Real Pet Food Matters
First published August 2015
The topic of what to feed dogs has occupied human dialogue since at least 37 BCE, when the Roman poet Virgil admonished: “Do not let the care of dogs be last; but the swift Spartan hounds, and fierce Mastiff, feed the whey.” Such conversations continued for centuries, as did differences of opinion about the proper balance of meat, grains, fat, vegetables, and dairy in dog food. Those same conversations persist today. To understand the proposition that real, handmade food is best for our canine companions, a little history of pet food is in order.
From Home-Cooked to Kibble
The first known recipe for dog food was published in The Sportsman’s Dictionary in 1785. In a chapter entitled “Rules to be Observed for Keeping Dogs in Health,” the author states:
“As pointers and spaniels . . . are very valuable to a sportsman, it is worth while to take care to preserve them in health. This very much depends on their diet and lodging. . . In regard to their food, carrion is by no means proper for them. Barley meal, the dross of wheatflour, or both mixed together, with broth or skim’d milk, is very proper food. For change, a small quantity of greaves from which the tallow (the rendering that is left after processing fat) is mixed with their flour; or sheep’s feet well baked or boiled, are a very good diet, and when you indulge them with flesh it should always be boiled.”
Vegetables in dog food appeared a few decades later – in 1833 – in The Complete Farrier: “The dog is neither wholly carnivorous nor wholly herbivorous, but of a mixed kind, and can receive nourishment from either flesh or vegetables. A mixture of both is therefore his proper food, but of the former he requires a greater portion, and this portion should be always determined by his bodily exertions.”
It wasn’t until the 1850s that the world witnessed the first commercial pet food. James Spratt, an American businessman living in London, devised a recipe of wheatmeal, vegetables, and meat after witnessing dogs eating the scraps of discarded biscuits in a local shipyard. He patented and sold his product in England until the 1890s, when a U.S. manufacturer purchased the patent and began large-scale distribution in the States.
Spratt’s and one or two other commercial dog foods dominated the market until the end of WWI, when a U.S. manufacturer introduced Ken-L Ration, a canned dog food made from the remains of deceased warhorses. Sales of Ken-L Ration wet food, Spratt’s dry food, and a couple of other concoctions skyrocketed to over 200 million dollars during the next few decades. By the 1950s, companies such as General Mills, Nabisco, Quaker Oats, General Foods and others realized the profit potential in pet food. They devised a way to use cereal-making machines to manufacture kibble, revolutionizing the way humans fed their four-legged friends. Today, the pet food industry – still largely dominated by multi-national corporations – realizes approximately 20 billion dollars per year in revenue. Until recently, that market seemed untouchable.
Recalls Force a Reexamination
The number of pet food recalls for various contaminants in recent years – along with revelations of questionable, sometimes horrific ingredients in kibble and wet food – have encouraged many pet owners to search for alternatives to large-scale commercial pet food. The market has responded with human-grade mixes, organic blends, and raw food diets for both dogs and cats. Still, these products – with a few exceptions – continue to be manufactured in relatively large batches by companies who ship thousands of miles to retail stores where they sit on shelves until purchased, susceptible to contamination by mites.
While the movement toward using better ingredients in commercial pet food is promising, recent emphasis on knowing the origins of our own food has led many responsible pet owners to abandon commercial foods altogether for home-cooked or custom-made meals. Caretakers are more in control of their pet’s diet when they know the source and quality of the food they feed them. A trip to the local farm or farmers’ market for pasture-raised meat and organic or locally grown produce has far more nutritional value than even organic ingredients grown or raised hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from the pet’s bowl. And when nutrient-dense fresh food is prepared in small batches and consumed within a short time, the chance for contamination diminishes.
As with the slow foods movement for humans, this is not a new phenomenon at all, but rather a return to an era when pets ate real food from the farm or plates of their caretakers, before the advent of large-scale processing. Indeed, veterinarians – both traditional and holistic – are coming around to the benefits of homemade and custom-created diets. Some, who for years practiced only traditional veterinary medicine, are adding food therapy to their practices. Others are specializing in herbal treatments, Chinese veterinary medicine, and the emerging field of nutrigenetics, the science that combines genetics and nutrition to develop companion animal diets.
Dr. Judy Morgan, D.V.M. is one such holistic veterinarian. She explains that a holistic practice covers multiple facets, including looking at an animal’s whole life in treating an ailment or problem. Having seen an exponential increase in diseases, allergies, and cancers she attributes to environmental factors, including processed food, Dr. Morgan advocates creating a holistic lifestyle plan for pets as a preventative measure to avoid health issues before they happen. “Diet is incredibly important in this regard,” she says, “but commonly overlooked by many dog and cat owners.”
A Return to Real Food
Dr. Morgan is a passionate advocate of home-cooked or custom-made meals for dogs and cats. “Basically, our pets are just like us. If you spend a lifetime eating garbage, it’s going to eventually catch up with you. It’s easy to spot your own trouble areas but it can be harder to recognize what is unhealthy for your pet. My goal is to help educate all pet owners on how to formulate the healthiest possible diets for their animals.”
A well-planned and prepared diet can prevent many common health problems. And a good diet doesn’t have to be expensive. According to Dr. Morgan, “some of the most expensive foods on the market have terrible ingredients and are almost no better than the cheap stuff.” Moreover, many pets are overfed or given store-bought treats when a carrot, sweet potato, or other vegetable would suffice. Factor in the cost of veterinary bills or surgery and treatment for allergies and illnesses such as cancer and other conditions some attribute to a processed diet, and feeding pets healthful, home- or custom-made meals can save a pet owner thousands of dollars in the long run.
What form that home- or custom-made diet takes is the subject of a healthy debate. Many conscientious pet owners have made the switch from a processed to a completely raw diet. Others eschew vegetables or grains. And still others swear by a diet that includes gently cooked meats, vegetables rich in vitamins and minerals, herbs, and whole grains. Regardless of the method one chooses, it is important the food is real – that is, the same food you or I would consume.
When prescribing a home-cooked meal for her pet patients, Dr. Morgan relies on energetics. “Energetics is a dietary plan based upon the natural function of the plants and animals your pet eats. Through this system, different foods can be used to affect the temperament and mental health of your animal, which in turn can treat illness and behavioral problems. This kind of therapy is not possible in one-size-fits-all commercial diets.” The pet’s diet should vary to fit its needs.
A home-prepared diet is healthy for your pet but it is a commitment. Food that is served fresh has to be freshly purchased and prepared. The time it takes to source real food alone might not suit everyone’s lifestyle. Also, making dietary decisions is not always easy. A critical part of a home-cooked diet is formulating a plan with a veterinarian who is knowledgeable in pet nutrition. Your pet’s breed, age, and health will all need to be assessed before beginning or changing any diet. The following recipe is a good base for a generally healthy pet, but can be modified in conjunction with a pet food specialist to suit your dog’s needs.