“We trust people will leave the hospital with a baby and keep it alive,” Deborah Robertson, journalist and author of Dogs’ Dinners and Cooking for Cats, sighs on the phone. “We trust them to feed their children, but not their pets. Isn’t that crazy?”
Dog behaviorist Louise Glazbrook agrees: “The constant explanation that we can’t count on feeding a dog without a multinational bagging it and whipping it up at such an exorbitant price is that my blood really boils.”
Put it like that, it looks weird. However, like many pet owners who cook for other humans without a second thought, I’m oddly nervous to admit that I sometimes make food for my dog. Robertson remembers when she first wrote about it: “It felt like I came out of a very strange closet…but it was obviously a big closet, because a lot of people called to say they did too. It all went a little bit to be honest.”
And this was before our pets stayed home with us all day: The surge in Google searches for “homemade dog treats” in the past year suggests that when we’re not baking banana bread for ourselves, we’re cooking up a storm for our furry friends.
Alison Daniel, co-founder of My Pet Nutritionist.com, had to hire three new employees to keep up with demand. “The main thing is that people who are in the house are noticing that the health of their dogs is probably not very good – and also pets that can withstand the pressures of their owners. Pet behavior problems and anxiety are everywhere.”
Chef Asma Khan has admitted that she makes keema turkey and roast chicken for her kitten, while a friend of hers says on Instagram that she swore her dogs in the West Highlands would not eat anything but dog food – “but that has changed since the lockdown began”. Whether it’s for health or environmental reasons, or simply as a way to show love, increasing numbers of us are turning away from mass-produced pet foods.
My vet confirms this, but is less enthusiastic about the trend, recalling several cases of malnutrition he saw before commercial diets became the norm – taurine deficiency in cats in particular. But Daniela dos Santos, vice president of the British Veterinary Association, says it’s great that more people are “taking an interest” in their pets’ diet – “as long as it’s done in a responsible and safe way”. She explained that members of the Pet Food Manufacturers Association must adhere to strict dietary guidelines set by the European pet food industry – whose website tells me that a dog needs “about 37 essential nutrients in its daily diet, and a cat is over 40”.
“Essentially, it’s much easier to get it wrong than to get it right,” dos Santos says. But dos Santos has concerns for those considering a vegetarian and vegan diet for their animals. Cats, as omnivores, derive all their food from meat and should not be deprived of it. While it is “theoretically possible” for dogs to get everything they need from a vegetarian or vegan diet, “you should speak to a specialist first,” whether that be your vet or a veterinary nutritionist.
Robertson, who has received advice from a vet and several nutritionists for her cookbooks, stresses that it is important to take a “cautious and intelligent approach” to the food you choose, and remember that just because you like something doesn’t mean it will pet. (“That feeling that you want to spoil your cat by baking her a cake,” she says, “You do it for you, not them.”)
Daniel points out that each animal is an individual—”different breeds, different sizes, different ages, activity levels…what works for one won’t work for the other. They are like us, they have their likes and dislikes.” Her clients fill out a comprehensive questionnaire about their pets’ health prior to the initial consultation to enable them to develop a customized feeding plan that works for them, “whether it be fresh commercial food, or recipes to prepare themselves”.
Glazebrook also admits that cooking for your dog isn’t for everyone, even in a pandemic, but owners shouldn’t be bothered buying any old stuff either. “The impact of an inadequate diet is enormous,” she told me.
“I currently see a lot of very hungry puppies, almost starving, because although they eat a lot, the quality is not good enough. It does not meet their needs, which affects their behavior – stealing things from tables, raking, and running away with food, all because the kind of food they are being fed is not suitable for them.”
First-time owners of puppies can be forgiven for playing it safe: the prospect of keeping a child of any kind alive is daunting. I remember asking my dog’s breeder, Wilf, anxiously, how we knew when he was hungry (laugh? She almost died!), and I sent my friend to comb the shelves diligently for the UHT goat milk she recommended.
For the first few months of his life, he enjoyed a carefully considered, age-appropriate diet. The only human food he knew was English mustard that we were forced to wrap table legs in to try to keep him from chewing them. And then, on one fateful day, the one whose name will not be mentioned decided to give him a little bacon from his breakfast plate. Things weren’t the same after that.
Gradually, as I became less nervous about killing this seemingly strong little animal, I began adding individual scraps or tins of fish to his dry food, stirring his egg or poaching some chicken and rice when it was not clear – the way of feeding dogs I knew while my upbringing These days, he generally eats about half homemade offerings, and half food. But for the purposes of this piece, Wilf was treated to a full two weeks of home-cooked meals.
Some were more famous than others – he refused to even smell the banana juice, hesitated for two full seconds before devouring his buckwheat pancake with raw spinach and cottage cheese. Nevertheless, Robertson’s chicken and vegetable stew proved an excellent place to hide some of the medicine he had been prescribed for a while, and had him lick the bowl of canned salmon cake long after accepting a less defeated animal.
I baked him liver-flake cakes from Lily’s Kitchen founder Henrietta Morrison’s book on Tasty Treats for Happy Dogs—then had to hide them from him and myself (they looked alarmingly like a chocolate variety)—and lamb and burgers from Sean McCormack’s The Happy Dog Cookbook. I order organic kelp powder and bone kelp online to sneak into ground beef and vegetables for one of the recipes available on Daniel’s website, and on Valentine’s Day I spent four hours cooking it on beef cheek with root vegetables, which I eagerly hope to buy to love for the next 364 days.
And he wraps them all with a warm zeal more than would normally be welcomed with a bowl of dry biscuits. Having said that, when I serve him a bowl of homemade shepherd’s pie and peas alongside a small helping of big-brand dog food, he smells mashed sweet potatoes and then picks the other bowl.
Pearls before pigs, perhaps – I have no illusions that he’d mostly like fried chicken bones taken from the gutter – but to me, it’s a useful way to make sure the meat in his diet is as ethically sourced as I am. I want on my own (fortunately we have a taste of cheap discounts).
If you can cook in one go, that’s not a lot of work, and as a bonus, without the fillings that crowd some commercial dog food, there will be little to deal with at the other end.
But then I have the great luxury of time, money, and freezer space, plus a pet that, aside from smoothies, will eat just about anything; Not every pet does. But if you do, remember that you also have the luxury of choice. As Glazebrook says, there are many ways to feed a pet: “It doesn’t have to come from a plastic bag.” – Guardian.