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Photo illustration by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gaze
Many pet owners swear by fixing so-called people food for their dogs.

Real dinner for Rover

When it comes to feeding their dogs, not everyone is opening up a can of wet food or reaching for a scoop of kibble and plunking it into a bowl.

Riding the coattails of the slow-food movement for humans, more and more dog owners are trying to go one better than packaged pet food by cooking for their pets. That’s right – chicken, beef, barley, tomatoes, brown rice, bell peppers and more in an increasing array of recipes found in books and online.

“I do think it’s a growing trend. People are really starting to pay attention,” said Rick Woodford, author of the popular book “Feed Your Best Friend Better: Easy Nutritious Meals and Treats” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $16.99, 224 pages). “But I’m not very heavy-handed about it. I say do as little or as much as you can.”

While some who cook for their dogs rail against the big-business pet-food industry, Woodford said dog owners can often mix nutritious kibble with home-cooked creations.

Woodford’s book has so many recipes that sound – and perhaps taste – like human food, that those who try them might be tempted to taste-test what they’re feeding their dogs. Chicken with rice, blueberry pancakes, “mutt loaf” and slow-cooked chicken and barley are among the many recipes in Woodford’s book.

Is it wrong to feed “people food” to pets?

“I’m not sure how it got labeled as ‘people food’ – it’s just food. It’s good for everybody,” said Kris Dailey, a veterinarian at the Animal Wellness Center in Davis, Calif., whose integrative medicine practice includes acupuncture and a variety of Eastern approaches.

While Dailey said she can talk of pet nutrition for hours, she also has quick tips to get dog owners on the right track: “One of the best supplements is sardines. They’re a natural source of omega fatty acids,” Dailey said.

“Eggs are another easy supplement. Eggs are wonderful. They hit every category.”

Pet food, nutrition and big business are hot topics with various viewpoints, some of them contentious. This article focuses mostly on cooked food, though many owners report success feeding their dogs raw meat and bones.

In Woodford’s book, he goes into detail about portion size, supplements, foods to avoid and how to achieve balanced nutrition. There’s also a chapter on what to feed dogs with specific health conditions.

A big focus of “Feed Your Best Friend Better” is variety – providing Fido all kinds of foods. That may surprise dog owners who have long been told that switching from one commercial kibble to another should be done gradually to avoid gastrointestinal stress.

Woodford insists a varied diet not only provides overall nutrition, but it tends to strengthen a dog’s digestive system.

“I am not down on pet-food companies. I believe there are a lot of good pet foods out there,” Woodford said from his home in Portland, Ore. “I feed my dogs half commercial and half homemade.”

For sick dogs, he said, he feeds them entirely home-cooked meals.

Donna-Renee Carlos, who has two Doberman pinschers, said she applies similar standards for her dogs as she does for her husband and two sons. In other words, food with labels showing lots of chemicals and preservatives should be avoided.

“I live on the principal that anything that can sit on a shelf for a year, whether it’s crackers or dog food, is not as nutritious,” said Carlos, who lives in Folsom, Calif. “The more I can cook and know exactly what goes into their system, the healthier my dogs will be and the longer they’ll live.”

Mary Swanstrom, a former naval nuclear engineer and now a third-year kinesiology student at California State University, Sacramento, said she began cooking for her dog Kendra, a shepherd-boxer mix, because of recurring intestinal problems.

“The vet told me to put her on a prescription diet. I spent a fortune on it, and it kept getting worse,” she said. “I started reading about species-appropriate diets, and it made sense. The more I cut out grains and corn, the better she did.

“Now I do a mix. I use a store-brand food and give her sweet potatoes, rice and different vegetables. For the meat, I try to give her raw – organic chicken or anything organic that’s on sale. I try to give her a variety.”

Swanstrom said she got much of her information online at healthypets.mercola.com.

Now 6, Kendra is a healthy, high-energy dog.

Lea Kachler-Leake of Vacaville, Calif., cooked for one of her golden retrievers, Cody, after he was diagnosed with gastroenteritis.

“I was constantly looking for chicken on sale,” said Kachler-Leake, a longtime board member of Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.

Cody lived to be 17. Because she often has three or more dogs living at home, Kachler-Leake said she doesn’t cook for her dogs but would prefer to do so if she had only one or two.

“I think it intensifies the bond. There’s something about cooking their food that somehow deepens the sense of caring for them,” said Kachler-Leake. “Of course, Cody had no idea where his food came from, but it made me feel like I was giving him more of myself and caring for him on deeper level.”

Micki Voisard takes a stronger opposition to commercial pet food than Woodford. She’s the author of “The Dog Chef’s Road Food Manual” (available on Kindle, $9.99).

“Dogs have canine teeth, and what’s this stuff they give them? It’s all grains. It’s all filler,” said Voisard, who lives in southern Arizona.

Like Dailey, the author is a big fan of sardines for dogs – one can a week. She also recommends adding a small amount of high-quality cider vinegar to the food or water bowl to improve digestion.

“Your dog should be eating beef hearts. Those are the best,” she said. “I always suggest using more organ meat, but that scares people. I tell them ‘It’s not cooking for you; it’s cooking for your dog.’ It’s what your dog is supposed to be eating. It’s real food.”

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