Homemade Dog Food

What started this whole thing was my discovery of making chicken stock in a pressure cooker. I was really impressed with the quality of the stock — the deepness of color, the richest of taste — and the only ingredients used were chicken (some meat but mostly bones) and water. I still use this method for making stock for us (humans) or to start a big pot of chicken vegetable soup. It makes for a good hearty dinner when you’re pressed for time during the week. Especially during the winter time.

Could you do this with a regular cooking pot? Well, maybe for stock, yes. But here’s where it gets really interesting. It doesn’t matter whether you are cooking chicken or pork or beef — if it’s meat it will retain its shape and texture. In other words, even if you cook the meat for an hour, it still looks tastes feels smells like meat. It doesn’t disintegrate into an undistinguishable mush. However, the bones (while still retaining its shape), become so soft that they will crumble if crushed between your fingers. (Keep this in mind, when you read further down.)

Anyway, when I started reading up on nutrition for dogs, I realized just how many sources there are out there. Some were very useful, some were conflicting. Most of the disagreement seems to stem from whether or not you should feed your dog a raw or a cooked diet. All sources seem to agree that “homemade”, whether raw or cooked, would be much better than store-bought pre-processed food, no matter how good or popular the name brand. I opted for the cooked version because most raw sites keep referring to a “natural wild ” diet. My dogs are not wild. Well, in their minds, they may think they’re wild. But in my mind, they have been domesticated for thousands of years. If they were left in their “wild” state in an urban environment, most dogs would likely scavenge around garbage cans.

So, here are my somewhat-scientifically-backed-up opinions on canine cuisine:

Except for certain no-no items such as chocolate, grapes, raisins, onions, most dog food requirements are identical to human food.They need FRESH food, just like humans do. They need VARIETY, just like humans do. They need BALANCE, just like humans do.

That said, the main differences between dogs and humans are that dogs need more of the protein and less of the vegetables and much much less of the carbohydrates. And, they need much much more calcium than we do.

In terms of proportion, meat and other animal products should constitute at least HALF the diet. I used this ratio: 1/2 meat, 1/3 veggies, 1/6 whole grain and/or rice. Here meat = chicken, pork, fish, beef, lamb, turkey. Although I must confess that I only cook the first four since I don’t like lamb or turkey much. (Remember, when you go shopping for yourself, just pick up extra for your dogs.)

For vegetables, dogs can and should eat most everything. Dark leafy greens are on the top of the list. But here are some others that your pups will like:  broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, turnips, rutabaga, celery, cucumber, bell peppers, zucchini, summer squashes, carrots, peas, beans. Spinach and swiss chard can be fed in limited amounts. Sweet potatoes are excellent as well.

Some other foods that you might want to incorporate into their diets are organ meat (liver, kidney, heart, green tripe), as well as some dairy products such as eggs and yogurt and cottage cheese. I freeze-dry chicken livers for the girls and add a little bit everyday. Some sources say that liver should constitute 5% or so of their daily diet.

In terms of balance, think of food as a two-week range rather than every meal. As long as you feed a wide variety of different foods, there is no need to make every meal “complete and balanced”. Feed your dog how you would feed yourself. Every now and then, indulge them a little. It’s ok to give them a burger and fries once in a blue moon.

Probably the most common mistake in home-cooking is that people often underestimate just how much calcium dogs need. Let’s put it this way: they need a lot. It is actually more complicated than I can explain, because you have to balance the calcium with the appropriate amount of phosphorus. Phosphorus is typically provided by the meat. Which means, the more meat, the more phosphorous, the more calcium required. And then it’s not just the calcium, but the also the type of calcium (“elemental” calcium is what you are after.) And, if you buy regular and not organic, there’s a whole host of other stuff you have to account for. (Who knew that they add arsenic to chicken to help them grow. This is why I buy only organic stuff now.)

Anyway, all this research was giving me a headache. I remember growing up and feeding our dogs whatever food we had left over (and yes, sometime with garlic in it!) and they always did fine. But now that I am THE human adult responsible for these furry four-legged things, I wanted to make sure that I am the best Mama L. in the world! So, I decided to make the dogs their own food by using the pressure cooker. It takes care of all of the above requirements. Even with buying only organic food, I am still saving a lot of money than buying store-bought. And, my girls tell me all the time that I am better than any Iron Chef they have ever met.

Your pressure cooker and the required cooking time per type of food will probably vary from mine, depending on brand, size, etc. I think I have an older version of this one: Fagor Splendid 10-Quart Pressure Cooker/Canner. Naturally, you would follow your manufacturer’s recommendations. Below is what I would do for a chicken meal. (You can do this for any meat, just keep the proportion in mind.) This is quite a bit of food, btw. When I make a batch this big, the dogs get about 2 weeks’ worth (one dinner per dog per  day). I usually put them in several containers and freeze what the girls can’t eat in a few days.

Steps:

1. Put whole or quartered (easier later) chicken in pressure cooker. Put enough water in cooker to just cover the chicken. Lock the lid, set it to the highest pressure (mine comes in three pressure setting), and cook over medium high heat for 15 minutes. For clarification, the 15-minute timer starts after the pop-up indicator pops up telling you that the internal pressure is where you want it to be.)

2. Meanwhile, chop up your veggies into small bite-size chunks. (My girls are about 1/2-inch chunks.) Set aside.

3. When the 15 minutes are up, quick cool your pressure cooker (again, follow your manufacturer’s instructions.) Take the chicken meat off the bones. Return only the bones to the pressure cooker (broth still in it), lock the lid, set to the highest pressure, and cook for an hour.

4. Quick cool, or let cool. Take all the bones out, but leave the liquid. Add your veggies, lock lid, set to medium pressure, and cook for 5 minutes.

5. When the bones are cool enough for you to handle, chop (or grind) until it turns into a fine meal. With chicken bones, this usually means both ends of the drumstick and a substantial amount of “middle”. I toss away bone pieces that don’t mush easily. If you cook the bones for an hour, though, almost all of it is mushable.

6. Combine everything together and stir well. At this point, I also add chopped blueberries or cranberries, a few dashes of Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acids, a small scoop of flaxseed meal, and sometimes a small handful of kelp for essential minerals. If you had enough liquid for a broth, it will resemble a soup or a stew. I generally don’t cook the grains in the pressure cooker, as I haven’t quite figured out how NOT to turn it into mush. Instead, the ladies are served the meat/veggies stew over a bed of white rice.

Again, “meat” here means meat + bones. If you were cooking salmon, for example, you would include the entire chunk of fish, fins bones and all…

Here is a picture of Gingersnap! helping me clean the pressure cooker. On Ambergris Caye in Belize, the island dogs are called “pot lickers”.

New kitchen favorites

Not so new as much as re-discovered.

The Nespresso espresso maker. I use this machine every morning. It makes the most perfect espresso. Nespresso has about, oh, 15 to 18 different types of coffee, each packed into individual capsules in an array of pretty colors. The colors are (sort of) indicative of

Nespresso, what else ? ;-)

Image via Wikipedia

their intensities (not necessarily caffeine content). Black, the darkest one, has an intensity of 10. Purple is 9; green is 5.  The “brewing” time is different for each pod (black is slowest; yellows are pretty fast), and so is the crema on top. Each capsule is 55 cents, unless you get one of the new fancy blends from some exotic spots — those are 62 cents. Even at two shots, it’s still cheaper than getting a cup of coffee (that was my justification). We got this machine at Williams-Sonoma while shopping for a new coffee maker, but we were sold on it (there was a deal too! more justification!) when the sales associate said something about having the biggest thermal block of all of them. We decided on the spot that, of course, biggest means best.

 My second favorite equipment (not in any order) is the FoodSaver. It had gotten to the point where all I would do is cook dinner every night in order to make lunch for the next day. The concept of making extra food isn’t a bad one. But if I should miss dinner one night, that means no lunch the next day. I know lots of folks eat out, but after a while, you get tired of the same old stuff. Plus, it’s pretty expensive downtown. So, with a little pre-planning, and a lot of cooking one weekend day, we can have lunches for the whole week. The machine came with a roll of double-sided plastic (although you can also purchase pouches). You cut the roll to the size you want, seal one end, put the food in, and then vacuum and seal the other end. It is much more compact than Tupperware, so you can put a lot of them in the freezer. The bags are apparently microwaveable and boilable, although I haven’t tried that. I usually cut the bag open and put the content in a bowl at work, before microwaving it. Anyway, this machine has saved me a lot of work. There are other brands on the market, but since this is my first one — it will be a while before I can give a comparative rating. It’s working fine right now.

My last new favorite kitchen equipment really is a rediscovery. One year Juniper gave me a pressure cooker for my birthday (because I asked for it, not because she couldn’t think of something more creative). I tinkered with it a little bit, but then put it away because the menu seemed a little limited. What I have rediscovered, since we are now proud dog keepers, is that a pressure cooker makes a mean chicken broth, amongst other things. It retains all the flavor and cut the cooking time down by, like, a tenth. OK, maybe a small exaggeration, but it is incredible how tidy this little gadget is. One day, I decided to make chicken stew for the dogs. Since we usually get whole chickens, that means there is usually a lot of “carcass” left. I stuck the whole thing in the cooker and cooked it for about an hour, because I wanted the bones to be soft enough for them to eat without worrying about splintering. The most surprising thing is that after an hour, the bones are mush, easily crumbled between my fingers and yet the meat, while soft, still retains its texture and shape. I then would throw in whole zucchinis, carrots, sweet potatoes, apples, or whatever vegetables, and pressure cook that in with the chicken for another 10 minutes. It is so delicious that I was afraid the girls would never go back to eating “dog” food again. Actually, I am having a hard time with Madeleine (Gingersnap! would pretty much eat anything she perceives as food.) Madeleine absolutely refuses most commercial dog food now, even the higher-end stuff. I am down to just one:  Wellness Stews.

Michelle just got me a huge dehydrator to replace the old plastic one I have. I’ll have to report in on that later — after we figure out where to put the thing. It is massive!