hey eat out of trash bins. They gnaw on the crust beneath the refrigerator. They stick their noses in the briny viscera of half-decomposed birds. They lick each other’s butts.
Dogs are many things, but they are not known as picky eaters.
That’s not the point, say a growing number of people who believe that despite their lack of gourmandise, dogs should be offered homemade food instead of commercial kibble.
Cooking for your dog is not new: Processed dog food was invented around 1860, and the now-ubiquitous bagged kibble has been popular only since the 1950s. Before that, most dogs were fed table scraps, and maybe a little special chicken and rice porridge. In rural areas and outside of the developed world, many dogs continue to survive on just such a diet.
But ever since the 2007 pet food recall, books about home cooking for dogs have been selling as fast as Amazon.com can restock them.
“It really just showed me how much people are scared,” says Arden Moore, author of Real Food for Dogs: 50 Vet-Approved Recipes to Please the Canine Gastronome, which hit Amazon’s bestseller list the year of the recall. More people are wondering what’s in commercial pet food. But, Moore says, “there are really more questions than answers.”
To Moore, spending an hour making liver treats for your Labrador is a natural extension of the anti-corporate-grind mentality that spawned the Slow Food movement and gave rise to the quit-your-job-and-open-a-bakery trend. “I think there is a push for more of a sincere, simplistic life, and I think pets give you that,” she says.
Though she doesn’t have anything against the pet food industry, she’s pretty sure that her two dogs enjoy her Marvelous Mutt Meatballs and Pooch Pancakes better than they would something from a can.
The meatballs, like two-thirds of the recipes in the book, are fit for people too. The most notable thing about them is their conspicuous lack of onions, which can cause a dangerous anemia in dogs.
Eggplant, chocolate, grapes, and macadamia nuts are other no-nos, which just goes to show that canine nutrition is not as simple as dumping a meat ’n’ three in a stainless steel dish. Pet-food cookbook authors speak of things like amino acid complexes, bone meal supplements, and eggshells ground for calcium.
Moore teamed up with a veterinarian from the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, who analyzed all the recipes in her book to make sure they give dogs what they need to stay healthy.
Rudy Edalati, owner of the Barker’s Grub canine catering company in suburban Maryland and author of a cookbook by the same name, also knows a thing or two about doggy nutrition.
A former riding instructor, Edalati often sounds a lot more like the chef at a hip ecospa than someone who spends all day up to her elbows in puppy chow.
“Can you imagine eating processed foods every day?” she says in horror when talking about doggy diets.
Edalati’s takeout dishes are prepared to meet each dog’s specific nutritional needs and are full of seasonal veggies—pumpkin in fall, green beans in summer. Her customers and her own eight canines eat dishes like Dragon Grub, a simple egg-noodle-and-ground-beef concoction that would be right at home on the kids’ menu at any corner bistro.
But unlike children, dogs will not wrinkle their noses at the sight of a stray speck of parsley and ask for plain buttered spaghetti.
“One thing about dogs is they’re just so happy and they just love everything you make for them,” she says.
Even the most ardent butt-lickers have their limits though. Moore recalls a dog that would use his nose to push away every single piece of carrot in her canine casserole. “I have no idea how he did it so masterfully,” she says. “When you can’t even make food for a dog, that’s kind of sad.”
Sally Sampson, a Boston-based restaurateur and author of 17 people-food cookbooks, says she approached the recipe-development process for her canine cookbook, Throw Me a Bone, the same way she would for any project: test, test, test. “If a dog walked away from something, we didn’t include it,” she says.
Most of the recipes in Sampson’s and Moore’s books contain some type of grain (rice, pasta, corn mix, wheat flour). Although there are people (especially those who feed their pets only raw foods) who subscribe to the theory that dogs can’t eat grains, many dog-food cookbook authors believe that dogs are omnivores.
All of the recipes in Throw Me a Bone made it past a canine taste panel that included Max, Sampson’s father’s wheaten terrier, and Cooper Gillespie, the Welsh springer spaniel of Sampson’s good friend, New Yorker writer Susan Orlean. Orlean wrote the text of Throw Me a Bone from Cooper’s perspective—it’s his name, not hers, that appears on the book jacket.
While there are plenty of people who think that cooking for your dog is a sign of pathetically misplaced priorities, the authors all say there’s nothing overindulgent about wanting to feed your pet the healthiest food.
“I’m not sitting here dressing my pets up in costumes,” Moore says. “But what I put in their food bowl I do make sure is very nutritious.”
Headline image by Matthew Pancia