I offered to housesit my friend's dog, little realizing that this task would come with five pages of elaborate instructions, including a special meal plan of foods I have to prepare. I am seriously considering giving Rover some Alpo and not telling his owner (sorry, "guardian"). Are they being rude in expecting me to do so much, and since they won't find out, would it be bad to skimp on the requirements?
—Dogs Aren't Children
Dear Dogs Aren't Children,
Once, making your own dog food was like creating a Facebook page for your pooch—a clear sign that you were putting too much emotional energy into him. Now, increasingly, both are common practice. And while personally I still refuse all Facebook invitations from "friends" with names like Fido and Mr. Muggles, I see the wisdom of making your own dog chow.
Kymythy Schultze, a clinical nutritionist for humans, dogs, and cats, explains why dog owners are increasingly suspicious of commercial pet food. "Our doctors tell us more and more every day that it's healthy to cut down on processed foods; [we're realizing that] the same is true for dogs." Though manufacturers may claim that only commercial food offers the right blend of canine nutrients, Schultze points out that humans managed to feed their dogs just fine for the thousands of years before Purina came along.
Of course, it's hard enough to find time to cook your own dinner. Who has time to do the same for their dog? It's not that complicated, says Jim Dixon, an olive-oil seller in Portland, Oregon. After one of his two pugs developed an itchy rash in reaction to the allergens in commercial dog food, Dixon started cooking their meals from scratch. His preferred formula was a blend of ground meat, grated carrots, and rice, and he says: "It only took 20 minutes to make nearly an entire week's worth for them both."
Side note: Pet expert Arden Moore suggests saving even more time—and money—by feeding dog food to your whole family. She claims that of the recipes in her book Real Food for Dogs, two-thirds can be dished up to "both the two- and the four-leggers." Judging from her description of her Marvelous Mutt Meatballs—prepared without spices and with very little salt—I beg to differ. (You can check out the recipe for yourself in this CHOW story on making your own dog food.)
Anyway, back to your etiquette problem: When you casually offer to dog-sit, you assume that means tipping some kibble into a bowl, not baking gluten-free dog biscuits from scratch. Therefore, your friends should have mentioned Rover's dietary regime up front, and you're right to feel a little betrayed.
But that doesn't mean you should lie. Just tell them that catering to Rover's dietary needs is more work than you bargained for and they have two choices: (1) Shell out for a kennel, or (2) make up batches of food in advance and simply stash them in the freezer for you to remove as needed.
Yes, it's tempting to avoid this slightly awkward conversation and secretly let the dog gorge himself on kibble. It probably won't hurt him. In my irresponsible youth, I accidentally allowed a friend's dog to wolf down the remainder of a pan of pot brownies. I then freaked out, knowing that chocolate is bad for dogs. But, after about six hours of remaining perfectly still while staring at a knot in the floor, the dog was fine.
On the other hand, deviating from Rover's usual diet could lead to disaster. I once got a lot of flak for saying it was OK to covertly feed breadcrumbs to a dinner guest on the South Beach Diet. My theory was that this little transgression wasn't hurting anybody—and was very much improving the dinner. But you just never know how a few days of Alpo is going to affect a dog's digestive system. As Moore says: "For some, it's no problem, but for others it's the three P's: pee, poop, and puke."