Our golden retriever, Jake, is lying at my feet, waiting for me while I write. He won’t let the clock slip past 8 a.m. in mid-winter without getting up and nudging me. Sure enough, on the stroke of eight he’s beside me, his beautiful head in my lap, insisting we get moving. Time to get outside, throw a ball and run around.
The sun is almost up, a cascade of violet and rose in the eastern sky, enough light for me to feel Jake and I will be safe despite the coyotes that live nearby. As I toss Jake’s tennis ball down the lane a few minutes later, I start thinking about his breakfast. I’ve been thinking about dog diets a lot for the past six months, ever since he went on a diet. Jake is what’s called “an easy keeper.” When Dave asked me to explain the term, I ended up telling him the story of my first pony, a fat Appaloosa gelding who got fatter just by looking at the grass growing on the far side of the fence. So an “easy keeper” requires fewer calories than the norm. Tough luck, Jake! Jake too has been neutered, and that slows his metabolism somewhat, our vet explained six months ago when we first discussed his solid shape. What we needed to do was reduce his calories.
Since then, Jakie has dropped 25 pounds, and I am learning about caloric density in foods. His fave snacks are now carrot bits and blueberries, bell peppers and snap peas. Same as mine — except that I get chocolate on demand as well. Fortunately, he loves them all — or else his appetite makes them all equally appealing — and we always have plenty of fruits and vegetables on hand, including, especially in winter, the crucifers — broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and all the cabbagey cousins. For some reason I had always thought that the crucifers were on the forbidden list for dogs (that list also includes grapes, onions and chocolate). But no, says my vet/animal nutritionist, although large amounts of cabbage can produce gas in dogs. So when I roast some winter veggies, including cauliflower and peppers — Jake gets some too, although his will not be dressed in olive oil. Extra calories, right?
I plan to cook all Jake’s meals eventually and eliminate our reliance on processed dog food. A dog’s diet can be pretty simple, and I’d rather not feed our retriever the pulses included in some brands that studies have linked to heart disease in some breeds, including retrievers. So it will be grains — millet, brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and whole grain breads and pasta — lean roasted chicken or fish, yogurt, bits of cheese, and fruits and vegetables. That’s a tidy overlap with how Dave and I mostly eat and Jake will also get a vitamin and mineral supplement.
The production of commercial dog food (“kibble”) in North America began about 100 years ago. Before that, dogs ate much as their human companions did. It didn’t take long before pet food companies began to make noises about the unwholesomeness of table scraps as dog food. It was a marketing ploy. My vet/animal nutritionist assures me that Jake will thrive on home-cooked meals, just like we do. In fact, the biggest challenge will be to not overfeed him, as home-cooked food is more calorie dense than most kibble and canned dog foods. So Jake will have to get used to eating less. Except, of course, for the vegetables and fruit I feed him for added vitamins, variety, fibre, bulk and — yes, admit it, good taste. All the same reasons we humans love our vegetables! So first we eat — but before we eat, we feed our animals. Then we can talk more about what to feed Jake and his canine cousins.
Roasted Winter Vegetables
I particularly like these vegetables as a contrast to tender stews or braises. If you are feeding your dog and counting calories on Fido’s behalf, you may wish to roast a separate pan of vegetables without oil or onions/garlic for your mutt. Cut everything into similar sizes to ensure even cooking.
- 3 carrots, peeled and sliced
- 1/2 onion, sliced
- 1 head garlic, peeled, cloves left whole
- 1/4 head cauliflower, cut into florets
- 12 brussels sprouts, halved
- 1 bell pepper, diced
- Yellow or white turnip, peeled and diced (optional)
- Olive oil to taste
- Salt and pepper to taste
Toss all the ingredients in a large bowl, then spread evenly on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast uncovered at 375 F for 30-40 minutes or until tender, stirring several times.