Foods For Pets
by Laura Costas
you're reading this newsletter the chances are good
that you care about what you eat, and are careful to
prepare food for your family that is fresh, whole, responsibly
produced, and nourishing. The chances are also good
that you enjoy the company of a companion animal in
your home and consider the animal a member of your family.
And unfortunately the chances are good that you feed
your pet a highly processed diet that comes out of a
bag or a can thinking that that's the best you can do.
This article will show you how to find the resources
to feed your companion animals as you well as you do
the human members of your family.
The central principle of the whole foods diet for pets is to match as closely as possible the diet that the species has, over millions of years, adapted to eat.
I am not a nutritionist, I'm a dog trainer, but I have learned the hard way the cost of a poor diet with my own animals and I'd like to share what I've learned for the benefit of all. My own lean, active, impeccably bred Doberman was diagnosed at age 5 with diabetes so severe that the initial blood test readings were literally off the charts. She also has had orthopedic problems despite a superb genetic makeup. In my search to find the cause of these problems I have learned that the environmental factor of diet plays a huge role, and that the problems that I had with my dog testify to a much larger trend in the health of our companion animals. Record numbers of our animals are being diagnosed with cancer, orthopedic problems, skin problems, allergies, and liver, kidney, and pancreatic insufficiencies. Partly this is because they are living longer, but many pets are stricken at an age where they should be enjoying robust health. Our assumption is frequently that genetics and "overbreeding" is to blame for a lot of it, and this is partly true, but as with human illnesses much of the cause is environmental, and diet is one of the largest factors. Happily, diet is a factor that we can control, and we can begin to benefit immediately by making some crucial, simple changes.
you are like me, you have probably assumed that the
expensive premium pet food that you purchase at pet
stores or vets' offices is the result of a great deal
of science and you believe the manufacturer's claims
that the food is "highly digestible" or "nutritionally
complete." The truth is that the pet food industry started
in the 1950's with the waste products of food processed
for human consumption, and that trend continues. The
contents of most pet food is the stuff that no human
will eat, that has little nutritional value, that may
be contaminated or diseased or decayed. It isn't my
intention to belabor the ethics of the pet food industry,
although even a cursory study of the subject will provide
plenty of material for outrage and disgust; I would
like to present an alternative to the industrial approach
to animal nutrition. It's easy and not costly to provide
fresh, whole food for our pets right from our own kitchens.
pardon my dog-o-centric view of the world as I write;
it's the animal I'm most familiar with. The principles
(though not the ingredients or proportions) are the
same for all species, and I have included resources
for cats, birds, small mammals, and reptiles in the
sidebar. For simplicity I'll write as if we all had
dogs. Also, since some of our pets are carnivores I'm
going to talk about meat. As a vegetarian it was hard
for me to make the adjustment to having meat around
the house, but the enormous improvement in my dog's
health has made me very glad that I did.
problem with commercial pet food
you look at the list of ingredients on the side of your
bag or can of dog food you may see that the first ingredient
involves meat of some kind (often meat meal or byproducts,
with low nutritional value), but following that are
probably several kinds of grain, things like beet pulp,
then a bunch of vitamins and minerals, and perhaps preservatives.
Added all together your dog is getting mostly grain,
some low quality meat, some nutritionally negligible
fiber, and a vitamin pill. It's cooked, clearly highly
processed, and not to put too fine a point on it, what
comes out of your dog at the end of digestion looks
remarkably like what went in at the beginning! Let's
examine what the canine species eats naturally to see
how we can do better. The central principle of the whole
food diet for pets is to match as closely as possible
the diet that the species, over millions of years, has
adapted to eat.
In short, raw food is alive and contains its own little engines that contribute to the larger cycle of life.
In the wild, canines eat primarily herbivorous animals and forage on the occasional herb or plant. They eat the entire animal, including the bones and the fermented contents of its gut. They don't have the digestive enzymes to break down seeds or grain. They don't eat anything cooked--it's all raw.
foods contain all of the vitamins, minerals, essential
fatty acids, antioxidants, and enzymes that nature put
into them--cooking changes or removes many of these
nutrients. Enzymes are an especially important nutrient
that are removed by cooking. They facilitate digestion,
and unless they are present in the diet the animal's
digestive and metabolic systems have to work harder
to break down the food for use as fuel. Conveniently,
each food contains the enzymes necessary for its digestion.
Fats can also undergo changes when heated, forming harmful
compounds called amines. Raw bones contain the complete
package of minerals for canines, and the softer tissue
inside the bone is extremely nutrient dense. They are,
compared to cooked bones, soft and pliable, especially
when from young animals such as lamb, veal, or chicken.
While raw bones are the foundation of the canine raw
diet, cooked bones are nutritionally poor and pose a
serious threat because they harden and splinter and
could puncture anything along the digestive route. Raw
vegetables are rich in vitamins and enzymes, and they
provide insoluble fiber that assists with absorption
of nutrients and cleanse the gut. Bacteria is present
on all raw food, and most of it is "friendly" bacteria
that benefits both the host and the consumer animal.
These little bugs often assist with digestion and keep
disease-causing hostile bacteria from colonizing. In
short, raw food is alive and contains its own little
engines that contribute to the larger cycle of life.
to put together an adequate diet for your pet
one sense, nutrition is truly rocket science: there
are so many factors at work and so many macro- and micronutrients
to balance and juggle that none of us without a degree
in nutrition can hope to understand it and get it exactly
right. The hair-splitting in diet and nutrition can
be endless. On the other hand it's really quite simple:
offer a wide variety of high quality foods from the
basic food groups and you're done. For any species it's
important to identify the foods that the animal would
eat in its natural world and create a diet that contains
the same elements in the same proportions. For canines
that would include animal products and plant products.
meaty bones are the best source of protein for dogs.
Many experts suggest that chicken is a superb source
for meat and bone, and fat, and that the optimum ratio
of these is chicken necks, backs, and wings. Chicken
bones are very flexible when raw, but the very best
way to offer them is ground, bone and all. This way
the dog crunches thru them without encountering any
large pieces that might choke. Other meat sources include
beef, lamb and pork--or any other source commonly consumed
by humans. The bones from these animals are harder,
but the dogs can make their way through most of them.
Back ribs of beef are a good choice--inexpensive and
about the right proportion of meat to bone to fat. Organ
meats are excellent when offered once or twice per week,
but are not suitable for daily use. Also very useful
are raw eggs, especially the yolk. Eggs are a nearly
complete food and contain every nutrient in significant
amounts except for vitamin C. Your dog can also consume
the crushed shell as a mineral source. Cheese and yogurt
are both rich in the "bugs" that aid digestion--I use
cheese as a training reward.
products include green leafies such as kale and collards,
yellow and orange vegetables such as carrots, yams,
and squash. Fruits are high in sugars and should be
used conservatively, but are also quite nutritious.
Dogs don't have the right kind of teeth to crush plant
material so these must be ground or processed before
they are of any use to your pet. I use a food processor
and grind them all together till they are no bigger
than uncooked rice. If you have a juicer, the pulp that
results from your fruit and vegetable juices are ideal
as well, with our without the juice added back in. If
your dog accepts them there's no harm in offering a
broccoli stalk or carrot to chew on as a treat, but
for daily consumption the veggies should be ground finer
than the dog's teeth can manage. Remember, in the wild
most plant material comes from the gut of the prey animal
and has already been significantly broken down.
that carbohydrates are not nearly as instrumental in
the canine diet as they are for other species. I believe
that the high levels of carbohydrates from the grain
in commercial food contributed to my own dog's diabetes.
When I removed them from the diet entirely her blood
sugar levels dropped precipitously. Some authors include
grains in their recipes for dogs and cats, but my own
opinion is that they should be used quite sparingly.
Cooked oatmeal is a good choice if you want to add grain.
and oils are more important in the canine diet than
in ours and supplementing with cod liver oil, safflower,
corn, or olive oils can add important omega-3 and -6
fatty acids to the diet. If your dog is underweight
adding oils is a good way to add calories, but if he
or she is overweight don't skip them entirely.
feed my dog a diet that is in the proportion of about
60% animal to 40% plant. This is a very general guideline
that will help you get started, but you should consult
the references cited in the sidebar for more detailed
information on the subject. Some authors suggest that
the meat and bone portion be fed separately from the
veggie portion. For example you could feed the meaty
bones in the morning, and then the veggies with the
egg (for palatability) in the evening. The most difficult
question is how much to feed your dog. The simplistic
answer is to feed 2% of the dog's body weight per day.
Some of the sources will be able to be more helpful
along those lines. I have found that experimentation
is the best answer because your pet's needs will vary
greatly according to activity level, individual taste,
digestive sensitivity, and general health status.
to introduce your pet to the new diet
There are two ways to introduce the new diet to your pet. The first is by cutting back the commercial food as you gradually add the new diet. The second is to simply remove the old food and replace it with the new food. Many dogs have never seen a raw bone and won't know what to do with it! If your dog rejects the new food allow him to go hungry until he accepts it--you won't have to wait long, and if your dog is in good health there's no harm in missing a meal or two. Allow your dog some time to adjust to the new thing and get excited about it for him so that he knows its a good thing. He'll probably start by licking and end up chewing later. I cooked the meat as in the recipe I've included and began with that. My dog ate it readily and left no doubt that she preferred it to the dry food that she had always known. Once your dog has gotten accustomed to the new food you can introduce the 100% raw diet. Even if you are squeamish about the raw this cooked-plus-raw combo is certainly light years ahead of the commercial diet.
The raw foods diet has an amusing acronym: BARF. The letters stand for Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods
benefits of a raw diet
are other benefits to the diet apart from superior nutrition.
One of the principal advantages is dental health. Poor
dental health has the same consequences for dogs as
it does for people, and the commercial diet, especially
the canned food, offers none of the natural diet's teeth-cleansing
features. Chewing on bones not only scrubs the teeth
but provides the enzymes that help break down harmful
substances in the mouth. The diet can reverse poor dental
health in a matter of weeks or months. Another advantage
is recreational chewing. Dogs were born to chew throughout
their lives; it relieves anxiety and offers something
constructive to do. All species were designed to work
for their food, and the absence of this activity opens
the door to boredom and the behavior problems that result.
A homemade diet removes us from agroindustrial dependence;
we can choose to buy meat and vegetables raised organically
and humanely. Fresh Fields is a source for meat that
at least purports to being organic and humanely raised,
although I have not researched the company that supplies
to add to commercial food to improve it
if you're sold on the concept but can't for some reason
go the whole nine with a homemade diet? It's easier,
cheaper, more satisfying, and less time-consuming than
you might think, but if you aren't ready you can make
some adjustments that will help quite a bit. The first
is to switch to a better brand of commercial food. These
include Canidae (or Felidae for cats), California Naturals,
Innova, Flint River, PhD, or Wysong (there are others
as well). These can be found on the web and/or in Kensington,
MD at ProPet. If you add some ground fresh veggies,
a probiotic supplement, a raw egg, cheese, and a few
recreational bones this will really go a long way to
improving the outlook for your dog. Keep in mind that
anything that comes in a bag or a can is entirely dead,
and you must add back the living ingredients. There
are some distributors of frozen whole foods diets such
as Homemade 4 Life available at the Aunt Jeni web site
listed in the sidebar. The Whole Dog Journal did a comparison
of many of these prepared foods in a back issue.
This little article is the briefest of overviews of
a large and interesting subject. The resources, especially
the email discussion groups, will really help to make
the new diet work for you and your pets. You'll have
many questions and discover many things that will inform
you about your own diet as well. The raw foods diet
has an amusing and I may say unfortunate acronym: BARF.
The letters stand for Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods
(or sometimes Bones And Raw Foods). Whether you accept
it or not you'll probably be hearing more about it as
time goes on. There are those who will say that the
diet is not as good as commercially prepared ones, and
many traditional vets won't know much about it. As with
a lot of alternative therapies and endeavors few clinical
studies have been done--since the pet food industry
has nothing to gain and a lot to lose with consumers
making homemade foods they aren't going to fund expensive
studies. And there is always a risk-benefit equation
with anything--I have found through experimenting a
bit that my own pets' health improved by leaps and bounds
on a better diet. Learn more about the diet and see
for yourself what works for your pet.
"Give Your Dog a Bone" and "Grow Your Pups with Bones" by Ian Billinghurst. Billinghurst is an Australian vet
who is probably the best known exponent of the raw foods
diet. His books are home grown productions and look it,
and his tone is a wee patronizing, but the books have
become a major cult hit and are full of very valuable
information. These would be the single best books on nutrition
to purchase if you were buying only one for your adult
dog or growing puppy. More on the author himself at <www.drianbillinghurst.com>
Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs
and Cats" by Richard Pitcairn. One of the first
and most respected books on the subject of natural care
and nutrition. Recently updated and expanded.
Guide to a Healthy Dog" by Wendy Volhard and Kerry
Brown. Another superb book with very detailed information
on nutrition as well as on general health.
Nature of Animal Healing" by Martin Goldstein. An
excellent and informative resource guide.
Cats and Dogs" by Pat McKay. A book of recipes and
guidelines for homemade diets.
of these titles and many more are available at <www.dogwise.com>
Whole Dog Journal is a monthly publication that
presents articles, resources, and consumer guides related
to positive training and natural care. Call: 800/829-9165.
Watch is a newsletter published by Cornell University,
one of the leaders in research on all aspects of animal
health and behavior. Call: 800/829-5574.
Sites and List Serves
<www.auntjeni.com> Aunt Jeni is Jeni Boniface, a Temple Hills, Maryland animal
nutritionist who offers a line of prepared raw foods called
Homemade-4-Life for dogs, cats, and ferrets. Her site
is a treasury of books, articles, links, and products
that will get you well started on a better diet for your
dog, cat, or ferret.
<www.altvetmed.com> The outstanding web site of the American Holistic Veterinary
Medical Association (located in Bel Air, Maryland) with
a directory of practitioners nationwide--we in this
area are fortunate to have many to select from. Check
out the Table of Contents on this site to find articles
on many subjects like natural flea control, allergies,
vaccinations, and arthritis.
bird care and training sites try <www.parrothouse.com> an exhaustive site assembled by an avian nutritionist,
and <www.ddc.com/~kjohnson/birdcare.htm> including many aspects of bird care, and <www.birdclick.com> on training your bird with links and articles on general
lovers should drop everything and visit Melissa Kaplan's
site on reptile care and herpteological issues. <anapsid.org> or do a search for Melissa Kaplan. Also check out <www.reptileinfo.com> and <www.baskingspot.com>.
and other small animals can find good company at <www.rabbit.org> and <friendsofrabbits.org>.
are many email discussion groups that focus on the subject
of natural diets for pets; you will see how popular
it is, and how arcane the discussions can get! If you
search <www.groups.yahoo.com> for BARF diet you will find plenty of action for all
levels of involvement.
Inc. A very fine company in Cockeysville, MD that is
a pleasure to trade with. They supply vitamins and supplements
for dogs, horses, and people. Call for a catalog: 800/521-3212.
A great source for all manner of vitamins, probiotics,
and other supplements. They also have an informative
website, nutrition consultations, and are quite helpful
in general. There is a special section for cats, and
you can join a good discussion group: K9 Nutrition. <www.b-naturals.com>