Pet Project

The Baltimore Sun

Sometime between parting with $80 for dubious pantry staples, discovering the scent of baking cat food to be something less than potpourri and nursing a blister earned trying to carve pounds of kibble into kitten-sized morsels, it sunk in: I'm a buyer, not a maker, of pet food.

And that's not even counting the kitty's disparaging review of my labors on his behalf.

Yet after a number of dogs and cats died last year from contaminated commercial pet food, more animal owners are consulting cookbooks, scouring the Internet for tips, investing in odd ingredients and devoting hours of free time, all to serve their furry companions homemade casseroles, soups and stews.

Wendy Nan Rees, a Los Angeles pet enthusiast with a radio show called Wendy's Animal Talk, started cooking for her dogs more than 20 years ago when she realized salt and preservatives didn't agree with her sensitive Shar-Pei. She invented a doggie cookie that she still swears tastes just like a graham cracker. Late last year, she published The Natural Pet Food Cookbook.

Rees devotes one day a month to cooking and baking for her three dogs, and freezes the various dishes. She supplements her homemade efforts with store-bought dry food - "half kibble, half mommy food," she says.

The American Veterinary Medical Association says it's safe to feed your pets commercial pet food, but Rees talks about canned pet food as if it were atrocity in a tin, as if she'd sooner feed her animals household cleanser.

"You could never sell me on a canned food," she says. "Dogs and cats offer absolute, unconditional, unbiased love. They're part of the family. You take care of your pets the way you take care of yourself."

TV chef Rachael Ray, famous for making 30-minute meals, also wants people to devote some culinary minutes to their animals. In her magazine, Every Day With Rachael Ray, a standing feature called "Pet Friendly" includes recipes designed for dogs and people to share.

It isn't clear if Ray, a well-known dog lover, cooks for her red-nosed pit bull, Isaboo. "She's a very busy lady," says Casey Flaherty, a publicist for the magazine. But the idea, Flaherty adds, is to make dishes that the whole family - two- and four-legged members - can enjoy together.

Recent recipes have included Mini Muttballs and Ditalini, Real Dogs Eat Quiche and Arroz Con Pollo Para Fido. The April issue showcased a Carrots-and-Peas Orzo that, judging from the photo, looked at least as appetizing as a microwaved frozen dinner.

So, because my affection for Leo Sesame, an exuberantly adorable 5-month-old kitten, should not be outdone by the likes of Ms. Ray et al., I thought I could invest a little kitchen time on his behalf.

So I consulted Rees' book and headed to the Whole Foods store, where it didn't take long to realize I had no idea where to even start looking for certain things. Brewer's yeast? Is that a baking product? A spice? A vitamin? And cod liver oil? Fish flakes?

Finally, $78.30 poorer, I headed home to experiment with Champion Cat Turkey Kibble, a dish I needed to start early because the recipe required an overnight oven stay.

Mixing the dough and rolling it onto cookie sheets seemed no harder than making cookies - smelly cookies. As I closed the oven door with satisfaction on my sheets of kibble, the dough separated into bits when scored with a pizza cutter, I didn't notice my tragic error.

But it was clear enough the next morning when I pulled out the trays, sifted the hardened squares and realized the kibbles, though rather small, were gigantic next to Leo's Purina. So I tried cutting it smaller. Piece by piece by never-ending piece, I knifed that kibble, as Leo walked by periodically, shooting me what seemed to be disdainful glances. After about an hour, I began doubting both my sanity and humanity.

Anyway, I ended up with a huge blister and piles of kibble that Leo was thrilled to bat across the floor, but less than enthused to actually put in his mouth.

I decided the flat reaction was just Leo's lack of sophistication showing, and brought the kibble to a few of my favorite area cats.

Gypsy, an 8-year-old dainty eater who subsists on store-bought dry chow - whatever's on sale, her owner says - essentially decided she'd rather starve than eat homemade kibble. It sat untouched in her favorite bowl for an entire day.

Next came Mookie, an orange, long-haired lion of a cat who, over his 21 years, has cultivated a refined palate that, his owner believes, can be satisfied only by Fancy Feast. He sniffed the kibble - an unimpressed sniff.

Joining the growing chorus of boos was Bobbi, a 5-year-old cat with a stump for a tail.

Some of the cats gave the next dish - Salmon Casserole - a fairer shake: Leo enthusiastically ate his portion while Mookie, offered a bit on his dinner plate, sniffed it, took a little lick, perhaps even a bite, and then walked away. For good.

Despite the recipes being clearly identified as cat food, Bobbi's household frenemy, Spud, a fluffy, white terrier, wolfed down both the kibble and the salmon loaf - in their entirety.

And when presented with an actual dog recipe - Bandit's Beef Casserole, a concoction of lean ground beef, vegetables and heaps of cheese - Spud ate with gusto, licked the bowl and looked up as if to say, "More!"

Dr. Tony Buffington, a veterinarian and a professor at Ohio State University who specializes in pet nutrition, isn't the homemade pet-food movement's biggest fan. In fact, he thinks there's inherently less risk in serving commercial pet food, designed by scientists for animals' specific nutritional needs, than people mixing up dishes willy-nilly in their own kitchens.

Even so, though he feeds food from the store to Stormy, the kitty he's had for 17 years, Buffington has no problem with people cooking for healthy adult dogs and cats. (Buffington recommends people interested in trying homemade pet food start by consulting with either of two Web sites: bal anceit.com or petdiets.com.)

He does not want people cooking for baby or geriatric animals because of their specific dietary needs. And he insists potential animal chefs check with their veterinarian, use pet-specific recipes and then monitor their pet's health after introducing the new food.

As an animal lover and an academic, Buffington says he suspects people's desire to bake and braise for their pets is more about anthropomorphism than any lingering danger in commercial pet food.

"It's just not the only way to love your pets," he says. "We as an American culture tend to express love through food. ... Dogs and cats, in my experience, don't care."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

What to avoid giving to your pet

Just because something is healthy or tasty for people does not mean it's good for animals. In fact, people food can be dangerous for your pet. Here are some of the foods you should avoid giving a pet. Check with a veterinarian for specific advice:

Alcoholic beverages

Apple seeds

Avocados

Candy (particularly chocolate, which is toxic to dogs, cats and ferrets, and any candy containing the sweetener xylitol)

Coffee (including grounds and beans)

Grapes

Macadamia nuts

Mushrooms

Mustard seeds

Onions and onion powder

Raisins

Salt

Tea

Tomato leaves and stems

Walnuts

Yeast dough

[Source: The Humane Society of the United States]

Salmon Casserole

Makes 4 to 6 servings (for cats)

one 16-ounce can salmon, drained

3 cups plain, dry bread crumbs

1/4 cup chopped carrots

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley or 1 1/3 tablespoons parsley flakes

2 tablespoons brewer's yeast

2 tablespoons plain wheat germ

3 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup milk

1/4 cup corn oil

2 tablespoons fish flakes

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large mixing bowl, add the drained salmon, bread crumbs, carrots, parsley, brewer's yeast and wheat germ and mix very well. Add the eggs, milk and corn oil and blend well.

Spread the mixture in the loaf pan and sprinkle the fish flakes on top. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool and serve.

From "The Natural Pet Food Cookbook" by Wendy Nan Rees

Per serving (based on 6 servings): 469 calories, 28 grams protein, 21 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 43 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 155 milligrams cholesterol, 772 milligrams sodium

Bandit's Beef Casserole

Makes 6 servings (for dogs)

1 pound lean ground beef, cooked (boiled) and drained

one 8-ounce can corn, drained

one 16-ounce can sliced carrots, drained, or 1 pound fresh carrots, cooked and sliced

one 8-ounce can condensed tomato soup

1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley or 1 1/3 tablespoons parsley flakes

1 tablespoon plain wheat germ

1/2 teaspoon brewer's yeast

1/4 cup parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 12-inch casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray.

Mix together all the ingredients except for the parmesan cheese and place in the casserole dish. Sprinkle the parmesan on top.

Bake for about 25 minutes or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool and serve.

From "The Natural Pet Food Cookbook" by Wendy Nan Rees

Per serving: 291 calories, 23 grams protein, 13 grams fat, 7 grams saturated fat, 19 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 65 milligrams cholesterol, 746 milligrams sodium

Champion Cat Turkey Kibble

Makes 10 to 20 servings

3 cups whole-wheat flour

2 cups rye flour

1 cup plain wheat germ

1 cup cornmeal

1 cup nonfat dry milk

3 tablespoons parsley flakes

1/2 cup brewer's yeast

2 pounds cooked turkey (boiled ground turkey)

1 cup water, plus more as needed

5 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon cod liver oil

1 cup dried fish flakes

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray two large cookie sheets with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flours, wheat germ, cornmeal, dry milk, parsley flakes and brewer's yeast. In a blender or food processor, blend the turkey, 1 cup water and oils until smooth.

Add the turkey mixture to the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. If the dough is too tough, add water as needed to make the dough firm and smooth.

Use your hands and a big, flat spatula to flatten the dough out on the cookie sheets to a thickness of 1/4 to 1/2 inch. If you want to roll out the dough, feel free to do so, or use your hands. Score it into small pieces with a knife or pizza cutter.

Sprinkle with fish flakes and bake for 25 to 35 minutes or until the kibble is golden brown and not doughy when you break a piece open. During the baking process, take a wooden spoon or spatula and move the kibble around on the cookie sheet so that it bakes evenly.

Turn off the oven, keeping the door closed. Let the kibble dry out in the off oven for at least 4 to 6 hours or overnight. The longer you allow the kibble to sit in the oven, the drier and more flavorful it becomes and the longer it can be stored.

Remove the kibble from the oven. Let it sit on a cooking rack for another hour or 2 until completely dry and cool.

From "The Natural Pet Food Cookbook" by Wendy Nan Rees

Per serving (based on 20 servings): 288 calories, 18 grams protein, 10 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 33 grams carbohydrate, 7 grams fiber, 38 milligrams cholesterol, 64 milligrams sodium

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