When it comes to feeding their dogs, not everyone is opening up a can of wet food or reaching for a scoop of kibble and plunking it into a bowl.
Riding the coattails of the slow food movement for humans, more and more dog owners are trying to go one better than packaged pet food by cooking for their pets. That's right – chicken, beef, barley, tomatoes, brown rice, bell peppers and more in an increasing array of recipes found in books and online.
"I do think it's a growing trend. People are really starting to pay attention," said Rick Woodford, author of the popular book "Feed Your Best Friend Better: Easy Nutritious Meals and Treats," (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $16.99, 224 pages). "But I'm not very heavy-handed about it. I say do as little or as much as you can."
While some who cook for their dogs rail against the big-business pet food industry, Woodford said dog owners can often mix nutritious kibble with home-cooked creations.
Woodford's book has so many recipes that sound – and perhaps taste – like human food, that those who try them might be tempted to taste-test what they're feeding their dogs. Chicken with rice, blueberry pancakes, "mutt loaf" and slow-cooked chicken and barley are among the many recipes in Woodford's book.
Is it wrong to feed "people food" to pets?
"I'm not sure how it got labeled as people food – it's just food. It's good for everybody," said Kris Dailey, a veterinarian at the Animal Wellness Center in Davis whose integrative medicine practice includes acupuncture and a variety of Eastern approaches.
While Dailey said she can talk of pet nutrition for hours, she also has quick tips to get dog owners on the right track: "One of the best supplements is sardines. They're a natural source of omega fatty acids," Dailey said. "Eggs are another easy supplement. Eggs are wonderful. They hit every category."
Pet food, nutrition and big business are hot topics with various viewpoints, some of them contentious. This article focuses mostly on cooked food, though many owners report success feeding their dogs raw meat and bones.
In Woodford's book, he goes into detail about portion size, supplements, foods to avoid and how to achieve balanced nutrition. There's also a chapter on what to feed dogs with specific health conditions.
A big focus of "Feed Your Best Friend Better" is variety – providing Fido all kinds of foods. That may surprise dog owners who have long been told that switching from one commercial kibble to another should be done gradually to avoid gastrointestinal stress.
Woodford insists a varied diet not only provides overall nutrition, but it tends to strengthen a dog's digestive system.
"I am not down on pet food companies. I believe there are a lot of good pet foods out there," Woodford said from his home in Portland, Ore. "I feed my dogs half commercial and half homemade."
For sick dogs, he said, he feeds them entirely home-cooked meals.
Donna-Renee Carlos, who has two Doberman pinschers, said she applies similar standards for her dogs as she does for her husband and two sons. In other words, food with labels showing lots of chemicals and preservatives should be avoided.
"I live on the principal that anything that can sit on a shelf for a year, whether it's crackers or dog food, is not as nutritious," said Carlos, who lives in Folsom. "The more I can cook and know exactly what goes into their system, the healthier my dogs will be and the longer they'll live."
Carlos follows two basic recipes – one for poultry and one for beef – using a baseline of 85 percent protein, 15 percent vegetables and 5 percent fruits or whole grains.
"My decision to do it was based on nutrition and a little bit of spoiling," she said with a laugh.
Mary Swanstrom, a former naval nuclear engineer and now a third-year kinesiology student at California State University, Sacramento, said she began cooking for her dog Kendra, a shepherd-boxer mix, because of recurring intestinal problems.
"The vet told me to put her on a prescription diet. I spent a fortune on it, and it kept getting worse," she said. "I started reading about species-appropriate diets, and it made sense. The more I cut out grains and corn, the better she did.
"Now I do a mix. I use a store-brand food and give her sweet potatoes, rice and different vegetables. For the meat, I try to give her raw – organic chicken or anything organic that's on sale. I try to give her a variety."
Swanstrom said she got much of her information online at healthypets.mercola.com.
Now 6, Kendra is a healthy, high-energy dog.
Lea Kachler-Leake of Vacaville cooked for one of her golden retrievers, Cody, after he was diagnosed with gastroenteritis.
"I was constantly looking for chicken on sale," said Kachler-Leake, a longtime board member of Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.
Cody lived to be 17. Because she often has three or more dogs living at home, Kachler-Leake said she doesn't cook for her dogs but would prefer to do so if she had only one or two.
"I think it intensifies the bond. There's something about cooking their food that somehow deepens the sense of caring for them," said Kachler-Leake. "Of course, Cody had no idea where his food came from, but it made me feel like I was giving him more of myself and caring for him on deeper level."
Micki Voisard takes a stronger opposition to commercial pet food than Woodford. She's the author of "The Dog Chef's Road Food Manual" (available on Kindle, $9.99).
"Dogs have canine teeth, and what's this stuff they give them? It's all grains. It's all filler," said Voisard, who lives in southern Arizona. Like Dailey, the author is a big fan of sardines for dogs – one can a week. She also recommends adding a small amount of high-quality cider vinegar to the food or water bowl to improve digestion.
"Your dog should be eating beef hearts. Those are the best," she said. "I always suggest using more organ meat, but that scares people. I tell them 'It's not cooking for you; it's cooking for your dog.' It's what your dog is supposed to be eating. It's real food."
Pumpkin puppy puffs
Yield: 50 treats
Light and fluffy, these are a great treat for stuffing into a Kong toy. If you'd like to give them as gifts or just speed up the process, you can use a pastry bag with a decorative tip.
If using homemade pumpkin purée, before adding the pumpkin into the other ingredients, set it in a fine-mesh strainer for five minutes to allow some of the liquid to drain off. Recipe from "Feed Your Best Friend Better."
2/3 cup cream of wheat or cream of rice cereal
1/4 cup nonfat instant powdered milk
1 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin puree
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Nonstick cooking spray
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Beat the egg in a medium bowl. Add all of the remaining ingredients and stir until well blended.
Drop the batter by teaspoonfuls onto a lightly greased baking sheet about 1/2 inch apart. Bake until lightly browned, 20 minutes for a soft and chewy treat or 25 to 28 minutes for a crunchier treat.
Store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks or the freezer for up to two months.
Yield: 11 cups (330 calories per cup)
Take off your rings, because the best way to mix any good meatloaf is with your hands. Like a friendly mutt, this meatloaf is a blend of different things. It's healthy, has tasty ingredients, and easy to prepare. The recipe is from "Feed Your Best Friend Better."
3 medium russet potatoes, cleaned of eyes and green spots, and grated
2 medium carrots, grated
One (15-ounce can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
2 1/4 pounds ground beef (85 percent lean)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Combine the potatoes and carrots in a large mixing bowl.
In a food processor, combine the kidney beans, eggs, rosemary, and garlic powder. Process with 6 to 8 pulses, until the kidney beans are well chopped.
Combine the egg and bean mixture with the potatoes and carrots.
Add the beef and mix thoroughly to combine. Divide the mixture evenly between two 5-by-9-inch loaf pans and bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until the loaves reach 155 degrees when tested in the center with a meat thermometer.
Remove from the heat and allow the meatloaves to cool.
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.