Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How to Feed Your Dog {Better} For Free

Remember this story of how we accidentally got adopted by a dog? Well, today's story really shouldn't surprise you much, because it starts the same way a lot of my stories start: "Once upon a time, I read another nutrition book..."

Except this time it was a book about dog nutrition.

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of processed foods. The ingredients list on packages meant for human consumption really just shock me, at times. Bread bags blow my mind with how long their list is. I mean, seriously, how many ingredients can you pack into a little square of wheat and air?!

But if you thought bread bags were bad, you should check out dog food bags. Seriously, that list is downright frightening, and what makes it worse is that you know a bunch of the ingredients are stuff that are considered too nasty to put into human food. Seeing as how we eat some pretty toxic stuff, this is saying something.

So, being me, I started reading up on dog nutrition when we got Fred. Honestly, I didn't read much. There are loads of books out there on it, but although I wanted to have some details, dog nutrition seemed relatively basic: raw meat. Think about it: what do dogs eat in nature? They certainly don't eat heat-processed (read: not raw) kibble with questionable by-products in it. They eat other animals, and they eat them raw.

Dogs have a much more acidic digestive system than we do. That means they can handle food that isn't as fresh as what humans require. It also means they can digest raw meat without getting a stomach ache. And here's an interesting tidbit: you know how we're not ever ever supposed to give dogs bones, because they might splinter and cause serious internal problems? That's only a problem because we try to feed them cooked bones, from our leftovers. Raw bones don't splinter, and dogs have no problems whatsoever figuring out how to crunch them to a pulp and gulp them on down. Bonus: dogs get all sorts of nutrition from a raw bone with some fat on it. Minerals are in abundance. Marrow is great for them, as is the collagen found therein. If you buy your dog glucosamine for his joints, (Fred came with a couple bottles of it), please join me in realizing how ridiculous it is to take away a dog's normal diet, feed them food they boycott half the time because they don't like it, and attempt to fill in their nutritional gaps by buying yet more products. Stop the madness!

If you'd like to educate yourself a bit on natural dog and cat nutrition, the book I read (Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats) can be found here, and the Kindle edition is only $0.99! Plenty of others are on the market as well, and you can certainly dig up a couple at your local library and save a few bucks. There are further details about nutrition in the book, but the crux of it is simply to feed the dog more similarly to how he would eat in nature.

"Great," you're saying. "This all makes sense, to feed a dog a diet similar to what it might find in nature, but what about cost?" There's a reason our dogs often eat food with scary ingredients, and it's a factor we all struggle with: it's cheaper. Even the human components of a household have to wrangle with the Budget Beast.

Well, at first I thought it would be kind of pricey, too. I wasn't really planning to buy free range, organic chicken for our dog, but I also didn't want to feed him antibiotic laden, GMO-fed factory chicken, either. I priced out just plain organic chicken (a couple steps below pastured, which is what we try to eat) and found that even that was $2.50 a pound. Ouch. I bought a couple chickens, broke them down into multiple pieces, and gave Fred a meal of them periodically, interspersed with regular meals of dog food. Even a foodie freak like me can only justify so much money spent on dog food. I didn't even consider buying him beef. Can you imagine how that would add up?!

So then-- maybe buying beef bones in bulk? Foodies have a thing for bone broth, and as such, we tend to have a bit of an idea of where to find soup bones in our area. I have a command of just such info, but the problem is that when middlemen are savvy enough to realize people want soup bones, they're also smart enough to charge for them. Go figure. As such, soup bones aren't near as cheap in the niche market as you might think, given that they're thrown away on a daily basis in more conventional areas. Buying soup bones was out, or at least I hoped it was.

But then genius struck. Acting on the advice of somebody I can't even remember at the moment, I ran down the road (literally, it's a mile from our house) to the local butcher shop. Butcher shops always have bones left over from their butchering, primarily because so many folks don't realize that they're throwing away nutritional gold by not wanting them. Then there's folks like me, who cringe at the waste and think "Bone broth! Bone meal for the garden! Dog food! Aaaagggghhhh!"

I marched into the entrance and asked what their bones and scrap situation was. Folks, this is a small butcher shop. Seriously, it's run out of the back of a building and doesn't even fill it. There are no holding pens that I'm aware of, because meat is brought in a trailer and butchered immediately. We're not talking huge amounts of product moving through here, compared to your commercial butcher factories. But you know what he showed me?

He took me in the back and showed me seven trash cans full of beef bones, all of which I could have for free if I could possibly use them. He's legally not allowed to sell them because they aren't part of the fancy packaged and inspected meat, and in fact he has to pay somebody to haul them away. Is this not lunacy?!  We're paying for our dog food, often feeding them quality we ourselves wouldn't eat because we can't always afford better, and here are trash cans full of an even better option being thrown away every week.

It's utterly ridonkulous.

So folks, do yourself a favor if you have a dog. March on down to your local butcher shop and see what kind of deal they can make you. (Laws regarding selling might vary from state to state.) Your dog will thank you, and his health will too. Fred came to us with some pretty pricey dog food, because his old owners weren't poor and they really did want the best for him. (Ergo the glucosamine supplements.) But since we've switched him to his new diet, there are a multitude of benefits starting to show. His fur has gotten fluffy and gorgeous. His energy is pretty much infallible, and exercise that used to make him sore for days doesn't even seem to show now, except for perhaps a couple extra hours of sleep the day after. And know how annoying it is to have a dog that begs all day long when you just fed him? That will be a thing of the past, my friends. A dog that gets to eat all the bones and raw meat he can handle will be a happy dog, and he won't be begging.

Seriously, check into this. Read a book or three on it, if you need convincing. It will delight both you and your dog to hand him something that he actually enjoys eating, and it will delight you to do it for free. What've you got to lose?!

...and when you think of it, make sure to take a batch of cookies on down to your buddy the butcher.

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  1. We used to bring home jackrabbits that we had shot as food for our cats. Cats don't get through the fur so well, so we would slit the rabbit open for them. Within a few days, all that was left were bare bones and raw hide. Didn't matter if it was -20 outside, the cats would eat everything "but the squeal!" You are spot on with what a dog's needs are. They don't need "dog" food. They need dog food!

  2. Good read! I didn't realize the raw vs cook bone situation with splinters. Makes sense. Mom and Grandma have both made the butcher bones suggestion to me and I never have followed through. Instead I've gotten her bones from the farm/fleet supply businesses. Need to visit find the butcher (ND must have laws about butchering and selling in different locations b/c our meat businesses are not butcher shops.) Thanks!

  3. Ha! I love the cookies for the butcher addition! ;0D Great gun, I never knew! So glad you are making use of all that "waste". Thanks for sharing on today's Maple Hill Hop!

  4. A butcher shop near us sells ground scraps (whatever isn't people food: spleens, lungs and whatnot) for $.59/lb. for ten pounds or more. It is the bulk of our pets' diets.
    I saw that you mentioned bonemeal for the garden. I have been trying to turn bones into bonemeal for some time. I read that if one buries them in fireplace ashes and leaves them that they will break down. After a year, nothing doing. Do you know how to make bonemeal? If so, please share. Thanks!

    1. We haven't figured out bone meal engineer husband is fascinated by the idea and has been thinking of ideas, but I don't know if he's come up with a workable one yet. :-) Maybe a tree chipper?!

    2. I read a bit on soap making that said only the white ashes are good for leaching lye. The difference was something to do with the heat of the fire and the amount of original material that had been consumed/converted. If most of your ashes are grey or black it may be that your fire isn't hot enough to properly process the bones, but I'm only guessing...

  5. I am one of those "Bone Broth" peeps! When I make bone broth from beef bones, I frequently let them cook for 48 - 72 hours. When you pick up the bone after it has cooked that long, you can literally squish them! Do you suppose that you could do that and then dry the results and it would be bone meal? I honestly don't know but it may be worth checking out! Thanks for the idea -- if anyone does this, please post and let us know....

    1. I think I could figure out a way to "grind" bones that are squishy...but I just had the thought, do you think they'd still be useful as bone meal when we've bone brothed all the minerals out of them? I wonder if that would defeat the purpose...

  6. so how do you know how much meat/scraps/bones to give the dog?

    1. The book I linked to gives a rough outline for amounts, but I've kind of felt my way along. I partially substituted raw meat/bones for kibble at first so his system could get used to it. It takes more acid to digest raw than dog food, which their body can do it just fine, but it has to get used to that requirement.

      In the end I try to kind of eyeball it and give him about the same volume of food in a day that he used to eat of kibble. For our large lab, that's about 4 cups. In a way you can figure it out yourself-- they'll leave a bone lying around if they're over it, for example. A dog who doesn't want something that tasty is satisfied. :-D

  7. Approaching a local butcher is a great idea. We buy raw "dog meat" from a USDA slaughter house. It's about $80 for 200#. I mention that it's USDA because they can legally sell these ground scraps to the public. Our dogs have been on this diet for about 10 years and they are very healthy.

  8. We don't have a dog, but this was very interesting. Thanks for sharing on Real Food Fridays, I'll be featuring your post tonight.