This marks the first in a series of articles about making home-prepared meals for our dogs. The series is inspired by our belief that the best way to feed both our human and canine family members is to select the ingredients and whip up meals ourselves—not to mention the sense of satisfaction that comes from presenting a well-filled dish or bowl.
Even if we’re confident in the kitchen, when it comes to putting our skills to use for our dogs, many of us waver, concerned that we won’t be up to the challenge of producing the “complete and balanced” meals we’re told are critical for canine health. We rely instead on processed food that comes in bags, cans or boxes.
To offset this concern, we turned to experts who have experience with home-prepared diets. With their help, we can learn how to provide our dogs with nutritious, delicious meals that are reliably safe and made with little or no fuss. We start with the one of the easiest of preparation methods. Dust off that slow cooker (aka Crock Pot®) Auntie Em gave you, and let’s get started.
Our first expert is Greg Martinez, DVM, who practices at Gilroy Veterinary Hospital in Gilroy, Calif., and is a rising YouTube star. He’s been a vet for more than 30 years and is passionate about the benefits meals made in slow cookers have for his own dogs and his patients. He recently followed up his first book, Dr. Greg’s Dog Dish Diet, with a new volume, The Dog Diet Answer Book. He turned out to be the perfect guide to slow cooking for your dog.
Over the past year, I have tried a variety of recipes and cooking approaches. To begin with, I cooked each ingredient individually. Meats would be poached, braised, roasted or stir fried; veggies, steamed and ground up in a food processor; grains and pulses (legumes), well cooked; eggs, hardboiled or made into a frittata. I would then weigh each ingredient class on my go-to digital scale (a must for homecookers!), ounce by ounce, and combine them in each dog’s bowl. Alas, two of my three dogs consistently refused to eat their veggies. No matter what combo I gave them or how I tried to disguise them, those two always pushed the vegetables off to the side.
That changed after I switched to the slow cooker for most of their meals. Stewing veggies—from kale to parsnips to sweet peas—with the meat meant increased palatability, and they gobbled it all down. Today, slow cooking is my preferred method. I can produce around nine pounds of food each in my two seven-cup cookers, alternating the protein sources from turkey and chicken to beef and pork, (with white fish and a variety of livers/gizzards/hearts) and varying the vegetables, fruit and carbohydrates.
Once I established the slow cooker as my tool of choice and refined my technique and food choices, I found that feeding my dogs for their optimal benefit required answering a few more questions. These questions, by the way, apply whether you’re 100 percent home cooking or using home-cooked food to supplement or enhance your dog’s commercial diet.
How Digestible Is The Meal?
As the head of quality control for your dog’s food, you need to know about digestibility, or, as the dictionary defines it, “the percentage of a foodstuff taken into the digestive tract that is absorbed into the body.” As Linda Case pointed out in her excellent book, Dog Food Logic, pet food manufacturers claim that their food is “highly digestible” or “easily digested,” but rarely back that up with proof. Since digestibility has a direct effect on how much nutritional value your dog gets from a particular food, it’s an important indicator that ought to be available to consumers. As Case also points out, digestibility is increased by “the inclusion of high quality ingredients.” And this goes for not just the protein sources but for the grains, legumes and vegetables too. So all ingredients have quality levels that can provide different levels of nutritional quality to the food with the potential for a wide variation in nutrient composition. That is one of the reasons to consider home-prepared meals that are made with ingredients found at the supermarket, farmers’ market or from your garden—they are not only fresh but human grade too (a claim that few pet food companies can make)—even if you use it to supplement a manufactured diet.
I recently attended SuperZoo, a mammoth pet industry tradeshow in Las Vegas, where I talked to representatives from many pet food companies. Few knew what I was talking about when I questioned their products’ “digestibility index” (which should be higher than 82 percent). Or actually even knew how their feeding guidelines were derived—or the formulas used to calculate them.
How Much Should I Feed?
Figuring out how much to feed your dog can be rather confusing. In the past year, I’ve read most canine nutrition books, talked with vet nutritionists and read articles online. What I’ve discovered is that when it comes down to it, the number of calories a dog needs on a daily basis can be determined via a variety of formulas.
The first thing to do is to confirm or calculate how many kilocalories your dog requires to be fed on a daily basis (Daily Energy Requirement or DER). The total calorie requirement should be divided by the number of meals (usually 2) fed to your dog daily. All treats and snacks also need to be accounted for and their calories should be subtracted from the total that will be provided in their meals. It is always recommended that before making changes to a dog’s current diet you discuss this plan with your veterinarian. Do keep in mind that there are a number of different approaches that are used to calculate a dog’s caloric needs so while our app [link to app] calculates your dog’s DER, there are other formulas with slightly different results (we have included a chart that uses another popular measurement, the Maintenance Energy Requirement, that you can also follow.)
It is important to note that nutrient and caloric needs are not linear: for example, a 50-pound dog does not require five times the amount needed by a 10-pound dog.
How Active Is My Dog?
The feeding guidelines that most pet food companies provide on their packages usually offers wide ranges of weights such as from “30 to 50 lbs.” and some offer scant activity levels beyond “average and highly active,” but in order to not over or under feed your dog, it is vital to know more precisely how much your dog weighs, along with her Body Condition Score. It’s important to truly understand your dog’s activity level too; few pet dogs fall into the “highly active” category. Christine Zink, DVM, a leading expert on canine sports medicine, provides good thumbnail guidelines: “An inactive dog is one who rarely gets more than a jaunt around the yard, a moderately active dog is one who gets 15 to 30 minutes of continuous exercise every day, an active dog is one who walks twice daily for about 45 minutes each time, and a highly active dog is one who gets at least several hours of exercise every day.” Some food companies do provide more specifics online, and most should be able to tell you about them if you call their customer service departments.
How’s My Dog’s Weight?
In order to avoid over- or underfeeding your dog, it is vital to know precisely how much she weighs, along with her Body Condition Score, which can be determined in consultation with your vet. With this score in mind and a realistic understanding of exactly how active your dog is, you can determine just how many calories your dog should be fed. Note, too, that you need to consider everything your dog eats during the day, including treats and chews. Those calories have to be taken into consideration when determining how much to feed at mealtime. Note, you might have to check with treat makers for calorie counts, unfortunately a few put that useful information on their packaging at this time.
It’s important to remember that dogs are individuals. No matter what type of calculation you use, the best way to judge a feeding plan’s efficacy is by simply keeping track of any weight loss or gain, and then adjusting accordingly.
Slow Cooking Tips
• For optimum performance, fill the cooker to about two-thirds capacity, and not less than halfway; don’t over- or underfill.
• Use the right size slow cooker. For making dog food, the larger 6- to 7-quart sizes work best.
• Keep the lid on. Slow cookers can lose 20 to 30 minutes of cooking time if the lid is removed.
• One hour on the high setting equals 2 to 2 ½ hours on low.
• Remove excess fat from meats and the skin from poultry. Since it’s wise to control the amount of fat in a dog’s meal, brown ground meats and drain off the residual fat before putting them in the cooker.
• Never put frozen foods into a slow cooker; defrost ingredients before adding.
• Cut all ingredients into uniform pieces so they cook evenly.
• Put the densest ingredients—sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots and heavier root veggies such as parsnips, turnips and rutabagas—on the bottom. Then add the meat/fish/organ meat and top off with other veggies and fruit. I like to top it all off with green leafy veggies, great way to use beet greens and other more “exotic” greens.
• Grains absorb a lot of liquid; if you cook them with the other ingredients, you may have to add more water during the cooking process. This is especially true if you are using brown rice. I have found it best to add the grains and legumes that require only light cooking (oats, millet, whole wheat couscous, barley, bulgur, quinoa or lentils and split peas) three-quarters of the way through. Or, cook them separately and then mix them in afterward. (If you do prepare them separately, cook them in the excess broth from the stew, which is so tasty and rich in nutrients.)
• Meat and veggies may need to be broken into smaller pieces before feeding to your dog. Transfer the cooled meal to a large bowl, then use a potato masher, a spatula or the back of a wooden spoon (or your fingers, as I do) to mush it all together and tearing apart the chunks of meat. You can even put it into a food grinder or processor, if you like.
“A stick [immersion] blender works fine to combine the food (and liquefy the veggies which can be hard to digest if too large), even while hot. I then spoon the hot food into various sized mason jars, which speeds up the cooling process.”
• Let the food cool down before packaging it in whatever containers you intend to use for the refrigerator or freezer. Meals stay fresh for three to four days in the refrigerator. Defrost frozen meals in the refrigerator, not at room temperature on the counter.
“If you are camping, freeze meal-size portions as flat burgers.”
• Meat contains a lot of water and shrinks during any kind of cooking process. Find out just how much by consulting the USDA’s website, where you’ll find a table at catalog.data.gov/dataset/usda-table-of-cooking-yields-for-meat-and-poultry. This is important to understand because cooking a pound of chicken or meat results in much less meat in the finished product, meaning less calories and assorted nutrients. So in calculating calories and nutrients, it is the “after cooking” weight that should be considered.
• You can adjust the protein to carb levels by simply adding more meat to your recipe. You can even cook some additional meat separately and add it to the finished product at mealtime.