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How to Raise Humane Dog Food

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.

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