Homemade Pet Food
We usually have at least half a dozen each of cats and dogs on the farm, sometimes more. Cats are fantastic at rodent and bird control (so we get a few cherries and blueberries). Dogs are livestock guardians or companions who also help guard the farm. They contribute and are valuable members of "the team," and we enjoy their personalities and friendships. Some of our pets have sensitive stomachs and we watch what we feed them. Most do fine on good-quality commercial pet foods. However, we have found that when homesteading and living on the farm, we have the ability to provide them a far superior diet.
I've had "far superior" claims made about all sorts of things - plant varieties, animal breeds or bloodlines, tools, you name it. A lot of "far superior" stuff is just normal stuff. I have witnessed the results of this feeding approach first hand, though. While it's a story I'll tell in more detail another time, I had the unexpected surprise of about 300 dead whole (head on, guts-in) trout my husband put in the freezer for me to "do something with." Surely that happens to every woman, right? Not sure if they were fit for human consumption - not to mention it was far too much to eat - I ground the fish whole into pet food mixed with veggies and lentils. I processed them in a pressure canner, which took batch after batch for weeks, and I had a tremendous supply of cat and dog food.
I had researched BARF (biologically appropriate raw food) diet for pets before, and it made sense, but I didn't have the freezer space to dedicate to it. So, I pressure canned it. The change in my pets surprised me. We had two dogs at the time. One had a tendency towards fatness, and she slimmed up nicely. The other was chronically skinny, and he put on some nice meaty weight. Their coats were glossier than before. They ate smaller portions, were better satisfied, and pooped less, which meant less to scoop later.
Our neighbor at that time was a veterinarian and friend. He didn't know about the change in the dogs' diet, but he was surprised when he saw them. He commented that they were the nicest healthiest looking dogs, and he had seen them dozens of times before. (They always looked nice, too.) Our cats also liked the new food, though some needed a gradual transition because they are pickier/fussier.
How did I make it? I took a heavy duty meat grinder and ran the whole fish through it, which resulted in a disgusting ground goo. This is the perfect job for a pre-teen boy as it was gross, made funny noises (think farting sounds from the air bladder), and involved a machine. I added carrots, old frozen berries, uncooked lentils, broccoli, cabbage, apple and pear peels from canning, peas, and a little more veggies. I had about 1/3 vegetables and 2/3 ground fish. Because the lentils were uncooked, I also added whey from cheese making to keep the food from becoming a dry brick when canned. I also gave each quart a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar for joint health. I pressure canned them with all the windows in the house opened and let it cool outside on the deck because it stunk. I transitioned them completely off dry food. I also gave them raw beef bones from the butcher to chew on, but only in their crates or outside because they leave greasy spots on the floor.
Since then, I don't have unexpected mass-murders of fish to contend with, but I do have livestock we eat. I have the butcher take care of this because he is more expert at killing and I don't want to make any mistakes there. There are plenty of parts of the animals that we don't eat that the dogs LOVE: liver, heart, kidneys, sweetbread, lungs, fat, bones, and some of the meat. I currently have more dogs to feed than meat, so I mix the raw meat in with good-quality dry food. They are lean but not skinny, satisfied, and love their food.
I found that there isn't much benefit among my animals to giving them only food that is raw (versus cooked). In fact, if the vegetables and lentils aren't cooked at all, they aren't really digested. In the spring when the snow melts and uncovers the mine field, I find little piles of lentils and carrot after the rest has rinsed away. They look pretty much the same pooped as they were when they were eaten, which tells me they were of little to no nutritional value. (And no, I'm not out investigating their poop intentionally ... I just happened to see it and looked closer because I didn't realize what it was!) I plan to cook the chopped or grated vegetables to help break down the rigid structure; pureeing would also be a good option.
As gross as it may seem, I've tried to pay attention to what the dogs and wild predators choose to eat. Our cats and dogs, coyotes, and wolves do eat the stomach contents of their prey, so they like vegetables with a little digestive assistance. So, I feel comfortable cooking them. I keep the cooking liquid and use it in the food.
With regards to the meat, they like it cooked or raw, but there isn't a moments hesitation at taking completely raw meat where there might be a little at taking cooked or dried (they figure it out). If it's more convenient for me to give raw, I do. Including whey from cheese making, which they like, gives them a lot of minerals and vitamins without the lactose that can cause gas and upset stomach. Goat milk is the lowest in lactose and most easily digested.
The basic formula or guidelines I follow for dogs and cats:
I pressure can it following instructions for a thick stew or similar. If freezing it, I cook the vegetables and lentils first in whey and let it sit until cool - overnight is good. I then mix it into the ground meat, section them into individual servings, and freeze it. I thaw before feeding, usually by taking one out of the freezer each time I feed them one.
Some animals are reluctant to change their diet, especially cats. It's good practice to make changes gradually to avoid diarrhea. Begin mixing in some homemade dog food into the commercial food. As the days go by, continue to switch out more commercial for homemade until it's all homemade. Our dogs were eager for the change, so it was easy.
One last comment about feeding bones: have you ever heard to not feed dogs chicken bones because someone they knew once had a dog that choked to death on a chicken bone? Well, I don't think that's quite how it happens. First of all, you can feed raw bones all day. Cooking the bones changes the structure from a flexible collagen framework to a crystalline rigid framework. When our dogs eat raw bones, they break down and digest just fine. If they eat cooked bones, the crystalline structure is inclined to tangle up. From my understanding, this usually happens in the intestine, which creates an impassible and potentially fatal roadblock. They don't usually choke, but then later get sick. Then, they die or you pay the vet a lot or both. (Since you know I look at poop when the snow melts, this also leaves chalky piles as they digest the edible portion and pass the calcium portion. Other predators do this, too.)
The fish I ground up didn't have discernable bones left in it. Even though it was cooked, it didn't bother the fish. I don't know if it is because fish bones have more cartilage. If I were to do the same with chicken or when I've done it with lamb or goat, I don't cook it to avoid the potential intestinal block.
Homemade pet food is a fantastic way to avoid wasting any part of the livestock, and the pets love the treat!
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Wife to Brandon, mother to Tess and Liam, farmer, entrepreneur, cook & baker, nurse, and accountant who loves to try new things, travel, and work toward greater self-reliance.