Choosing a Commercial Raw Pet Food

Top quality protein is essential to a top quality raw pet food.

Over the past few years, commercial raw pet food has become so popular that some ‘shady’ companies have popped up on the market. They use crappy, cheap ingredients, held together with crappy, cheap binders. They then slap the label “Raw Holistic” on it, and charge a premium price. They’re the raw food equivalent of Old Roy, with better packaging and marketing.

Also, the term Holistic makes me suspicious, because:

a) there’re absolutely no regulation as to what this word has to mean, when applied to food
b) there’s almost never a good reason for it to be used to describe a food, other than as a market buzz term

Instead of getting caught up in what terms food manufacturers use to describe their food, I prefer to get down to brass tacks, and ask some clear questions that I believe let me decide if a food is really quality, or just masquerading as such.

I’ve created what I consider to be my own ‘wish list’ when it comes to shopping for a commercial raw food.

Things I would personally look for:

Is the company using HUMAN grade ingredients, specifically grade “a” certified meat, poultry and fish? If not, then you’re not getting top quality protein, but you’re probably paying top price.

Are they doing in house testing for Salmonella and e coli? The only answer I want to hear to that question is “yes, on every batch”.

Do they outsource, or is all their food prepared in house? Outsourcing is when you have another company make the food for you, at their plant, and then slap your label on it. Think “Menu Foods”.

Are all of their ingredients domestically sourced, if possible? ie; is all of their meat/fish/game/poultry from the USA or Canada? You can’t expect their papayas to be from here, but for most ingredients the answer should be ‘yes’.

An added bonus – do they use as much local and/or organic produce and ingredients as possible? Not necessary, but it’s a sign that the company is putting some thought into what they’re making, and how sustainable it is.

I believe that you almost always get what you pay for, and that this is doubly true for raw pet food. If one food is 50% cheaper than almost everything else on the market, I’d be asking “Why?”, instead of just rushing to buy it. A bargain is good – but a bargain that seems too good to be true, usually is.

Meatloaf Kills

I occasionally get the urge for a plate of really, really good meatloaf. More specifically, I get the craving for a leftover meatloaf sandwich. Is there any finer second day meal on earth than meatloaf? The overnight stay in the fridge lets all the flavors melt together into one tasty, meaty melange.

Here’s the recipe I used (BTW, I have no idea if this is actually Gordon Ramsey’s meatloaf recipe, as I found it not on his official site, but on a Blog called – I kid you not – I Love Meatloaf):

Gordon Ramsey’s Meatloaf

50g butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 celery stalks, finely sliced
1 green pepper, finely chopped
4 spring onions, sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp chilli sauce
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 bay leaves
125ml evaporated milk
125ml tomato ketchup
750g minced beef
250g minced pork or sausage meat
2 free-range eggs, lightly beaten
250g breadcrumbs
Freshly ground salt and pepper

1 Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the onion, celery, pepper, spring onions, garlic, parsley, chilli sauce, Worcestershire sauce and bay leaves. Cook over a gentle heat, stirring occasionally, for about 6 minutes.

2 Add the evaporated milk and ketchup and continue to cook for a further 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Discard the bay leaves.

3 Preheat the oven to 180C (About 360 F)

4 Place the beef and pork in a large bowl, add the eggs, breadcrumbs and vegetable mixture, and season. Place the mixture in an ungreased roasting dish and bake for 25 minutes. Raise the temperature to 200C/400 F and bake for a further 35-40 minutes.

5 Serve from the roasting dish.

Absolutely delish, if I do say so myself.

Unfortunately, I then had to take the bowl I’d mixed the meatloaf up in and figure out how to dispose of it. It’s stainless steel, so I wasn’t sure if it could go in the recycling bin, and even if it could, was it fair to expose all those hardworking sanitation workers to the possible risk of contamination from a bowl that had contained raw meat? I think not.

I finally hauled it to a friend’s smelter, where we melted it down. I then came home and cleaned all of my counter surfaces with a blowtorch.

What? Overkill? Not according to some veterinarians, who say that one of the risks of feeding your pets raw is that you can never really get the dishes clean that you use to prepare raw meat.

Better safe than sorry, I always say. Next time I make meatloaf, I’ll probably just burn the kitchen down afterwards – because you just never know with raw meat.

Honest Kitchen Dog Food Assesment

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, I picked up some samples of Honest Kitchen dog food to try out on Ellie. I picked up a trial sized packet of each of the foods made by Honest Kitchen – Force, Embark, Preference and Thrive. The samples were kindly provided by the Canadian distributor of Honest Kitchen, Companion Dog Xpress, located right here in Durham, Ontario.

I decided to start with Thrive, their diet for dogs with sensitive stomachs. From the Honest Kitchen website:

Thrive is our gluten-free, low carbohydrate dog food. This diet was designed to cater to dogs of all life stages including adults, puppies, pregnancy and nursing. Thrive is ideal for sensitive dogs who need gluten-free dog food but with a little grain, to help maintain a healthy body weight.

My initial impression on opening the package was that it smelled strongly, but not unpleasantly, of kelp. The color reflected this – in appearance, Thrive looks something like finely ground grass clippings. This makes sense, when you realize that the fourth through seventh ingredients of Thrive are Spinach, Parsley, Organic Kelp, and Rosemary.

I followed the feeding recommendations, and mixed a cup of dry food with a cup and a half of lukewarm water. Roughly ten minutes later, the food was the consistency of thick soup. In hindsight, I think that the water to food ratio I followed was too high, especially when preparing it for a dog who has difficulty with differently textured foods.

EllieEllie took one look at the bowl of Thrive, and turned her back on it. After a few minutes, she deigned to sniff it warily, and lap up a few mouthfuls. The mournful expression she turned on me clearly said “Have you lost your mind? I’m not eating this.” And, sure enough, two mouthfuls were as much as she ate, and this in a dog who usually clamors for her food. Honest Kitchen will not be Ellie’s new food of choice, so we’re back to soaked kibble for now.

I split the bowl of Thrive into two portions, and fed it to Paris and Tula. They both inhaled it in less than a minute, and knocked the bowls around in an attempt to clean out every last particle of food. Apparently some dogs really like Thrive – but bear in mind that Tula and Paris are the most food motivated dogs I own, and would happily wood chips if given the opportunity.

The finely ground texture of Honest Kitchen’s food made me consider how suitable it might be for a weaning food.

I usually follow the same protocol when weaning our puppies: start them on rice pablum mixed with formula; move up to ground kibble mixed into the pablum; add raw at an increasing rate until the pups are eating raw only.

I then feed the pups soaked kibble one meal per day, in an effort to ensure that any new owners who choose not to feed raw aren’t faced with overly fussy eaters. The whole process takes about two weeks.

The problem with ground kibble is that I’ve had pups who cough or choke on it. The texture is grainy, and doesn’t agree with a lot of puppies. Honest Kitchen is so finely ground that I decided to give it a try on Solo this morning. He’s been eating pablum mixed with formula for about a week now, and I had been planning to introduce ground kibble to his diet this weekend. I decided to try mixing in some Embark, instead.

The appearance of Embark was similar to that of Thrive, as was the smell, but it’s darker in color and smells less strongly of kelp. The ingredients in Embark are —

Hormone-free USDA turkey, organic flaxseed, potatoes, celery, spinach, carrots, coconut, apples, organic kelp, eggs, sesame seeds, bananas, cranberries and rosemary.

Solo eating pablum and EmbarkI mixed a teaspoon of Embark in with the tablespoon of pablum, added warm formula, and left the mixture to sit while I fed Solo his bottle. After about fifteen minutes, the mixture was slightly thicker than pablum on its own. It had tiny flecks of green, orange and brown in it, and a pleasant smell.

Solo seemed really enthused about trying it, and lapped up the entire dish, even licking it clean afterwards. It’s been a few hours since he ate, and there’s no sign of any stomach upsets or diahrrea.

I’ll keep feeding him the Embark this weekend, and if there are still no stomach upsets, I think I will officially consider it my second stage weaning food, replacing ground kibble. I like that it’s a raw food, that it’s not extruded (or even baked), and that it’s made with organic, hormone free meats.

It’s always nice to find a new food I feel comfortable feeding, and that the dogs seem to enjoy – even if I still can’t get Ellie to eat it.

Zealotry in the Dog Food Wars

There are a few topics well known as not suitable for discussion in polite company. Death and taxes, of course – and on pet mailing lists, the topic of raw versus commercial food.

One of my French Bulldog mailing lists just experienced the sort of name calling and hysterics that a discussion on dog food almost inevitably provokes. Luckily, this is a civil and good natured list, and it all blew over rather quickly. I’ve seen such discussions turn into blazing flame wars in the past, complete with accusations of unfit pet parentage from those on both sides of the divide.

For, and make no mistake, there is a divide there, and it’s growing. It’s the divide between those who feed raw, and those who feed commercial, and there is no shortage of zealots on either side.

Commercial feeders scream at raw feeders about being irresponsible flakes who don’t care if their dogs turn into veritable walking petri dishes of bacterial infection. Raw feeders consider those who feed commercial to be ‘lazy pet owners who’d rather buy a sack of kibble than save their dog’s life’ (that’s a quote, from a particularly nasty exchange on a Molosser list I belong to). This kind of vitriol, this refusal to find a common middle ground, exists even within each half of the divide.

Raw feeders can at times come across as members of some sort of strange, dog food obsessed cult. I once joined a raw food mailing list, only to be chastised harshly by the list admin for mentioning that I grind my on the bone meat sources before I feed them. Didn’t I know that grinding ruins the whole point of feeding raw?

At times, an attitude of pervasive one oneupmanship seems to become apparent.

Mrs. W proclaims that she only buys organic meat to add to the pricey raw food mix she uses.

“You use a mix?” spits Mr. X condescendingly. “I grind all of my own meat and vegetables, and supplement with eggs from my own chickens”.

“You grind?” sneers Ms. Y. “What are you, stupid? Everyone knows you shouldn’t grind your meat. I feed my chicken pieces whole, with vegetable patties I make with the vegetables I buy at the whole food organic co op.”

Mrs. Z then loftily wonders aloud “Why anyone is still feeding just pieces, or bothering with vegetables”. Her dogs are on the wolf model diet, and get entire cow heads, ungutted chickens and deer haunches (skin on, of course). “If they need greens, they eat grasses or bark. Actually, I’ve been thinking of just fencing off the back twenty acres, and letting them forage for at least half of their food”, she muses.

Commercial feeders aren’t immune from this sort of conceit.

The person who still feeds Ol’ Roy from Walmart gets soundly lectured by those who feed Pro Plan.

Those who feed Eagle Pack and Wellness point out that Pro Plan is the equivalent of letting your dog eat Doritos for dinner every night.

Orijen and Honest Kitchen feeders sniff that they’d never let their dogs eat the kind of crap that’s in Wellness.

This, of course, is when the raw feeders mention how anyone feeding any commercial dog food might just as well give their dogs an intravenous drip of corn syrup and be done with it, and the whole thing starts all over again.

Personally, I feed raw, and have done so for years, but I feed raw with some caveats and with an acknowledgment that raw is neither a cure all nor without its risks. Years ago, when raw feeding was still in its infancy, I lost a puppy due to improperly prepared meat. After publishing my experience, I was quite thoroughly vilified by some of the best known names in the world of raw feeding, in main part for simply having the temerity to point out that precautions need to be taken when feeding our dogs raw meat. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth for the kind of fervent zealotry that some people practice, and a determination to find a balancing point I can live with.

I still feed raw, but a handful of my dogs are on a decent quality kibble. The tainted pet food scandal of last year made me, now more than ever, cognizant of the need to read labels and investigate the company making the food my pets eat. It hasn’t, however, made me assume that anyone who chooses not to feed raw is irresponsible, nor has it made me smug in my own sense of superiority. After all, I know first hand that the best intentions aren’t always enough to keep our pets safe.

Then again, neither is lecturing and haranguing anyone who doesn’t do things exactly our way.

(BTW, Christie Keith on the Dogged Blog wrote a great entry on the Raw Diet Debate)