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.
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.