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One for the Road: Tips for Preparing Meals While Traveling with your Dog

Cook's Corner column by Mary Straus, published in Dog World Magazine, July 2010.

I’m about to take my first road trip with Ella, my 6-year-old Norwich Terrier, who I adopted last year. For those of us who feed our dogs homemade diets, it can be hard to decide what to feed while we’re away. Whether your dogs travel with you or stay behind with a pet sitter or in a boarding kennel, it's essential to have a feeding plan.

Switch to commercial

The easiest solution while on the road is to feed your dog a commercial dry or canned food. Unless you're dealing with a health problem that requires a special diet, feeding kibble or canned food for a week or two is a viable option. Even if your dog regularly eats a homemade diet is healthier, eating processed food for a short time shouldn’t impact its health.

If you plan on backpacking or camping with your dog, another option is a dehydrated product, like those made by The Honest Kitchen. Many commercial raw-food companies, such as Stella & Chewy’s, Paw Naturaw, Nature’s Variety and Steve’s Real Food for Dogs, make freeze-dried products. ZiwiPeak, Wysong Archetype and Solid Gold Buckaroo Beef (freeze-dried beef patties) are also options. Note that freeze-dried products are relatively expensive.

Prepare in advance

If your dog is staying with a pet sitter or in a boarding kennel with refrigerator and freezer space, you have the option of preparing your dog’s meals before leaving. Package them in meal-sized portions using plastic storage bags or food containers, and label clearly (use masking tape or freezer tape if needed) to avoid confusion.

Food can be refrigerated for a few days, but if you will be gone longer, the food should be frozen. Leave instructions to move meals from the freezer to the refrigerator in time to thaw completely before they are fed.

Preparing meals ahead of time is also an option if your dog will be traveling with you and you have access to a refrigerator (and freezer, if needed). If not, the right cooler might do the job.

Coolers

A cooler with ice packs or frozen water bottles can serve as a portable refrigerator, as long as you can restock the ice as it melts. Never use dry ice while traveling; the carbon dioxide it emits as it melts could be deadly in an enclosed car, even if the cooler is in the trunk.

Food can remain frozen for up to five days in some coolers, particularly if you don’t open the lid often. Move each day’s meals into a smaller cooler to so you only have to open the main cooler once a day.

Coleman and other manufacturers make thermoelectric coolers that plug into your car’s power outlet. These mini refrigerators don't need ice. Some also come with an adapter for indoor wall outlets. This technology has its limitations, though. These coolers can only keep food about 40 degrees below the surrounding temperature, so they won’t help enough in extremely hot environments. They also drain your battery if your car isn't running.

Shop as you go

If there are grocery stores at your destination, you can shop for your dog just like you would at home. This works particularly well for raw feeders, because no cooking is required. To make easy meals, use canned fish with bones (pink salmon, jack mackerel and sardines), yogurt, cottage cheese and canned vegetables (look for low-sodium varieties). Baby food works for very small dogs (avoid varieties with onion powder, which is not good for dogs). Remember to pack all the dishes and utensils you'll need, including a can opener.

You can also share your own meals with your dog. A fast-food burger or pizza isn’t the best for either of you, but hey, you’re on vacation. Just remove any onions, and don’t share the fries (your dog doesn’t need the extra fat and calories). If the weather is nice, many restaurants have outdoor seating areas that will allow dogs. Ask if they can prepare a plain beef patty for your dog to eat while you enjoy your meal.

Simplify

Your dog’s diet needs to be balanced over time – not at every single meal. When traveling, simplify meals by reducing variety and omitting most supplements. An unbalanced diet for a short time won’t hurt your dog, as long as the changes you make don’t affect digestion. For example, if you feed raw, don'g feed only raw meaty bones. Too much bone could lead to constipation. Feed muscle meat, eggs and dairy in addition to the raw meaty bones.

Feeding an unbalanced diet is more of an issue for puppies, particularly young pups that are still growing quickly, so use more caution when adjusting their diets.

Test your changes before you leave

If your dog’s diet will change while you’re gone, it’s essential to introduce the new diet before leaving, preferably several weeks before, to ensure your dog will be OK with the changes. Ideally, feed the new food for the same period that you plan to be gone because problems don’t always crop up immediately. You can then continue to feed the new diet a few times a week until you leave. The last thing you want is your dog to develop diarrhea or to refuse to eat the new food, while you’re away from home.

Even if you plan to provide a food that your dog has eaten in the past, it’s possible that a sudden switch back to that food could trigger digestive upset. If your dog tends to have digestive problems, make the switch gradually, starting a few days to a couple of weeks before leaving. This is in addition to trying the diet out before that time so you know it works for your dog. Don’t wait until the last minute to try the new food.

My plan for Ella

On my upcoming trip, I’ll be on the road for at least six hours, but will be staying in a house with a refrigerator available, so I’m planning to put my dog's food in a cooler with ice for the trip, and refrigerate everything once I arrive. For this, I find that commercial raw diets that come in nugget form, such as Primal, Nature’s Variety and Steve’s Real Food for Dogs, are particularly convenient because they’re easy to measure. For larger dogs, pre-formed patties might serve your needs even better because they take up less space.

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You can contact me if you have any comments, but I regret to say that I can no longer respond to questions about individual dogs. See my Contact page for more information. My name is Mary Straus and you can email me at either or

   


Rocky is a Yorkie-Poodle mix who had suffered from digestive problems his whole life. Click on his image to read about the diet his owner finally found to help him.
Pashoshe Fisher, a Chihuahua, was a wonderful, joyful companion to his owner for 19 & a half years. He was on a high quality raw diet for over half his life.
This is Ella, my Norwich Terrier.