Jim Willis Offers Advice on Feeding Our Pets

 |  Mar 31st 2007  |   3 Contributions


Pieces of My Heart1.jpg

Jim Willis, animal rescuer, science writer and author of some of the most moving pet literature including the best seller Pieces of My Heart Writings Inspired By Animals and Nature, was kind enough to bark in his advice on pet feeding.

Maybe we can't all afford to or have the time to go to the lengths that Jim does, but we can all use some of his tips. I feed dry food most of the time (at this point I'm feeding Veterinarians Formula made by Arkat for those who are going to ask) but I dry to add some things like green beans to augment my pack's diet.

Cross-posting permitted.

Roadkill versus Asparagus - On Canine and Feline Homemade Diets
Jim Willis, Copyright 2007

The recent recall of some petfoods, canned and in pouches, by a Canadian manufacturer and reports of the deaths or illness of some pets who were fed tainted food has scared many animal guardians. The current biggest culprit is wheat gluten from China, used to thicken the gravy in such foods. Recently, there have been reports that perhaps even some kibbles (dry food) have been contaminated. There have been other frightening warnings that include insecticides, bacteria and molds that have contaminated petfoods. We can add to that the reports of some petfood manufacturers treatment of animals during feeding trials, and the horrors of the slaughterhouses and rendering plants that produce the raw ingredients that go into many pets diets.

Ive made my own homemade dog food for at least 20 years (mixed with a variety of high-quality kibbles), and have always supplemented my cats diet with various attempts at the same, or at least with some cooked meats and fish on occasion. My background is in biology and animal behavior, I am not a veterinarian or animal nutritionist, but still Ive done my homework and am confident about the choices Ive made. All the usual caveats apply, you should always check with your veterinarian before making a dietary change, each animal is an individual, some breeds are predisposed to certain conditions, and most vets will recommend that you make dietary changes gradually.


That being said, I have my personal opinions and experience, and I hope to dispel some myths and encourage everyone to make an attempt at supplementing their pets diets, because I believe that the benefits of good nutrition translate to better health and longevity for our animals. I believe that some commercial diets are literally poison for our pets. An internet search on the various topics raised below will give you many more resources. Ill start with some frequently asked questions" and give some basic notes on the diets I feed.

Arent petfoods certified in the USA by AAFCO (American Association of Feed Control Officials)?
Yes and no. Some are, some are not, not every State requires that they be, and many consider that AAFCO criteria can be woefully inadequate, including some feeding trials that are only of a few weeks duration, and some nutrient requirements of theirs can be considered only as the bare minimum. In general, the States do a very poor job at regulation regarding compliance. Still, AAFCO certification is a starting point, so check the labeling on your favorite foods, and also look for an expiration date.

The food I buy contains meat and by-products. Whats wrong with that (and whats a by-product)?
By-products are considered anything except meat." That includes spleen, lungs, fetal tissue, cows udders and uterus, esophagus, ears, lips, eyes, brains, and anything most humans wouldnt eat. Some independent rendering plants accept roadkills and the bodies of dogs and cats euthanized by shelters. Out-of-date grocery store meat can also be included (reportedly, sometimes with the original ground-up packaging). Meat consigned for petfood is popularly described as the Four Ds": dead, dying, diseased, disabled. Put it in an attractive package picturing a healthy animal, add gravy and an upscale name, and we human consumers are suckered in, thinking we are feeding our pets the best."

I feed only the highest quality kibble and nothing else ever. Whats wrong with that?
Probably nothing, as long as you are relying on independent trials and not just on manufacturers claims, and counting on independent research such as the annual comparisons of kibbles and canned foods by such sources as The Whole Dog Journal (which does not accept advertising and is well regarded). Still, I have to ask if you would only want to eat nothing but shredded wheat for every meal for the rest of your life? Variety is the spice of life. Animals get bored, too.

Even if you are assured about the quality of the kibble as it is manufactured, remember that all kibbles contain oils that can turn rancid. We also have to be concerned about how the food is transported and stored. (I once stupidly stored kibble in a new, galvanized aluminum trashcan on my porch and after two days in the hot sun, I couldnt stand the smell and my dogs wouldnt eat itso another question is, how long did your dogs kibble sit on a loading dock, or in a hot truck? If you ever open a fresh bag of kibble and it doesnt smell good," take it back to the seller for a refund.)

Read the ingredients label on your kibble. If you see any of the cancer-causing preservatives, BHA, BHT, propylene glycol, or ethoxyquin, find something better, with no artificial flavors or colorings! Those preservatives and others have been identified as potentially causing allergies and hair loss, cancer, kidney disease, pancreatitis, blindness, immunodeficiency and failure to thrive. (There are websites available to help you interpret the ingredients.)

I keep hearing about the benefits of a BARF diet? Should I switch to that?
BARF = Biologically Appropriate Raw Foods, and the diet has many proponents. There are websites and e-lists devoted to the topic. For me, biologically appropriate" means what our carnivores would choose in the wild, and that is not grains and asparagus. The benefit to teeth and gums of raw, meaty bones (one of our biggest worries is the teeth/gum detioration that afflicts so many pets fed commercial diets, including the coronary consequences) is undeniable.

It is a misconception that hard kibble benefits dogs teeth and gums, because if you observe most dogs, they gulp their food whole. If you have one or a couple of dogs and can manage the diet with proper supervision, then investigate it; it was never possible for me, because Ive had many multiple dogs for years and there has been no way to segregate and supervise that many on such a diet.

Still, you will likely need to supplement the diet with anti-oxidant vitamins and other minerals that arent provided otherwise. You will have to weigh the differences between factory-farmed and the much more expensive organically produced meat, and whatever meat you are dealing with, you will have to take all the proper precautions against bacterial contamination.
If you are trying to sort-out a suspected petfood allergy in your pet and help your vet with a differential diagnosis, you may very well have to prepare a homemade diet that your pet has never had, with such exotic" ingredients as sweet potato and duck.

Dogs and cats can live on a vegetarian diet, cant they?
It depends on whom you ask and even some veterinarians have written books that promote such diets. I tend to side with the dogs and cats, and as in the above, biologically appropriate" means what the carnivore would choose in the wild, without thought to our objections of how meat is produced in our human world (and despite your best" cooking efforts, they might choose a day-old dead rabbit on the road). Yes, there are vegetables and legumes that are good sources of protein, but with a vegetarian diet, you will need to supplement such as vitamin B12, carnitine and taurine, because their deficiencies will create other serious health issues.

Tablescraps are always a no-no arent they?
A) it depends on what you eat. If its a balanced diet that approximates the food pyramid," whats good for you is likely good as a supplemental diet for your dog. If you live on jelly donuts and bacon, no.
B) does your dog (or cat) have a waist? Obesity among American pets is as endemic as it is among humans. If you have an obese pet, consult your veterinarian as it is likely the result of a combination of the wrong food, too much food, and lack of exercise. Your vet may recommend replacing part of the dogs food portion with green beans, or something that adds fiber and contributes to a feeling of fullness," without promoting weight-gain.

My basic canine diet recipe:

This diet was developed over the years for dogs, some versions of it worked for cats, and Ive never fed it exclusively and always mixed it with a high-quality kibble, except for the sick or elderly (sometimes toothless) who got the pure homemade diet, or if I was trying to put weight on a previously neglected animal (and I also recommend the Satin Balls" recipe which is easily found on the internet for underweight dogs).

- The basic recipe starts with cooked rice. Brown rice is much more nutritional than white, but more expensive; if you are feeding a small number and can afford it, use brown rice.
- The most important component for a carnivore is protein, therefore meat. I alternate the kind of meat with each batch and take advantage of grocery store sales. That includes lean ground beef, pork, chicken, turkey, chicken livers, beef liver, canned mackerel, and sometimes eggs.
- Vegetables, especially green vegetables because of their anti-oxidant vitamins. Frozen or fresh is best green beans, mixed veggies, kale, mustard greens, spinach. If you cant find low-sodium canned vegetables, you can put them in a colander, scald them with boiling water, rinse them, before adding them to the pot and that will reduce the sodium.
- Tomato paste, a generous amount, the highest source of the anti-cancer lycopene (lycopene in tomato paste is four time more bioavailable than it is from fresh tomatoes).
- Canola oil the least expensive and best source of essential fatty acids, great for coat and skin.
- Apple cider vinegar naturally anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, good for urinary tract health, and most dog diets are notoriously too basic. Many vitamins, including the anti-oxidants, and joint supplements are best absorbed in an acetic environment. (Start out conservatively, because some animals will object to the taste at first, but then you can increase the amount gradually; check with your vet first regarding the pH of the diet, because in some breeds, such as Dalmatians, that can be critical.)
- Garlic powdered or chopped. It has many medicinal qualities, including reportedly anti-flea/tick/worm properties, and my dogs dont mind it at all.
- A vitamin/mineral supplement. Powdered supplements such as K-zyme are available from most pet supply outlets, especially on the internet. If you are going to add it to the pot, you must wait until the mixture has cooled, because high temperature will reduce potency. You can add it to the individual dinner bowl later, or crush up a good quality human multiple vitamin. (We regularly add other vitamin tablets to our dogs dinner bowls such as C and E, especially for seniors. For those dogs who like to pick out their pills, you can use a coffee grinder, mortar and pestle, or crush pills between two spoons.)
- Other healthy additives to the food, while cooking, are bone meal (or calcium carbonate or citrate), brewers yeast, soybeans, lentils, rolled oats, black-eyed peas. (I also like to use whole, unsalted peanuts in the shell, ground in a food processor, and once had good success upon the recommendation of a veterinarian in improving irritable bowel syndrome in a wolf by making that a significant addition to his diet.)
- Good additions to the dinner bowl are probiotics/acidophilus, plain yogurt, cottage cheese. Most pet dogs dont need a lot of carbs, which are converted to sugar, but high-energy, working dogs may; the addition of some whole-grain pasta to the diet may be recommended by your veterinarian if you have such a dog. (All dogs love pasta, so Im not adverse to a dog who is not overweight having a few noodles in their dinner.)

Cooks who carefully follow recipes will expect exact measurements, but my approach to cooking, including for my dogs, is a little of this, a little of that. Basically, in a large soup pot, add to boiling water enough rice and meat to make a very thick stew, add the rest of the ingredients, boil for 10 minutes, remove from heat and cover until all the liquid is absorbed. After the mixture has cooled, it can be portioned out into freezer containers or bags.

My basic feline diet recipe:

My cats have always eaten the best quality cat kibbles I could afford (and again, it is important to check the labels about such things as ash content), but I like to supplement their diet with fresh cooked meats and fish. (I put the meat/fish on a plate in a microwave oven until cooked and then chop them.) Some cats have liked a vegetable and rice mixture in combination with it, many have not objected to garlic, nearly all have objected to the taste of apple cider vinegar.

Unless you are feeding the best quality canned foods, consider some human quality meat/fish for your cats. Go sparingly with any fish, especially in cats, because it can also be a cause of some health concerns, and once again, discuss all dietary plans with your veterinarian. However, when you check the unit price" at your grocers about pet quality" versus human quality," you may find that meat and fish at sales prices are cheaper than prepared petfood that may not be as healthy for your dogs and cats.

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