In May, our sweet, baby-faced Cavalier King Charles Spaniel went on a hunger strike. Except that it wasn’t just any hunger strike. Eli would happily hunt down inedibles like bolts and cupcake wrappers by the roadside, things he saw as treats and we saw as one ginormous vet bill. Yet he’d turn up his black-button nose at the natural, grain-free kibble he’d been inhaling rather happily at every meal for the past nine months.
Dogs can hit a food wall just like the rest of us. Sometimes they knock it down on their own; sometimes it requires intervention from an adult with opposable thumbs. Worried that our former little food vacuum would lose weight, I did what any self-respecting health-conscious Puppy Mama would: I researched homemade dog food and the people who make it.
Too extreme? In addition to a dog shunning its food, pet-food safety has provided plenty of reasons to switch to homemade. In 2007, deadly melamine in China-made dog food made many in the U.S. rethink what they fed their pets, and in early 2012 the FDA reported close to 1,000 dogs sick or dead from tainted Chinese jerky treats.
Those are the kinds of stories that for seven years have prompted local pet owner Shalom Stella Davidson and her husband, Bill, to make dog food for their brother-and-sis beagles from scratch. And for this smart couple, there was no question what their dogs would eat: Luke and Leia got the good stuff from Day One.
“Right away, when we got the puppies and took them home, I wanted to make them dog treats,” Davidson says. Mindful of the healthy, homemade food and abundant produce she and her husband eat, off to the library Davidson went for a book with dog-friendly recipes. But what started as a feel-good fact-finding mission turned into a shockfest when she learned about unsafe (or, at the very least, unpalatable) ingredients in mass-produced pet food. “One of the first things I read? The rendered animal meat,” says the petite, soft-spoken and slightly grossed-out Davidson, a wine expert and former sommelier who now works in trade development and supplier relations for Wirtz Beverage of Nevada.
I’ve read dozens myself, and some recipes say to use cooked meat, others suggest raw. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Davidson says. But after finding one she liked, she now spends 30-45 minutes a week cooking fresh meat, brown rice and ground veggies. Sometimes she and Bill batch-cook and freeze food, if they’re going on vacation, for example. But most of the time they make food for three or four days, and scoop out a cup twice daily for Luke (25 pounds) and Leia (about 20).
“It’s definitely a labor of love,” says Davidson, and one she says her dogs appreciate. Although the biggest draw is controlling her dogs’ weight, folks who are attempting a home-cooked regiment shouldn’t feel compelled to do it all the time to start with, she says. “And don’t try to make individual meals.” Buying in bulk and looking for sales, Davidson keeps her food costs around $12 per week by shopping smart.
Occasionally the pups get a few tablespoons of “treat foods”—leftovers such as pastas and other starches, or whatever might be heading to the household compost. But Davidson warns that since we never really know how balanced home-prepared pet food can be, testing your pet’s blood every six months or so ensures they’re not deficient in calcium or essential fatty acids in omega-3s and 6s, key components to healthy bones, joints, teeth and coats, and for keeping inflammation down.
So, do Luke and Leia ever eat dry kibble? Because the Davidsons are avid campers who occasionally travel with friends and their kibble-eating pets, their dogs get to enjoy what their friends eat. “They think [kibbles] are treats,” says Davidson. “I’m perfectly happy [for Luke and Leia] to go to a kibble diet. [Making homemade food] is just a choice on our side.”
When it comes to streamlining the mixing-cooking-storage process, her best advice is having extra hands in the kitchen: “I couldn’t do it without Bill.”
D.I.Y.— Healthy, Homemade
Dog Food Recipe
- 1 part meat, raw (the Davidsons use beef, chicken and turkey, whatever is selling for about $2 per pound).
- 1 part brown rice, dry (look for bulk bags for $16-20 at 99 Ranch Market or the International Marketplace).
- 1 part vegetables (celery and carrots are the Davidsons’ base. Most produce is dog-friendly, except onions and grapes, which can cause allergic reactions in some dogs).
- 1 heaping teaspoon of dried, ground eggshells (for calcium). Note: Calcium needs vary by the dog’s size. You can also buy powdered calcium made from seaweed or bones, especially for animals. Follow the container’s directions for use.
Cook the brown rice using slightly less water than is recommended on the package. (The Davidsons use a rice cooker.) Then, cook the meat in a frying pan, either in its own fat or with corn oil. Grind it with a food processor and set aside. Next, cut the vegetables into pieces suitable for your food processor or chopper and grind them. Finally, combine the full mixture and refrigerate for up to four days.
Batch-Cook and Freeze: Shalom Davidson’s Tips for Cooking for Puppy
- Food processors and rice cookers are your friends.
- No matter how big a batch you make, an easy ratio is ⅓ protein and fat, ⅓ grain, ⅓ ground veggies.
- Buy rice and vegetables in bulk, and look for on-sale meat.
- Avoid veggies with too much sulfur. What causes our upset stomachs might do the same to dogs. (And let’s face it: No one likes a smelly puppy.)
It’s easy to batch-cook and freeze portions you’ve wrapped individually according to your dog’s size (take them out the night before for the next day’s feeding). Since Davidson hates wasting food, she usually combines a few days worth of cooked meat and rice, leaves it in the fridge, and at meal time it’s mixed with ground veggies from her fridge that are on their way out.