Pet Project

An owner tries out homemade meals for some furry friends

May 07, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

Sometime between parting with $80 for dubious pantry staples, discovering the scent of baking cat food to be something less than potpourri and nursing a blister earned trying to carve pounds of kibble into kitten-sized morsels, it sunk in: I'm a buyer, not a maker, of pet food.

And that's not even counting the kitty's disparaging review of my labors on his behalf.

Yet after a number of dogs and cats died last year from contaminated commercial pet food, more animal owners are consulting cookbooks, scouring the Internet for tips, investing in odd ingredients and devoting hours of free time, all to serve their furry companions homemade casseroles, soups and stews.

Wendy Nan Rees, a Los Angeles pet enthusiast with a radio show called Wendy's Animal Talk, started cooking for her dogs more than 20 years ago when she realized salt and preservatives didn't agree with her sensitive Shar-Pei. She invented a doggie cookie that she still swears tastes just like a graham cracker. Late last year, she published The Natural Pet Food Cookbook.

Rees devotes one day a month to cooking and baking for her three dogs, and freezes the various dishes. She supplements her homemade efforts with store-bought dry food - "half kibble, half mommy food," she says.

The American Veterinary Medical Association says it's safe to feed your pets commercial pet food, but Rees talks about canned pet food as if it were atrocity in a tin, as if she'd sooner feed her animals household cleanser.

"You could never sell me on a canned food," she says. "Dogs and cats offer absolute, unconditional, unbiased love. They're part of the family. You take care of your pets the way you take care of yourself."

TV chef Rachael Ray, famous for making 30-minute meals, also wants people to devote some culinary minutes to their animals. In her magazine, Every Day With Rachael Ray, a standing feature called "Pet Friendly" includes recipes designed for dogs and people to share.

It isn't clear if Ray, a well-known dog lover, cooks for her red-nosed pit bull, Isaboo. "She's a very busy lady," says Casey Flaherty, a publicist for the magazine. But the idea, Flaherty adds, is to make dishes that the whole family - two- and four-legged members - can enjoy together.

Recent recipes have included Mini Muttballs and Ditalini, Real Dogs Eat Quiche and Arroz Con Pollo Para Fido. The April issue showcased a Carrots-and-Peas Orzo that, judging from the photo, looked at least as appetizing as a microwaved frozen dinner.

So, because my affection for Leo Sesame, an exuberantly adorable 5-month-old kitten, should not be outdone by the likes of Ms. Ray et al., I thought I could invest a little kitchen time on his behalf.

So I consulted Rees' book and headed to the Whole Foods store, where it didn't take long to realize I had no idea where to even start looking for certain things. Brewer's yeast? Is that a baking product? A spice? A vitamin? And cod liver oil? Fish flakes?

Finally, $78.30 poorer, I headed home to experiment with Champion Cat Turkey Kibble, a dish I needed to start early because the recipe required an overnight oven stay.

Mixing the dough and rolling it onto cookie sheets seemed no harder than making cookies - smelly cookies. As I closed the oven door with satisfaction on my sheets of kibble, the dough separated into bits when scored with a pizza cutter, I didn't notice my tragic error.

But it was clear enough the next morning when I pulled out the trays, sifted the hardened squares and realized the kibbles, though rather small, were gigantic next to Leo's Purina. So I tried cutting it smaller. Piece by piece by never-ending piece, I knifed that kibble, as Leo walked by periodically, shooting me what seemed to be disdainful glances. After about an hour, I began doubting both my sanity and humanity.

Anyway, I ended up with a huge blister and piles of kibble that Leo was thrilled to bat across the floor, but less than enthused to actually put in his mouth.

I decided the flat reaction was just Leo's lack of sophistication showing, and brought the kibble to a few of my favorite area cats.

Gypsy, an 8-year-old dainty eater who subsists on store-bought dry chow - whatever's on sale, her owner says - essentially decided she'd rather starve than eat homemade kibble. It sat untouched in her favorite bowl for an entire day.

Next came Mookie, an orange, long-haired lion of a cat who, over his 21 years, has cultivated a refined palate that, his owner believes, can be satisfied only by Fancy Feast. He sniffed the kibble - an unimpressed sniff.

Joining the growing chorus of boos was Bobbi, a 5-year-old cat with a stump for a tail.

Some of the cats gave the next dish - Salmon Casserole - a fairer shake: Leo enthusiastically ate his portion while Mookie, offered a bit on his dinner plate, sniffed it, took a little lick, perhaps even a bite, and then walked away. For good.

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