Food is love. It’s why your family gets together for your favorite meal when you come home, and why your beloved brings you breakfast in bed, or why your friends buy you doughnuts and drinks on your birthday. When you feed someone, it’s a sign you care about their well-being, that you want them to continue to live, and to enjoy life. What is a greater expression of love than that?
I don’t think any dog owner—myself included—would deny that our dogs are the great loves of our lives, our faithful companions. My dog, Abby, knows that I would do anything for her, not only because I frequently tell her, but also because she will occasionally test me by asking not very politely to go outside at 3 a.m. in the middle of winter or demanding we take another turn around the block when I’m all ready to head home. And I always comply, because her pain is my pain, and her happiness is my happiness. Or something like that.
So why is it that when it comes to feeding our pups, we dog lovers reflexively reach for the dried pellets from a bag, or if we’re feeling generous, spoon out some processed canned meat gunk? Quite honestly, it’s amazing they still love us.
That’s when I Googled “homemade dog food” and called my vet.
Many scientists believe the dog-human bond, one of the strongest between two distinct species, was first forged through food. Imagine that interaction: Nearly 30,000 years ago a wild dog approached a human campfire, sat down, wagged its tail and cocked its head as adorably as it knew how, and the humans, charmed, gave it a small chunk of leftover mammoth. Such a small price to pay for enduring love! (This feeling is even mutual: According to studies by Gregory Berns at Emory University, MRI scans show that the parts of dogs’ brains associated with love light up when they see us, even when we don’t bring them food.) Since then, humans have been sharing whatever scraps they could spare, except in the most aristocratic households where the dogs in the kennels had their own personal chefs. As recently as a generation ago, young French kitchen apprentices first honed their skills by cooking for the customers’ dogs.
Modern American dogs are, by almost all account, some of the most spoiled in human history. According to the American Pet Products Association, we will spend $69.36 billion on our canine friends this year.
Dog food as we know it—the ubiquitous dried kibble—was invented in the late 1850s by James Spratt, a young electrician from Cincinnati who, on a trip to Liverpool to sell lightning rods, observed how the dogs on the dock went insane with joy when the sailors tossed them hardtack, the dried biscuits they ate at sea. A million-dollar light bulb flickered on in Spratt’s brain. In 1860, Patent Meal Fibrine Dog Cakes hit the British market. They were made of wheat meal, beetroot, and vegetables, and bound together by beef blood. It’s not clear what dogs thought of Patent Meal Fibrine Dog Cakes. They ate them, obviously, but dogs have also been known to eat kitty litter and their own shit.
In 1922, Chappel Brothers of Rockford, Illinois, introduced the first canned dog food, Ken-L Rations. It was made from horsemeat. The next great innovation came in 1956, when Ralston-Purina began using an extruder to make the little pellets for its dry cereals. The pet food division wondered if perhaps they were onto something and that maybe dogs would also like their hard, crunchy food in tiny pieces. Purina Dog Chow, the first kibble, appeared that year—though according to the company history, it would not be until the advent of Purina Pro Plan 30 years later that meat would become the primary ingredient in kibbles.
And this is where we stand today. Go into any pet store, and you’ll find a dizzying array of cans and 50-pound sacks of kibble, all claiming to be delicious and nutritious. Dog food is subject to the same fads that plague human food: There is the canine equivalent of Atkins (grain-free), Paleo (wild), and of course, gluten-free and organic.
My own dog, Abby, a magnificent chocolate Lab mix, eats kibble twice a day, and sometimes canned food if she’s been an especially good girl (read: if the humans feel especially guilty about something). Her body clock is precisely calibrated for mealtimes. Most of the time, she approaches her bowl with joy and enthusiasm—or at least a lot of tail-wagging, dramatic stretching, and some impatient jumping if the food doesn’t materialize on schedule—but sometimes she will let the kibbles sit for several hours instead of devouring them in the usual 30 seconds. I don’t blame her. I like variety in my diet, too.
Sometimes Abby uses her canine wiles to persuade the humans she knows to share their food. She likes bacon and roasted marrow bones and grilled chicken. I began to wonder she would be happier if those things were incorporated into her diet on a semi-regular basis in the form of home-cooked meals. Also, I liked the idea of the two of us sitting down for a meal together. Over the summer, when Abby had a tooth extracted, I made her some frozen yogurt, which she seemed to enjoy. But I felt if I was going to go through all the trouble to cook for her, it shouldn’t just be dessert, as delightful a prospect as that might be.
Search for “homemade dog food” on the internet, and you will find yourself sorting through thousands and thousands of websites with very little way to gauge which will actually be helpful (even if you discount, as I did, any site that purports to be written by a dog or refers to pets as “fur babies”). I’d previously checked out Judith Jones’ Love Me, Feed Me: Sharing With Your Dog the Everyday Good Food You Cook and Enjoy, and while I found it endearing that Jones devoted as much care to feeding her dog, Mabon, as she had to editing Julia Child, she also mentioned that she served Mabon garlic, which I’d heard was bad for dogs. I didn’t know if I could trust her.
So I called up Abby’s vet, Dr. Natalie Marks at Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago. She didn’t exactly tell me not to cook for Abby, but she did advise me to proceed with extreme caution. “There’s a lot of anthropomorphizing when suggesting what dogs like,” she told me. “Home-cooked food is much more expensive than kibble or canned food, especially for larger dogs.”
In addition, she said, a lot of research goes into commercial dog food. Some brands, notably Royal Canin, adjust their kibble shape and composition for different breeds. Bulldogs, for instance, like to use their tongues to shape their food, and pugs need a different shape, too, because of their short noses.
“Every dog or cat has a different requirement,” Marks told me. “If I have someone interested in home cooking, I tell them to work with a nutritionist. That can account for diseases, medications, weight, and any food allergies. There are a lot of variables.”
Marks recommended two web-based services, PetDiets and BalanceIT. Both are run by pet nutritionists, and both will help users create recipes for homemade pet food. The problem is, these recipes require very specific nutritional supplements, which can only be purchased through either their own websites or an associate’s. PetDiets charges $25 for a customized recipe; the supplement is an additional $23.95. BalanceIT’s recipes are free, but they don’t account for different dog sizes, and the supplement costs $52.32.
I ordered a recipe for Abby from PetDiets late one night, which is when I tend to do most of my online impulse shopping. There are a lot of factors to consider when a website makes a dog food recipe for you. What’s your dog’s breed, weight, and body type, and is she a super rescue dog, or a wimp who goes on walks around the neighborhood? Do you want high calorie? Low fiber? “Novel protein,” by which they mean ostrich or kangaroo? I went basic: moderate calorie with ground chuck and a vegetable mix. Only after I paid my $25 did I receive the full recipe, via email, with a precise list of ingredients (listed with both weights and measures). The ingredients consisted of ground beef, boiled potatoes, and a mixture of steamed broccoli, carrots, and yellow beans, plus some wheat germ and the $23.95 supplement. Since Abby was still on kibble, I decided it would be okay to forego the supplement, at least for now.
The following day, we walked to the grocery store and Abby waited outside while I collected the ingredients. “Today, my darling, I cook for you!” I told her on our walk home. Unimpressed, Abby ignored me and sniffed the sidewalk for news of her dog friends.
Back home, I continued to chatter while I chopped and boiled and steamed and sautéed. Abby didn’t care. All she knew was her regular dinnertime had come and passed, and I was still babbling away while she was reduced to hovering under the cutting board hoping for scraps. And she doesn’t even like raw vegetables.
Finally dinner was ready. It took about 15 minutes to prepare, which is about 15 minutes longer than it takes to scoop a cup of kibble into the bowl. But the mixture I’d just assembled, with its brightly colored vegetables, soft potatoes, and browned meat, looked and smelled considerably more appetizing.
Abby approached it dubiously. She doesn’t usually get steaming-hot food. She ate much more slowly than normal, but I think that’s less because she was savoring it than because she didn’t want to burn her mouth. I sat on the floor with my own bowl and ate some, too. I tried to imagine I was tasting what she was tasting. To me, it was pretty good! There was no salt or spice, of course, but the meat gave it a bit of extra flavor.
Abby didn’t have any particular comments about the meal, but she did lick the bowl at the end and wag her tail. Later, while I was cleaning up, she came to me and gave me her version of a kiss, which is more like a human kiss than a slobber. She let me believe that I had made her happy, which we both know is all I really want for her. It’s the least I can do for someone who brings me so much happiness and love.