Saturday, July 11, 2009

Homecooked dog food - the Gabe n Arch way

There are a lot of different options out there when it comes to feeding your dogs. What works for us may or may not work for you. I feed Gabe and Archie a homecooked diet for a number of reasons:

(1) - It's extremely difficult to find processed dog food that Archie is not allergic to. To my knowledge, the only things Archie is NOT allergic to are beef, bison, vegetables, fruit, and dairy.

(2) - Our vet recommended homecooked (even though she advocates for BARF and sells BARF products at her clinic).

(3) - I am more comfortable handling homecooked than I am handling the raw food in the BARF diet plus I've read a lot about BARF and I'm not convinced it's the way to go.

(4) - I like having control over what my dogs eat, especially following the dog food scandals in 2007.

When I was researching homecooked diets, I found one recommended by Stanley Coren, a psychologist at UBC who specializes in dog behaviour. I am a big fan of Dr. Coren's and when I ran his recipe by my vet, she gave us the green light.

However, we had to make modifications to the recipe due to Archie's allergies. The biggest change is that there are no carbs in my food. Based on what I've read, I actually think no carbs (or low carbs) is the way to go with dog food. Dogs in the wild would eat few carbs, mostly in the form fruits, and most likely would never eat grains or potatoes. (If you're questioning whether wild dogs would eat fruits, I'll let Gabe answer that - he forages for berries in my yard, happily consuming all the raspberries and saskatoon berries he can reach.)

Our basic "recipe" is 1lb cooked meat to 1-1/2lb uncooked vegetables.

Each week I make a batch of dog food that contains:

6lb cooked ground beef
9lb uncooked veggies
apprx. 1 tsp salt
2 c beef broth

I was a Canadian school child in the 1980s, when our government switched us over from Imperial measurements to metric. I am one of those people who put x litres of gas in her car to travel y miles; and I buy my fabric in metres but sew with 1/4" or 5/8" seams. Please excuse me for using both metric and Imperial measurements - I think most Canadians reading this will understand. The rest of you, feel free to convert where necessary :-D

You will need 5-6 kg of raw hamburger to get about 6lb of cooked hamburger. It will be closer to 5kg of lean beef; and closer to 6kg of regular ground.

As far as vegetables go, I've tried a lot of different ones, and now I almost always use: precut coleslaw mix, celery, parsnips, and zucchini. Everything is fast and easy to wash and cut up. I don't peel the parsnips or zuchinni. The zucchini is from my garden - in season, I use unpeeled fresh zucchini; the rest of the year it is frozen. If my veggies don't quite add up to 9lb, I'll throw in whatever I can find in the fridge or freezer that is safe for dogs. If you are considering using a homecooked diet or if you just want to feed your dogs more vegetables, please research which ones may be hazardous to your dogs.

I start by breaking up the raw ground beef and placing it in a large roaster. Once that's done, I chop up 2-3 cloves of garlic and sprinkle that on top. Garlic in large quantities is bad for dogs, but they love the smell of it, so I always put just a little bit in. I also sprinkle on about 1 tsp of salt (on my vet's recommendation).

Cook the beef at 350F for about 3 hours. When it's done, the beef will have settled a bit, so that it looks a bit like a large meatloaf.

I break the "meatloaf" into about 6 pieces with a spatula, and then lift each piece out, making it easy to discard the fat.

I mash the drained hamburger well, measure out the 6lb, and refrigerate until it's needed again (in about 2 hours).

Once the hamburger is done, I wash out the roaster and chop up the veggies. I don't add any spices to the veggies, but I do add about 2 cups of beef broth, which I make ahead of time and freeze. The veggies will cook better with some liquid. I use beef broth for flavour and because Archie is not allergic to it. You could mix up some Oxo/bullion cubes in 2 cups of water; or if you think your dog is okay with bland food, just add 2 cups of water.

The veggies will need to cook at 350F for 2 hours. Once you get the hang of this, you can adjust the temperature to suit your time requirements. If you're leaving the veggies to cook while you run out to do errands, you could bake them at 300F for 3 hours instead. Or, if you're in a hurry, you could do them for an hour and a half at 400F. Whatever works for you.

When the veggies are done cooking, I always check to see how much liquid is at the bottom of the roaster. This is "guess by golly" - you do want some liquid because it will make the veggies easier to mash. But, you don't want too much liquid or the food will be too soupy. Even though I use the same veggies all the time, and always 2 cups of beef broth, you can never gauge how much liquid you will end up with.

I mash my veggies because Archie used to pick them out and just eat the meat. I think he probably wouldn't do that anymore, but I still mash. If you think your dog will eat veggies (eg there is no question in my mind that Gabe will eat them in any shape or form), then you can skip the mashing.

Add the cooled ground beef and mix everything together well. At this point, I put the mixed hamburger and veggies back in the oven for another hour. It's probably not necessary, but I like to believe the veggies get more flavourful from cooking with the beef for awhile.

A batch of this size feeds two moderately active medium-sized dogs for 10 days. Gabe eats 380g/day and Archie eats 310g/day. I usually put about 3/4 of the batch in the fridge and freeze the rest. Every couple of months, I can take a weekend off from making food.

Our vet says that the only thing our food is missing is calcium, so on her recommendation, I add a bone meal tablet (550mg) to each breakfast and supper. You can purchase bone meal tabs at most health food stores.

When I started doing this I thought there was no way I could make homecooked food once a week for the next 12-15 years. It seemed like a crazy amount of work. Within a few months, it became part of my routine and it's easier now. I learned things that make it go more smoothly for me, like:

(1) - I go for groceries Friday after work. As soon as I get home I put the hamburger to cook. The hamburger finishes Friday night and then I finish everything else on Saturday. This way I'm not tied to the oven all day on Saturday.

(2) - Pick your veggies carefully. The precut coleslaw mix costs a bit more than a head of cabbage, but saves a lot of time. Most veggies (excepting potatoes) do not need to be peeled.

(3) - Drain the hamburger first (by lifting it out of the roaster with a spatula or slotted spoon) and THEN mash. Don't mash first - it will take a long time to drain 6lb of hamburger in a colander.

(4) - If you have access to a second oven or a very large slow cooker, you can cook the hamburger and the veggies at the same time. I actually have a huge slow cooker (a
BBQ Pit) that fits 6kg of raw hamburger. There's a lot of cleanup to do all at once when you do it that way, though, so I only use the BBQ Pit when I'm short of time.

(5) - If you wanted to, there's no reason why you couldn't do up and freeze a huge batch of food all at once, so that it lasts weeks or months at a time. When I know ahead of time that I not be able to make food one weekend, I usually make a 9lb meat/13-1/2lb veggie batch for the 2-3 weeks preceeding.

Remember that you can use any meat or vegetables that you like; and that adding carbs will be a money saver. Dr. Coren's recipe recommends equal parts of meat/veg/carbs in weight, so if you use 6lb of beef, you can cut back on your veggies; and you can add 6lb of bread/noodles/rice/cereal(like porridge), which will end up stretching your batch of food further than ours goes.

And on that note: The ingredients I used this weekend cost $34.70 CAD.


Evan Thompson said...

Wow, this is an epic post! Thanks for the detail Jacki, much appreciated.

I laughed at the berry-hunting story- my sister's chocolate lab used to root up garden carrots from our backyard garden all the time.

I was surprised to see that dogs are supposed to love the smell of garlic; garlic is one of the couple of things I know Zeus and Annie won't touch when I drop it off the cutting board. On a side note, Annie has to be the first dog I've ever met who doesn't either cheese or chips! We told her she was going to have her beagle membership revoked...

I'll have to weigh the numbers and the dollars and see if I can do this recipe once a week. Thanks again.

Jacki said...

Yep, I read and reread, thinking it was much too long and I had to cut back somewhere, but I wish I had had something this detailed when I started. I wasted so much time in the beginning, doing unnecessary stuff.

Since Annie and Zeus can eat grains, you could certainly add those in. I would guess 6lb of each meat/veg/carbs would last about 14 days for my two. $100/month is a lot to spend on dog food, and if I could stretch that, I probably would. Carbs or not, I would feel better about feeding my dogs homecooked. Even just knowing that everything is human-grade and knowing exactly what goes in.

I wish I had seen the lab rooting for carrots, hahaha

And PS: I'm pretty sure Annie is a card-carrying beagle, cheese and chips or no ;-) Gabe refuses celery. hahaha, the *only* thing he refuses.