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Pet Chef: Home cooking results in happier, healthier dogs and cats

December 4, 2005
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Meet the pet chef, Susanella Noble of Hawaii. She is a firm believer in feeding her dogs and cats food that she prepares at home. Her animals are not fed the slightest bit of commercial pet food.

She is so convinced that her home cooking results in happier, healthier dogs and cats that she is taking her show on the road in the form of pilot TV show called "The Pet Chef," which was written in consultation with a veterinarian.

At first glance, "The Pet Chef" looks like one of the many now-familiar cooking shows, but several characteristics make this show unique. For one, the background flute music is played by Noble, a professional musician.

The charismatic Noble is shown preparing dinner in her Harmony Farm kitchen on the big island. The human food she is preparing will be shared with her adult son, Tedd, and her two dog children, Bucky and Gaucho.

And instead of a live audience clapping on cue, Noble's Tibetan terriers, complete with bibs, form an enthusiastic and attentive audience as they sit at the kitchen counter watching Noble's every move - and barking on cue.

"The true mission behind the series is to encourage pet owners to feed their dogs and cats real food instead of the many harmful commercial pet foods on the market," Noble says. "We've all been brainwashed by the great advertising machine into believing that we have to feed them this unnatural kibble.

"(But) I demonstrate that most food is dog food (except for chocolate, grapes and onions) and explain that for thousands of years our best friends ate from our ancestors' tables. I show how easy it is to prepare unique, nutritious meals for guest and families both human and canine," she said, describing her show.

"It's important to know that different breeds have different nutritional requirements and owners need to take responsibility for their animals instead of giving them a quick meal fix," she adds.

Pet Food Recipe in graphicNoble also says cats can be home-fed.

Cats, notoriously finicky eaters, should be fed 95 percent meat with occasional raw, pulped vegetables and gentle grains such as oatmeal. She recommends raw ground turkey and an occasional can of tuna plus one tablespoon of oatmeal and one tablespoon of pulped raw vegetables every couple of days.

"Cats cannot drink enough water to compensate for eating dry cat food," Noble adds. "They need to get most of their moisture from raw foods. Before you cook that turkey or chicken or grill a hamburger, offer some to your cats," she suggests.

She acknowledges that home-feeding can be difficult at first.

"The transition to home-feeding is a process, especially for those of us who have been brainwashed (by commercial pet food manufacturers). You'll find your own path in your own way."

Her web page can be found at www.petchefhawaii.com

Noble is not a veterinarian. That is both her strength and her weakness as a home-food advocate.

There are millions of pet owners in the country and an increasing but uncounted number rightly or wrongly distrust the commercial pet food industry.

And adherents of the home-feeding movement generally distrust vet schools where the pet food industry funds research.

At the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Hills, Waltham, Master Foods, Ralston Purina and Royal Canin, have sponsored about $1.4 million worth of research or about 20 research projects in animal health and nutrition over the past five years.

The vet school is committed to promoting animal health.

"Our faculty identified the fundamental need for taurine in a cat's diet to prevent a fatal heart ailment," said Lynn Narlesky of the dean's office. "Based on that science, pet food manufacturers now add taurine to commercial feline diets."

Assistant Professor Andrea Fascetti of molecular biological sciences at School of Veterinary Medicine says she knows of no scientific study that has proven home-cooked diets to be better for animals than commercial pet foods.

But she has some advice for those who want to feed their pets home-cooked food.

"If you are going to home-cook you need to partner with a veterinarian in order to understand disease and nutrition issues," she said in a recent interview.

She isn't totally against home-cooking, in fact, she said it can be extremely useful in some vet-approved situations when an animal needs a fat- or protein-restricted diet.

"But in general we don't recommend home cooking because there's nothing wrong with commercial diets," said Fascetti, who feeds her own pets commercial food. She does warn that there's not always a direct correlation between cost and quality.

"But we are always trying to improve nutrition of dogs and cats and those findings go into commercial food or formulations for home-made foods. We are still learning so much in the field of nutrition," she added.

Veterinarians are familiar with charges that commercial pet food is bad for pets and the suggestion that students are brain-washed by the pet food culture.

"You can call it brainwashing or you can call it education," says Jean Rabinowitz, D.V.M., a 2004 graduate of the UCD vet school.

"We are vested in the scientific method and we require that to the extent possible findings must derive from that investigation," she said.

"I have had a number of cases in which people were feeding home cooked meals that led to or contributed to severe metabolic disease," Rabinowitz added.

"One of my most difficult tasks and biggest achievements was convincing clients to adopt an animal's diet according to evidence-based nutrition rather than cult feeding practices," she added.

But even Rabinowitz agrees that some commercial pet foods are of such low quality that they could contribute to disease or make a sick animal worse.

Bottom line: Consumers should work at reading and understanding pet food labels or take direction from a veterinarian.

Noble asks: Why bother? She remains steadfast in her belief that it's unnecessary and even harmful to buy the special commercial diets.

"When I think of the beloved dogs and cats that I've poisoned in this lifetime (by feeding them commercial pet food), it breaks my heart," she said.

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org and watch for more local writers to be featured biweekly at this web site.

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