Dog Food: I’m Done With This Shit

So before I begin, lest you think me crude – I’m speaking literally, about the latest dog food recalls. The recalls are due to salmonella, spread via… feces.

Why is this important?

I’ve always been serious about dog food, but I got really serious about it after 2009 when the big recall hit: hundreds of dogs dead, all due to a large contract manufacturer (more on that later) using an adulterated ingredient. Melamine was intentionally added by Chinese suppliers of wheat gluten – this inexpensive but deadly additive fools tests for protein content and makes cheap ingredients look to be of higher quality. It also kills pets. Thousands of pets were sickened, hundreds are believed to have died.

Now we’re here all over again, with a pet food recall that started small and has grown rapidly, and we’re seeing some of the same problems play out as they did before. The food manufacturers quietly dump their press releases on Friday night, when they’ll attract less notice, after denying that their products are involved.

As with before, this recall involves a contract manufacturer: Diamond Foods. Contract manufacturers are another dirty little secret of the pet food industry; many of the brands that we all think of as major are not produced by the companies that sell them, rather they are contracted out to another manufacturer. This of course is hidden from the consumer. Contract manufacturers frequently use ingredients and equipment that are common to many different product lines, so a simple problem can become very widespread very quickly, to many different brands – such as the adulteration of their product with, frankly, raw shit. That’s how one spreads salmonella, the subject of the current recall.

For the last four days or so I’ve been feeling terrible. I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say that I’ve needed to be close to a restroom. I considered a few options including the flu based on what I’ve been exposed to, but then this morning I got the ever-expanding list of brands of the current recall of dry dog foods. I stock three different brands of dry dog food for my 5 dogs, brands chosen carefully based on their ingredients, their reputation, and their honesty. I really got serious about research after the 2009 disaster and tried my best to find foods that are a good value by honest companies. 2 of the three types I feed are on the recall list, one is not but dry foods by the same manufacturer are – and each company has not behaved ethically in the slightest despite knowing for nearly a month now that their food was potentially affected. In doing so, they have risked both my health and the health of my pets.

I’m done with dog food.

Dog food companies have spent a fortune, much of it on “vet education”, convincing the public that feeding a dog is rocket science, that only they can be trusted to deliver the precise formulation that will keep your dog in perfect health. Hogwash. Kibble was invented in the mid-1800s and popularized in the convenience-mad consumer culture of post WWII America; prior to that domestic dogs ate human food (and mostly human scraps) for tens of thousands of years. The modern incarnation of kibble is mostly a profit system for food megabrands: large food conglomerates like Nestle and Mars use dog food as a profitable disposal system for food scraps they cannot sell, frequently for legal reasons, to human beings.

When my last hospice dog, Macho, was dying I turned to homemade food out of desperation. He would no longer eat any wet or dry food I could find, so I cooked for him, and discovered to my surprise that it wasn’t that difficult or that expensive. I would make my meat mix once per week – a trip to the grocery store and I’d cook up a week’s worth of protein. Daily I would set my rice cooker as I left the house to walk dogs with rice and vegetables and when I got back I would let the hot rice warm the meat mix from the refrigerator and throw in some supplements and a vitamin tablet. He never once refused it and I had the comfort of knowing where each and every ingredient came from.

Sure, I’d love to feed my dogs raw – but where I live, that’s highly impractical. I’m in the South Bronx, it’s not like there’s a farm on the corner and a local butcher serving up organic pasture-raised local meat at any sort of reasonable price. I can guarantee you, however, that anything I source from the local grocery store will be a damn sight better than what is legally allowed to go into your average bag of kibble and be described as, say, “chicken”. It will be prepared in my own kitchen to my own standards (and by cooking everything I can make sure that pathogens are killed) with the same tools and utensils I use for my own food. I will be able to vary the diets quickly and easily with what’s available, what’s fresh, what they like, what they’re allergic to, and what’s good. I don’t think it will be all that much more expensive, either – and I won’t have to load it up with preservatives.

And you know, I’d have a very hard time being any worse at it than the companies that claim to specialize in it. My cooking hasn’t killed anyone yet. I plan to keep it that way.

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  • Marilyn

    John, come on over to the dark side. You can feed raw. You don’t need the rice or the veggies, dogs don’t require them. Ever seen a wolf with a rice steamer? 80% meat, 15% bone, 5% organs. Raw. No cooking required. Storage in an apartment with multiple dogs might be a problem, but you’re a smart guy. You can figure it out.

  • John

    And where would I get it? I don’t trust anything I can get locally at any sort of reasonable price without cooking for safety’s sake, particularly because 4 out of my 5 are seniors, 2 in delicate health.

    • Beta

      There is a lady who has a raw food for dogs business, she delivers to some parts of NYC, and ships (Fedex, I believe) to other places. I am in Pennsylvania and have been speaking with her about getting certain raw meats for my Siberian Husky, although I am close to farms and can obtain the standard stuff fairly easily. Check out her site, http://www.rawbasicsllc.com/. I found the prices very reasonable, she’s in New Jersey so shipping to you would not be too high if she doesn’t deliver to your area of the Bronx, and she has a great selection.

  • Callie

    I have been wanting to switch my dogs and cats to a vegetarian diet. But even a home cooked chicken meal would be better than the crap they fill those bags with. I’m just never sure where to begin since I have dogs and cats to feed. But I def know how you feel, everytime I buy a bag I wonder “will this be the day it kills my companions?”

    • ZaCloud

      Whoops, I missed the fact that I can reply to posts on here… please scroll down, I wrote a post in reply about pets and vegetarian diets.

    • Please, please, PLEASE do not feed your dog (Canis lupus familiaris – a carnivore) a vegetarian diet. Read about our medical case, Hallie (who was fed a vegetarian diet her whole life) and the devastating effect it has had on her health. http://heartdog.org/2012/04/18/hallie/

  • lori

    I have a different way of looking at this. My dogs all eat TOTW salmon and canned store brand human “quality” salmon from the grocery store. I’ll just wait for the all clear and start them back up on it because after trying every dog food and raw food and cooked food on the planet, and having several allergic doxies, this is the only thing that my entire pack can eat without being sick or having skin or ear infections, yeast and bacterial.

    I am trying to not get crazy with alarm. I mean there have been sick outbreaks also with organic spinach, green onions, canteloupes, etc, but that does not mean that I am never eating them again. Just my opinion for my pack, not for anyone else.

    I love reading John Sibley and the awesome work he does for homeless babies.

    • John

      I would probably do the same if it were not for the completely scummy way these companies behave – even the “good” ones – while the FDA is asleep at the switch. I loathe being lied to.

  • Mary Ann

    John, get the book by Rick Woodford – Feed Your Best Friend Better. Lots of recipes and information about doing exactly what you are wanting to do. I went to one of his seminars and it was very interesting and he made it really simple. My dogs loved the samples he sent back home with us. Now I just need to do it!

  • mikken

    You go, John! Home cooking is an excellent option and I’m sure your crew will thank you for it. Your own gut will be happier, I think, too…

  • Sometimes I feed the dogs meals that I imagine some might criticize me for, particularly when the heat and humidity is overwhelming or when that ever present lurking monster called Laziness strikes. But any momentary concern I might have about the quality of the meal at hand is quickly dispelled by the reassurance that it’s a million times better than anything from a bag or can labeled “dog food”.

    • John

      And that’s the essence! People start reading websites and books and conflicting opinions and become convinced that cooking for dogs is impossible and it has to be raw or organic or all meat or whatever or it’s WRONG. Pick up a few bags of dog food. Read the labels. Look at the AAFCO ingredient definitions. As a reasonably intelligent human being, could one POSSIBLY do worse?

  • ZaCloud

    @Callie, dogs and cats aren’t naturally vegetarians, so I would advise you not to feed them a vegetarian diet. While dogs can tolerate vegetables (they are omnivores, but primarily eat meat), and cats occasionally snack on veggies for fiber and roughage, neither of them are geared for digestion of majority plant protein.

    Most dogs and cats fed even regular commercial kibble, will die of liver failure (though the vets always call it “old age”), this is due to the stress of having to sort through corn, wheat, and other cereals in their dog food (and the tooth decay these ingredients cause, and swallowing their saliva tainted with the plaque. This is why feeders of raw meat and bone don’t have to brush their pets’ teeth, but people feeding cooked or ESPECIALLY commercial dog-food do).

    And soy? If it’s not specifically declaring, reputably, that it’s NON-GMO soy, then forget about eating it yourself, let alone feeding it to your animals. The genetic changes in GMO soy cause hormonal imbalance, increased estrogen, and thus increased cancer risk, for all living things that eat it. Pure, unmodified soy has meanwhile NOT been proven to have these effects, but it’s still hard to find many sources that can swear that they’ve gone that route.

    And regardless, it’s still a plant protein. Mostly predatory animals require more heme iron, which can’t faithfully come from plant-based ingredients, and self-supplementing it can be dangerous if not dosed correctly. And it still stresses their livers sorting through it, because it’s not easily digested. The amount of protein they wring from it is insufficient, and thus more is eaten to make up for it. Which in turn stresses the liver further. Dry kibble has the same problem, it’s why pets eat so little when put on a pure meat diet, but so much on kibble or veg. Slowly eating themselves to death.

    We humans are more versatile; our teeth are evidence that we’re omnivores, but we know our own dietary needs enough to go veggie if we choose to. We can properly chew and render plant material, and our super-long intestines give us more time to digest and absorb the nutrients, with probiotics in place to aid in the process. But dogs and cats’ teeth aren’t made for chewing; nature’s signal that it’s just not natural for them to graze. And their digestive tracks are much shorter, and lacking in enzymes and bacteria that properly break down vegetable material.

    That’s why they normally get their vegetable nutrients from their prey, who have already digested it for them. That’s also why SOME vegetable material is ok. But it should never be the primary. It’s not healthy or natural. In nature, our pets would be killing and eating prey, as much as we may wish that wasn’t so.

    There have been many stories of vegetable-based chew toys killing pets too; the green plant material can be swallowed, and because the intestines can’t break it down like ours can, it can get twisted up in their guts and cut off circulation, causing necrosis and death. So, care has to be taken in that route too. Thankfully, grass moves on through, due to being non-rendered and thus easy for the intestinal muscles to grab and push along. That’s pure, insoluble fiber, used to help push out hairballs and sticky poop. Not a food source in and of itself.

    We can’t project our preferences onto our pets, when it compromises their health. If we commit to predators, then we are also committed to feeding them the meat that their bodies are made to eat. Your choice is your own, but I hope you will carefully consider what’s best for your pets.

    • mikken

      Right. Vegetarianism is a choice. Being a carnivore, an herbivore, or an omnivore is biology.

  • Wendy

    I would love to cook meals for my two dogs but I don’t know the vitamins or supplements to add to them. Does anyone know what a Shih Tzu would require?

  • Update

    We started cooking for our dog four years ago when he seemed listless. A vet advised we give him Pet Tabs, a vitamin, along with food. We cook two chicken or turkey burgers, throw in some frozen vegetables and steamed brown rice, mix in the pan, divide in two, give half for breakfast and heat the other for lunch. Dinner is a plain chicken burger.

    Because my dog is old, I add lots of water to make a soup. According to one holistic tradition, people need more liquid as they age–you notice elderly people have dry eyes, skin, mouth, etc.. I applied this to my dog, and he seems to be doing his best at 15. Another tip that delayed the onset of arthitis: Omega oil capsules, three at two meals a day. I’m amazed how many dog owners don’t know about this.

    Nothing beats a dog chowing down his home-cooked meal, or smelling it cooking!

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