What to Feed the LGD

dogfoodI have not fed commercial kibble to my dogs in over a decade; I had long ago convinced myself from much reading and research that the ingredients in commercial food cannot be trusted. I enjoy making homemade food for my dogs, and my dogs seem very healthy for the effort.

So, when we got Bronte, the Livestock Guardian Dog, I was torn. How much homemade food would she eat, and how much work would it be to deliver her a fresh bowl of food every day? I decided to keep her on dog food at first, to be consistent with what she was eating before, and then ponder the question.

But, right away, I noticed she picked at her food, one kibble at a time. I always feel this is a sign that the dog’s body is complaining that the food is not right for the dog, and they are only driven to eat it when they are truly very hungry. Whereas, when you are eating things that are exactly what your body needs, generally they taste delicious. So, after a few days, I broke down and offered her a collie-style dinner. She gobbled it up.

So, now I’m compromising: I make her the same amount of raw food as the collies get, and then I back-fill with about another 5-6 cups of kibble. I’ve heard that LGDs don’t really eat that much, since they are generally lazy and have a slow metabolism. But, thus far, she is eating a lot! Hopefully it’s because she’s growing. The only saving grace is, at least she is tax deductible as a farm expense!

For the kibble, I’m trying to stick with the “better” brands. I have a lot of concerns about the massive and rapid growth stages the “giant” breeds go through, and feel that good nutrition is critical to weathering them through these stressful phases, to prevent lameness and permanent damage to their bones and joints. So, though I think it might be tempting to buy the “cheap stuff” for a dog that eats so much, I think this may be a financial disadvantage in the long run, if the dog ends up incurring a lot of health problems or has a shortened working life.

One challenge I’ve found when the dog is housed with the ram, he will eat her kibble, which is not desirable. So, I’ve found that putting it in water deters him, and renders the food still edible to the dog. If he ever learns to eat soggy kibble, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

Knowing that Bronte loves the raw food has been useful in training her to come to me as well. I have not found treats which will lure her, and she is going through a long and drawn out keepaway teenage phase. My longline idea helped some, but she keeps breaking it (or chewing it?). All she wants to do is dance and bounce around and woof at me, trying to enlist me in a game of chase and silliness. So, I give her about two minutes morning and evening to get her butt over to me and start eating her food, close enough for me to touch her. If she doesn’t, I take the food away with me, and try again later. She has skipped some meals, but I think she is getting the idea. Life is tough, but it’s imperative that she become more tame, and this is the only way I see to get that done!

More Thoughts on Homemade Dog Food…

Clasidog raised some good points about dog feeding that I’d like to address further with a new post.

 

First, I think it’s important to acknowledge that nobody really knows what to feed dogs. We lack scientific data and studies to guide us. Even some of AAFCO’s guidelines are based on dubious research, such as studies on hogs and mice, conjectured to the needs of the domestic dog and cat. And, many of AAFCO’s studies are based more on what’s required for the bare minimum of survival, not necessarily what’s optimal for ideal health. Most of  their studies are also very short-term, just a few weeks or months, there is not much good evidence available on long-term health affects of any particular dog diet. And this is where nutrition’s affects are most important: we may feel OK eating fast food burgers for a few days, but if we eat them daily for a lifetime, we know we’re headed for trouble!

 

Not to mention, I think we can conclude that what’s good for one individual may not be good for the next. Even if we did have plentiful research, it would still be impossible to quantify the optimal “complete and balanced” diet for an entire population-just look at the diversity of opinions on human diets! So, it is my feeling that we are all left wondering how to best nourish dogs in general, and our own unique dogs. Thus we must develop our own conclusions and assumptions, and this is very subjective indeed!

 

Here are some of the conclusions that I have come to, personally. First, I have come to believe that dogs are not very much like their wolf ancestors at all, but instead are a species that is specifically evolved and adapted to scavenge off of human society’s waste. A variety of readings and personal experience have led me to this conclusion, but my favorite book on the subject is Raymond & Lorna Coppinger’s Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution.

 

Scavengers, by nature, are adept at thriving off of very poor nutrition sources and a wide range of foodstuffs. Many people try to mimic a carnivore diet for their domestic dogs, but I think this may be misguided—there is much evidence to suggest that dogs have an evolutionary history of, and show mostly physical traits of a scavenger, not a carnivore. So, a wolf’s nearly pure-protein diet may actually not be what dogs are designed by nature to eat. On the contrary, feral dogs do quite well in South America, Africa and even here in the U.S., living off of and in garbage dumps.

 

I believe this reality can give us comfort that we almost can’t go wrong, from a nutritional standpoint, in feeding dogs. Just about anything we offer them should be better than a scavenger’s native diet, which is literally trash! But, of course, we don’t want our pets to merely survive, we’d rather they live optimally. I feel that the most important way to ensure that each individual gets what his unique body needs is variety, high quality, highly digestible, and natural food. So, that’s what I shoot for when feeding my dogs.

 

It may be important to distinguish between “leftovers” and “table scraps.” The former, I would define as food that I would normally eat, so is fit for human consumption. I eat a reasonably healthy diet, so anything that’s left over from my table is probably pretty good for the dogs, too. Though, I do feel that dogs can tolerate a much higher bacteria load than humans can, their stomach is much more acidic, and their digestive tract much quicker to do its work. So I would be comfortable feeding my to dogs food which I may consider a day or two too old for my own touchy human digestive system!

 

Table scraps, on the other hand, I would define as the byproducts of the household kitchen that are considered not fit for human consumption- loads of grease, fat, trimmings, spoiled vegetables, or other raw materials that we reject during our food preparation process. This definition, I think, is what veterinarians have tried to preach for decades, that “table scraps” are not too good for dogs. If you absolutely wouldn’t eat it on your hungriest day, why would you give it to the dog?

 

Yet, I would suggest that most commercial dog food is made from just that—byproducts of the human food chain. That’s what makes it affordable, despite all the industry that goes into processing, packaging, shipping and marketing it! How else can you buy such materials for a few dollars per pound, dry weight, unless it is truly junk?

 

When you consider how costly decent beef jerky is-about $20/pound at my local butcher- it becomes plain: dehydrating quality fresh ingredients renders a very costly product, by weight. If dog food is only $2/pound dry weight, the vendor must have had to pay pennies per pound for the original ingredients to still make a profit. What, I ask, can you get for pennies per pound, even buying by the ton? Certainly not quality muscle and organ meat! Not even good cereal grains come that cheap!

 

So, I might assert, if you are paying less than $10 per pound dry weight for your pet food, you might wonder what it was made from that they could sell it to you, at a profit, for so little. And even if you are paying that much, it would be hard to know if the ingredients warrant that, or if the manufacturer just has you fooled, and they are making a vast profit off the same waste everyone else is marketing. But, since we know dogs are evolved to survive on garbage, it’s no wonder that many dogs manage to do alright on re-marketed byproducts on the store shelf. I think that traditional commercial pet food is the ultimate testament to how thrifty the domestic dog really is.

 

The other thing that I think needs differentiation is: fat. Because we humans are particularly vulnerable to getting fat from eating fat, we tend to assume the same is true for dogs. And, veterinarians report seeing cases of pancreatitis in dogs whose well-meaning owners top off every pet meal with a big dollop of cooked grease from the kitchen.

 

Yet, from what I’ve read, dogs metabolize fat into energy much more successfully than humans, so they actually can handle, and do well on, a fairly high-fat diet. And, I think the key is that most of the fat should be in its native form- either raw animal fat from healthy animals, or vegetable oil- not kitchen grease. I actually seek out higher fat meat for my dogs, and add oil to every meal. I believe this keeps their skin and coat vital, which is critical to overall health.

 

My mother remembers in her childhood, commercial dog food was just becoming popular, but her family couldn’t afford it. They always fed their family dog “extras” from the kitchen, and he was in optimal health and lived a long life, even after having recovered from contracting distemper as a pup! My now-deceased great uncle also recalled to me that in the “olden days” they used to home-prepare all of the food for their kennel of home-bred hunting dogs, and were very successful with this. I have also read many writings from dog kennel managers in the early 1900’s describing the meals they prepared for their show dogs—all homemade from locally available ingredients!

 

Commercial dog food has only been “on the scene” since about the Fifties, and only ever became wildly popular here in the U.S.And, we can hardly claim that dogs nowadays in our country are healthier on their commercial diets- quite the contrary. More dogs exhibit signs of disease than ever- allergies, dental disease, behavior problems, etc. Ian Billinghurst, in his book Give Your Dog a Bone, asserts that the U.S. has much more incidence of chronic canine disease than in Australia, where commercial pet food never really caught on.Not only is most commercial food made from poor ingredients, it is over-processed, with too many chemical preservatives and non-digestible vitamins added at the end of manufacture. And, most foods contain the same 10-20 basic ingredients, there is little variety. I just can’t see how this is an optimal way to feed anything, as compared to using a range of dozens of fresh, whole-food ingredients.

 

So, it seems, what comes around goes around, and many people are returning to just making their own dog food and seeing how well dogs do on basic food: meat, vegetables, grain. I think that pet food manufacturers have done an excellent job of marketing the idea that we’re incapable of making balanced meals for our dogs. Even most veterinarians seem to buy this logic (though, it’s possible this happens because dog food companies often fund or provide professors to teach nutrition in veterinary colleges- a sad conflict-of-interest situation).

 

If you fear this same fear, I would pose this question: do you feel qualified to raise and nourish a human child? How do you know he gets enough niacin each day? Vitamin C? What form of Vitamin C? What is the calcium-to-phosphorous ratio in his meals? What is the ratio of meat-to-grain, grain-to-vegetable in his meals? If a company advertised to you that they had created a one-a-day brick of food that was the most complete-and-balanced meal you could offer your child, would you buy it? Would you believe it? Of course that’s ridiculous; we know that as long as you provide your child a wide variety of quality whole foods, he’ll do fine! And that some processed lump of conglomerate ingredients and chemically-derived nutrients, with no day-to-day variety, would be a poor choice for you baby. Now, why would your dog, another omnivore, be any more complicated than your own kids?

Dog Food

Raw diet dog food.

Here is a typical meal that I feed my dogs- well, typical as it gets since they get something different every day. I make their food fresh, “from scratch” each evening. But, it’s really, really easy. This is because, I believe, dogs are evolved scavengers and can live, and thrive, off of almost anything (the fact that most commercial kibble is so full of junk, but so many dogs do OK on it is the ultimate testament to that). So, I follow no recipes, I don’t worry about what AAFCO defines as the daily minimum for niacin or phosphorous; and I don’t really even worry much about the raw versus cooked debate.

Instead, I just feed them whole foods, and shoot for as wide of variety as possible. Because I’ve read that dogs don’t break down fiber well, I do cook their grains, and mostly steam their vegetables. I feed their meat raw most of the time, but they certainly get cooked meat too, and I’ve recently switched the most elderly dog to mostly cooked. I don’t avoid much of anything, except I minimize onions and grape products (recent evidence indicates they’re toxic to dogs in large quantities) and the nightshade family plants (tomato, eggplant, potato) because those contribute to inflammation.

This particular meal has bananas, some leftover bits from a salad, some leftover waffles, duck eggs, and  beef liver. The meat I use most is ground turkey, because I can get it the cheapest. But I try to have them eat red meat at least once a week, as well as organ meat once a week, and canned fish once a week.

I feed them a small piece of meat in the morning (a chicken drumstick or back, usually) and their evening meal is about 1/3 veggies, 1/3 meat and 1/3 grains and legumes. These are very rough proportions. I do add some supplements– glucosamine for the old dogs, and vitamin C, vegetable and fish oil for all. For three of the dogs, I add a supplement powder mixture of lecithin, alfalfa, kelp and nutritional  yeast (my 4th dog seems to be allergic to one of these things, so she doesn’t get this). I try to give them raw meaty bones from the butcher once a week too.

Often-very often-they get leftovers. That’s the best part about all this homemade feeding thing! If we make a recipe that doesn’t turn out so well, or forget to eat some leftovers, or buy too much of something, I never throw it away. It all goes in the dog food. So, pretty much nothing goes to waste in my kitchen. Refrigerator cleanouts go straight into their bowls. They don’t mind things that are a little “off” with too much enzyme activity for our tastes- in fact, I think they digest things better when they are already headed down the path of decomposition!

The results: super healthy dogs that veterinarians always compliment. Their teeth stay healthy and clean without any brushing or anaesthesia -cleanings. Their coats look great. They heal from wounds fast, they  have loads of energy for working, rarely injure, and stay robustly healthy, despite frequent exposure to other dogs at shows and trials. I rarely have to vist the vet. They tolerate fleas (yes- tolerate, like a normal animal should!). Their “output” is small and less offensive than kibble-fed dogs: more like coyote scat. They aren’t perpetually hungry like they were when they ate kibble, and they maintain good weights naturally and easily. And, my old dogs are old: 12+ and 15, and they still look good!

I have been feeding my dogs this way for about 9 years and am so pleased with the results. Once, I did the math, and convinced myself it costs about the same as kibble. For all the people out there who are struggling with disease, dental problems, allergies, infections, behavior problems and other chronic illness in their dogs, I really think this is the way to go. Diet is probably the foremost contributor to all disease in the world, and for us in this country, it’s so easily changed! Plus, I just enjoy making it for  them and seeing how much they love eating it. Bon appetite! 🙂