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Lucky Dogs

Wed., April 18, 2007

Jeri Arnold’s concoction of rice, hard-boiled eggs, sardines, tomato sauce and bone meal may not send guests rushing to her dinner table, but two residents of her Spokane Valley home think it’s simply divine.

And the recipe is giving them nice, shiny coats to boot.

Arnold has been cooking homemade food for Gracie, a 4-pound Chihuahua, and Opie, a 22-pound poodle mix, for the past several weeks, ever since word of a massive pet food recall became public.

“My dogs are my kids,” Arnold says. “Our daughters are grown and gone.”

But, she admits, “It’s a pain in the rear; it really is.”

First, her husband cooks up a giant stock pot full of rice. She boils and peels 18 eggs per batch. Then she adds the other ingredients “and we squish all that up” with a potato masher, she says, before parceling it out into serving containers.

Veterinarians are seeing increased interest in preparing home-cooked canine and kitty cuisine following the growing recall of pet food, first announced last month. Numerous brands of cat and dog food containing contaminated wheat gluten have been found to cause loss of appetite, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, changes in water consumption and changes in frequency of urination in cats and dogs. An unknown number of pets have died after eating the tainted food.

“I have the time,” Arnold says. “I would rather just err on the side of safety.”

Veterinarians, though, caution that preparing your own Fido food is not always the safest route – pet owners must do their homework first to ensure their animals are getting a healthy, balanced diet. And there’s some debate amongst animal doctors whether home-prepared foods are healthier for pets than store-bought ones.

“People need to make sure they know the ingredients they’re putting in are not toxic,” says Dr. Charles W. Coleman, a Pasco veterinarian and animal chiropractor who specializes in nutritional counseling. “I recommend they go to reliable sources for recipes.”

Search for “homemade pet food” online and you’ll bring up hundreds of different ingredient lists with suggested recipes. Before using any recipe, run it by your animal’s doctor, veterinarians say, to make sure it is complete and not harmful.

There also are a couple of widely recommended books and a Web site for cooking up homemade pet chow, including “Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative (Blackwell Publishing, $42.99) by veterinarian Donald R. Strombeck and the site

Strombeck, who retired in 1994 as a professor at University of California at Davis, has seen a jump in sales of his book since the pet food recall.

“There’s nothing wrong with commercial pet foods,” Strombeck says. “You have to remember in anything, including human foods, there’s a chance for problems.”

He says, though, from his years and years of experience, that he has seen animals do quite well on home-cooked foods.

“The animals feel better. They smell better. They act better,” Strombeck says. “There are advantages.”

When Strombeck started his veterinary practice in the 1950s, almost all pets were eating leftover people food, he says. “I never saw any deficiencies,” he says.

Of course, back then, people food consisted largely of meat, potatoes and vegetables – not the highly processed foods on some dinner tables today.

Now, when pets are fed table foods their owners need to be extra-vigilant about a problem familiar to those with both two and four legs: Obesity.

“I’m a huge fan of keeping track of pets’ body condition score,” says Dr. Tony Buffington, a professor of veterinary clinical nutrition at Ohio State University. “Veterinarians should teach owners how to do it.”

Rather than trying to get a wriggly animal on a scale, owners should look regularly at the animal’s body. You should be able to feel the dog or cat’s ribs, but not see them, Buffington says. And when you look from the top or the side, you should be able to see the animal’s waist. Adjust food intake if the pet starts to look a little plump, he says.

Buffington, who was a student of Strombeck, says pet owners who decide to make homemade food solely because of the recall are overreacting.

“People are scared when these things happen and that’s reasonable because our brains don’t process risks very well,” he says. “Can you cook for dogs and cats? Sure. Is it likely to result in the production of as satisfying a diet as commercially prepared pet food? No. You can build your own car, too. But it’s not as likely to come out as good as one from Ford.”

The recall, with new contaminated products still being announced in recent days, was enough to motivate Sherry Harnes of Rathdrum, Idaho, to start cooking for her dogs.

“I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll just put something together,’ ” Harnes says.

So, she looked at her bags of dog food and made up a recipe that mimics the ingredient list, including ground beef, string beans, carrots and vitamins.

“Everything is in there just about, except for the preservatives,” she says.

She makes enough for three days at a time for Emma, the Jack Russell terrier, and Gretchen, the German shepherd.

“They like mine better, I think, than what they were getting,” Harnes says.

Dr. Kendall Bodkin, a veterinarian with Hayden (Idaho) Pet Medical Center, actively counsels the pet owners who see him against making their own pet food.

Instead, Bodkin suggests people buy high-quality pet food to feed their animals.

Plus, he says, once owners tire of preparing homemade meals, it becomes tough to switch the dogs and cats back to store-bought food.

“When you feed these homemade diets, you teach these bad habits,” he says. “I’m still feeding a commercial diet and my dogs are doing beautifully.”

But what if you are committed to whipping up some pet-friendly cuisine at home?

First, talk it over with your veterinarian. The advice holds even more strongly if you have a pet with a health condition.

Dr. Gordon Jewett of All Creatures Veterinary in Spokane Valley, who sees Jeri Arnold’s dogs, gives his patients recipes from Strombeck’s book if they’re interested.

“I would be real hesitant to just rely on just Googling it, I really would,” Jewett says. “Do your own research and don’t believe everything you read on the Web.”

Home-cooked diets should include protein, carbohydrates, some fat and vitamins and minerals, veterinarians say. The food should also include a mineral supplement, such as bone meal, to help the animals digest the phosphorus in meat.

Arnold calculated, using information provided by her veterinarian, how many calories her dogs need per day. She prepares the recipe to meet their nutritional needs and says she serves them the proper portions throughout the day.

Her friends and family, however, have scoffed at her efforts, she says.

“They all think I’m crazy, pretty much,” Arnold says. “It takes so much time.”

But she says she plans to stick with it. Opie has been having some stomach trouble adjusting to the new diet; Arnold is talking to the veterinarian about that. But both animals seem to enjoy the food, she says.

“The first time I even made it, as soon as that bone meal hit the bowl, (Opie) was just over at the kitchen counter,” she says. “He knew it was for him. It was weird.”

Here are a couple of recipes for healthy adult dogs and cats from “Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative” Consult with your veterinarian about the foods and proper portion sizes before starting your pet on any new diet.

Poultry Meat and Potato Diet

Serving size depends on animal’s weight and activity level

1/3 pound poultry meat (raw weight), cooked

3 cups potato, cooked with skin

2 tablespoons sardines, canned in tomato sauce

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/4 teaspoon salt substitute (potassium chloride)

1/10 teaspoon table salt

4 bone meal tablets (10-grain or equivalent)

1 multiple vitamin-mineral tablet

Mash or chop all ingredients to desired texture for your pet.

Yield: Varies

Chicken Diet

Serving size depends on animal’s weight and activity level

1/2 pound boneless chicken breast (raw weight), cooked

1/2 egg, large, hard-boiled

1/2 ounce clams, chopped in juice

4 teaspoons vegetable oil

1/8 teaspoon salt substitute (potassium chloride)

3 bone meal tablets (10-grain or equivalent)

1 multiple vitamin-mineral tablet

Mash or chop all ingredients to desired texture for your pet.

Yield: Varies


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