Sustainable Pets?

We have two house cats and one dog. Some of you may have already met Magpie our dog, but the cats have yet to make an appearance – mainly because they have never been to the farm.

Magpie likes rocks, climbing, digging, swimming, hunting, barking and jumping

Magpie likes rocks, climbing, digging, swimming, hunting, barking and jumping

 

Siena is the sun worshipper

Siena is the sun worshipper

 

Harlie prefers the shade

Harlie prefers the shade

Both are about 7 years old now and extremely spoiled. I adopted them from a rescue shelter when they were kittens. Although the cats are my “babies” and I could go on and on about how cute and funny they are, that is not really the subject of this post.

As we hone our sustainability skills and think about the things we regularly purchase now that we may not be able to afford later when we are full-time farmers or that don’t really play into the new “closed-loop” lifestyle we are moving towards, purchased pet food was high on the list. I’ve always fed all of my pets high-end food which is, of course, expensive, making it a good candidate for reassessment.

We discussed the “by-products” of the planned pig and poultry operations and M said we could feed the pets from that. An occasional deer would help too.  At first I balked. I thought it was probably fine for the dog, but the cats??? I just couldn’t see it going over very well. In the spirit of being efficient and thrifty I agreed to try and keep an open mind but between you and me – I was skeptical.

Around this same time we were starting to research growing all of our own grains and vegetables to feed our future livestock. I currently purchase locally grown organic feed for our small flock of backyard chickens at home. I sell our surplus eggs to a few friends and always go on and on about how well my girls are treated and fed – only whole grains, kitchen scraps and lots of delicious forages are provided – no nasty chemical/gmo-laden over-processed food goes into those eggs. No siree!

That’s when it hit me. All of these years thinking I was feeding my pets the very best food to suddenly realize I had been feeding them really expensive over-processed crap! I started to read up on it. I never thought about it before but when I read that the pet food industry was born from a need to do something with the waste products from the human food industry, I knew things had to change sooner rather than later.

It turns out the worst thing you can feed your pets is dry food – especially cats.  The ancestral diet of muscle, bone and organs was 70% water whereas dry, processed food contains at most 10%. I also read that cats mouths are not designed for drinking water efficiently. In the wild they derive most of their water needs from their prey.

As with anything – the internet is full of info on the raw food diet. I started out with feeding raw meaty bones (NEVER feed an animal cooked bones). Magpie loved the new diet and happily crunched meaty bones at every meal. The cats – well, Harlie would have nothing to do with it. She would just look at me as if saying “Seriously? You’ve GOT to be kidding yourself if you think I’m going to consider THAT THING my dinner”. Siena was totally into it but she wanted to drag her raw chicken wing off to a more private place. More often than not that private place would be my closet or my bathroom. It was pretty easy to get Magpie to stay on a mat at her feed bowl, but the cats – well they just don’t operate that way.

I started chopping the meaty bones into smaller bits with a meat cleaver for the cats. That was a complete pain to do twice a day, plus chickens bits were flying all over the kitchen. There’s also the issue of me being prone to accidents around sharp objects (and I have the scars to prove it!). Magpie was pretty easy because I just had to toss her a few bone-in meaty parts. The hard part was remembering to take it out of the freezer before I went to bed and that didn’t always happen. Needless to say meal times were taking up a lot of time.

I continued my research and checked out a few books from the library. One of them hit the sweet spot for me – Dr. Becker’s Real Food For Healthy Dogs & Cats. It is easy to understand, the recipes aren’t too complicated and it deals with both cats and dogs. I ended up buying my own copy.  Dr. Becker’s recipes call for grinding the meat and bone. You can also purchase bone meal to add to ground meat if grinding bones doesn’t work for you but we happen to have a pretty decent meat grinder that can handle it. This sounded like an easier way to manage feeding the cats and the dog without a lot of fuss two times a day.

The dog diet is 75% meat, organs and bone with 25% veggies and fruit. For cats it is 88% meat, organs and bone with 12% veggies. I make large quantities  of the raw meat mix and the raw veg mix every couple of weeks or so. I can use the same recipes for both the dog and the cats – I just vary the percentage of meat mix to veg mix when I serve their meals. I freeze the meat and veg mixes in quart-sized containers to make varying the percentages easier and just add things like raw eggs or sardines (to provide them with omega-3 fatty acids) at meal time. I also occasionally add cottage cheese or yogurt and I sprinkle nutritional yeast over the top every other day.

The meat mix includes meaty bone-in parts from various animal as well as kidneys, hearts, gizzards, liver, etc… and I make a vegetable puree with raw vegetables (except for sweet potatoes and squash – I steam those first to make them more digestible) and fruit. The book has a lot of detail about the amounts, types, substitutions, etc… – it is crucial to provide a balanced diet. Just tossing them chicken backs or feeding plain ground meat is not the idea here. You are trying to recreate all of the nutrients they would obtain from a natural prey diet. Adding the fruit and veg provides them with nutrients they would have derived from eating the stomach contents of their prey.

Apple Ball – one of Magpie’s favorite games! She thinks it’s super duper when you can play with your food.

There are lots of recipes for both the meat and veg mixes to mix things up which helps while I still have to shop for organic meaty bits and vegetables. Luckily my local grocer sells organic organ meats, plus we always get the extra offal from our pastured pork provider’s other customers that don’t partake of the “nasty bits”. The last time we took home three hog heads, which in addition to providing us with six delightfully delicious pork cheeks, M yielded at least 16 lbs of extra meat for the dog and cats. Magpie spent several days gnawing at what was left of one of the heads. I composted the other two because I couldn’t bear to stumble upon a bloody hog skull in the yard any longer.

magpies hogshead

It took Harlie a couple of weeks to switch over to the new diet but I just mixed in her normal canned food and just tapered it off over time. Now she wolfs down her raw food with glee. Magpie & Siena both liked it from the start. In addition to the animals liking it and me having found an easier way to manage it, there have been several other even more important benefits to feeding them a raw diet.

Both Harlie and Siena were a little plump despite my efforts to cut back their serving sizes on the store-bought food and purchasing lower fat versions. Harlie also threw up a lot (not counting hairballs). The vet said some cats just have sensitive stomachs – it was nothing to worry about. They were both a bit lazy too – I figured it was because they were house cats and their age. In less than a month of eating the raw food diet both cats dropped down to a healthier weight and had way more energy. They became playful again and much more social. There is lots of running through the halls and new found interest in their toys. Unfortunately there is also a keen interest in anything we eat. I’m not sure if that is attributable to their taste buds “waking up” from the new diet or if they’ve been closely observing the dog getting leftovers after our meal times.

When I first started feeding Magpie raw meaty bones the plaque that had started to build up on her teeth was completely gone in a week – she had the whitest teeth imaginable. When I switched over to the ground meat and bones recipes I noticed her teeth starting to color up again, so now I give her meaty bones (chicken or turkey drumsticks or backs, lamb necks, etc… every other day to keep her smile brilliant – and Magpie does have a brilliant smile!

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About La Femme Farmer

Starting up a small farm is the goal for the second half of my life. It's a late start I know, but better late than NEVER! Growing food, cooking and eating are my passions and now I get to do it full-time (and then some). and yes, that's a tomato from my garden!
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8 Responses to Sustainable Pets?

  1. BeeHappee says:

    Seems like they are eating better than me. :)You could also send your cats here to catch some of the field mice we had been battling with.

  2. Bill says:

    Last fall our dog Ginny was near death from some kind of stomach problem (likely cancer). Nothing else having worked, the vet suggested exploratory surgery. We knew that at her age that would likely kill her.

    So Cherie ceased the vet care and converted Ginny to a diet of whole chem-free food from our farm (she had previously been getting expensive “dog food”). She ate sweet potatoes, peas, and whatever else we were eating (pureed), as well as deer liver and occasional chicken broth. It completely restored her health and she got 8 more healthy happy months. She might still be alive today if she had been on this diet earlier. We have farmer friends who feed their dogs a diet of entirely raw foods and the dogs are pictures of health.

    • It is nothing short of miraculous – the immediate change when fed their “natural” diet, isn’t it? However I am afraid not many pets will enjoy the benefits from this as it takes time – not as easy as opening the bag…

  3. We have a freezer devoted to dog and cat food ingredients (raw meat and veggies). Well worth it for sure. Maybe some of those pesky deer can “donate” to the cause 😉 Right now the dogs are gorging on blackberries and apples, and waiting for the kiwis to ripen. Same as the coyotes, I wonder sometimes about the advice that canids only eat vegetation in stomach contents, because our dogs have always loved any kind of fruit around here including grapes, and lived a long time.

    • My experience with dogs is they will eat all kinds of fruit and certain vegetables of their own accord, but maybe not so much stuff like kale, spinach, etc…. I didn’t mean to imply that eating the stomach contents was the only way they got their fruit and veg nutrients. The book suggests certain combos and proportions of fruit and veg to meet specific nutrient needs. Their big thing is the balanced diet. Most people aren’t going to be able to provide a complete animal for their pets – including all of the parts – not just livers or hearts.
      I’m surprised about the grapes – we have grape vine that wraps around our deck and Magpie tries to eat them all of the time. I live in fear she’ll get sick. Is that an old wives tale?
      Thanks so much for visiting MOH!

  4. I didn’t mean you when I said (wrote) that, it’s just that by observing coyote scat for years, and watching them encroach on the orchard and the dogs territory you see what the books and the experts say isn’t exactly true. I wonder about the grape thing too, I grew up watching our dogs eat grapes and it wasn’t until I was an adult did I hear that grapes are poisonous to dogs. You might be surprised about the kale, our dogs won’t help themselves to kale since they know better, but they love all the cruciferous vegetables, especially rutabagas and specifically Gilfeather turnip that is actually a rutabaga. I have to protect those from the dogs in the winter. Glad you’re finding time to post! I like reading PNW blogs.

  5. No offense taken! I appreciate the feedback. The main reason I wrote the post was to help others thinking about a raw food diet – not that this is a tutorial, but to get them to think about the balanced diet aspect. It took me a few months of poking around and sifting through stuff on the internet to come up with something that made sense to me and was doable. Just trying to prevent the “toss your dog some chicken backs (or feed store-bought ground meat to your cat) and call that dinner” being confused with a balanced raw food diet. I was confused in the beginning myself.
    That is very funny about the turnip/rutabaga! And that they would eat it from the garden if they can get away with it. Magpie grabs all of the fallen apples and picks huckleberries and salal berries right off of the bushes. She also loves to pick the berries on the hardy fuschias!

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