Scooping out the wholesome mixture of beef, sweet potato, peas, blueberries and chia seeds to my mutt, Gussie, I could actually see the individual fruit and veggie pieces. This could be Goop-level dog food, I thought, a dish so virtuous that Gwyneth herself might feed it to her own four-legged family member (Paltrow has a Maltese, FYI).
Human-grade dog food from Ollie, an online subscription company that launched in 2016, seemed like a smart alternative to the mystery kibble I’d been feeding my beloved pup — but is a dog food that requires refrigeration and upward of $100 per month overkill?
We’re seeing fresh, customizable dog and cat foods break into the pet food market — a $28.23 billion industry — at a speedy rate. Gabby Slome, one of Ollie’s founders, likened her subscription dog food service to a “Blue Apron of dog food.” Ollie and its competitors are a huge departure from commercial dog food, which tends to be sold in 50-lb bags and stored in a pantry. Ollie meals are designed from information received through a survey filled out by every individual customer.
After the meals are cooked (by real people, the company stresses), the food is portioned into trays measured for the canine client’s exact serving-size needs, sealed and shipped out on ice packs. Once in the refrigerator, the trays of food will stay fresh for up to two weeks if unopened, and five days after being opened. (They can also be stored in the freezer to extend shelf life.)
The most significant difference between Ollie and other similar luxury subscription pet food companies, and the kind you can pick up last minute at a gas station, is how they are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Once you begin to examine what conventional dog food is made of, you might experience a rush of panic, maybe a parental pull that’s telling you to start preparing homemade poké bowls and filet mignon for your dog every night. The FDA regulates commercial pet food under the same category as “animal feed” — grub for creatures like hens or fish — and, if you’re sensitive, some of the practices could make your stomach churn.
Pretty much any part of an animal that doesn’t make the cut for human consumption can make it into pet food, Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, explained in a phone interview. Often, pet foods contain something called “rendered meat,” or leftover parts of an animal, which can include ingredients ranging from the liver and kidneys to the less-appealing bones and beaks. And sometimes, rendered meat includes protein from non-slaughtered animals that died from illness. (Certain brands host disclaimers on their websites to ensure their ingredients are not sourced from some of the more grotesque stuff, to abate customer concern.) Davis said some of the meat may also come from bird shredding, which she describes on her website as a practice in which unusable poultry — often male chicks — are macerated and sold for profit.
For Ollie’s Slome, learning about these ingredients was the catalyst for her search for a different kind of pet food. “Dead, dying or diseased animals get mushed up into this meat slurpee,” she said, explaining that the high temperatures at which the food is processed ends up making the food deficient in nutrients, which, in turn, leads the manufacturers to artificially supplement the food.
But does it really matter what we feed our dogs? It depends on who’s buying, Ernie Ward, veterinarian and author, said over the phone. For his own patients, Ward said, before he makes pet food recommendations, he determines what kind of pet parent the caretaker is. If he’s working with someone who is more of a “Whole Foods mom,” as he put it, he’ll go down one path. If he can recognize that a pet-owner wants to provide quality food but is working within the parameters of cost and convenience, he’ll go down another.
When it comes to commercial foods, Ward said buyers should look for ingredients they recognize, transparency in where the food was manufactured and sourced from and a label from the Association of American Feed Control Officials, “a guarantee that the food is nutritionally complete and balanced,” he said.
Ultimately, what we feed our pets ends up resembling our own food philosophies, Ward explained. “In a perfect world, my family and my pet family would be eating freshly prepared whole foods in every meal,” he said. “But in a modern, busy world, we do eat on the go. That’s just life, and that’s how I view most commercial pet foods — they satisfy a need. Millions of dogs and cats around the world are thriving on commercially available products.”
Feeding your pooch a shelf-stable kibble doesn’t make you a bad pet-parent, in the same way serving your kid Froot Loops won’t send child services after you. All pet food brands play into our collective belief that our pets are our family members and should be treated as such, and higher-end brands can give off a holier-than-thou vibe that “healthy” food brands have evoked for years.
We want to give our pets foods that will help them live the longest, healthiest lives possible. But, just like the rules of human nutrition get confused when marketing comes into play — is it really so important for a potato chip to be non-GMO? — the criteria for what is and isn’t nourishing for dogs is really muddied. And the science isn’t there. “We could not find evidence that one commercial pet food was better than another or that pets eating homemade foods were healthier and lived longer,” New York University nutrition and food studies professor Marion Nestle wrote in an email. “It makes sense, but no data.”
For the record, Gussie has wagged furiously and demolished every single serving of Ollie that we’ve given her. That’s not necessarily saying much, considering she also eats rocks, feathers and shards of glass when she can find them, but she did seem to truly enjoy the food. It’s a different — and messier — experience to serve our pet wet dinner from the refrigerator, and the new system has signaled to Gussie that any time the fridge opens, she’ll be getting something to eat (not true, dog). But, there is something that feels wholesome about giving my dog real, visible vegetables, and I’d do almost anything for this starter baby of mine.