The background
Once upon a time, Andrea had a regular feature on reducing pet costs that I completely ignored. Then I got a pet of my own and realized quickly that the costs add up quickly, as Paula noted. Nina raised the question whether pets are worth the price, but I will say without hesitation, “YES.” Having a dog has led to a huge improvement in quality of life for me and I cannot think of my life without my little dog. But on the limited income of a graduate student, covering the costs of having my little guy is a huge concern. He is EXPENSIVE. After taking him home, I used money that I had put aside to cover initial expenses–such as his adoption fee, food, food and water dishes and the like–but I needed something that would work to cover his regular bills that was more sustainable than dipping into my savings.
One of the first things I had purchased for my dog was a good sized bag of middle of the line dog food for around $25. Following the check list I had been given by the SPCA, I dutifully made sure that meat was the first ingredient, and the second ingredient and the third ingredient and that it didn’t have anything processed or artificial. Unfortunately, my dog hated his food. Even worse, the food made him terribly sick. Most dogs get upset stomachs post-adoption because of the change in diet and environmental stresses, but his ailments exceeded the projected time frame of four to six weeks. Even worse, he was lethargic, cranky and disinterested. He was impossible to train because typical treat reinforcement failed miserably.

The Breakdown
Thinking back to Andrea’s article, I investigated making home made dog food, but first, I crunched numbers. What would the economic benefit be to making dog food versus buying premium dog food?

The first thing I did was check with my dog’s vet to make sure it was a viable option (it was) and then I crunched numbers. Buying chicken only when on sale meant I was paying $1.88/ lb., and I  use a 6-pack costing between $6-7 per package. To this I add 2 lbs of chicken livers at $1.79/lb, 1 lb. of carrots at $.49/lb., 2 zucchini at $.99, and 4 eggs (with 2 egg shells for calcium) at $.80. Everything goes into a huge pot that I found on the side of the road (huge and perfect for making large quantities of dog food, not to mention the very excellent price of free) and the whole mixture gets boiled until cooked. The solids go into a food processor where they get pureed until smooth (this prevents him from picking out meat and leaving in veggies).  To the remaining water in the pot I add one big bag of store brand oats at about $3.50 (I get the bulk oats from my local market, so it varies). Finally, I throw in some fish oil at about $1-2 per batch to help his coat out and to make it smell tasty to him. (Both chicken liver and fish oil have fats and oils in them that help keep a dogs coat shiny and minimize shedding.) While most people will advocate rice as a good grain for dogs, I’ve found it too time consuming to wait for the rice to cook properly. With the minute oats, I dump it in and the residual heat cooks them in the time it takes to throw everything into the food processor.  Stir everything in a pot and freeze in portioned containers.

Total cost? About $19.
Active time? 1/2 hour,  spent dumping ingredients into a pot to boil, then pureeing and portioning.
Inactive time: Between 2-3 hours, depending on the size of the batch being made and the pot being used.
Because my dog had some serious digestive trouble from the kibble he was eating, a friend recommended pumpkin. Turns out that pumpkin is a huge amount of fiber for a dog and it really helps push everything right through. Within 48 hours of switching his food to the above recipe, his digestive problems were cleared up. I’ve found that roasting one to two pumpkins when they are in season can provide about six months or more worth of pumpkin depending on the size of your dog. If it’s not in season, canned pumpkin will do the trick for clearing up any digestive issues.

The results
The recipe given above yields approximately 3-4 weeks of food and can easily be doubled based on time and freezer space. I’ve also found that an advantage is that his food can easily be stretched by adding dog safe table scraps (low fat meats or meat with the fat trimmed off, and vegetables) without worrying about an upset stomach, food that might otherwise have gone to waste. Since I don’t weight the final product, I compare it instead to the kibble in terms of how long it lasted. His kibble lasted between approximately 6 weeks, but this was complicated by the fact that he would often eat less than a handful per day and many times required me to hand feed him just to get him to eat that much (that was the big flag that something was wrong). Perhaps a more accurate comparison would be ballparking it at the low end of 4 weeks given his caloric requirements, meaning home made food is comparable if not cheaper than premium dog food, depending on how you source your ingredients. What’s best is that in humans, to eat well and generally improve lifespan and quality of life you have to pay a little more upfront for ingredients. For Buddy’s dog food? It winds up being cheaper (though there is a bit more of a time investment).
Now he eats a full bowl of food each day and has more energy than I know what to do with. Seriously. This dog chases my bike and yesterday he ran 4 miles an hour at a pace 2 mph less than his weight (18 lbs.), AFTER a 2 mile run. Using a cyclocomputer on my bike, I’ve clocked him at 16.9 mph, a dramatic change from a dog that was once low energy and despondent. For a price comparable to middle grade dog food, I have a happier and healthier dog. Additionally, I know that he is getting the highest quality ingredients (often organic) and that his food is made without byproducts or additives.  As a bonus, the recipe is easily adjustable to account for potential allergies or specific needs of your pet.

Some caveats
Any time you change a dog’s diet without a transition you are left picking up some disgusting messes (been there, done that). If possible, ease your dog into a home made diet to make it easier on their stomach. Secondly, this recipe yields a soft food, which means you need to pay more attention to your dog’s dental care because their food is no longer regularly cleaning their teeth. To compensate, I brush my dog’s teeth several times a week (more on this later) and give him chews that help clean his teeth.  Finally, I’m not a vet. I consulted with several vets and online resources about my dog’s diet to make sure I’m not missing anything that he needs. If in doubt, consult with your dog’s vet to help come up with something that provides for your dog’s nutritional needs.