Feeding Our Four-Legged Farm Hands
For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”
Many articles about farming rightfully focus on soils. Other articles extol the virtues of one breed of livestock over another or tout the benefits of differing management systems. Few articles I’ve come across talk about farm hands and yet, my farm wouldn’t be functional without the help of my farm hands. The hands I’m talking about here are really paws and belong to our cats and dogs. I don’t know about your farm but mine doesn’t function without those assistants.
Living in an old farm house means I can tell you when winter is coming and how harsh it will be by the timing and number of mice creeping into the walls, drawers and pantry. Mice get into the poultry feed and devour wiring, risking barn and house fire. Thankfully, my trusty rodent patrol is on the job. My barn cats and smaller dogs keep rodents under control and save me monetary loss, exposure to disease and potential destruction.
My livestock aren’t unlike toddlers, they know the routine and know exactly how to get around it, and me. Once again, my farm hands keep things running smoothly. My herding dog knows how to get the horses moved to their pasture, put the sheep back where they belong and keep the fox at bay. My livestock guard dog is on duty 24/7 to protect her flocks and my whole farm from all types of predators.
Rarely do most of us give these indispensible workers a thought. We pour kibble into their bowls, freshen up their water and treat them occasionally for parasites or disease but often, our farm hands get the short end of the stick, particularly when it comes to the organic or sustainable methods we use on the rest of the farm. But the Bible says a worker deserves his wages and our farm hands are nothing if not workers and an integral part of the farm. I’m going to describe my feeding methods for my dogs and cats. I hope this will inspire you to consider more closely (if you aren’t already) how you treat your farm hands and consider giving them a well-earned raise to the sustainable life they deserve. I will cover natural treatment methods in another article but these deserve a closer look as well. Anything we put on and in our dogs and cats ends up on our farms, in our soils and eventually, in our own food.
Much of what we think we know about health in dogs and cats turns out to be false. “Dog breath” for instance, is one clue that your dog isn’t as healthy as you assumed. Dogs fed a natural, real food diet do not have bad breath. High levels of parasites indicate an unhealthy animal, which can occur when the diet is not providing everything needed or adds in chemicals harmful to the animal ingesting them. Fur on dogs and cats should be glossy, not matted and skin should be clean and clear, not oozing or stinking. Poor quality coats, bad skin, weepy eyes and other similar conditions are a sign of ill health.
Dogs and cats are carnivores, unlike the herbivorous livestock we keep (exception being pigs and poultry, which are omnivorous, eating both plant and animal-based foods). Carnivores thrive on a meat-based diet, wild canids and felids eat whole prey, including meat, intestines and bones.
On the farm, we have the option to mimic this diet to a large degree if we butcher livestock or poultry. Any leftovers from butchering can be fed back to dogs and cats, sized appropriately. Make sure bones are always raw, do not feed cooked bones as these can splinter and cause damage in the throat and digestive system when consumed. Bones are necessary, or egg shells can be substituted, because carnivorous diets would include bones that provide the calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and trace minerals needed for health. Carnivores are adapted to diets rich in bones or an equivalent so make sure you provide for that.
There are times of boon and bust on the farm and fresh raw meat scraps, fat or intestine isn’t always available. After watching wild carnivores, I believe we can replicate, to an extent, their dietary habits by feeding leftover cooked vegetable-based foods as a smaller part of their diet. My reasoning is two-fold. Intestines of herbivores (plant-eaters) consist of vegetable matter (grasses) that have been partially broken down by fermentation and action by beneficial bacteria and protozoans. Carnivores can extract nutrients from this partially digested vegetable matter but do not make good use of raw vegetables. You’ll notice that if you feed your dogs raw vegetables, the vegetables pass through the digestive system quickly and undigested, to a large degree. Cooking these same vegetables, however, helps break down the plant fibers and denature the vegetable proteins to a point that carnivores can gain some nutritional value from them.
Our ancestors would not have been surprised by the above, as they fed their carnivorous farm hands leftovers from the butchering and from their own meals. Dogs have been thriving on leftovers from humans for as long as humans have kept dogs near their camps and farms. Of course the assumption in feeding dogs leftovers is that you are eating healthy so that what you have left to feed the dogs is healthy as well.
It’s worth a look here at kibble and what is in it. Whole books are written about this but I will try to be concise. Some pet food manufacturers buy more or less of their meat by-products from rendering plants where diseased, chemically euthanized and conventionally treated animal carcasses are processed into fertilizers and other products. Many of the carcasses left at rendering plants are companion animals, like dogs and cats. I know this for a fact, not just because I read it in a book but because I have been to rendering plants when well-known pet food manufacturers bring in trucks to pick up these by-products for use in their feeds. One theory about Mad Cow Disease believes the cause is forcing cattle to eat cattle. What horrors may we be facing by forcing dogs and cats to eat diseased, chemically-laden dog and cat carcasses in the form of kibble?
Kibble is also processed excessively. All the vital nutrients are destroyed during this processing and must be added back in, generally in the less expensive, artificial forms. Preservatives are used to keep the kibble from going rancid on store shelves. Similar to the jokes about Twinkies, pet food kibble may be so full of preservatives that our cats and dogs never decay! Except that the fact is, they may be decaying from the inside out when being fed such unnatural products.
I hope at this point you are not feeling either angry because you feed a good quality kibble (I’ll come to that in a minute) or guilty because you feel you can’t afford to feed a real food diet to your dogs and cats. You should not feel badly one way or another, you make choices every day and have to draw lines somewhere. I fed kibble to my animals for many years, partly out of ignorance and partly because I thought feeding a real food diet would be too difficult and costly. Understanding what you can do to safely and healthfully extend your leftovers to make food for dogs and cats can help reassure you that this is possible and free you to start experimenting with moving your animals off a kibble diet.
There are many brands of kibble on the market now and some of them certainly take into account the need for quality ingredients and natural preservatives. The issue with some of these products isn’t that the company isn’t starting with quality, it’s the fact that processing into kibble is already harmful to ingredients. And protein sources can be difficult to find for companies. The melamine scare a few years ago resulted in many dead or seriously damaged dogs and cats. The problem came about when high levels of melamine, an industrial chemical, were added to pet foods to increase nitrogen, a measure of protein levels. This allowed manufacturers of pet food to list a certain protein percent on their labels without actually including what we would assume were protein sources (chicken, beef, lamb, etc.) Unfortunately, it was not just “bad” pet food companies that had been using melamine. Because manufacturers often have trouble sourcing their protein and must rely on companies in other countries, almost all pet foods had (and possibly still have) a risk of containing melamine. Long lists of recalled brands can be found with a simple online search.
Up to seventy-five percent of a carnivore’s diet can be protein, provided you are feeding a real food diet, not kibble. As you can see from the above information about melamines, kibble may contain nitrogen that fools tests into showing artificially high protein levels but really contain melamine, a chemical toxic to the body. You can stretch what proteins you have available on the farm by using things like eggs (raw and hard-boiled) plus shells for mineral content. You can use cooked grains and freeze up the offal from butcher for later feedings. Raw eggs have gotten a bad rap because raw egg white contains avidin, a glycoprotein that binds up biotin. Biotin is a necessary B vitamin and too much raw egg white in the diet can cause biotin deficiency and eventual death. Egg yolk, however, contains high amounts of biotin, offsetting some of the potential problems with feeding the egg white. Using raw eggs judiciously as part of a whole healthy diet in carnivores is acceptable. Hard boiling the eggs inactivates the avidin and provides a healthy alternative to using raw eggs if you are overrun with surplus eggs you would like to feed to your carnivores.
There are cases where a veterinarian may prescribe a lower protein diet for dogs and cats, usually in cases of kidney failure. Some authors believe this is not healthy for carnivores, even if they have kidney conditions. A raw source of healthy protein in these cases may be beneficial.
Before closing, I will note that cats fed kibble all their lives are often very reluctant to try anything else. Barn cats who hunt have an advantage to their kibble-fed brethren, they know what real food tastes like! But house cats or those fed larger amounts of kibble may need to be convinced. One way to do this is remove the kibble and offer only real food. Cats can go without food for several days provided they have fresh water. Hunger will drive them to try something new. Carnivores, as a rule, routinely fast in the wild. Food is not available constantly and must be hunted. Wolves can eat a meal that lasts for several days before they hunt again. Sick dogs and cats often choose to fast as part of the healing process. If a cat or dog has not eaten for 5 days or at any point in the fast appears otherwise ill or dehydrated, then it is time to intervene. A day or so without a meal is not going to hurt a cat who is reluctant to try a new food.
It does not take higher math to formulate a healthy diet for dogs and cats. The pet food industry has us convinced that there’s a science to feeding carnivores that must be adhered to or you won’t have healthy animals. This is true to an extent but the pet food industry is not the one to be lecturing since their science is much more propaganda than sound research. Like people, dogs and cats thrive on healthy, farm-fresh diets that contain a variety of foods and nutrients. Their diet is more meat-based than ours and they appreciate raw meat and bones as often as possible but if you do not do math every time you feed your family, you don’t need to be doing calculations to ensure your dogs and cats are fed well either. Leftovers from the table supplemented with leftovers from butcher time can provide a well-rounded diet for your carnivorous farm hands, allowing them to serve you for many healthy happy years while not adding unwanted toxic chemicals to your farm. A worker really is worth his wage and so, too, are our animals.
Copyright Alethea Kenney 2022