Growing Number of Pet Owners Turn to Home Cooking

PHOTO The dog named "Guido" is shown in this file photo.

While some dogs look forward to the sound of kibble clanging in their dish at dinnertime, Guido looks forward to the smell of pork cooked with summer squash and oatmeal.

The 9-year-old Italian greyhound is one of a growing number of dogs whose owners have turned away from the billion-dollar pet food industry over concerns about their dogs' health and the quality of commercial dog food.

"It started out that a lot of people thought I was nuts," Joe Lascola, Guido's owner, told ABCNews.com.

Lascola, of Huntington Beach, Calif., started homecooking for Guido in 2004, mixing his ingredients in with kibble in an effort to deal with the dog's severe medical problems. But after the 2007 pet food recall, Lascola went kibble-free and, with the help of an animal nutritionist, began cooking all of Guido's meals.

"I think the recalls really woke a lot of people up," he said. "When you're mass producing something, something is going to go wrong at some point."

Dr. Richard Pitcairn has researched animal nutrition for decades and his book "Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats" is considered by some to be a staple among home cookers.

Now retired from his veterinary practice and focusing on writing and speaking engagements, Pitcairn said he first became interested in the power of nutrition while in school after realizing that proper nutrition could have a positive effect on the immune system.

"To my surprise, it made a big difference," he said, "bigger than I expected."

Animals fed some kibbles long-term, he said, show signs of lessened energy and duller coats and are more susceptible to parasites and fleas.

"It's hard for the body to repair itself if the body doesn't have the nutrients it needs," Pitcairn said.

Only a small percentage of people prefer to cook for their dogs. Kurt Gallagher, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Pet Food Institute, said a survey done this spring of 800 pet owners -- conducted by a third-party polling institute -- showed that just 1 percent of owners cooked and prepared their pets' meals themselves.

Angele Thompson, who holds a Ph.D in animal nutrition, and works with the institute, noted that the life span of a domestic animal has increased even just in the 29 years she's been in the business, progress she attributed to advanced veterinary care and advances in commercial pet food.

"There may be a voiced interest in a homemade diet, but over time, that's very hard to sustain," she said.

Cost of Home Cooking vs. Commercial Pet Food Debatable

At a time when people are looking to save money wherever they can, home cooking is likely to be more expensive than some of the popular grocery store brands, Pitcairn said, simply because of how much food you get in one bag for such a low cost.

"It's going to cost more to make the food ... but on the other hand, you have to factor in what it's going to cost you in veterinary bills," Pitcain said.

Lascola, who had been feeding Guido a high-end premium kibble before making the switch, said cooking for his dog really hasn't cost him that much more.

He estimated he feeds Guido, a small-breed dog, for about $2 a day, spending about 3 1/2 hours to make enough meals at once for the coming month, which he then freezes.

Lascola, 45, said his foray in home cooking was borne out of a desire to find anything his buddy would eat that wouldn't cause continued digestive upset or worsen the seizures Guido has suffered for years.

Adopted at the age of 9 months old from a family that didn't understand the needs of a sensitive breed like the Italian greyhound, Guido was seizing about once a month and had constant bouts of vomiting and diarrhea.

Lascola, whose family fed his childhood dogs kibble with no problems, said he had vets tell him to euthanize Guido.

"I was still ignorant to the food issues," he said, even though "he had all the signs of bad quality food."

Desperate to help Guido feel better, Lascola turned to an animal communicator who he said told him right away that it was Guido's food that was making him sick. After reading article upon article on the Internet and reading books on nutrition, Lascola started out slowly, adding chicken and rice and then vegetables to Guido's kibble.

Then, after the pet food recall, Lascola removed commercial food from Guido's diet altogether. Now, under the close supervision of the nutritionist and with the help of two medications for Guido's digestive system, Guido's seizures have decreased in frequency to about once every six to eight months.

His new food, in addition to the protein, vegetables and grain, also includes a carefully calculated set of vitamins and supplements, a key factor creating a balanced diet.

"What I didn't realize is I was killing him," Lascola said.

Home Cooking Advocates Question Commercial Ingredients

Inspired by his efforts to find better food for Guido and the flagging economy that was hurting his career as a landscape designer, Lascola opened up California K9 Kitchen -- a home-based business that sells homemade, all-natural treats to local stores and customers.

Business, he said, took off with more and more people interested in food with ingredients they would eat themselves.

Likewise, Pitcairn said sales of his book -- now in its third edition -- took off after the pet food recall, his royalty payments nearly doubling.

In March 2007, more than 150 brands of pet food were recalled, some voluntarily by the products' companies, after they were found to be tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical. Dozens of dogs and cats died as owners learned about the tainted dog food, most of which was imported from Chinese manufacturers.

Gallagher said the Pet Food Institute did several studies on consumer satisfaction from the height of the pet food up through this year and said that numbers have steadily increased.

According to American Pet Product Association sales estimates, pet owners will spend $17.4 billion on pet food this year, up from $16.8 billion in 2008.

Commercial pet food has generally evolved over the years, with different formulas marketed for puppies and kittens, seniors and animals with sensitive digestive tracts.

Advertisements even reflect owners' growing interest in their pets' nutrition with claims of prebiotics and vitamins in various types of food.

But while the pet food industry is regulated by the FDA, the standards for what passes as edible for animals, Pitcairn said, is not nearly as strict as human-grade products.

Pitcairn said it's not uncommon for commercial pet food to contain leftover animal parts, like beaks or tumors or parts of so-called "4-D" animals who come in to the slaughterhouse, "dead, dying, disabled [and] diseased."

"It's even been determined that sometimes roadkill is used," he said.

Gallagher and Thompson didn't dispute some of Pitcairn's claims of byproducts that were sometimes found in food, but pointed out that the commercial industry is regulated -- a stamp of approval not guaranteed with home cooking.

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