I feed my dogs "natural foods." This is considered radical by some people who prefer the "manufactured" variety.

Natural foods, by my definition, are foods that we humans eat. These foods are minimally or not processed, and are as free of pesticides and preservatives as possible. They may or may not be organic. These natural foods that I provide my family are fresh, nutritious and healthy.

This care is an extension of my love for my family and my concern for their well-being. It just happens that part of my family is canine.

It was not always like this. For years I had been the concerned traditional dog owner, reading dog food labels, comparing ingredients and breakdowns by protein and fat, etc. I had established a fairly normal combination of high quality kibble and meat mix, and the dogs ate it, so everything was fine.It was 1987, and my husband, Ed and I shared our lives with two Great Pyrenees, Patou and his mother Cher. (Our 1st Patou came into our life in 1969, and subsequent additions and puppies that we bred grew into a kennel with as many as 14 adults. We had one litter every other year from 1972 through 1982. Our last Patou was part of the 1982 litter.)

And then things changed. This turning point is burned into my memory.

It was an early Fall evening, and the sun was just dipping below the horizon. Ed and I were enjoying the quiet beauty of the river that flowed gently past our back yard. Happily settled nearby were our Great Pyrenees, Cher and her son Patou. Ed began wishing out loud for the ability to freeze this period of time and prolong the good health of our two dogs. They were the last dogs of our breeding program, the fourth and fifth generations from our kennel which had been plagued with bad luck and heartache. The average life span for a Great Pyrenees is seven to nine years. We were pushing the odds with Cher who had just turned ten. Patou was five.

As a result of his musings Ed asked me a series of questions that would set me on a path of discovery, and change the way I looked at things forever. He asked, quite simply:

   1. What is the difference between a dog's body and a human's body? We both have blood, muscle, require oxygen....

   2. What kind of nutrition would be required to provide "optimum" growth and maintenance for a dog? And

   3. Are we doing the best for our dogs by feeding them manufactured and processed foods, which we tried to avoid eating ourselves.

I responded to each of his questions in order:

   1. I didn't think there was that much difference. We are both mammals, with circulatory systems, digestive systems, excretory systems, etc. (All things I had once known but needed to relearn.)

   2. I'm sure we can find out (I pre-maturely boasted as a holder of a masters degree in library service). And

   3. Put in those terms, of course not (I, the fresh vegetable maven, replied indignantly).

As the primary caregiver, chief cook and bottle washer, I rose to the challenge. Was I, indeed, doing the best I could for my dogs by feeding them canned meat mix combined with dry kibble.

I read anything I could find on canine nutrition and talked at length with both of my veterinarians. My friend Michelle Nemiroff knowing of my search sent me a copy of Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats (Rodale Press, 1982.) Many of my questions about nutrition continued to remain unanswered, and new questions about the pet food industry arose at an alarming rate. What had started out as mere curiosity had taken on the trappings of a quest.

When we built our kennel addition in the '70s, I had allocated space to buy dog food in bulk. I quickly learned that in the summer I had to limit amounts purchased. Within two weeks the food would become moldy and/or buggy. I cannot remember when this stopped being a problem. In fact, after I read Pitcairn's book, I placed some of the kibble I had in a glass jar on my kitchen counter. It remained there for four years before I threw it away. Nothing grew on it or in it.

If lower forms of life could not exist on this food, how could I expect my dear dogs to thrive on it?
The more that I learned about "manufactured" foods, the less comfortable I was feeding these to my dogs. I was finding out things that I really did not want to know.

One Saturday morning, I made the BIG DECISION. I took all of the "manufactured" dog food that I had in my house to the local animal shelter. Then I stopped at the grocery store on the way home. The die was cast.

Using Pitcairn as a guide, I developed a feeding program for my dogs.

Just as I had begun feeding our dogs natural food, Cher began passing extremely dark urine. A number of tests were performed. The diagnosis was liver failure. The prognosis was grim. My veterinarian recommended a low fat diet - "check the labels for fat content" he said. Fortunately, I had complete control over her diet, so reducing the fat content was not difficult.

Cher seemed to do well for more than a year (much longer than the two to three months that my veterinarian had anticipated), then took a turn for the worse. We lost her on a snowy February day. She was eleven.

And then there was one.

And Patou was thirteen when I began writing this book. He had been eating non-commercial food since he was five years old. He reached the wonderful age of 14 years and 9 months, and succumbed at that point to old age.

And toward the end of writing this book, we added The Ragin' Cajun to our household. For a brief period of time I considered keeping her on the "manufactured" food her breeder fed her (the canine food police are a powerful group). But after seeing the volume of stool she was producing (twice the size of Patou's and she was one quarter his size) I moved her over, gently, to the new diet.

She was with us until she reached the age of 10 when she succumbed to lymphoma. It was less that 6 weeks from diagnosis to euthansia. Sadly no amount of good food can prevent cancer. I learned from her breeder that it ran in her lines.

Our new Patou is now four years old, and like Cajun, wants only to eat meat. I am getting good at hiding vegetables. They are non-negotiable ingredients in the diets.

The Vegetable Connection

Shortly after I started feeding Patou and Cher natural foods, a neighbor gave us a large bag of just picked green beans. While I was trimming the ends, Patou came over to watch the process. He hit me with his nose, so I gave him a green bean. He loved it. I gave him more. He was delighted. So I gave him more.

I gave him too many. He got sick.

But he became a green bean aficionado. Green beans became the snack of choice. As he got older and more savvy, he would inspect in-coming grocery bags (I swear he could figure out what was planned for the weeks menu from his forays into the bags) for green beans. If they were in there, he would annoy me until I would rinse off a few and give them to him. He ate them like candy.

And if you have ever eaten freshly picked green beans, you will  taste the sugar in them. They would certainly taste like candy to a discriminating canine.

So raw green beans became part of his regular diet.

And it was in this way that Patou's diet evolved. It was on his initiative that he began to get vegetables with his meals. Patou was responding to natural cravings of his body. I was responding to Patou by making these foods available to him. I prepared fresh vegetables for Ed and I, so it took almost no effort to purchase a larger quantity and prepare enough for all of us.

I thought that I was just catering to Patou's discriminating palate, until a few years ago I learned that Patou was in reality doing something very good for his body. In 1994 a panel of experts at the Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas referred to antioxidants the "missing link" in commercial dog food. They had determined that Vitamins E, C, and beta-carotene work the same way in canines as they do in humans. They defuse toxic molecules known as "free radicals." Free radicals are formed as a result of normal metabolism in the cells, as well as by exposure to environmental pollutants. If left unchecked, they can damage DNA, corrode cell membranes, and kill cells outright.

Free radicals have been implicated in some cancers, heart and lung disease, and cataracts. Their cumulative effects may be responsible for accelerating the aging process and altering the body's immune system.

Both vitamin E and C have a high safety level, and can be routinely given as a supplement. But better yet, these antioxidants are available in great abundance in many vegetables, particularly the bright orange and dark green ones. By including one of these vegetables in your dog's daily ration you are buying a small insurance policy for good health. Patou's instincts were excellent.

All leafy green vegetables are a wonderful source of antioxidants and fiber. Some also contain calcium, potassium, manganese, iron, phosphorous and/or niacin. Many cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower contain compounds that stimulate the body's natural defenses to neutralize carcinogens, the cancer causing compounds. And this is only a short recap of the positive benefits of some of the vegetables readily available for you and your dog. It just takes a little time and a little preparation.

A big question remains; is it worth the extra planning and the extra effort to feed your dog natural foods? Its your decision. You have to set your prioities and choose what is important to you and your family. I personally feel that the best thing that I can do for those people (and canines) in my care is to provide safe and healthy food.

And over the years, I have made it simple. I shop and cook for all of us. I don't cook dog food. I cook people food in larger portions and share it with my dog. I try to prepare healthy food for all of us. I provide a diet of grains/carbohydrates, rich in all kinds of fresh vegetables, and varying amounts of high quality protein, with minimal amounts of sugar and salt.

I now can't imagine feeding my dogs any other way. Patou lived the equivalent of two lifetimes with us - and was healthy even to the end. Natural foods not only kept him vibrant and healthy, it slowed down the aging process.

As our other Pyrs aged, they lost muscle tone, and as their flesh deteriorated, they developed a gaunt look about their heads. Patou maintained a full fleshy look, almost to the end, giving him the appearance of a much younger dog. His eyes turned a bit cloudy, and he had some minor growths, and I know some days his old bones ached. But overall, he never looked his age.

The photo in the upper left corner of the screen was taken of Patou at 14 years and 3 months. He won "the best veteran" at the "over 7 years old" category at a Great Pyrenees fun match.
(He probably should have received 2 ribbons for being "over 14".)

Patou was the oldest male Great Pyrenees we have ever had by six years. And I am certain that the nine years of eating an extensive variety of home prepared foods contributed to this. And while I know that we cannot permanently halt the aging process, many of the nutritious gifts of Mother Nature (both known, and currently unknown) can certainly put the brakes on it.