Organizations That Feed Dogs When Owners Can’t

In difficult times, dog lovers all over the country have separately rallied to make sure that no canine is left unfed. Grassroots pet food banks have sprung up in most regions, with local humane societies offering contact information for needy or infirm pet owners in their communities. Below, organizers and satisfied customers tell their stories and share tips on how to receive food bank services.

The Central Florida Animal Pantry
When Erica Wilson and her 9-year-old son, Zach, went to a Florida shelter to find a companion for their German shepherd-Labrador mix, Brandi, Zach found himself face-to-face with a problem he never knew existed: homeless dogs abandoned because their owners couldn’t afford to feed them.

“We knew we needed to do something,” says Wilson. What began as a Cub Scout food drive grew into a full-on food pantry in the spring of 2009, when a distribution location in Longwood, Fla., was donated for their use. They distribute an average of 600 pounds of food a week, much of it donated by major manufacturers.

“We meet people from all walks of life here, from those who’ve struggled all their lives to those who aren’t used to asking for help, but now have no other choice,” says Wilson. The organization provides food to the disabled and elderly as well.

We All Love Our Pets (WALOP)
Meals on Wheels has a reputation for feeding homebound seniors, but since 2006, they’ve also offered the same service to their clients’ pets. WALOP was founded in recognition of the fact that companion animals are vital to the well-being of the elderly. It is a national initiative to focus attention on that vital relationship.

Estelle Bergman of Forest Hills, N.Y., has been relying on Meals on Wheels since she broke her ankle three years ago. “I am in no shape to carry home a 10-pound bag of food from the grocery store, and on a fixed income, it’s not easy to afford either. WALOP has taken care of my dog, Popcorn, as Meals on Wheels has taken care of me,” she says.

Save Our Pets Food Bank
In 2008, former CEO Ann King of Atlanta, Ga., had a 30,000-square-foot building and a dream. She wanted to fill her warehouse with pet food and hand it out to people who could no longer afford to feed their animals. King approached a local food pantry -- specializing in feeding people -- and asked if they could help her to distribute her wares. “They told me they didn’t think there was a need, which I knew was crazy,” she remembers.

King got going without them, and in the last three years her food bank has helped over 700 families and 200 rescue organizations and shelters in Georgia through donations from independent supporters and pet food manufacturers alike.

“I hear stories about the lengths people have gone to try to keep their pets with them,” says King. “One woman was boiling chickens and ladling the broth over rice she had for her dogs, just to provide them more protein. Meeting our clients makes me feel grateful.”

Getting Help

  • Locate a pet food pantry near you by calling your local humane society for contact information
  • Make sure your pet is spayed or neutered before applying, as many banks make this a requirement for membership. They will connect you to low-cost spay and neuter options if your pet has never been fixed.
  • Provide proof of income (or lack thereof). While the income caps at different pantries vary, most require some type of proof of financial hardship, be that a copy of your latest income tax return, a copy of your most recent pay stub, or papers such as a social security reward letter or a disability check stub.

How to Select Dog Food

When perusing the pet food aisle at your local store, what criteria do you use to select your dog’s food? An Ipsos poll conducted last October surveyed pet owners on this very issue. Over 1,000 randomly selected adults, serving as a nationally representative sample, were interviewed online to determine how they select pet food. See how your own decision-making process rates in comparison to that of the survey respondents.

How Americans Choose Dog Food
Based on the survey results, Americans consider four primary factors when purchasing food for their dog or cat.

1. Listen to the experts. Thirty-six percent of pet owners cite personal recommendations from trusted sources, such as veterinarians, as the most important factor of diet selection.

2. Read labels. Thirty percent rank ingredients as the most important criteria when selecting food. “If you pick up a bag of pet food and you see a vegetable-based protein (glutens) in the top few ingredients, keep moving down the aisle,” says Dr. Katy Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., who is also a member of the Iams Pet Wellness Council. “High-quality foods are made with animal-based proteins and high-quality refined meals.”

3. Invest in your pet. Nearly 25 percent rank price as a deciding factor. But good deals may not be all that you’ve bargained for. “The ‘least cost’ formulation could certainly explain the finickiness of many animals,” says Nelson. “If a company is scrimping on the cost of the food, they’re likely to leave out -- or at least decrease the level included -- of something that would greatly enhance palatability, as it is likely to cost the most to add.”

4. Consider the age of your dog. Only 11 percent of U.S. pet owners take their pet’s age into consideration when determining which formula to feed their pet. “I always tell my patients that healthy checkups start on the inside,” says Nelson, who encourages feeding a pet a high-quality diet specific to an animal’s age.

What Is Your Dog’s Stage of Life?

It’s important to consider the stages of life for dogs when deciding on your choice of pet food. “Diet requirements -- including protein levels, calories and vitamins and minerals -- vary over the life of a pet,” says Nelson. “In turn, an animal’s needs change as he grows from a puppy or kitten, to an adult into a senior.”
Nelson shares these basic guidelines:

  • One to 12 months Puppy formula at this stage should include DHA for brain and vision development. Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical service veterinarian, explains that DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid. “The benefits of a diet rich in DHA starts in the womb, much like pregnant women taking prenatal vitamins,” says Dicke.
  • One to 7 years Adult-formula dry dog foods should have crunchy kibbles to help keep teeth clean and tartar-free. Look for phrases like “dental care” on dog food labels. Foods for adult dogs should also contain a balanced omega 6-to-3 ratio for healthy skin and coat.
  • Seven years and older A senior formula with L-carnitine helps burn fat and keeps muscles lean. L-carnitine is a vitamin-like compound that helps turn fat into energy. Losing weight can mean losing muscle as well as fat, but adding L-carnitine to a diet helped overweight dogs maintain muscle and lose fat. Weight loss diets may also feature enhanced levels of vitamin A to reduce weight regain.

Help Your Dog Go Green at Mealtime

From using biodegradable dog waste bags to replacing store-bought toys with safe, old household objects, pet lovers are demonstrating that they are environment lovers too. It’s only natural that the concern over pollution from pets would extend to chowtime.

“Being eco-conscious is not something you do for yourself and not for your pets,” says Don Reisinger, sales and marketing director for New Age Pet, maker of the ecoConcepts Pet Bowls. “If you’re going to do it right, you need to be eco-conscious right across the board.”

The Green Dog Movement
As you seek out more natural foods for yourself and continue to recycle packaging, think about doing so for your dogs. Here are tips on how to make your dog’s dinnertime more eco-friendly:

1. Look for natural ingredients.
A growing number of consumers have begun using the standard of minimally processed foods when deciding what to feed their dog. The Association of American Feed Control Officials, which regulates the pet food industry, defines natural food as “… derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources … not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.” Increasingly, pet food makers are putting ingredients in dog food that people understand are healthy, such as chicken, egg, carrots, spinach and omega-3-rich fish oil and flaxseed.

2. Recycle food packaging.
“Canned food packaging is very recyclable. It’s the greener alternative as far as ability to recycle is concerned,” says Christine Mallar, owner of Green Dog Pet Supply in Portland, Ore. Dry dog food manufacturers are often looking to create stability for ingredients and sometimes use waxy or coated paper for bags. “If there are layers, we tear off the outer layers and recycle the paper part on the outside and leave the liner to the garbage,” says Mallar.

3. Buy bowls locally made of recycled matter.
Eco-friendly food and water bowls on the market include: recycled plastics and glass; stainless steel, which is durable and doesn’t often get scratch marks where bacteria can hide; and locally made, lead-free ceramic bowls, which cut down on the use of fossil fuels used to transport the goods.

4. Serve filtered or recirculated water.
To provide your dog with good-quality water and help the environment, choose filtered tap water. It removes metals and pollutants from your water supply. Avoid bottled water, which often ends up in landfills unless it is properly recycled. Pet water fountains, which recirculate water and can entice your dog to drink more because the water tastes fresher, are another option.

5. Use recycled place mats.
Avoid mopping up the floor under the dog’s bowl by purchasing a place mat made of recycled material. “For anything you’re buying for your pets or yourself, you should consider what it is made of, where it is coming from, how long it will last and what happens with it when you’re done,” says Mallar. She sells fair-trade place mats made in Africa from Global Mamas that are batik on one side and plastic recovered from landfills on the other side.

“For too many decades,” Reisinger says, “we just bought what we wanted and did not pay attention to the environment.” With just a few simple changes, you can help to make a positive difference.

Support Your Dog’s Dental Health

Periodontal disease in dogs can contribute to the development of kidney, liver, heart and bone disease, so toothbrushing and regular veterinary cleanings are as important to your dog’s health as they are to your own. Good food and habits, however, can also fight tartar and the whole host of dental issues, such as a malodorous mouth, which go along with it. Dr. Katy Nelson, a Virginia-based veterinarian, explains the importance of dental care and its relationship to diet.

Recognizing Dog Dental Health
According to Nelson, healthy dog gums are pink as opposed to red, with no buildup of tartar around the gum line. What’s more, a healthy mouth does not produce intolerably stinky breath. “Your dog’s vet should always do an oral exam,” says Nelson. “In older dogs especially, [teeth] can get abscesses with no easily visible signs. A thorough assessment may require sedation.”

Maintaining Dental Health
There are three ways you can make sure your dog stays dentally healthy: at-home brushing, professional cleaning, and dog food and treats containing sodium hexametaphosphate (HMP).

1. Brushing You can make any pooch tolerate the dental health process: Buy a chicken- or beef-flavored toothpaste, or make the brushing sessions standard practice.

“Brush as often as your lifestyle allows -- daily if possible. They get used to it quickly if it’s a regular part of their lives,” says Nelson. Put your pet on a raised surface, such as a table, hold its jaw firmly in one hand, and brush with the other. Choose a time when your dog is relaxed and stop if your pet gets too agitated.

2. Professional cleaning Not every dog needs its teeth cleaned yearly. With the right genes, some dogs never develop much tartar. But for the rest, regular cleanings, which require anesthesia, are necessary up to twice a year.

“We use an ultrasonic scaler, which makes a high-pitched noise and vibrates really quickly. There’s not a dog on the planet who will sit still while its teeth are cleaned this way,” explains Nelson.

3. Food Food fights tartar in two ways. The first is mechanical: The simple act of chewing on something crunchy breaks up tartar. The second is chemical: The aforementioned HMP, a food additive, lives in the saliva for up to 12 hours, breaking down tartar and preventing plaque.

To boost the effectiveness of foods with this additive, Nelson suggests serving wet and dry foods separately -- if you normally provide your dog with both types. “The chemical works best when it is activated by saliva, so other types of moisture can water down the process,” she explains.

Nelson also says to look for a food or treat with a seal of approval from the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC). “If it’s got the seal, it’s guaranteed to be a good dental treat or food.” Nelson advises you proceed with caution, though, if your dog is overweight. “A lot of dental-specific diets can be high in fat, so make sure whatever diet you choose is designed for the whole dog, and not just its mouth.”

Give the Gift of Food and Supplies to Shelters

Did you know that animal shelters often have holiday wish lists? For example, the Evanston, Ill., municipal animal shelter is so reliant on donations of funds, food and supplies that its fundraising arm has started an online wish list asking for items. On that list are cotton rope toys, fleece throws for kennels, food and treats, and then some items you might not consider when donating to an animal shelter.

“No. 1 on our list is cleaning supplies,” says Megan Lutz, vice president of publicity for C.A.R.E. for the Evanston Animal Shelter. “Bleach, paper towels, liquid laundry detergent, dish soap -- those are things we use constantly day in and day out. When people can pick up an extra 12-pack of paper towels or an extra jug of bleach, we love that. It saves us from having to run out to the store.”

Food Donations
Like the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SFSPCA), many shelters are taking to the Web to list their needs. Often, these needs will include pet food donations. The SFSPCA lists some items that you would expect to find, such as any brand of unopened dry or canned pet food and dog treats. But some unexpected food items show up on the lists too, including jars of turkey and chicken baby food. These are for sick dogs or dogs that have trouble eating.

“Shelters never want to say no, but donations can be difficult to manage,” says Kimberley Intino, a certified animal welfare administrator and the director of shelter services for the Humane Society of the United States. “My suggestion would be to double-check the shelter’s Web site or news site, or wherever they post their wish list, beforehand.”

Each shelter has its own food donation policies, but here are some general guidelines:

  • High-quality foods Shelters usually appreciate high-quality foods to best meet the nutritional needs of the dogs in their care. “The more recognizable the brand of a food, the better,” says Intino. “These tend to be more expensive, but they also tend to be higher in quality.”
  • Dry or canned Most shelters tend to feed their dogs dry food because it is easier, cleaner and doesn’t give off as much odor. But all shelters will also have canned food on hand to supplement feeding, particularly for sick or injured pets, or those with missing teeth or dental problems.
  • Watch expiration dates “The longest amount of time before the expiration date, the better,” says Intino. A bag of dry food you just opened and found that your dog doesn’t like may be useful too, so check with your shelter.

Needed Supplies
In Evanston, the shelter also needs office supplies, such as copy paper, stamps and Sharpie markers. “When we open a can of food, we mark the date on it before we put it in the fridge,” explains Lutz. “If a person knows a shelter shops at a particular store, you can always give a gift card or gift certificate as well,” says Intino.

A shelter may even desire gently used pet supplies you already have, such as a training crate, a ceramic bowl, or a collar and leash. In Evanston, the shelter operates a crate loaner program for adopted dogs. The new owners get their deposit back when they return the crate. Old ceramic bowls, while too breakable for the shelter environment, can be sold at the shelter’s annual flea market to raise money.

But perhaps the best reason of all to remember homeless animals during the coming holiday season is that donating to a shelter may help save a life and possibly unite potential families with a loving pet.