I haven’t eaten beef since high school, but today my kitchen counter is filled with roast cut-offs, slices of tongue, and strips of liver. There are racks of the stuff drying in the oven. I’m scrubbing the red stains off a formerly veggies-only cutting board, bloody well determined to find a workable solution.
The challenge? Creating healthful treats for dogs.
I’m one of a growing number of people who don’t buy commercial dog food. Some of us non-commercial types rely on homemade kibble, and some provide a raw-meat diet. After all, there’s some evidence that ingredients such as grains, sugars, and the low-quality meat products typically found in commercial pet foods can be detrimental to animal health.
But it was the 2007 melamine scandal — when ingredients imported from China and used in commercial pet foods caused kidney failure and death in pets — that really put many North American pet owners on the dog-walking path to better eats. And this spring’s salmonella outbreak — in humans, but carried via commercial pet food — may increase those numbers.
I learned to pay close attention to what our pets ate after two of our dogs developed serious health problems and didn’t make it to their second birthdays. Their premature deaths may have been entirely unrelated to the high-quality commercial dog food we provided, but we no longer take any chances. Today, our three remarkably healthy dogs have eaten a raw-meat diet for the last six years.
Still, it didn’t occur to me until recently that doggie treats might be a problem, even though I know that, like commercial pet food, most doggie treats are just empty fillers.
Often the first ingredient in a canine snack is grain, a food group that isn’t a natural or necessary part of any dog’s diet. Any hint of wheat or corn causes one of my dogs to itch, and another to have digestive problems. So instead I relied on commercial jerky treats: simple strips of dry meat with the reassuring (but technically meaningless) word “natural” on the package.
This seemed like a reasonable choice until I discovered that the American Veterinary Medical Association had posted an alert stating that kidney-disease symptoms in dogs appeared to be associated with the consumption of chicken jerky treats made in China. The packages I bought were indeed stamped “made in China.” I contacted the company immediately; they reassured me that they test regularly to assure quality. But that’s not much comfort, because tests have yet to identify any toxin responsible for kidney problems in any jerky products.
Instead, I decided to create my own grain-free dog treats.
Recipes online mostly start with wheat and end with salt — two ingredients I’m trying to avoid. So I’ve dried, ground, and baked all sorts of concoctions, hoping to find the perfect, easily stored treat. No surprise: truly wholesome ingredients simply don’t last at room temperature. That’s entirely logical, but will force my family to change some habits. No more storing treats in the car for the dog park, for example.
I’ve also learned that it helps to look at “people food” prep with an eye to potential dog treats. I keep a bag or container in the freezer, adding the cast-offs from meats, poultry, and fish as I cook. Cut-up pieces of chicken skin, a fatty strip with some meat from a steak, a not-too-appealing hunk of tough pork — all can be used as dog treats themselves, or incorporated into baked treats.
So far, I’ve come up with recipes for Doggie Squares and Hound Jerky, plus a list of quick treats (see sidebar) to use in a pinch. My kids were horrified by our liver- and fish-smelling kitchen, but my dogs enjoyed their new roles as taste testers.