For the past few years, I've been on a mission to get processed foods out of my house, and our fridge is generally loaded up with fruits and veggies. If we don't make it from scratch, we don't eat it — and that means everything from pizza crust and tortillas to soups and pasta dishes. We're not perfect and there are lots of exceptions, but for the most part, I think we do a good job of eating fresh, healthy, homemade food as often as possible.
That's why I am so embarrassed to admit that it never crossed my mind that my dogs and cats should be eating fresh food too. We have two dogs and two cats — all rescues — and they are as much a part of my family as any of the two-legged critters sitting at the kitchen table. I always thought I was doing a good job by feeding my pets the top quality food recommended by my vet, and they gobbled it up like champs. But at the end of the day, it's still processed food. I wanted to learn more about what making food for my pets would mean.
First, as with any big change in your pet's routine, consult your veterinarian. A raw food diet, in particular, can be risky since it involves handling and eating raw meat, which may be contaminated with bacteria like E. coli and salmonella. Both the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) caution against feeding animals a raw diet. "One study in 2008 found that when 166 frozen raw food products sold in Canadian stores were randomly tested, about 20 percent were positive for salmonella," the New York Times reports.
And while homemade pet food may be less risky, it's not without danger. According to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), "The main drawback to preparing diets at home is that unless following properly formulated recipes, it is easy to create nutrient deficiencies or excesses that could cause illness in your pet."
In fact, in 2013, researchers from the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine studied more than 200 dog food recipes from 34 different places (pet care books, veterinary textbooks and websites) and found 95 percent were not well balanced. Nutritional deficiencies can cause immune system problems, fatty liver and musculoskeletal issues, according to U.C. Davis.
With that research in mind, I decided to ask some folks who've made the switch to homemade pet food.
Jodi Chick, the blogger behind Kol's Notes, a blog that focuses on DIY dog treats and recipes, had only been a dog owner a few weeks when the big pet food recall of 2007 hit. Chick remembers noticing that every brand of pet food in her house was on the recall list. "The next few years were a journey of discovery as I promised my well-loved, sassy rescue dog that I could and would feed him better, and that we would figure out how to manage his serious food allergies without steroids or Benadryl," Chick told me. After settling on a diet of home-cooked and raw foods, Chick said "I've seen such a remarkable change in his health and today, he's a different dog."
This kind of health overhaul was a common theme in conversations with the dozens of people that I talked to about fresh food for pets. Mark Webb, the editor at CentralParkPaws.net, started his dog, Lady, on a diet of chicken, rice and beans as an alternative to the expensive medical procedures Lady's vet recommended. "You can tell her mood has improved exponentially, she’s up and walking, and it’s like she’s only 7 years old again! She’s 12 now," Webb explained.
Fresh food for pets is not a new idea, but it is an idea that is catching on as more people realize they can get and make healthy food for their pets. A number of new businesses, including Real Pet Food, Darwin's Natural Pet Products and The Farmer's Dog now offer the same kind of subscription-based fresh food delivery services that have made businesses like Blue Apron, Plated and Hello Fresh so popular for the human set. Just Food For Dogs also offers delivery, but if you're lucky enough to live in the Los Angeles area, you can stop by one of their four dog food restaurants to pick up a fresh order of macaroni and cheese or turkey and rice for your pooch.
Still, the vast majority of folks who feed their pets fresh food simply make their own food at home, either doubling up their own recipes or making large batches of pet food over the weekends. (For example, holistic veterinarian Dr. Judy Morgan and dog trainer Tonya Wilhelm recently released the book, "What's For Dinner, Dexter?" with loads of home-cooked meal recipes for dogs.)
It may take a little adjustment, but finding fresh, healthy food for your pets is easier — and cheaper — than you might think. And if fresh-is-best for your two-legged family members, isn't it time your four-legged friends made the switch, too?