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Why I cook for my dogs

Long before the recent pet food scare, I had my own reasons to become a canine chef.

Published April 8, 2007

Patty Ryan cooks for her purebred golden retrievers Reggie, 7, left, and Abby, 10, rather than feeding them store-bought dog food. She has it down to a routine, one that for her is worth it.
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]

The metal bowls clink to a stop, one at the refrigerator, the other at a baseboard.

No man ever does this.

Only dogs will lick a bowl across a kitchen in gratitude.

Tonight, my two golden retrievers finish wild Alaskan salmon, brushed with olive oil and garlic. My leftovers.

They have already eaten two full meals of their own: a breakfast of oatmeal, plain yogurt and freshly ground peanut butter; a supper of poached chicken breast, cooked vegetables and more oatmeal, drizzled with flaxseed oil for omega-3 fatty acids.

The salmon is extra fortification as Reggie nears a milestone: He has been free of convulsions for 103 days. His record.

In my house, there is no such thing as dog food anymore.

There is only food.

* * *

The first time it happened, a Sunday morning in July 2005, I thought Reggie was dying.

He had been fretful all night, pacing, panting, waking me with whimpers for no clear reason.

Morning came, and I was in the kitchen pouring dry IAMS dog food out of a bag: low-cal for older Abby, regular for younger Reggie.

My dogs had eaten IAMS for years; Nutro, before that. They seemed as healthy as most American purebreds - hypothyroidism Abby, nervousness (Reggie), chronic skin problems (both dogs), hip dysplasia (Abby), cataracts (Abby), repetitive behavior issues (Reggie) and fatty tumors (Abby).

I figured those were breed problems.

There was no scare over rat poison in dog food, like there was this year, no nationwide panic over ingredients imported from China. I had read Food Pets Die For, a book by Ann N. Martin about poor quality commercial pet food. But I didn't think I had much choice. Dogs needed to eat, and I was no nutritionist.

That July 2005 morning, Abby and Reggie had been outside for just a few minutes when I saw a flash of fur rocket across the back deck, way too much energy for 8 a.m. Reggie ran as if chased, his eyes filled with panic. He crossed the deck twice more, then vanished.

I found him collapsed on his side, all 70 pounds of him exploding into convulsions. He gasped for air, mouth open wide, tongue hanging out. His outstretched legs paddled back and forth involuntarily.

I rinsed his mouth, suspecting a poisonous toad. He sprang into the air and retreated into a corner of the yard, looking bewildered.

Lab work showed nothing. Idiopathic, they said. A seizure of unknown origin.

It wasn't a toad. That became apparent in the months that followed, when two more seizures struck indoors. What had caused them? Was the answer in the dog food bag? I came to believe so.

Internet theories

My veterinarian talked about treatment.

She didn't advise epilepsy medicine, which had side effects, unless the seizures became more frequent. The outlook wasn't great. Dogs usually got worse.

I sniffed out Internet theories on canine epilepsy. Everyone had one. People blamed vaccinations, cleaning agents, pesticides, the full moon, simple stress, or all those things combined.

And, in a big way, they blamed dog food, either because it exposed dogs to chemical additives and common allergens, or because it didn't contain all the nutrients they needed.

I knew the Internet bred irresponsible rumors, but I also respected the collective wisdom of dog owners.

Then, one day, I came upon the story of a man who had quit buying commercial dog food, believing that his epileptic dog was allergic to something.

His dog had stopped having seizures, he said, after the switch to home-cooked meals.

It sounded too hard: cooking for two large dogs. Mine had been eating commercial food all their lives. That ended in February 2006.

Canine cooking

They acted as if they had won the doggie lottery.

The first batches simmered like soup in stovetop pots - two parts boneless chicken to one part mixed vegetables and one part brown rice.

Missing were preservatives and additives, the ingredients of mass production.

No more "sodium hexametaphosphate." (I looked it up: "Used in the industry of soap, detergents, water treatment, metal finishing and plating, pulp and paper manufacture, synthesis of polymers, photographic products, textiles, scale removal and agriculture.")

No more added salt.

The dogs' water consumption dropped in half.

Dog food cookbooks (Barker's Grub by Rudy Edalati was my first) steered me through the nutritional issues.

Dogs need extra calcium, I learned. It's bad to give a dog only meat. The phosphorous depletes calcium in the body, weakening bones and teeth.

In the initial wave of enthusiasm, I made calcium by pulverizing baked eggshells.

I tried beef bones for calcium, but Abby's intestines raged.

Finally, I settled on bone meal powder from the health food store, having learned to avoid poor quality brands that may be contaminated with lead.

I briefly tried the BARF (bones and raw food) diet, meant to mimic eating habits in the wild.

Abby and Reggie gulped down uncooked, human-grade fajita meat from a respected supermarket and immediately developed E. coli infections that required antibiotics.

A routine quickly set in. Near my house, a small Italian market offered bulk sales of boneless, skinless chicken breast for $1.99 a pound, sometimes less. I'd steam 10 to 20 pounds in the oven, let it cool, then chop it up and add cooked rice and pureed vegetables.

Chopped chicken fit tidily into one-quart freezer bags. An hour of cooking and another hour of assembly took care of a week's worth of meals, which I froze.

A little weird

My friends view me as an oddity, a pigeon lady on steroids.

A co-worker points out the tragedy of my dogs eating better than some humans. I don't begrudge them the luxury. For most of their lives, they have guarded me as I slept, trusted me wide awake and loved me unconditionally.

I, in turn, have fed them little brown mystery pebbles from companies that turn a profit by doing business with China, where provincial governments ordered more than 50,000 pet dogs clubbed to death last summer rather than invest in rabies vaccines.

How good can commercial dog food be for $9.29 a week?

Pure ingredients for homemade food cost me more than twice that, with no advertising, packaging, shipping, stocking and sale.

It isn't rat poison I worry about.

Instead, I wonder how much taurine makes it through the assembly line. It's an amino acid, found naturally in meat, believed to reduce seizure activity.


Four months pass with no seizures. Then five months. Even my friends notice that Reggie seems much calmer than he was on commercial food.

Six months. July brings fireworks that stress Reggie. But no seizures. Seven, eight months.

I begin to proselytize, delivering homemade chicken broth to a friend's needy Weimaraner, flaxseed oil to another friend's dull-coated mutt.

Dental health is the one weak spot in the soft-food regimen. After years of white teeth, both dogs now have plaque.

Still, we hit the big benchmark. No seizures for a year. I am, perhaps, too proud.

On a February morning, I awaken to the sound of retching. "Outside!" I yell, thinking it's just an upset stomach. We don't make it outside.

Reggie falls over on his side. Convulsions swallow him for the first time in 13 months. I hear the rhythmic wheezing. I put a gentle hand on him as his body jerks back and forth.

It's okay, honey...

What has tripped his brain? Something added? Something missing?

In my head, I go over the diet.

I have been out of flaxseed oil and vitamin-mineral supplements for a few weeks. The vitamins included taurine. Stupid me. A day earlier, I had given him a beef-basted rawhide bone for his teeth. It was made in Mexico. The label did not state the ingredients.

You're gonna be fine...

When this is over, he will need to eat. Seizures drain his energy. There are homemade peanut butter dog cookies in the kitchen. Those will get his attention.


He tries to get up, staggers and falls down again.

It isn't over. But it will be.

And when it is, I will go buy more flaxseed oil and vitamins. I will read and read. I will learn everything I can about color enhancers in beef-basted rawhide bones. And nothing will go into my dog's stomach unless I know exactly what it is.

Patty Ryan, an assistant metro editor for the Times, can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or

[Last modified April 7, 2007, 23:22:28]

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