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How to Raise Humane Dog Food
Meeting the needs of food and companion animals alike

My wife Alayne and I are dog lovers. We have 35 of them at Rolling Dog Farm, our nonprofit sanctuary for disabled animals in New Hampshire. We care deeply about their health, their happiness and their overall well-being. Then, several years ago, we began asking ourselves a difficult question: What about the animals we feed our dogs? What kind of life do they deserve?

When we first started our nonprofit in 2000, we focused on the quality of the food we were feeding our disabled dogs. We learned how to distinguish between high quality and low quality by reading ingredient labels and ignoring packaging and marketing hype.

Then we began to think about its source — about the animals who ended up in the dog food. Alayne calls it “animal in a bag” and “animal in a can,” though most of us never think of it that way. It’s a lot easier not to think about it. Just open the bag or can and serve.

When the subject of dog food comes up, it seems that nearly everyone has an opinion. Some argue passionately that a raw diet is the only way to go; others insist on feeding organic food; some will feed their dogs only one specific brand, while others promote the benefits of home-cooked meals. But when was the last time you heard someone say, “I only feed humanely raised food to my dog”?

Today in the pet food marketplace, you’ll see a bewildering number of claims when it comes to the benefits and features of every type and brand. One thing you won’t see on a pet food label is “humanely raised.” While many people are concerned about their own food sources — a concern that has manifested itself in third-party certifications like “Animal Welfare Approved” and “Certified Humane” — this attribute is conspicuously missing when it comes to the food we feed our companion animals.

Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s book on America’s food system, made me realize that those of us who work in the animal welfare movement face our own dilemma. We focus intently on the well-being of the animals in our care, but rarely give any thought to the cows, sheep, chickens, turkeys (and more) who wind up in their food bowls.

Best Friends Animal Society, which operates the nation’s largest animal sanctuary, has a wonderful slogan: “A better world through kindness to animals.” All of us in the animal welfare movement believe in the spirit of that statement. But how far are we willing to take it?

That was the dilemma Alayne and I wrestled with over the years. How can we have one set of standards for companion animals and turn a blind eye to the welfare of those who go into pet food?

Much of our interest in this issue was driven by the fact that I was a vegan for nearly a decade and a vegetarian for several years before that. I struggled to reconcile my own beliefs about what I ate with what we fed our dogs. At one point, we even tried feeding them a vegetarian diet — with many unhappy results. Whether the meals were commercial or homemade, we’d never had so many dogs walk away from food before. A few ate anything we put in front of them, but most made it very clear that they were not happy with the new menu. We quickly abandoned the effort.

How Others See It
Other groups in the animal welfare movement, like Farm Sanctuary and HSUS, have focused much-needed attention on the cruelties of factory farming, in which thousands of animals are crowded in filthy and stressful “confined animal feeding operations” (CAFOs) and then slaughtered in highspeed, assembly-line fashion at the rate of several hundred a day.

These nonprofits promote a vegan lifestyle as the antidote to factory farming. Given this point of view, they aren’t quick to acknowledge that humane livestock farming may be a genuine and reasonable alternative to the misery of factory farms. Their answer to the animal welfare dilemma is a simple one: eat plants, not animals. (Whatever you may think of this position, it fails to address the fact that some species, felines for example, must have animalbased proteins in their diet.)

Putting its money where its philosophy is, HSUS has come out with its own brand of vegan dog food. The first eight ingredients in its “Humane Choice” kibble are organic ground canola seed, organic brown rice, organic soybean meal, organic buckwheat, organic flaxseed, organic sunflower seed and organic millet. You could be forgiven for thinking this was bird food.

Just because some of us believe that being vegan is the answer, does that mean we should force our dogs to be vegans as well? The simple truth is that dogs are, by their very nature, meat-eaters. Trying to make them anything else is, well, unnatural. Been there, done that. Didn’t work.

What We Did
Producing its own vegan dog food was the HSUS solution, and it deserves credit for bringing a product to market that reflects its ethical beliefs. However, we chose a different path.

Alayne and I wanted to take responsibility for the entire “cycle of life,” from birth to death, and assure ourselves that the meat we were feeding our disabled dogs came from animals who were raised as humanely as possible. That meant doing it ourselves — yes, raising our own cattle. We wanted to know exactly how they lived, what they were fed and, most important of all, how they died.

We were fortunate in that we had the land, facilities and skills to raise cattle on a modest scale. We started the journey in 2008 with a small herd of heritage- breed cows. In January of this year, we took our first steer to slaughter. We selected a small, local, familyowned slaughterhouse for processing. I visited the facility, met the owner and staff, and walked through every step in the process, from unloading to the kill floor and, ultimately, the freezer. The day I visited, it was so quiet that I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. There were no feedlots full of bellowing, stressed cattle. There was just a handful of stalls along a hallway, each with sawdust bedding. The facility processes four steers a day, not 400; our steer, Sebastian, would be one of the four slaughtered the following day. He would become several hundred pounds of ground beef.

Leaving Sebastian behind was very difficult. I choked up when I said good-bye to him. But I knew what kind of life he’d had, and how his end would come. And I knew we would now, finally, be feeding humanely raised food to our dogs.

What You Can Do
Though few are in a position to raise their own livestock, there are other ways to provide dogs with humanely raised food. Here are two.

Contact local livestock farmers and ask about purchasing directly from them. The most cost-effective way is to buy a whole or a side (half) of beef. If you don’t have freezer space for that much meat — and most people don’t — make a group purchase with other dog-loving friends and split the meat among you. Consider locally raised lamb, chicken and turkey, too. Check out neighborhood farmers’ markets or go online to visit Local Harvest or Eat Wild (see the resources box) to find family farms in your area. Ask them about their animal welfare practices, and see if you can stop by. By buying direct, you help support local farmers, a worthy goal in its own right, as well as provide your dog with humanely raised food.

At the grocery store, look for meat that has been certified as “Animal Welfare Approved” or “Certified Humane.” These third-party endorsements have specific humane-treatment standards that must be met in order for the meat to be certified. (Note that simply being “organic” does not address many humane issues, including slaughter.) This is the most expensive option, but it will give you some assurance that the food animals were humanely raised. Not every supermarket carries this kind of meat, so you may have to shop around to find it. Better yet, ask your supermarket to start carrying it.

What’s Next?
Like any good cook, you’ll need a recipe to make a complete meal, and there are literally hundreds of resources to help you. Do a search for “homemade dog food” and you’ll find many books and websites on the subject. Read carefully to determine which one is right for your companion animals, and check in with your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist to be sure the meals you want to feed your pet cover the appropriate nutritional bases.

We turned to the board-certified veterinary nutritionists at DVM Consulting. Their website, BalanceIT. com, provides customized recipes based on several variables, including protein and carbohydrate choices and your dog’s age, sex, breed and activity level. Their recipes provide specific nutritional profiles, so you know exactly what your dog is getting. The vitamin and mineral supplement they sell, also called Balance IT, is crucial to making sure these homecooked meals provide all of the nutrients your dog needs.

If purchasing humanely raised meat and preparing homemade meals for your dog is too expensive or time-consuming, here’s another option: ask the manufacturer of the dog food you currently buy to offer a product based on humanely raised livestock. If the pet food industry begins hearing about it from enough consumers, someone is bound to respond to the demand.

In the end, one thing is clear: the choices we make for our companion animals affect the lives of food animals. Better choices can improve both our pets’ lives and the lives of animals destined to become food, and that means a better world for all of us.

About Rolling Dog Farm
Steve Smith and Alayne Marker founded their nonprofit sanctuary (originally known as Rolling Dog Ranch) in 2000. In 2010, Smith and Marker moved the sanctuary from Montana to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In keeping with New England tradition, it’s now called the Rolling Dog Farm.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 65: Jun/Aug 2011
Steve Smith left his job as an executive in communications with Boeing in the late 1990s and, with his wife, Alayne Marker, created a sanctuary for disabled animals. rollingdogfarm.org

All photos courtesy of Rolling Dog Farm

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Kerry | June 20 2011 |

Champion Petfoods, based in Alberta, Canada, is quite open about where they get the meat, eggs, and fish for their foods. They process and manufacture all components of their food and source the ingredients regionally, from responsible, humane farms, ranches, and fisheries. They even posted a video on youtube of where their food comes from and how it's made:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONnTH-flAhs

Submitted by Debbie B. | June 21 2011 |

What a thought-provoking article. It examines the issues without resorting to emotional hysterics employed by some animal-rights organizations. Steve and Alayne walk the walk, working harder, spending extra money to meet the responsibilities of their belief system. Good on ya, and good on Rolling Dog Farm.

Submitted by Heather Deiss | June 27 2011 |

Thank you so much for this article. I think about this every day as I feed my carnivores! I am very much into cruelty free, humanely raised, and am a vegetarian myself. I pray every day for the animals who gave their life for our animal's food. We are all connected and I am truely sickened at how farm animals are abused. Putting this topic in the spotlight is important and I hope more people can be open to the idea that all animals deserve quality lives and care!!!

Submitted by Olivia | July 11 2011 |

Are you sure the steers "gave" their lives? That implies willingly, right? (I don't know a single cow who would knowingly walk to a kill floor, no matter how quiet and clean it is.) Doesn't it also imply that the bovines agree with you that your dog's life is more important than their own lives are?

And if that's the case, then I would think you would have to agree with the folks in Asia who feed farmed dogs to carnivores -- whether they be lions in a zoo or themselves (after all, most people who are carnists consider themselves, even if unscientifically, to be carnivores).

I have heard wonderful things about Rolling Dog Ranch, and I admire this couple's commitment to those dear dogs, truly I do. But I get the feeling there's a lot of cognitive dissonance and rationalization going on here.

There are plenty of dogs who acquire a taste for vegan food. Sure, it may take a while for taste buds to adjust, but I don't think any dog is going to starve to death before learning to like new foods, any more than a cow is going to wittingly walk to her death.

Submitted by Annie | July 11 2011 |

Steve and Alayne,
My heart is uplifted by your dedication to these previously unloved animals. I encourage you to stay true to your veganism and again try offering plant-based foods to your omnivores.

If your aim is what seems to you to be a "natural" path for your dogs, well, I don't think dogs generally eat cows. You might need to raise rabbits and chickens and squirrels for your dogs to hunt, and for you to feed to those that can't hunt for themselves.

Thank you again for the wonderful work you are doing.

Annie

Submitted by Anonymous | July 11 2011 |

You lost all credibility when you said you left Sebastian to be killed all by himself. How do you think he felt? How was he killed? Describe it. You know there's no way to nicely kill anyone. You said you wanted to know how he died. Why didn't you stay and look into his eyes while he died? Also, you know that there isn't enough room on the earth for all of the animals that people kill and shove in their faces and wipe off their asses everyday, to live the lives they deserve to live. You act like you did the greatest thing in the world and granted, they had a MUCH better life than they could have had but you know that's not good enough. It's good that you let the few that you feed to your dogs live a better life, but don't make that big a deal out of it. Most people don't have room, time, ability and they will continue feeding the suffering to their animals and to themselves. So really, what did you do?

Submitted by Russell Hartstein | June 25 2012 |

Thank you, for doing what you do and this wonderful article. it is such a pleasure to read about your farm and your practices with disabled pets. Your wealth of knowledge and practices regarding feeding and welfare of all animals is such a refreshing breath of air to read. You have provided a wonderful source of information and knowledge to all who have pets. Russell Hartstein CPDT-KA Miami dog training

Submitted by BE Adams | June 25 2012 |

So, what about the field animals that are slaughtered when the harvesting combines come around? Unless each leaf is delicately picked by someone who doesn't step on any bugs, you're just as much a participant in senseless slaughter as the rest of us!

Submitted by HK Animal Speak | June 26 2012 |

I applaud your efforts and appreciate that you made note of the fact that not everyone can do this. If someone can make the extra effort, then no reason not to try. Living in Hong Kong and running my own animal welfare organization I struggle with our limited land mass, over population of abandoned animals and the need to rely on imported products. That being said, we have wonderful people here who do make a difference and we are getting better all the time. Thank you for your inspiration!

Submitted by Anonymous | January 28 2013 |

Some of the angry comments really took me aback.

Dogs and cats require meat - just like animals in the wild that are predators. We have a choice with dogs and cats that have been abandoned. We can "put them down" or rescue them. Now that we've chosen to rescue them, we have a dilemna - how can we best feed them ethically, and what can we do within the confines of our own situation.

Cats and dogs are meat eaters - it is genetically necessary for their health and not a matter of a child who doesn't like the peas you put on their plate. There is a lot of information out there about this and is worth the time to research.

I also wonder at the commenters who are ranting about killing animals humanely - haven't they read the evidence that plants feel pain, too? So maybe they shouldn't be chomping down on that carrot. The thing is we live in a complex world. I think most of us that have chosen to become vegan, or vegetarian, recognize that we are part of food chain. And so we make the best efforts to minimize our impact, but ultimately we have to kill something in order to survive. It doesn't make us have to like it.

My grandparents had a true farm back in the day - and I applaud the poster's ability to raise and animal and then participate in the cycle as much as they are able. I can understand their dilemna and compromise. I couldn't kill an animal. But if it has to happen, which it seems to be until they can grow meat for our animals in test tubes as hunks of flesh, they are participating in the life and death of the animal as much as they are emotionally capable.

I truly appreciate this article, the thoughts, and the resources as I am wrestling with this issue myself, although only because of money. It's not as expensive to give up meat and be an organic vegan - not buying meat pays for much of the extra cost of organics, but when you have to add the cost of local/humanely raised meat back in - well that's a lot harder to make happen on a tight budget. Being able to make ethical choices shouldn't just be for the rich.

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