Tightrope Walking Without a Net
When we first adopted Toby, the vet talked to us about his nutritional needs. He ended up recommended a sort of mid-priced food, since it would have quality protein without breaking the bank. Since Toby was young, healthy, and the right weight, he didn't need any overly fancy or supplemented food.
That system worked great until the vet stopped carrying the food. So we upgraded top the next cheapest brand, a more nutritionally fancy food that was three times the cost. Plus, Toby hated the stuff. He ate it reluctantly for awhile and then he just refused to eat it altogether. A healthy dog will eat what it's given eventually, so we'd put down the food and then take it away after 10 or 15 minutes. We did this for a couple of days and although Toby still was in no danger of starving, the exercise was starting to feel a bit cruel.
So we headed to the grocery stores in Macroom and started reading the labels on the dog food. We managed to find one - Baker's Meaty Meals - that had 'animal protein and derivatives' as the first ingredient. Toby loved the stuff and so everything was good. Except that the cost of the food kept creeping up and we could only buy it in 3-kilo bags.
Peter came back from a trip to California last month and was telling me about a visit to one of his sister's friends, who have a very sweet Newfoundland. (How could you not ove a Newfie - they're gigantic furry teddy bears?) Peter said that he remarked to the woman about how nice and shiny the Newfie's coat was and she told him that it was because they fed the dog a raw diet.
This got us talking a bit about the merits and drawbacks of a raw diet. I asked the Internet to tell me all about it. I also emailed Laurie, who wrote up a great series on her blog about her foray into raw feeding. There's a lot of advice and opinions out there and it seems like the whole exercise can be as expensive and complicated or cheap and simple as you make it. But the basic premise boils down to feeding your dog the sorts of food he would eat if he was a wild wolf or coyote: raw, meaty bones; organ meat; and mashed up vegetables. (The idea behind the veggies is that they'd be in the stomachs of prey animals and dogs can't break down cellulose, hence the mashing.)
So yesterday, we started feeding Toby a raw diet. I bought some inexpensive chicken thighs from the Lidl and managed to score a 2-kilo chicken for 7 euro from our butcher, who was also nice enough to give me a couple of chicken carcasses. Because Toby's gnawed on cow femurs and great big joint bones before (obtained from the same butcher - it's not like he was doing this out in a farmer's field on an unwilling subject), we knew that his teeth could handle the bones and the he knew what to do with them. (Laurie's dog Bosco was a bit puzzled by whole chicken wings.)
At home, I divided up the chicken into a week's worth of meals, put each meal into a zip-lock freezer bag, and labeled it with the day and meal time (AM or PM). Then I bundled everything into the fridge, wiped down the work area, and washed my knife and cutting board (even pouring boiling water over them to be sure to be sure - MB got salmonella once and it's not an experience I want to have).
The whole thing took about 20 minutes. Cost wise, it worked out to be about twice as much as kibble, but I think my using more scraps, we can reduce that. (Plus, I think I overshot on portion size this time around. We're going to have to get a weight on him so I can do better calculations.)
The fun part of raw feeding is watching your dog be a dog. It's sort of awesome to watch him crunch bones and devour a whole chicken carcass. (In fact, if you do a search on YouTube for 'raw diet dogs', you will find loads of videos of people's dogs eating things like whole rabbits, whole chickens, and whole fish.) It's also fun to watch your dog handle something new. We gave Toby an egg, just to see what he'd make of it. He licked it for ages and then tried biting it, but it would roll out of his mouth. It took him a good long while to figure out how to brace the egg to get his teeth into it.
But there's also an unsettling part of feeding raw. I feel like I'm tightrope walking without a net. The bag of kibble is so much easier and requires no thought. You just scoop out the right portion and you're done.
Of course, anyone who's researched dog food at all knows that the number one ingredient in most mass-produced dog food is grains, which dogs aren't evolutionarily designed for at all. But there's some sort of security in packaging - like the thinking and tinkering has already been done and you can trust that the food provides the right nutritional balance.
All of the raw food web sites stress that the important thing is to achieve balance over time. When you think about it, it's how we eat. Does each one of your meals have exactly the right proportion of grains, dairy, protein, and veggies/fruit? Of course not, unless you're on some strictly regimented diet like Jenny Craig or something.
So, balance over time, while I'm tightrope walking without a net....that's the goal. (That and a shiny coat.)