Our Journey Begins: Ditching Dog Food

For years now I have wanted to get away from kibble in my dogs’ diets.  It is unnatural, laden with chemicals and filled with things we wouldn’t necessarily choose to feed ourselves.  I have a six year old German Shepherd who, after having mandatory vaccines to be boarded one year, has suffered off and on with skin conditions and nervous issues.  He is sensitive to foods and has never seemed to regain full health after his ordeal.  It is mainly for him that we are finally jumping into feeding dogs naturally, with no kibble.

The thing that has held me back from making this move is the many conflicting recommendations on how best to feed dogs homemade food.  On one end of the spectrum you have the raw camp saying that dogs must only eat raw meats, bones and offal and nothing else.  On the other end is a personal hero, Paul Gautschi of Back to Eden fame, who is feeding his dogs only fruits, vegetables and eggs all grown on his property.  His dogs are sleek, healthy and vibrant, a sure testament to the fact that dogs do not need meat to thrive.  With so many opinions, it’s easy to get caught up in indecision.

If you think about the history of dogs and the fact that they have been vital companions to people all across the world for most of our known history, it is not unreasonable to conclude that dogs are actually highly adaptable and can do well on most diets that a human can do well on.  It is really only since kibble became the norm that unhealthy dogs have also become the norm.  Ma and Pa on the prairie didn’t have to take their dog to the vet for diabetes treatments, that’s for sure.

Another thing that has struck me is the diet of the livestock guardian dog in its traditional environment, out on pasture with its stock, sometimes unseen by humans for long periods.  How does such a dog survive without auto feeders and regular shipments from Chewy.com?  Our own LGDs supplement their food with hunting, cleaning up the pastures of gophers and mice, so it stands to reason that, given enough space, they could even survive on their own through summer months, hunting and foraging for berries and wild fruits.  I’m not planning to test that out, but it displays another facet of the vast variation between dogs, feeds and regions.

Over the years, I’ve studied various methods and read accounts from old timers and government sources alike.  Most diets contain a fair amount of grains and/or starches, along with meat, vegetables, fruit, milk and eggs – exactly the diet of their human companions.

One article, The Diet of the Dog, at the National Institute for Health from 1941 reaffirms this logic:

This article goes on to state that the ideal ratio of protein to carbohydrates + fat should be between 1:2 and 1:4, which gives us a great starting point to work from.  Another takeaway is the safety of a high inclusion of milk, specifically 3 ounces per 2 pounds of body weight, roughly.  Anecdotally, I’ve heard of a woman who feeds her LGDs only clabbered milk; they hunt for the rest.  The Diet of the Dog also mentions that sour (clabbered) milk is better digested.

One of the diets mentioned in that article is a combination of yellow corn, wheat middlings, peanut meal, bone meal, limestone and sardine oil.  A second diet, one fed by the authors of the article, includes yellow corn, oatmeal, wheat middlings, meat scraps and salt, all cooked, along with a weekly ration of raw horse meat.  This was the diet they used for more than 12 years at the time of the writing, with great success.  None of these are particularly practical for our own situation, but again, it highlights the adaptability of dogs to various foodstuffs.

I’ve joined many Facebook groups about raw feeding and homemade dog food, but nothing really resonated as total common sense to me.

Then, about six years ago, I bought a book called The Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable.  In addition to very inspiring information about raising goats naturally (including allowing them to self medicate with herbs planted in hedgerows, a practice I aim to copy), there was a section about feeding the farm dog.  Somehow I never made it to that chapter until this winter, and boy what a chapter it was!

Juliette de Bairacli Levy was a traveling herbalist and breeder of Afghan hounds.  The wisdom of her books is so common sense, practical and intuitive that it’s hard to imagine how we got so far away from natural raising techniques.  It is from her book that the inspiration for our natural feeding comes.  With a few modifications, it is the method we are trying now.  I hope to keep you updated on our progress, because I think it’s going to be a great way to raise not only our adult dogs, but also our planned litters this spring and in the future.

The Basics

According to her method, adult dogs are given two meals a day, one around noon and one around dinner.  The timing is important, says Levy, with a special note:

“Adult dogs should not be fed before midday because the hours from midnight to midday are strongly eliminative ones.”

Midday meal before mixing.

The early meal consists of rolled grains soaked in milk, water or broth.  My tentative plan is to use barley, a cooling cereal grain, for summer and oats, a warming grain, for winter.  When we have it available, we’ll soak it in fresh goat milk, though eventually we’d like to switch to kefir for probiotics.  Right now we can afford to give the dogs one quart of goat milk per day, which isn’t enough, so we’re using half water and half milk to soak the oats in.

In addition to the cereal grain, vegetables and herbs can be added to this midday meal.  Today’s midday meal was rolled oats in milk with nettles, a bit of turmeric (helps for inflammation, which is a main symptom of the GSD), shredded fresh broccoli and dried summer squash.  The GSD, Winston, didn’t take to it as well as yesterday’s that had no broccoli, but eventually he finished his whole ration as well.  The heeler and two LGDs didn’t hesitate to eat it all.

Midday meal after mixing

We’re in a cold snap so egg production is down, but it is my goal that every dog should get an egg per day, not counting the ones they swipe from outside.  The heeler is almost too good at hunting eggs, so she could probably do without it, but she’s a growing puppy.

Last night we fed meat, the rib section of a lamb we butchered last fall.  This gave the dogs both meat and the bones Levy says are essential for good health.  I noticed most of them were already chewed up today.

Note: Our dogs are not new to raw feeding.  We try to give them meat as much as possible from our own stock and in winter, roadkill deer.  Living on a road has its advantages!  Most of this winter they’ve been eating a whole prey model diet with free choice kibble to fill in the gaps, but this isn’t a feasible long term solution and we’re striving for better balance.

Because Levy suggests only four days of meat a week or less, we are planning to feed meat every other night.  On meat days, the general goal is to feed 3 parts cereal, 2 parts meat and 1 part vegetables.  In addition to this will be oils, herbs and greens, another thing Levy says is essential.

Lots of veggies, hopefully not too much!

Tonight, a meatless night, they are all getting water soaked barley ($4/bag cheaper today at the feed store than oats) with shredded broccoli and carrots, a dollop of bacon grease, a raw egg and a little bit of leftover rice from the kids mixed in.  Another thing Levy says is important is almond powder, saying:

“I now pioneer grated (powdered) almonds for dogs and cats (and children).  This is a most powerful immunizer for all disease, better than vaccination.  Fortifies the immune system.  Learnt from Berber Arabs.  Average amount: a heaped teaspoon most days of the week, sprinkled on food.”

I’m not sure we’re going to be able to afford that much every week, but I’ll try to include it at least a couple of times per week.  I just ground up raw almonds with my mortar and pestle and mixed it into tonight’s meal.

Levy also states that big boned, big stomached farm dogs can often go all meatless, but their slender greyhound type counterparts cannot.  We have none of those around, so while meat will be a priority for us, we want to be able to still feed this model while we build up enough meat supplies.  For periods where there is a shortage, we will follow Levy’s advice for the meatless days and try to increase the protein via milk, cheese, eggs and cereal.  For now, we have plenty of meat in the freezer and it is my goal to ramp up production this year to provide enough for the dogs year round.

As they make sense, I will update on how this method is going.  One thing I feel for sure is that we cannot continue to accept the declining health of our dogs when there is enough evidence to show us they will do just fine on a wide variety of foods, which, as long as they are homemade, are surely to be so much better for the dogs as to compare the feeds, as a friend says, to McDonald’s versus home cooked.

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