Thursday, April 21, 2011

Chicken feet and the call of the wild

I dedicate this blog to the big healthy portion of chicken feet pictured above and those who love to eat them.

Food and food choices absolutely fascinate me.  The science of nutrition fascinates me.  Perhaps that is why my college days (before vet school) were spent pursuing a degree in animal nutrition.  Animal nutrition was going to be my fall-back profession just in case I did not get into vet school.  Now that I am focused on medicine, my nutrition interests have become more a personal hobby, i.e. cooking for me and my husband.  Of course it helps that we live on a working vegetable farm and have an endless supply of fresh veggies all summer long.  And we raise our own chickens both for meat and eggs.  I do a lot of home grown food preservation so we can enjoy summer's bounty all year round.  I have come to truly appreciate the labor and the taste of cooking from scratch.  Not to say that I don't have some processed food items in the pantry for those weeks when late nights at the clinic use up my supply of pre-made homemade meals.  Sometimes when the body is tired from a long day at work, nutrition becomes more of a necessity rather than something to be savored and enjoyed.  Give me a microwavable dinner and let me go to bed!

Because I enjoy preparing meals so much, I get the whole homemade pet diet craze.  I don't partake it in personally, but I get it.  While I prefer sitting down to a meal with roast chicken from my farm, homemade mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli from the garden over chicken nuggets and previously frozen french fries, my dogs do not show the same type of preferences in their diet.  They are what I call "appetite driven" and not taste driven.  They show the same enthusiasm toward a bowl of dry commercial dog food kibble as they do a few morsels of my cooked chicken as they do the mouse that one of the barn cats left in the back yard three days earlier.   OK, that last one is a fairly bad example because it is quite rare that the rodent carcasses brought home by the cats last more than a few seconds if discovered by any one of the dogs.  But you get my point.  So while I do home cook for myself, I admit I take the easy way out and feed commercially prepared food to my dogs and cats and chickens for that matter.  Lots of science goes into creating balanced and nutritional diets for animals and I am more than happy to take advantage of all the hard work spent to create a balanced animal food.  Scooping feed out of a bag simplifies my life enormously and I've always had a healthy bunch of animals in my household and on my farm.

As a veterinarian, I have very little problem with most commercial diets.  I see dogs that are healthy eating every type of dog food from typical grocery store fare to exotic pet shop diets.  For that reason, I am very hesitant to recommend specific brands when having discussions about what to feed pets (unless there is a medical need).  I think the obesity problem (that means OVER feeding) has way more to do with how healthy or unhealthy our pets are than what brand of food they eat.  Genetics plays a HUGE role too.  There was an interesting study published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine recently about causes of death in dogs by breed and age.  Not surprising was that as dogs grow older they are more likely to die from cancer.  Some would blame our environment or diet as the culprit, but interestingly enough was that after a certain age, the incidence of cancer started going down.  You would expect that if diet or environment were totally to blame that the cancer incidence would continue to climb all the way through the oldest individuals.  It doesn't .  Here is a nice blog that discusses this study.

But you would be living under the proverbial rock, if you did not at least know there are murmurings about how bad commercial diets for our pets.  Ah yes, the internet buzz.  I have three issues with the undeserved demonization of commercial pet diets.  The same people who have jumped on the "raw diet" and homemade diet bandwagon are the same ones who proclaim commercial pet foods are some toxic product of the animal slaughter house industry because you will find ingredients such as chicken by-product meal in pet food.  Oh the horror when it is discovered that chicken by-product meal is this: " Chicken by-product meal consists of the ground, rendered, clean parts of the carcass of slaughtered chicken, such as necks, feet, undeveloped eggs and intestines, exclusive of feathers, except in such amounts as might occur unavoidable in good processing practice.".  Chicken feet!  Oh my, it contains chicken feet!  Well did you know that chicken feet actually do have some nutritional value?  They are considered a delicacy in many Asian cultures and can be found pre-packaged on grocery store shelves in many parts of the world.  Just because most Americans (me included) wouldn't put a chicken foot within a few feet of my mouth doesn't mean they aren't edible.  Actually one of the women who was at one of our farm's chicken butchering days last year requested cleaning and packing up some of the chicken feet because her mom makes soup stock from them.  No problem.  I was planning on throwing them out.

But yet the "raw food" crowd jumps up and down and shouts how raw diets are "natural" when all they are feeding is meat and perhaps ground up bones and veggies.  What is so wrong with the feet, necks and internal organs and perhaps a few feathers mixed in?  The coyotes that raid the farmer's chicken coop don't seem to mind eating those other parts along with the meat and bones.  I don't get the prejudice against animal parts that most AMERICANS do not tend to eat.  And what is great about chicken by-product meal is that it is cooked so that all the nasty bacteria and parasites that are found in raw food are now dead.

The second issue I have with raw food diets is the "raw" part.  I've gotten a little better with my own cooking, but after going through public health class in vet school and learning about all the parasites that occur naturally in the meats that we eat, I had a tendency to cook every cut of meat until it resembled a charcoal briquette.  Not because I wasn't paying attention to how long I cooked my meat.  No, it was quite purposeful as I would flip burgers on the grill and mutter "die parasites die" under my breath.  I have loosened up a bit these days in the pursuit of good flavor and juiciness of the meat I eat, but you will never catch me eating Sushi.

Raw foods can be an issue for pets too.  Remember about how my dogs love to snack on the rodents that the barn cats catch and deposit so lovingly on the front porch of the house?  Well this caused quite a bit of embarrassment for me last winter.  I used to let the dogs sleep with me in bed before I got married.  Then I married a farm boy who was raised with the "dogs don't belong in the house" philosophy.  He was quite tolerant of the dogs in the bed until one day one of the dogs ate a pile of cat poop outside and then proceeded to jump on the bed and vomit said pile of cat poop all over said bed.  That was the last day the dogs were allowed on the bed.  He has no problems with the dogs in the house (and even cuddles with them on the floor every day), but no dogs in bed.  Because I don't sleep with the dogs anymore, I may be a little slower on the uptake about things like, um, tapeworms (which dogs get from eating rodents).  Sue, our office manager, was so kind to watch my old dog Molly at her house while my husband and I went out of town on vacation.  Sue has such a kind heart and even though Molly is not allowed on the furniture at my house, Sue puts a blanket on her couch and lets Molly sleep there.  When I got back from vacation Sue informed me that she had found tapeworm segments on her couch.  Ooops!  So sorry Sue.  Guess I had better worm my rodent eating dog.   Dogs and cats DO get parasites from raw food.  They DO get salmonella and other bacteria from food.  As someone who sees firsthand the harm that parasites and bacteria can cause pets and people, I don't understand why cooking pet food is evil to the raw food believers.  I guess I can't understand everything.  I will continue to cook my food and mutter "die parasites die".  I am a cooked food believer.

Last but not least is the nutritional balancing act.  You've got your big nutrients (carbs, proteins and fats) and your little nutrients (vitamins and minerals).  All must be in balance.  Now there is some deep philosophical stuff right there.  So for those who want to make homemade diets for your pets,  I beg you PLEASE learn how to do it correctly.  It takes months and months of eating a diet with nutritional deficiencies before you might see a problem.  It makes me so sad to see a blind cat or a young dog with thin brittle broken bones all because they were eating a poorly made diet.

I am going to give you two great sources of homemade diets.  Both companies are run by veterinarians.  Both are VERY reasonably priced for their consultation services.  One is BalanceIT and the other is  Check them out so I don't have to see your pets in my office for a nutritional deficiency.  I have enough to do treating all the bone impactions and the diarrhea from people feeding raw diets to their pets. (OK sorry I couldn't resist that.)

As for me, I will be heading home to make some homemade enchiladas with rice and beans for me and my husband and scooping food out of a bag for my doggies.  Guaranteed smiles from my husband and wagging tails from the wooferdoodles (as I like to call them).

Thanks again to Flickr creative commons for some of the photos (linked back).

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