Essay

Why I Cook for My Dog—but Only in Moderation

On feeding our four-legged friends, thoughtfully.

February  7, 2019
Photo by Shane Mitchell

My dog Dharma is an omnivore without any dilemmas. It is equal cause for joy and heartache. One in a long line of Labrador Retrievers stretching back to early childhood, she will try to eat almost anything because her breed is hardwired that way. (Dharma was directly preceded by Devi, Diva, and Dinah. Because “D” is for dogs.) She finds birdseed and deer poo and even pine needles appetizing. I keep her away from chocolate and grapes, both Kryptonite for dogs, but Dharma counter-surfed some tiny bits of garlic a few weeks ago and that ended ugly. The puke stain will likely never come out of my carpet.

Her regular diet includes dry kibble, and I occasionally supplement it with homemade chicken stock and vegetable scraps, which might include raw asparagus, green beans, and “carrots.” Carrots can mean anything, including carrots. It’s the word she recognizes when I’m trying to bribe her into behaving. Dharma also responds to “chickalies,” “peanutbutterKongToy,” and “snackaboobadoobies,” one of my favorite neologisms. (I make up lots of words.) Then there are “pennies from heaven,” the accidental goodies that drop off the kitchen counter while prepping my own dinner. Sometimes, this might even be bits of steak and that comes with a special side serving of guilt.

For me, not for her.

Boots and me, sketched by my father. Photo by James E. Mitchell

My father was an artist, and my siblings and I grew up “artist poor.” We always knew when he received a check for selling a painting because my mother would go out to the butcher store and buy a London broil steak big enough to feed all seven of us.

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“I highly recommend the silicone dog mats on Amazon, with texture. You are able to spread the food over it, causing the pups to slow down, they self soothe by licking the living snot out of the mats. Our bichapoo has health issues, and needs medication daily, by rolling pills in cream cheese, fresh mozzarella or shredded cheese, she will just scarf her medication down. ”
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One time, Dad left the meat unguarded while firing the grill, and our Lab at the time, Chancy, managed to drag it off the kitchen table and across the floor before eating most of it. Adding insult to injury, my parents were friends with a wealthy older bachelor, who we were told fed his Newfoundland steak every night. Whenever he came over to our house, I stared at him across the table, wondering why he would skip meals at his own place to eat my mother’s homely fried chicken dinners. Mom could charm the dog, or in this case the banker who held our mortgage, off the proverbial meat truck. She had to because my parents were often late on their loan payments. As a little girl, I didn’t appreciate those dynamics, only that we were eating budget-style oxtail stew and split pea soup while some pampered dog got a T-bone.

And here’s my dilemma about feeding Dharma well.

Dharma. Photo by Shane Mitchell

One of my sisters used to eat Gaines-Burgers. She was too small to climb into the top shelves where Mom stashed the people snacks, so scavenging in lower cupboards where the pet food was stored ended in a habit driven by calculated branding. General Foods, the same folks who brought us Tang and Jell-O, introduced these individually wrapped compressed beef patties in 1961. The key word here is “burger,” and my sister was too young to understand they weren’t the same as the patty in a Happy Meal. She said they tasted good, and would sneak them out onto the porch where she could hide behind the toy basket. The giveaway was the sound of cellophane crinkling.

The humanization of pet food is a cynical marketing ploy. The dog isn’t pushing a cart down the aisle in the supermarket hunting for “savory lamb stew” or “pot roast with spring vegetables.” We are the shoppers attracted to colorful packaging with images of gravy-soaked meals in bowls and plates fit for dinner guests. Rachael Ray’s Nutrish line of dog food has intentionally cute labels like “chicken muttballs with pasta” and “beef stroganwoof.” She’s not the only one to turn pet food lingo into something we’d order at a fast casual restaurant: Consider Taste of the Wild’s Pacific Stream Salmon, Blue Family Favorite Recipes’ Backyard BBQ, Alpo Chop House’s Filet & Bacon.

While the basic ingredients of modern dog food are similar to those we eat—beef, turkey, chicken, lamb—that doesn’t mean it’s fit for human consumption. Watch the Snapchat video of Serena Williams sampling her puppy’s hotel room service gourmet menu before the Italian Open and you’ll know why. And those recurring stories about the elderly resorting to dog or cat food when they can’t afford groceries? They run the risk of malnourishment, or worse, because the grade and parts of meat winding up in a can of wet dog food are much less regulated by the Food and Drug Administration than a packet of ground chuck in the butcher department. (After World War I, the first commercial canned dog food introduced by Ken-L-Ration contained horsemeat, which Americans still associate with “poor man’s beef.”)

The dog isn’t pushing a cart down the aisle in the supermarket hunting for “savory lamb stew” or “pot roast with spring vegetables.” We are the shoppers attracted to colorful packaging with images of gravy-soaked meals in bowls and plates fit for dinner guests.

Years later, the sister of mine who snacked on those dog food patties is struggling to make ends meet, and currently relies on SNAP benefits to feed her own kids. She still can’t afford steak, let alone feed it to a pet. Does it trigger childhood trauma when Dharma begs for beefy scraps from my table while one of my siblings can’t pay her bills? Absolutely. (Yes, I help my sister. Don’t @ me.) Does this mean I should stop feeding my dog human food because a close family member survives on a dollar store diet? I honestly don’t have a simple solution for all her problems, which are far more complicated than finding the nearest food bank or accepting counseling for underlying issues.

However, even minor acts of kindness and love in our daily lives can underline the empathy we have for people or animals. According to Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry initiative, 1 in 6 children in America suffer food insecurity, so I donate to food-related charities—Heifer International is another of my favorites—and volunteer time to cook and advocate. (Given my personal history, it should be equally obvious why I report on the culture of food.) And sharing with a beloved animal also dates back to the Paleolithic Period, when canines crawled out of the darkness to lie by a fire and gnaw on our discarded dinner bones.

Photo by Shane Mitchell

As comfort, I take advice from the first dog food recipe written in 37 B.C.E. The Roman poet Virgil said this in Bucolics: “Do not let the care of dogs be last; but the swift Spartan hounds, and fierce Mastiff, feed the whey."

Dharma, latest of her name, would definitely eat that.

Do you cook for your dog? Share your best four-legged stories in the comments below.

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Shane is the author of Far Afield. She is also a James Beard award winner. This year she received the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing prize. Don't ask her to fry breasts. Team Drumstick.

15 Comments

Sue February 10, 2019
This is a timely and thoughtful article, given that just last week my mother questioned my practice of cooking for my puppy in a world that is short of food for humans. While she (and Shane) are right that hunger is a huge problem in the modern world, I have tried to balance my approach by using the opportunity to wring more from the food I am already cooking for my (human) family. I got into the habit of making dog food when, a few years back, I was caring for an elderly dog (Sandy) belonging to a friend who had been in a horrible car accident. At the time, I was making a lot of beef stock with meaty beef bones. The meat around these bones had chunks of muscle, but also a lot of connective tissue, collagen and generally (at least to my family) unpalatable bits. They make delicious stock when roasted with vegetables and simmered until falling apart. Sandy wasn't eating and the last thing I wanted was to have to tell my friend his dog died on my watch, so I carefully read up on what vegetables dogs could eat (no onions! drat!) and, after straining away the broth, I shredded the meat and tissue from the soup bones, mixing meat, marrow, rice, and the mushy carrots and celery that had been simmered with the bones, mixing it up as food for Sandy. Sometimes I would add squash or pumpkin, and sometimes the giblets from a roast turkey. In other words, the leftover bits that would have been discarded as a byproduct of stock-making became the basis for wonderful, nutritious dog food. Sandy ate like a teenager, and thrived during her time with me. Now, 4 years later, I have a 7 month old puppy myself, and I continue the practice, making food to supplement her (surprisingly expensive) kibble. For me, stock-making has become is a byproduct of dog food, and I am awash in rich beef stock, which I enrich with wine (once strained) and reduce to a dark, dense concentrate (almost demi glace) to save freezer space. Not a bad problem for any home cook to have!
 
abc February 10, 2019
I cook everyday for my dog too. As others mentioned, it's always rice + lentils + veggies + chicken/mutton with some added turmeric. This meal is fed to him twice a day.
 
Jeanette February 10, 2019
My black lab Tessa is four and she eats everything. Her favorites are romaine lettuce when I’m cleaning it, Icelandic yogurt (siggs) and the bones when I make a roast. We just feed her scraps that we won’t consume. She licks my yogurt cup everyday. ❤️
 
Ashley T. February 9, 2019
A lot of people talking about exclusively homecooking their dog's food and apprehension for kibble. Understand that manufactured pet food, especially by the reputable brands, is guaranteed complete and balanced through analysis and/or feeding tests. If you really want to home cook, do not assume that simply providing whole foods that are safe for dogs to snack on is making it balanced- consult with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist or PhD animal nutritionist to ensure that your diet is balanced. Years of human intervention and dog breeding has led to dogs' digestive systems and nutritional needs from being more complex than you might assume.

That said, my dog also gets "pennies from heaven" when I'm cooking or eating. I do it sporadically and only when she's sitting quietly, so I feel like it actually reduces her mooching. I'm sure her favorite is when I'm taking apart roast chicken to turn it into a chicken pot pie or chicken salad.
 
Eric K. February 10, 2019
I wondered this, too, Ashley. Which is why I haven’t forayed into fully homecooked meals, just snacks here and there.
 
Love=Cooking February 8, 2019
I cook for my two loveable monsters. A terrier and a bichapoo.
I make, then freeze 4 oz. meals, yes, I weigh it, thaw and again, yes, I heat the food up in cool weather....I am officially nuts.
I use: Ground turkey, quinoa, beef or chicken broth, chia seeds, veggies like carrots or peas, yams or pumpkin and a splash of smoked flavoring.
They devour it every single day. Being 10-12 lbs. they eat very little, 2 oz. each morning and again at night. These two know that when “Mommy” finishes her breakfast, and the dishes are moved, it is the time to sit and look like pitiful, starving dolls!
In the mornings they sometimes get a scrambled egg, no fats.
Our dear pit bull got an egg every single morning. She drooled for it.
Of course they also get “accidental” food when I am chopping meats or veggies. It is amazing how the aroma of meat brings them over to just patiently wait for raining food.
I leave high quality kibble out and they snack if they want to.
I highly recommend the silicone dog mats on Amazon, with texture. You are able to spread the food over it, causing the pups to slow down, they self soothe by licking the living snot out of the mats.
Our bichapoo has health issues, and needs medication daily, by rolling pills in cream cheese, fresh mozzarella or shredded cheese, she will just scarf her medication down.
 
Lune February 7, 2019
My first dog past away last July at the tender age of 19-21 yrs old (I was told she was between 2-4 yrs old when I adopted her). She was fed chicken and rice mixed with either pumpkin/sweet potato/butternut squash twice a day for the last 8 yrs or so. Having the instant pot made everything a breeze. She loves her meals and stood around the prep table every time I cooked it in hope to catch a piece that fell off. I believe that her longevity was attributed to what she ate.
 
Michele February 7, 2019
I agree. I think homemade gives actual true food. Sometimes the label will say a vegetable (as an example) and you don’t know how much it was processed before they put it in the food. And, fresh food can add active happy years to their lives. What we consume has an effect on our systems and so it goes with dogs. Healthy in and you have a happy healthy pup. I’m sorry your baby passed away. They are such wonderful companions. I hope at some point you find yourself with a new pup to love.
 
Meg February 7, 2019
I cook for my dogs. I lost my best boy, Fanklin (a bouncy lab/golden mix) suddenly to cancer at only 8. After researching, I learned that his cancer was probably caused in part by immune imbalances from his crappy kibble diet. We fed him the good stuff as far as kibble goes, but he always had skin issues. When he first got sick and I started giving him homemade and some raw food, the allergies cleared right up. So now, my dogs enjoy a homemade diet, nothing fancy and I can hope that they can live long, healthy lives.
 
Karen S. February 7, 2019
Long time Shih Tzu owner here and I do not feed commercial dog food. It's just too scary for me. As I enjoy cooking, it isn't any extra work as their basic meal consists of boiled chicken thighs, sweet potatoes and zucchini or green beans. All boiled together in one pot. Occasionally they will get leftover beef or lean pork and I sometimes add calves liver or chicken liver to the mix. I also make cookies for them. If they are hungry in the morning they share a scrambled egg with a scoop of the chicken mixture.
 
Michele February 7, 2019
Like you I love to cook. My kids are grown now so I cook for the dog. My first career was in the restaurant industry so it’s not a chore to cook for him. I make him sing for his supper. He starts singing before I even give him the command. I think they feel our love when they eat it.
 
weshook February 7, 2019
I cook rice and meat into jook consistency to mix with the dry dog food. My brother does the same for his dog. My brother and I both will eat some of our dogs jook.
 
Eric K. February 7, 2019
Q loves hard-boiled eggs.
 
Michele February 7, 2019
I cook for my dog. He has is own crockpot which was just replaced on his birthday. I don’t like not knowing what’s really in my dog’s food. Every week I fill the pot with broth, protein, a veggie like carrots or green beans, sweet potato and cranberries or blueberries. It’s more economical than can food for supplementing his kibble. The vets says he wants to have dinner at my house because the food sounds good.
 
Westieok February 7, 2019
Read your article. Long time westie owner. Try spray and wash as a pretreatment for your carpet. It’s good for yellow stains.