Home-cooked meals for pets popular, but complicated

Home-cooked meals for pets popular, but complicated
Associated Press Writer
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Set another place at the table for Fido — it’s dinnertime.

Despite a cultural reluctance to spend more than 30 minutes making dinner, a growing number of Americans are happy to invest plenty of time — and money — cooking up gourmet grub for their domesticated partners.

This is a long way from whipping up the occasional kitty treat or dumping table scraps into the dog’s bowl.

This is about rejecting commercial animal foods and regularly preparing fancy people food for pets. And it’s a trend that has spawned its own industry of cookbooks, consultants, pet food bakeries, Web sites, even a column in a national food magazine.

“(When) your great-grandparents had pets, there was no such thing as feeding them bag food,” said Joan Weiskopf, a Reading, Pa., dog breeder and show handler who swears by a home-cooked diet for her award-winning terrier.

“I try to talk to people and make them understand that dogs were never fed from a bag, and this whole idea of feeding dogs commercial foods (is) something invented by a human being,” she said.

Homemade meals for pets are nothing new; such diets often are prescribed for animals with health conditions. But for many pet owners, this is less about curing disease than about catering to the very pampered whims of beloved pets.

And as the editors of Every Day with Rachael Ray magazine discovered, helping people pamper their pets is popular. The publication — which is otherwise dedicated to cooking for people — runs a monthly cooking for pets column.

“They love it,” editor Silvana Nardone said of readers’ response to the recipes. And she understands the appeal. Bacon and eggs and chicken soup with rice and carrots are favorite meals of Nardone’s Maltese.

“Just like you want to spoil your kids or your husband or your wife, why not spoil your pet?” she said.

Some pet owners, like Lori Perrotti-Johns, believe a home-cooked diet is simply better for their companions. The 46-year-old Concord, N.H., real estate agent began cooking meals for her dogs’ meals years ago while caring for an ill dog.

Her three golden retrievers get a handful of kibble a day to clean their teeth, but otherwise dine on raw bones, organic meat and produce, wild rice, fish, free-range poultry, goat cheese and, in summer, homegrown vegetables. Snacks include nuts, cottage cheese and organic yogurt.

To save time, Perrotti-Johns cooks in batches twice a week, but it still is time-consuming work. It can take hours to roast a whole turkey, pick the meat off the carcass and roast carrots in the juices.

It also gets expensive — she estimates it costs about $100 a week, compared with commercial foods that can sell for $1 a pound.

“A lot of (people) think I’m insane,” she said. “They tell me they want to come back in their next life as one of my dogs.”

But ditching commercial pet food can prompt a maze of choices as confusing and conflicting as selecting your own. The food can be raw, cooked, vegan, vegetarian, meat- or grain-based, or a mix. Vitamin and mineral supplements can be natural or synthetic.

And for dogs, breed, size, age, sex, weight, health, lifestyle, even whether the animal has be spayed or neutered are factors that must be considered when designing a home-cooked diet.

It’s enough to drive a person barking mad. Worse, a poorly planned diet can do serious harm.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the concept of feeding a homemade diet. My biggest problem is most people do it wrong,” said Dr. Joseph Wakshlag, a Cornell University veterinarian.

“Very few people are making something complete,” he said. “They’re making something that’s highly digestible and (that) they enjoy.”

Part of the problem is a lack of uniformity and understanding of pet food standards. Several organizations — some private, some government — oversee animal food, and because nutritional regulations are voluntary, the rules can vary from state to state.

As a result, too many people rely on television, pet shop clerks, books, the Internet and infrequent visits to their veterinarian for helping creating a balanced diet, said Rebecca Remillard, a veterinary nutritionist at Tufts University’s Angel Animal Medical Center in Boston.

Though dogs by nature are omnivorous scavengers, duplicating the nutritional profile of commercial foods is complicated, she said. And an incomplete diet can take a tough toll on dogs and cats because their daily requirements are stricter than humans.

“It’s a terrible situation and unfortunately people are making their dietary decisions based on misinformation,” she said.

But breeder Jacque McHenry, believes providing her dogs with a diet of raw quartered chickens, whole rabbits (with the fur on), and goats allows her animals to eat what nature intended them to.