Kick the Can and Bag the Bag
A guide to preparing homemade pet food
What began last month as a limited recall of canned pet food has widened to 57 brands of cat food and 83 brands of dog food. Some dry dog and cat foods have also been recalled. Pet owners are fearful that today might be the day their pets' food goes on the recall list. The illness or death of an animal at the owner's hand is devastating in a society that often considers these four-legged animals as best friends, closest companions, and children. As one friend said to me, "I might as well have run over Goldie: I bought the food that killed her." How could best intentions go so wrong?
Most of us assume that the food we buy for our pets has some kind of oversight to ensure its safety. Apparently not. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration runs random checks on only 1% of foodstuff imported into the country. There are few regulations and fewer overseers.
After inspection and testing of the tainted pet foods, the FDA determined that there were many sources of contamination. Scientists found rat poison in some samples and contaminated rice protein in others. The consensus is that the main contaminant, melamine, was somehow introduced into wheat gluten shipped to the U.S. from China. Melamine is used to make plastics, but it also artificially boosts the protein level and thus the price of the gluten that goes into the pet food. The most seriously affected foods were those containing "cuts and sauce."
To date, the official FDA records show that 17 dogs and cats have died as the result of the contaminations, but there are probably hundreds more whose deaths went unreported. There are thousands of animals still under veterinary care, being treated for dehydration, kidney failure, and associated illnesses. As the recall widens, more animals are becoming ill or dying.
Recently it was revealed that 6,000 hogs that ate the tainted pet food were destroyed, but not before 45 people ate pork from those hogs. Three million chickens that were fed the tainted food were slaughtered and sold to the unsuspecting public. The FDA and the Department of Agriculture made no attempt to recall the chickens. Now melamine has reached the human food chain.
Many responsible pet owners have decided to make their own pet food. If you want to cook for your pets, first talk to your vet, who can help determine your animal's particular needs and might even have some recipes to offer. It is particularly important that you communicate with your vet or an animal nutritionist if you plan home-cooking on a long-term basis. The foods must be rich in nutrients and enzymes that are easily available to the animal digestion and must make up a balanced diet.
After talking to your vet, go to the bookstore or go online and find a book that describes the basic diets for healthy cats and dogs. A 10-pound cat needs between 275 and 350 calories a day. Ill, injured, or pregnant cats might need more. Cats also require the addition of taurine, an amino acid, to their food, as their bodies cannot synthesize it. Dogs eat a diet more similar to that of a human. Adult dogs need about 10% of calories from protein. They benefit from fiber and additional nutrients in their diet as well. If you are home-cooking, you will want to add a small amount of a human vitamin-mineral tablet to both dogs' and cats' diets.
Before I jump into Pet Food Making 101, I want to be clear that I am not a veterinarian or an animal nutritionist. Not a human one, either. My qualification is mainly longevity: I have prepared homemade pet foods for the past 35 years for dogs, cats, birds, and cattle.
My earliest recollection of home food preparation is on our coastal prairie Texas farm in the 1950s. Whether there was commercial pet food then, I do not know. Our days started with feeding the farm dogs and cats from great pots of cornmeal "mush" into which food scraps and chopped organ meats and the less-than-perfect fresh-picked vegetables (raw and cooked) were added. At night the animals were fed another grain, again with meat and vegetables, cooked into a stew. For variety, there were other dishes made with rice, millet, wheat, and barley, always with protein and vegetables.
During college I worked for a pair of renowned Austin vets and earned tuition money by providing home-cooked meals for some of the finicky boarders. Years later, Connie Moore, former owner of the Herb Bar, and I worked out a series of pet menus for special-needs animals as well as healthy ones.
Today, I prepare food for my two dogs and 20-plus cats. As a pet sitter, I also provide food for my canine and feline clients. Cooking for pets takes time, some knowledge of nutrition, and patience in weaning your pets off the commercial canned foods they like.
Many commercial foods contain sugar and other additives that make the food appealing to the pet. And those are the healthier ingredients in canned food. Due to the lax regulations governing the pet-food industry, in most states the law allows pet-food makers to use 4-D meat sources, which are dead, dying, disabled, or diseased when they reach the slaughterhouse. To comply with government regulations, this meat must be "denatured" so that it cannot be sold as human-grade meat. Fuel oil, kerosene, carbolic acid, and citronella are the approved denaturing materials used.
Pet food is also made up of meat byproducts. This includes diseased and contaminated meat from slaughterhouses, animal heads, feet, beaks, toenails, and feathers. It also includes roadkill, rancid restaurant grease, and animals euthanized at animal hospitals and shelters, along with all the hormones, antibiotics, and barbiturates used to put the pets to sleep. Unsold supermarket meats, along with the Styrofoam and plastic wrap, are thrown into the mix.
How can this happen? Most pet-food companies are owned by a handful of multinational companies that use the pet-food industry as an extension of its human food and agricultural industries. It is a financially sound way for them to get rid of waste. In 2001, the pet-food industry was an $11 billion business.
So how do we provide better-quality, safe, and nutritional food for our pet? One way is to learn to prepare the food ourselves. With good intent, a general understanding of the animal's nutritional needs, some basic recipes, and whole, fresh ingredients, you can make a tremendous difference in your pet's health and your own peace of mind.
In order to understand what the best ingredients for our pets are, we need to understand that dogs and cats, unlike humans, have a straight gut. This means that the food goes through their bodies rather quickly, leaving only a short time for the nutrition to be absorbed before elimination occurs. Although both dogs and cats have the ability to break down and assimilate meat raw or cooked other ingredients need to be made readily digestible, by cooking, grinding, and grating or chopping.
Generally speaking, food should be one-third protein, one-third carbohydrate, and one-third vegetable. Always buy the best quality you can afford. If you can find it, buy hormone-free, antibiotic-free meats and poultry. Never use liver or organ meats that aren't organic: They are the storehouses for the toxins ingested by the animal during its lifetime.
I use lean red meat, often ground meat, 80%-lean chicken, turkey, liver and other organ meats, and fish for dogs and cats. For finicky cats, I use canned salmon or tuna in water, cooked and finely ground chicken livers and gizzards, and sardines. Cottage cheese and boiled eggs are also good sources of protein. Lentils and some beans offer good protein, although they can cause gas or stomach distress in animals unaccustomed to a whole-foods diet.
Carbohydrates include grains: brown rice, white rice (or a mix of the two), oats, barley, and millet. Leftover whole-grain breads, biscuits, pancakes, and pastas can be used as a base for the meal.
I choose vegetables that are in season and that have the sweet flavor animals like. Grated carrots, finely chopped squash, peas, mixed vegetables, green beans, and greens cut or chopped into small pieces are all favorites at my house. I prefer to cut the carbohydrates and vegetables into small pieces so the animals can more readily absorb the nutrition. Meat can either be left in larger chunks or cut fine: Felines' and canines' stomach acids quickly and efficiently break down and absorb meat, raw or cooked.
Broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cabbage can cause abdominal distress, so add these carefully and in small amounts until you see how well your pet tolerates them.
Do not feed your animals onions, raw or cooked, as they often cause severe distress, nausea, vomiting, or convulsions. Garlic is another controversial addition. Many believe it is as dangerous as onion, although others cook garlic with the other vegetables or add chopped raw garlic to the food as a garnish. (Many believe garlic deters fleas.) I often mix fresh, chopped parsley into the food bowl just before feeding.
Milk is also somewhat controversial. Some say cow milk is healthy for pets; others disagree. Cow milk is very similar to cat milk. If you want to give milk to your pets, do so in a prudent manner, in small amounts. Many animals cannot tolerate it and get diarrhea and severe stomach problems.
Always have fresh water available for your animals. If your pet fills up on water instead of eating at mealtime, remove the water bowl 30 minutes before feeding, and replace it after the meal. Water is essential for a healthy, hydrated pet and helps in assimilation of their food.
Feed food at room temperature. If your pet is not used to homemade food, he might not eat all of the food you present. After about 30 minutes, pick up the uneaten food and discard. Do not present food until the next mealtime.
So that's Pet Food 101. Give it a try. I think you and your pets will benefit from the quality food you provide. Remember, make your veterinarian your best friend, and seek advice for special feeding requirements for puppies and pregnant, ill, or elderly pets.
This daily formulation provides a balanced meal (or two if you feed morning and night) for a healthy adult dog weighing about 40 pounds. For smaller dogs, divide food up proportionately and store refrigerated in ziplock bags.
Adult Dog Food
1/3 cup rice or other grain
6 oz. ground beef, 80% lean
1 can fat-free, no-/low-sodium chicken, beef, or vegetable broth plus enough water to cook rice
3-4 cups vegetables, cut up in small pieces or 16 oz. bag of frozen organic mixed vegetables
2 tsp. oil (chicken or beef fat, vegetable or fish oil)
1 tbsp. finely ground eggshell
1 9-gram human adult vitamin-mineral tablet
Fry beef; do not drain fat. Cook rice and vegetables in broth and water until liquid evaporates and rice is soft. Mix beef and rice/vegetables together. Stir in oil and eggshell. Mix well. Feed the vitamin-mineral with the meal. Give as a pill or pulverize and thoroughly mix with food just before feeding.
This daily formulation provides balanced meals (cats prefer to eat small amounts and often) for four healthy adult cats weighing about 10 pounds each.
Adult Cat Food
1½ lb. liver (beef, chicken, or pork only)
1 cup rice
1 can fat-free, low-/no-sodium chicken, beef, or vegetable broth plus enough water to cook rice
1 tbsp. oil (chicken or beef fat, vegetable or fish oil)
½ cup peas and chopped carrots
1 tbsp. finely ground eggshell
¼ tsp. salt
2 9-gram human adult vitamin-mineral tablets (½ tablet per cat per day)
2 500-mg. taurine tablets (½ tablet per cat per day)
Cook liver and grind well. Cook rice with broth and all other ingredients except vitamin and taurine. Mash well or put through a food processor so that all ingredients are blended. Cats tend to pick out what they like and leave the rest. When ready to feed, add pulverized vitamin and taurine.
1 cup powdered kelp or other seaweed
Daily Supplements for Dogs
1 cup wheat germ
2 cups brewer's yeast
Mix well, and store in a glass container in a refrigerator. For a 40-pound dog, give 2-4 level tablespoons daily mixed into food.
¼ cup powdered kelp or other seaweed
Daily Supplements for Cats
½ cup wheat germ
1 cup brewer's yeast
Mix well and store in glass container in refrigerator. For a 10-pound cat, give 1-1½ level teaspoons daily mixed into food.
3 2½-oz. jars of organic baby food, beef, or chicken
Baby Food Pet Cookies
¼ cup dry milk powder
¼ cup wheat germ (Cream of Wheat or rice may be substituted)
Combine ingredients in a bowl, and mix well. Roll into balls, and place on a well-greased cookie sheet. Flatten balls slightly with a fork. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 15 minutes or until brown. Cool on wire racks and store in the refrigerator. Freezes well. Cookies are soft and chewy, and both dogs and cats like them.