid grain for at least the first year of the dog’s life.

It’s widely reported that homemade meals result in leaner body mass and more gradual weight-gain in puppies. Both of these qualities help prevent the development of hip dysplasia. You can read more about that here.

We are happy to teach puppy buyers how to make homemade meals. And we encourage you to do this! It does not have to be complicated or time-consuming. If you can feed yourself, you can feed your dog. We feel this is the best form of “health insurance” available to you and your dogs. It’s very satisfying, too.

The following is an excerpt from my award-winning book, Dogs, Diet, and Disease. I hope it gives you the confidence to make your dog’s meals.

Diets Prepared at Home

In the thousands of years since man and dog first began their friendship, man has shared the food from his own hunt/farm/dining table with his dogs. It has only been in the last several decades that commercial food has been available for pets. This represents an abrupt change from a diet that has lasted for centuries.

Some people are direly afraid that they will not be able to get canine nutrition “right” for their pet. The pet food industry has convinced them that the practice of dog feeding is a complex science and that every meal must be completely and painstakingly balanced according to dubious industry standards. The concept of creating carbon-copy meals is highly artificial and even detrimental. Man and dogs alike were designed to achieve a balanced diet over time. We were never designed to eat the same meals every day of our entire lives. 

Let’s examine some options for preparing home-made meals —first a cooked diet, and then the raw food diet. If you can feed yourself and your family, you can feed your dog, too.

Preparing a Home-cooked Diet

Pet owners frequently express uncertainty when switching to a home-cooked diet. There are few hard, fast rules but here are some solid guidelines. The most current recommendation for preparing a cooked diet at home is as follows:

For adult dogs:
• the diet should consist of approximately 50% meat (ground meat such as beef, turkey, or chicken); organ meat, eggs, and fish, such as sardines; as well as the occasional cultured milk product, such as plain yogurt or kefir.unmixedfood

• If you chose to add grain to your dog’s diet, feed no more than about one-sixth of the diet, or 15%, as grain. Rice and oats are the least irritating of the grains.

• The remainder, 35% to 50% should consist of vegetables and fruits, preferably pulped or blended in a food processor.

• Dogs eating cooked diets should receive some calcium supplementation. Some dog owners add 1/2 teaspoon of ground eggshells for every pound of meat. They save their eggshells, grind them in a coffee grinder and store them in the refrigerator until needed. Some use bone meal. Others use prepared vitamin/mineral supplements available from pet supply shops and veterinarians.

For puppies:
• The diet should consist approximately 60% to 70% meat (ground meat such as beef, turkey, or chicken); organ meat, eggs, and fish, such as sardines; as well as the occasional cultured milk product, such as plain yogurt or kefir.

• The remainder (30% to 40%) should consist of vegetables and fruits, preferably pulped or blended in a food processor.

• Avoid grain, bread, pasta, etc. for the first year of the puppy’s life.

• Feed puppies three to four times per day until at least 6 months of age, then gradually reduce to two meals per day.

• Puppies eating cooked diets should receive some calcium supplementation. Again, some owners add 1/2 teaspoon of ground eggshells for every pound of meat. Others use prepared vitamin/mineral supplements available from pet supply shops and veterinarians. A good rule of thumb is that it is better for the puppies to grow slowly, so excess calcium supplementation for puppies is not desirable. See below for details about the Biologically Appropriate Raw Food diet, which eliminates most worries about calcium levels for pups.

unmixedfoodMeal preparation may seem awkward at first, but as with any habit, it becomes faster and easier with time. Most dog owners feeding home-cooked meals basically prepare a stew. Some cook the meat in a skillet, a Dutch oven/crock pot, or microwave oven. If they choose to feed grains to adult dogs, they cook or soak them beforehand, then add them to the meat. Vegetables are finely chopped or pulped and then added to the mixture. Other owners mix together ground meat and chopped vegetables and cook, resulting in the equivalent of a doggy-meatloaf.

Many veterinarians and pet food company salesmen will frown upon this approach, and yet, it is the way in which dogs have been successfully fed for decades. Owners may notice one other important benefit of feeding this way. They may begin eating better themselves. Many people notice an improvement in their own health when they replace highly processed, heavily preserved foods with those that are whole and fresh.

Above and beyond the guidelines above, there are some fine points you may wish to consider. First, rotate ingredients. This is how mammals achieve a balanced diet—by eating a variety of nutrients over time.

When cooking meats, cook them lightly (rare or medium-rare). Meats cooked well-done are devoid of intrinsic enzymes. Meats can include ground meat or larger cuts, as well as organ meats such as liver, kidneys, and heart. Introduce organ meats slowly and in small amounts. Rich organ meat can cause some dogs diarrhea. Always cook salmon for dogs and remove any cooked bones.

If you choose to add grain to your adult dog’s diet, consider rice or oatmeal. These are considered the least offending grains to dogs (carnivores). Oatmeal can be cooked, or soaked overnight in water or yogurt.

It is strongly recommended that you pulp fruits and vegetables in a blender or food processor. Dogs have difficulty breaking down the cell walls of plant material. When you break foods down mechanically, the dog’s digestive system has much better access to the nutrients. In addition, do cook such vegetables as potatoes, yams and squash. Most other vegetables can be served either cooked or raw.

If you are pressed for time, experiment with frozen vegetables like French cut green beans, spinach or chopped broccoli. It’s possible that your dog can digest these without further effort from you, and this may save you some preparation time. Avoid peas and corn. Frozen vegetables are more nutritious than canned, but even canned vegetables are of higher quality than the fillers found in commercial pet food.

How much to feed

Dog owners frequently ask, “How much food should I give my dog?” One rule of thumb recommends is that a dog’s daily food intake should equal 2% to 3% of his body-weight. (Puppies are often fed 2% to 3% of their expected adult weight.) Dogs are individuals, though. They have different metabolic rates. Some dogs are “high energy” individuals requiring more calories, and others are not. You may have to adjust the levels of ingredients to suit your dog’s metabolism.

It is recommended to maintain a lean body weight for puppies. One rule of thumb is that it you should be able to feel the puppy’s ribs but not protruding pelvic bones. In nature, recently weaned puppies are not yet efficient hunters and they are low in the pack order. The combined result is few calories for young pups, a slower growth rate, and lean body weight. This scenario is conducive to proper bone and joint formation. Feed very young puppies small meals four times daily, and then gradually reduce to two meals per day by the time the pup is nine to twelve months old.

You can save yourself time and energy by making enough stew for about a week’s worth of meals. Divide the stew into freezer-bag portions or small containers and freeze them. You will quickly get in the habit of taking out the next bag to defrost whenever you feed your dog.

The Benefits of Feeding Home-cooked Diets

The benefits of feeding your dog a home-cooked meal are numerous. Your dog will be ingesting few, if any, preservatives, chemicals, or dyes. He will be receiving ingredients of much higher quality and nutritional value. And you can virtually eliminate grains from the diet.

Home-cooked meals are immensely palatable to dogs. If your dog has been finicky in the past, he is much more likely to now eat reliably. Home-cooked meals can be prepared with as much consistency of ingredients as any commercial foods. Finally, dog-owners frequently describe a feeling of satisfaction from making their dogs a real meal.

The Drawbacks of Feeding Home-cooked Diets

Preparing homemade dog food may also have some drawbacks for your family. It will require more of your time. It will require more of your freezer space. And it is likely to cost you about the same or more than premium or prescription dog foods. You can help offset the cost by purchasing ingredients at warehouse-style grocery stores or by asking the butcher to order you dog’s meat in bulk.

It is also possible for home-cooked diets to have some of the same drawbacks as commercial diets. If you cook meats at high temperatures amino acids and enzymes will be damaged. If you choose to feed large amounts of grain, your dog may experience many of the same immune system problems linked to a commercial diet.

While the concept of preparing a “stew” provides consistency, it too has drawbacks. When all the food elements (proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and minerals) are present at the same meal, some of them combine in undesirable ways. Proteins and certain minerals can form “complexes” with carbohydrates and various lipids, rendering them unavailable.

And yet, even the most over-cooked, stew-styled, home-prepared meal is an incredible improvement over commercial dog food. The argument still remains that for many, many years, dogs have been living long healthy lives while sharing his owner’s cooked left-overs.

Raw Food Diets

Dog owners have another option in preparing meals at home. This is the Biologically Appropriate Raw Food diet, also known as the BARF diet. This diet attempts (within limits) to reproduce the diet of the wolf and wild dog. It consists of raw meat or raw meaty bones (such as chicken necks, wings, and backs) and mostly raw fruits and vegetables.

Many pet owners are now convinced that this type of nutrition is necessary for their pets to achieve optimum health. In the 1940s, Dr. Francis Pottinger Jr. did a series of controlled studies that supports this belief. His studies demonstrated that cats fed raw diets were far more healthy and resistant to disease and developmental abnormalities than cats fed the same cooked foods. Even so, the BARF diet is poorly accepted by the traditional veterinary community. The two most commonly cited objections are fear of feeding bones and fear of bacteria.

Remember the natural design of the dog. The teeth are designed to tear meat and crunch bones. Wild dogs routinely consume the bones of their prey as part of their meal. As Dr. Ian Billinghurst points out in his book “Give Your Dog a Bone,” it is cooked bones, not raw bones, that cause dogs problems such as GI perforations. Cooked bones shatter and splinter. Raw bones are soft and digested by the dog’s strong stomach acids.

In years past, owners commonly gave their pets raw meaty bones from their own farms, ranches, or butchers. Pet food companies, and their strong influence in veterinary schools, have steered owners away from this practice. The omission of meaty bones from the canine diet has paralleled the development of veterinary dentistry. Dogs that chewed raw bones had clean teeth naturally. They did not require dental chew toys, toothbrushes, or surgical procedures with general anesthesia to maintain normal dental health.

Many people have been taught to have an undue fear of germs. The reality is that dogs regularly come into contact with bacteria, including e-coli and salmonella, on a daily basis. They will chase a ball through the yard and then carry it in their mouths. They will bury chew toys in dirt, and contentedly gnaw on them later. Most common of all, dogs groom their own hind ends! Such contact is an integral part of canine behavior. It is normal for these bacteria to be present in the canine digestive tract.

Dogs come in contact with these “dangerous” bacteria all day long. Their bodies were designed to handle them. In fact, it is important that dogs come in contact with germs so that they develop immunity. Only dogs with weakened immune systems or prolonged antibiotic use face a threat from bacterial overgrowth.

Another argument you may hear opposing raw food is that “just because wolves eat a certain way, doesn’t mean pet dogs should, too. After all, wild dogs die much younger than our pets do.” This argument is not valid. The Grey Wolf lives an average of 10 to 12 years in the wild. Most of us know of at least one dog that died prematurely, either from cancer or other serious illness. Of the domestic dogs that do live longer, many are subjected to chronic, expensive, painful diseases in ever-increasing numbers.

Preparing a Raw Food Diet

There are two basic methods of preparing a BARF diet. Neither one includes much, if any, grain product. In the first method, meat meals are served separately from vegetable meals. This separation prevents various nutrients from binding together, which can render them unavailable. It also provides the kidneys with a rest. Meals consisting mainly of vegetables put little demand on kidney function.

About 50% to 70% of the diet should consist of raw meaty bones (RMBs.) Puppies are typically fed in the 70% range. This can include chicken necks, wings, or backs. RMBs are different than large joint bones. RMBs are crunched up by the dog and consumed as meals. They contain a biologically appropriate ratio of meat, calcium, and phosphorus. You may wish to remove the excessive fat to keep puppies thin. Running warm water over RMBs will help bring them to room temperature before serving

Joint bones (also called knuckle or soup bones) also have a place in the BARF diet. They provide an excellent way to entertain energetic dogs and puppies. Joint bones, too, should be offered raw, as cooked bones can break into dangerous shards. Throw bones away when they get small as some overly ambitious dogs might try to swallow them whole. Offer raw bones outdoors, in a kennel, or ex-pen so the bones are not dragged under your dining room table and onto your prized Oriental rug.

The second version of the raw food diet offers meat and vegetables together. This mimics the basic “stew” concept discussed previously. In this method RMBs have been passed through a grinding machine. This appeals to those dog owners who simply cannot accept the idea of feeding whole bones. It is now possible to find these ground-bone diets available commercially in high-end pet supply stores.

Vegetable meals can actually contain a variety of things in addition to just vegetables. This includes fruit, organ meat (liver, kidney, heart), eggs, sardines, and yogurt. As previously discussed in the cooked-diet section, vegetables should be finely ground. Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, yams, and squash are actually best cooked. If you do feed grain, cook it thoroughly or soak it overnight in warm water or yogurt.

Some people feed eggs whole and raw, some soft boil them, some cook them fully. The main concern is that raw egg whites contain avidin, which in very large amounts binds with biotin, an essential B vitamin, making it unavailable to the body.

If you find that your dog does not enjoy his vegetable meals, try adding a small amount of garlic, tomato sauce, banana, pumpkin, or ground meat (especially liver) in the mixture. Some dog owners add as much as 50 percent ground meat (muscle meat or organ meat) to the vegetable mixture. Most dogs find these ingredients highly palatable.

Do not add calcium supplements to BARF diets. The raw meaty bones will supply appropriate levels of calcium and other minerals. Added supplements may actually cause joint and skeletal problems.

As with cooked diets, it is possible to prepare meals as your schedule permits, and freeze the excess. You will quickly get into the habit of defrosting one container each time you feed your dog. Freezing fresh food does not damage intrinsic enzymes.

The Benefits of Feeding Raw Food Diets

Feeding your dog fresh, raw foods will supply him with undamaged amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. Raw calories are non-stimulating to the pituitary gland and the appetite center in the brain. This helps reduce symptoms of hunger an stabilize body weight.

Preparing raw food meals typically takes less time than making home cooked meals (since no cooking is required). They are also more economical since the meaty bones (chicken necks, wings, and backs) are less costly than ground meat or fillets.

Fresh foods contain intact enzymes, greatly reducing stress on the exocrine pancreas. Dogs process this food quickly. Less energy is engaged in digestion and can be diverted to other activities such as immune system function. Biologically appropriate foods are less irritating to the intestinal tract. They place much less stress on kidney and liver function as well.

The Drawbacks of Feeding Raw Food Diets

As with the any diet, the BARF diet does have its drawbacks. It is more time consuming than feeding commercial diets. It requires as much, or more, freezer space as home-cooked diets. If you board your dog at a kennel, or hire a dog-sitter, others may be uncomfortable or unwilling to feed raw food. In these cases, it may be best to provide containers of cooked food for the time you’ll be away. Some dogs seem to prefer cooked food to raw food. And finally, your veterinarian may not be supportive of this methodology.

Variations in Homemade Diets

A number of variations are possible in the preparation of homemade diets. Some dog owners choose to cook all the ingredients in the diet. Some cook the meat and the grain, leaving the vegetables fresh; others choose to cook the meat only very lightly.

Variations also exist in raw food diets. Some owners choose not to feed any bones, but feed raw meats and vegetables, and simply supplement with calcium instead.

Some additional reading about raw food diets: