Our Nutritional Quest: Finding the Healthiest Dog Food for Our Labradoodle Pups
Phase I: Ignorance is Bliss
When we brought Bernie home last summer, we had already picked out a dry kibble that we thought was pretty healthy for our little guy.
Our vet said to make sure that any food we chose was certified by the AAFCO.
Bernie seemed to like it, so we bought a few different versions of the wet food as well to vary his meals.
After purchasing three cans in a row where the food and fat were grossly separated, we started to wane on the Organix canned brand. Who wants to scrape out gobs of congealed fat every time you feed your pup? While we kept feeding Bernie the dry kibble, we stopped buying the canned Organix.
Around Thanksgiving, Bernie was diagnosed with atypical Addison's Disease, so diet became more of a concern for us. Since he takes a small amount of Prednisone every other day, he gets super thirsty.
While we were picking up groceries for our Thanksgiving meal, we found Freshpet and bought it on a whim. We thought he might like the treat and since the roll of chunky beef was moist, we thought it would help keep him hydrated.
Turns out that the Freshpet Select Rolls have a five star rating on Dog Food Advisor. Bernie loved the chunky beef, so we started mixing Freshpet with his Organix kibble.
Phase II: Panic Sets In
Since Bernie is my first dog and My Person's first dog since he was a kid, I've been reading and educating myself about many things D-O-G.
This spring iTunes featured the documentary Pet FOOleD as a $0.99 rental, so I thought I'd give it a go. I reacted to a good deal of the information shared in the film the same way I did the first time I watched Food, Inc. I was appalled!
Just the fact that the AAFCO is not a regulatory agency (they even disclose that on their home page), and I never checked that out made me sick to my stomach. But learning more about the variety of pet food recalls and the lack of regulation in the sourcing of pet food ingredients also made me swear that Bernie would never eat kibble again.
We started feeding him Freshpet alone in larger quantities and I started my research into raw food diets.
I read Dr. Barbara Royal's book The Royal Treatment: A Natural Approach to Wildly Healthy Pets and I picked up several pointers about how I could supplement Bernie's diet with specific ingredients. Great information here about supporting dogs with specific health concerns too.
I wasn't sold on the idea that my Labradoodle's stomach acid would kill those germs. Sure, he's descended from wolves. I'm descended from Celtic tribes. Doesn't mean that I'm prepared to storm Roman fortifications.
Phase III: An Experiment in Cooking Complete and Balanced Healthy Meals
After spending a few weeks researching various kibble, raw food options, and other "natural" pet foods, My Person and I asked our vet for his thoughts during one of Bernie's check ups.
He suggested we look at Hilary's Blend, especially if we wanted to control the quality of ingredients we were feeding our pups. Hilary's Blend is a nutritional powder that you add to dog food recipes.
I checked out Hilary Watson's website. She actually has two. The newer website with a modern web design doesn't have an online shop; it's still under construction. Her older website is more information-dense. The older website also includes options to purchase her cookbook and her supplemental powder.
I was liking what I was seeing. Hilary Watson has been a pet nutritionist for over 20 years. She holds a B.Sc. in Animal Science and has completed graduate courses in veterinary nutrition, human nutrition, immunology, and veterinary pathology. She's also Canadian, which automatically makes me like her even more.
Her YouTube Channel has not been updated in several years, but it does have a five-part cooking demonstration of a client explaining her process for making cooking for her dogs more manageable for her.
After watching 30-40 minutes of the cooking demonstration, I felt like this method of food preparation could work for me and our pups.
I ordered a Ozeri Pronto Digital Multifunction Kitchen and Food Scale from Amazon for $13.32. I also ordered cod liver oil, safflower oil, and salmon oil, which are all pretty consistent ingredients in most of the recipes.
Then I ordered the recipe book and smaller bottle of Hilary's Blend from the Complete and Balanced website.
The smaller 350g bottle costs $43.95 CDN while the larger 700g bottle is the better deal at $74.95 CDN. The recipe cook book cost $24.95 CDN, and there's the charge for Canada Post, which is not super fast. After ordering, I received the product just over two weeks later.
The cook book has eight chapters that cover topics like why complete and balanced nutrition is important, the methodology Hilary Watson used to create her supplemental powder, and how different recipes should be prepared, measured, and used at different life stages.
Next are the 101 recipes:
- Transitioning recipes (10)
- Adult recipes (15)
- Puppy recipes (10)
- Senior recipes (10)
- Low calorie recipes (10)
- High calorie recipes (5)
- Low oxalate recipes (4)
- Vegetarian recipes (8)
- Limited antigen fish recipes (5)
- Limited antigen novel recipes (7)
- Low fat recipes (6)
- Low phosphorus/protein recipes (6)
- Low sodium recipes (5)
Once I had these basic supplies in hand, I went grocery shopping for various ingredients. After spending well over $200, I thought I had ingredients that would last for several recipes and many many pup meals.
I followed the advice of the client in the cooking demonstrations and poached, simmered, boiled, and prepared all of the meat ingredients separately. The next day I started making doggie meals.
The first recipe I tried was a transitional recipe for my one-year old puppy who had been eating FreshPet as his regular diet. This was the simplest recipe I could find that combined cod liver oil, cooked oatmeal, hard boiled eggs, and the Hilary's Blend supplement.
Preparing this recipe didn't take much time or effort. Unfortunately, Bernie didn't really care for the taste. I ended up throwing out the leftovers because he refused to eat more than a few bites at each meal.
Next I moved on to a more complicated transitional recipe that included beef, one of Bernie's favorite ingredients.
Beef is not an inexpensive ingredient. Also, the recipe calls for the beef to have 10% fat. Maybe 10% fat is a standard in Canada, but I couldn't find 10% fat at the three different grocery stores we regularly shop.
I asked the butcher at one of the stores, and he told me that 7% and 15% fat were the standards he had seen for years. I decided to buy one of each packet, mix them together, and hope that the results were close enough to the 10% fat.
This recipe also called for raw blueberries, which are also not a cheap ingredient.
While I put all the other ingredients into the food processor to mix them thoroughly, I mixed the whole blueberries in by spatula.
Bernie loved the beef mixed with oatmeal and oils, but he didn't care for the blueberries.
While I was making these transitional recipes, I was surprised at the volume I was supposed to be feeding Bernie. There was a lot of food in his bowl. Much more than when we were feeding him FreshPet or kibble.
When we took Lizzie, our newest Labradoodle puppy, to see our vet for her first check up, I brought the recipe book so I could show our vet how I was reading the Appendices that define how many calories a dog should be consuming each day.
Using the Appendices, our vet actually lowered the number of calories Bernie needed to be consuming each day, and he helped me determine how many calories I should be feeding Lizzie, who was just 8-weeks old at that point. He also assured me that I could feed both pups the puppy recipes, so meal preparation should be easier...theoretically.
Over the next thirteen days, I made puppy recipes 2, 3, 5, and 9. I doubled all of the recipes and made one more doubled batch each of recipes 3 and 5. I didn't freeze any of this food. My aim was to try out several recipes to see what the pups would like.
Puppy recipe 2 was received with luke-warm doggie feelings. While Bernie and Lizzie would eat this mixture, they weren't thrilled with it. They seemed to eat more later in the day when they had more time to get truly hungry.
This recipe combined several ingredients, including chicken, hard boiled eggs, and sardines. After one day of meals, I had enough food for an additional breakfast for each pup, but I decided to toss the leftovers in favor of trying another recipe. I was glad that I had used all of the sardines I had bought in this particular recipe. I kind of think the sardines may have been the "meh" factor for the pups.
Next up, I made puppy recipe 5, which was a huge hit. This recipe also combined several ingredients, but I think the simmered chicken livers made this meal particularly delicious for both pups. Doubling puppy recipe 5 yielded seven servings (four dinners, two breakfasts, and one lunch for Lizzie).
I thought puppy recipe 9 would also be a huge hit. Both pups love poached chicken, but I think the other veggies may have put them off. This recipe also contains raw broccoli and peas. I'm not certain about which ingredient put them off, but they barely touched puppy recipe 9. After watching them both stick their noses in the bowl, sniff, and walk away after two meals, I threw out an entire container of #9.
Finally, I tried puppy recipe 3, which included more of those simmered chicken livers. The pups loved this recipe and the doubled version lasted for about nine servings (four dinners, four breakfasts, and one lunch for Lizzie).
I loved that I had found these healthy recipes for my pups, but preparing this much food was time-consuming and expensive. Even with doubling the recipes, the amount of food I was preparing wasn't enough to last more than a day and a half. If I continued to use Hilary's Blend, I could see me finding some sales on certain ingredients, but my freezer space is limited.
If we continued feeding the pups the recipes using Hilary's Blend, I would be cooking food for the dogs every three or four days. That's assuming that I can freeze a batch or two regularly. I would also be grocery shopping for fresh ingredients more frequently, and spending variable amounts of money depending on seasonal sales.
In short, we decided that cooking the Hilary's Blend recipes for the pups was not sustainable long-term.
Phase IV: A Solution Based in Reality
After learning more about how kibble is made, I'm still anti-kibble. I will never feed my pups kibble again. I just can't justify that choice when I know that there are healthier options that are easily accessible to me.
Since the pups did like the Hilary's Blend recipes involving chicken livers, we've decided that I can manage to cook for them a few times a month. I'll double the Hilary's Blend recipes and the pups can have special meals to vary up their diet routine.
I also like keeping this cook book around in case either pup develops a health condition that might make cooking specialized meals a necessity and not just a first world luxury.
For day-to-day meals, the pups are back to Freshpet rolls. I add a variety of ingredients to supplement the tastiness of the Freshpet and keep their calorie count a bit higher. Both pups are active and our vet tells us they're both healthy weights. Right now, their favorite supplemental ingredient is plain low-fat yogurt mixed in with the Freshpet.
"Woof! Woof! Barkity Bark!" which is D-O-G for "Yummers!"