Simple tips to save cash while providing a balanced homemade diet for your dogs.
Cook's Corner column by Mary Straus, published in Dog World Magazine, August 2010.
Many people like the idea of feeding their dogs homemade diets, but think it would be too expensive, especially if they have large dogs. However, you can keep costs down by finding bargains and feeding inexpensive – yet still high-quality – ingredients. With careful shopping, it’s even possible to save money feeding a homemade diet instead of super-premium commercial dog foods.
A freezer helps
If you decide to feed a homemade diet, you might find that it's cost-effective to have a separate freezer for your dogs’ food. A freezer lets you stock up when you find meat on sale. It also lets you order meat by the case, giving you access to wholesale prices and parts that aren’t always available in stores, such as various types of heart, liver and kidney, and raw meaty bones, such as chicken necks and backs.
Buy the biggest freezer you think you might need (most people end up wishing they'd purchased something larger). Chest freezers typically hold the most, but it's easier to find things in upright freezers. Previously owned freezers obviously cost less, but older models are generally not energy-efficient.
Buy cheaper cuts
Certain less-expensive cuts of meat that are just as healthy for your dog as the more expensive cuts. A good example of a less-expensive meat is heart. Although heart is technically an organ, nutritionally it’s considered a muscle meat. Most dogscan eat entire meals of heart, although some might develop loose stools if you feed too much at one time.
Beef heart is often available at grocery stores, and you might be able to order other types of heart, such as chicken, turkey, lamb and pork heart. When you order a meat item that the store doesn’t carry, you often have to buy the whole case, which generally weighs 10 to 40 pounds.
Ethnic markets are another source for meat parts that are otherwise uncommon in the United States, including heart, various organs, chicken feet (which are more of a chew than a meal) and raw meaty bones, such as pork necks.
Develop a relationship with local stores
Check local grocery stores and butcher shops to see which ones are willing to special-order parts for you. Prices can vary considerably, even when the food comes from the same vendor. Ask if you can receive a discount for buying in bulk.
If you develop a good relationship with the meat manager or butcher, he might alert you about meat that's about to expire so you can purchase at a reduced price. The same is true of produce.
If you live in an area where people hunt deer, find out who does their processing (your state wildlife department might know). Many deer parts are just thrown away, so you can often purchase this food for very low price, or even for free (this is true at slaughterhouses as well).
Deer parts you might want to use include the heart, liver, kidneys and tongue. Rib and leg bones can be used as raw meaty bones for large dogs; smaller dogs will just eat the meat from them. Avoid the spine and brains because of the small risk of chronic wasting disease. Don’t feed venison that could be infected with tuberculosis (your local wildlife department can tell you if this is a concern in your area).
Join (or start!) a co-op or local buying group
Joining a co-op with other homemade-diet feeders in your area allows you to buy in bulk at wholesale prices directly from suppliers. To find a group in your area, check Raw Dog Food Co-ops and Local Groups. If no such groups are nearby, you can still join the closest group to learn more about how they are run and their food sources. This might give you access to foods you can buy yourself, or help you learn enough to start your own co-op. You might also connect with people in your area who want to join.
To find suppliers and processors, check under Poultry or Meat in your phone book (in general, it's hard to track down local suppliers online). Check the brands at your grocery store, then search for the company online and ask if you can buy direct or from their local distributors. Also contact restaurants and ask about their suppliers; some restaurants might even let you order food through them.
Remember that meat suppliers have access to unusual parts, even if they’re not included on a price list. Some suppliers might even be willing to cut and package parts to your specifications for an additional fee.
Is it necessary to feed organic meats?
Some people are reluctant to feed a homemade diet because they want to feed organic meats that are cost-prohibitive. That doesn’t make sense, though, as even ordinary grocery store meat provides better nutrition than dry kibble. It’s also possible to find antibiotic- and hormone-free meats that are not organic but are just as healthy. Remember that hormones are never used in poultry, and that lamb is almost always grass-fed with no antibiotics or hormones.
Add carbs, cut costs
Dogs have no nutritional requirement for carbohydrates, but carbs can be an inexpensive source of calories, reducing the overall cost of a homemade diet.
Some dogs fare better when fed a diet low in carbohydrates because some grains and starchy carbs may contribute to allergies, inflammation and digestive problems. However, there’s no reason to avoid these ingredients if your dog doesn’t react to them. I prefer diets to be at least half meat and other animal products, such as fish, eggs and dairy. Up to one half of the diet can be made up of grains or starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squashes, as long as your dog tolerates them.
Every little bit
You don’t have to feed 100 percent homemade; almost any amount of fresh food is healthy for your dog. If you can’t afford or don’t have time to feed a completely homemade diet, you can still add eggs, meat, dairy, canned fish with bones and healthy leftovers to your dog’s commercial diet. Every little bit counts when it comes to enhancing your dog’s diet.
Make Your Own Yogurt
You can make your own yogurt and kefir at home. Both kefir and yogurt supply beneficial bacteria called probiotics, which can contribute to your dog's digestive health. The bacteria convert the lactose in milk, so lactose intolerance is not a factor with these foods.
Kefir, a cultured-milk product, is especially easy to make, once you get your starter “grains” (see Good Kefir Grains Yahoo group to find sources). The process of making kefir requires no heating, and the grains repopulate themselves for the next batch.
Yogurt is a little trickier to make with regard to temperature. Here’s a recipe for making yogurt:
- Preheat oven to its lowest setting, then turn the oven off, leaving the door closed.
- In a heavy pot or double boiler, heat 1 gallon of milk (whole, low-fat or nonfat) to almost a boil, then remove from the heat source and let it cool to 110 degrees Fahrenheit (about the temperature of a baby bottle).
- Stir a small amount of the warmed milk with 8 ounces of yogurt (be sure it contains live cultures). Gradually continue to stir in small amounts of milk until the mixture becomes thin, then pour the mixture into the remainder of the warm milk and stir until blended.
- Pour the milk-yogurt mixture into plastic containers and cover with lids. If you prefer, leave the mixture in a covered pot, then transfer it to containers later).
- Place in the warmed oven overnight. Leave the oven light on to provide warmth (if necessary, prop the oven door open with a wooden spoon to keep the oven light on).
- Refrigerate the finished yogurt in the morning. This yogurt can be used to start the next batch.