Part of a four part series on healthy canine eating by Stacey Waspe
Home Cooking: Only You Can Decide
Before jumping on the poochy home cooking bandwagon, it's important to weigh the pros and cons. How will this fit in with your lifestyle? Do you enjoy cooking? Is Fifi doing well on her current diet?
One of the biggest advantages to feeding Fifi food you've made from scratch is the peace of mind you'll gain: you'll know exactly what's in her food because you put it there. There will be no question as to quality and freshness. You will be able to alter your puppy's meals to his or her special needs and caloric requirements. Pooches with allergies, skin rashes, behavioral problems or frequent gastrointestinal upsets will likely improve significantly on a complete and balanced homemade diet.
As well, the bonding, affection and devotion you and Fido share will likely increase with home cooking. That's not saying that Fifi will love you any less if you feed her good quality commercial food. But we all know how loved we feel when someone takes the time to cook us a good meal. Your little four-legged friend will feel the same whenever you choose to take that extra step with mealtime.
That being said, preparing your puppy's food from scratch will take more time than measuring kibble from a bag. It doesn't have to take extraordinary amounts of time, but be prepared for an adjustment period and a bit of a learning curve.
Unless you've trained in canine nutrition, you're not likely to understand your pooch's nutritional requirements and will need a lot of guidance and instruction to prepare complete and balanced meals. Take a trip to your local pet shop. Visit the library. Buy books. Talk to other dog aficionados! (We all know how much dog lovers enjoy talking about what they feed their own pampered puppies!) Talk to your vet about what your feeding Fifi and Fido. If you're vet doesn't have the information on home cooked diets, ask for a referral to a holistic veterianian or canine nutritionist. Remember, as Fifi ages, her nutritional and caloric requirements will change!
It's a good idea to keep a puppy food journal, especially in the first few weeks of home cooking, so that you and your vet will be able to easily monitor not only the nutritional content of all of your pup's meals, but be able to track any emotional or biological changes, positive or negative. Keep a close eye on Fifi's coat, her eyes, mood, behavior and breath and make note of her mealtimes, when and how she sleeps and any and all bathroom breaks. (In this case, there can never be too much detail!)
If you're a vegetarian, and you don't like buying or handling meat, you may have a problem preparing Fifi's food from scratch. While it's true that you can feed dogs vegetarian meals, most dogs do not excel on strictly vegetarian diets. Dogs require protein (mostly animal protein at that) to enjoy a long and healthy life. (For more information on basic dog nutrition, see the first part of our series.)
It's Time To Take The Plunge
If you've decided that you'd like to try a little home cookin' for Fido, why not start out small? We all live really busy lives in a fast-paced world, and while we love to cook, we certainly don't always have the time to even cook meals from scratch for ourselves every day.
Beginning to cook all meals for Fifi from scratch may take a little getting use to, so we think that starting out on a smaller scale is the way to go. Try cooking enough food for two days over a weekend. That way, Fifi can have a couple of homemade meals on Saturday or Sunday and you can refrigerate or freeze the other half for two meals mid-week. (Because your meals won't contain any preservatives, don't keep any of Fifi's meals in the fridge for longer than 3 days.) Not only will this help you adjust to a home cooking mentality, it's important not to switch Fifi's diet too quickly. A gradual beginning is good for all involved, especially if your pooch has no issues with her regular diet.
Another option is to prepare homemade meals for special occasions, like Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Three Dog Bakery has a great cookbook containing fabulous recipes to be used as supplements to your pooch's normal diet.
Time-Saving Tip: Whenever cooking for you or your family, why not make a little extra asparagus, green beans or carrots and add them to Fifi's dinner? Making chicken or turkey? Make a little extra and season it very sparingly or not at all, setting it aside for use in something for your canine pals. Not only will it save time, but once Fifi and Fido are used to getting the "same" food as the rest of the family, it may also reduce or eliminate that pesky begging at the table.
Just What Do Dogs Eat, Anyway?
Deboned chicken, salmon filet, fresh corn on the cob, lean ground beef, free- range eggs. Dog food, commercial or otherwise, should be made from ingredients you recognize and for the most part, that you would eat yourself! Look for lean cuts of meat and other protein (like lamb and turkey), fresh vegetables (like green beans, asparagus, carrots, pumpkin and peas), whole grains (like oats, brown rice, millet or barley) and even fruit (like blueberries, bananas, and apples).
And remember, it's not just that homemade food should be good for Fifi, it should taste good too! It's OK to add flavorful additions, like garlic, rosemary, beef or chicken stock and tomato paste or homemade pasta sauce. (Remember, never feed your pooch raw onions, as a compound in them can cause red blood vessels to burst.)
Food Preparation Tip: While you want to preserve the most nutrients possible, you also want to ensure you're destroying any bacteria. To do this, ensure that you're cooking all meat medium to well done. The addition of raw or lightly steamed vegetables and fruits will provide additional important nutrients like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Whole grains provide complex carbohydrates and fiber, whereas cottage cheese and eggs can provide additional protein, full of healthy fats, like omega 3.
A Word About Raw
A lot of pooch lovers advocate feeding their canine pals diets similar to that of their ancestors - wolves. Wolves eat their meat raw, in addition to berries and other things they can find in the wild. While raw food doesn't experience any loss of nutrients that occurs with cooking, we feel that it's just too dangerous to recommend. Bones in raw meat can cause lacerations, fractured teeth and intestinal blockages. And because it's impossible to know the level of cleanliness in all slaughterhouses, you have to be concerned about bacteria (like Salmonella and E. coli) and other disease-causing organisms, because they can make your dog seriously ill. That being said, check with your vet - if he or she suggests that a raw diet is right for your pooch, ask for advice and directions on doing it right.
Now It's Time for a Little Mathematics
It's especially important when you're cooking all of Fifi's meals at home to determine the number of calories she needs each day, based on her size and weight, her activity level and maybe even her breed. And then pay close attention to the caloric contents of the foods you use. Look to our calorie guide for a sample. (If you're going to go the homemade route, a simple calorie counting book would be a good addition to your library.) A good place to start is to calculate the number of calories that your pooch is currently getting on her regular diet, and adjust from there. Does she seem hungry? Add some vegetables? Is she gaining too much weight? Start watching the number of treats she's getting and if necessary, reduce her overall food intake.
Click here to launch the calorie guide
A Note About Supplements
We've mentioned before that most dogs don't require their meals to be supplemented with vitamins, minerals and other additives, provided they're receiving a well-balanced, nutritionally sound commercially prepared food. (See the second part of our series for more information on commercial dog foods.) However, now that you're making Fifi's meals from scratch, you need to pay attention to a couple of key ingredients you'll need to have on hand to ensure adequate nutrition. Bone meal or calcium carbonate (Iike Tums) are great sources of calcium. While many people advocate feeding raw, meaty bones to their dogs in order to provide calcium, these supplements are both far safer sources of this important mineral than feeding your dog an actual bone. (Bones can cause fractured teeth, lacerations in the throat as well intestinal blockages and perforations.) Cold-pressed oils, such as olive, safflower or corn oils, help to provide a shiny coat. Thergran-M Advanced is a good daily multi-vitamin/multi-mineral. Two crushed caplets per day added to meals are suitable for a 50 lb active, adult dog, but be sure to consult your veterinarian.
Whether you make all of Fifi's meals at home yourself from scratch, or just a few, the addition of fresh, wholesome homemade food to your pooch's diet is something to try (even if it's just once a year for a special birthday treat!) And remember, there's no time like the present, so get cooking!