Every couple of months, Erin and Dave Smith can be found at Sin Lee Food Corporation, a wholesale market in City Heights, filling up a cart with vegetables, eggs, and meat. On a recent Sunday morning, they were efficiently gathering carrots and eggplants, sweet potatoes and broccoli, big bunches of leafy bok choy, and ginormous king oyster mushrooms.
They eyed amounts, compared notes on what each had bagged, then moved on to the meat and poultry aisle.
There they grabbed three dozen eggs, packages of pork cushion (a boneless piece cut from the picnic shoulder), beef peeled knuckle, tripe, pork livers, hearts, and spleen. They found chicken livers and gizzards and added them to the cart. Oh, and they picked up a big bag of Red Cargo rice before checking out. The total came to about $142, including Dave’s can of coconut water.
The shopping was for their two corgis, Ricky and Tanuki. And their Sunday would mostly be dedicated to turning that cart full of food into meals that would last for close to two months.
According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans are estimated to spend $29.69 billion this year on food for their pets. That could mean your basic kibble or it could extend to organic dehydrated human-quality food.
As pet owners have become more aware of what goes into their own food— eschewing processed products for more healthful, seasonal, and organic ingredients—they’ve also been eyeing the labels on their pets’ food—and are not necessarily sanguine about what they read. Pet food recalls haven’t helped. Plus, some owners are addressing specific health issues their pets have with dietary changes. Others are augmenting high-quality foods with home-cooked meals or treats. Still others, at the urging of their pets’ breeders, feed their pets raw food diets.
Annemarie Keating has been making crock pot meals for Betty, her 11-year-old Australian Shepherd mix, who has suffered from seizures since she was 4 years old.
“I tried many approaches,” said Keating. “I finally went to a holistic vet, who suggested homemade food, along with some other supplements. Her food is 10 percent root vegetables, 40 percent greens, and 50 percent beef, pork, turkey, or white fish. I cook the ingredients for five hours on low, mash it up, then add minerals like calcium.” Keating said that for three years, Betty was seizure free, but is suffering from them again.
Nicole Larson takes another approach. She simply buys extra of whatever she and her husband are eating and feeds that to her cats, along with their cat food. It could be fish or seafood or pork or turkey.
The big challenge in all this is determining how closely these home-cooked foods adhere to basic nutritional requirements, requirements that change as puppies or kittens mature, perhaps have litters and lactate, how much they exercise, suffer from health issues, and, eventually, age. The Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, establishes nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods that pet food companies adhere to. But these standards aren’t easily available for pet owners, change over the years based on new research, and are not easy to follow even if you can figure out how to access them.
Lucy Postins, founder, owner, and Chief Integrity Officer of San Diego-based The Honest Kitchen, explained that the AAFCO standards have guidance on everything from how much fat and protein to include to nutrient profiles—all for every stage of a pet’s life.
“Our biggest challenge is getting recipes to meet AAFCO requirements,” she said. “It’s very difficult to do that across an entire recipe. It’s a $2,500 minimum undertaking to get a recipe evaluated, so you can imagine that it’s a big challenge for pet owners.”
Erin Smith is a geneticist at UCSD and an avid cook who uses science to coax the best flavors out of food, including caramels that she used to sell locally. She has managed to find older standards and five years ago developed a complex Excel spreadsheet to work the numbers. Based on that, she said she’s pretty comfortable with the ratios she’s come up with to feed Ricky and Tanuki.
“I think it started from pride and wanting the best for our little guy, Tanuki,” she explained. “We figured out a meat, vegetable, and rice combination that met AAFCO standards. He loved it and he looked great. It was also cheaper than what we would pay if we got higher-end dog food. In the end, it’s what makes them happy that matters.”
But not all home cooks can or do go to the trouble the Smiths do to research nutritional guidelines. Veterinarian Julie Sorenson has found her University City veterinary clinic often dealing with the fallout from inadequate diets. Some pets come in with health issues that can be traced back to poor nutrition.
“Most of the problems we see are from people who strictly feed their pets home-cooked meals that are just one food—a diet that’s all chicken or all beef and doesn’t include the rest of the nutrients their pets need,” she said.
Sorenson said that the key to a healthful diet for pets is diversity. She’d rather see chicken, beef, carrots, or strawberries as part of a diet that also includes commercially prepared pet food that adheres to AAFCO standards.
It’s admittedly easier to do this for dogs than cats, who are, as Postins notes, “more challenging customers than dogs, more creatures of habit.” But she’s a huge advocate of adding healthy whole foods—blueberries, salmon, chicken, apples—to a dog’s diet. Homemade extras are a critical part of incorporating some variety into a balanced diet—as long as they’re healthy and avoid toxic foods like onions, grapes, chocolate, and macadamia nuts.
That includes treats. Tasha Ardalan, owner of Foxy Treats, said that on hot days frozen blueberries are a perfect dog treat—antioxidant rich and refreshing.
“Sardines packed in spring water can be used at meal time or given as a treat, as can raw quail eggs,” she said. Her dog Foxy’s favorite treat was Ardalan’s gently baked Pumpkin Pie Training Treats and tangerines.
“Since she was a tiny puppy, she would go absolutely nuts for tangerines, even the pithy membranes.”
That means even novice cooks or busy pet owners don’t have to go to extremes to show that food is love. Sure, you can bake them doggie cookies or meatloaf but your pup will be just as happy if you share an apple, fresh green beans, or a chopped carrot.