Storing Pet Food

Sharon January 15th, 2009

I warn y’all, this will probably be incomplete by necessity - there’s no way I could hope to discuss every single pet or critter in existence.  You’ll have to research your own sustainable African Pygmy Squirrel diet, I’m afraid.  Actually, I’m going, just for reasons of length, to say that we’ll stick, today, to cats and dogs. 

 But for those of us with traditional pets and critters, the question of storage always arises.  Obviously, we want to take good care of our animals.  And good care is complicated - is it better to have more, lower quality food with a longer shelf life, or higher quality food with a shorter one?

 My own feeling is that it is a balancing act to find the optimal combination of nutrition and storage life.  It isn’t always trade off like above, but sometimes it is.  I’m assuming here that we want what it best for our animals, but also for their humans - that is, a balanced perspective that makes sure they have the healthiest possible food, that supports the best possible principles, and our longer term objectives.

 So let’s start with dogs.  Dogs are omnivores, and capable of more flexible diets than many animals.  Dogs have been known to thrive on commercial pet foods, on raw food diets like BARF and on homemade, cooked dog foods.  Originally, dogs lived mostly on human scraps and their own hunting and foraging.

Dogs do have very sensitive stomachs - which means that if you plan to have your dog live on something in a crisis, the ideal is to have them eat it now, at least as part of their diet.  They do not handle abrupt shifts very well.

Most basic commercial dry dog foods come with a 1-year lifespan - this is before opening.  Unlike most human foods, most Vets seem to agree that dog and cat foods should be stored IN THE ORIGINAL PACKAGING - that the packaging itself provides a measure of freshness - so if you are storing pet foods, I would recommend keeping them in airtight containers, in the original packaging - perhaps in large storage bins.  This is kind of awkward, but provides a measure of reduction of rancidity and vitamin loss.

 I don’t love commercial pet foods - besides the problem of industrial food production in general, they often have an awful lot of crap in them.  Many of the cheaper versions are high in corn, which is tough to digest.  I’ve written before about the ethical issues of the meat product sources - at this point, 1 in 7 cows in the US feedlot system doesn’t qualify for human consumption due to ill health - almost all of them go to the pet food industry, and IMHO, they make the feedlot system viable - that is, if we weren’t willing to feed the sick cows to our pets, the losses of a system that makes 1 in 7 too sick to be slaughtered by the rather appallingly low standards of the industry would be too big a cost to bear.  I’m also not convinced that these sick cows are good for dogs.

The other issue that some pet food companies actually use euthanized dogs and cats as a protein form in their pet foods - besides the ethical issues for animal lovers, this seems to be a dangerous disease vector.

The pluses of these foods is that they do keep a long time, and that they probably have a reasonably balanced diet in them.  These may be the single easiest storage option - they should keep a full year.  Accumulating a year’s supply of food is fairly inexpensive, a non-trivial consideration for strapped households.  It is always better, IMHO, to feed our animals imperfect food than to end up abandoning or euthanizing them because we cannot afford them.

I distinguish high quality, organic commercial pet foods from the general run of commercial pet foods.  These usually use better, organic meats, and there is more meat and fewer and better fillers.  These are generally better for your pet, and worth it if you can afford them.  They should probably only be stored 6 months, however, because there are more oils that may go rancid.  Again, keep the food in the original packaging.

 Wet canned dog foods vary a lot in quality and nutrients - the low quality industrial ones have the same problems as the above, while if you have the money, there are some good things out there.  Canned foods will store for several years and can expand your storage - even if you can’t store enough for your animal to live on, they could balance a homemade or cheap dry food diet.

Next, there’s a BARF diet, which involves feeding your animals mostly raw meats.  There is some controversy about the inclusion of raw vegetables in this menu, you’ll need to do your own research on that.  I’ve seen many BARF animals do extremely well - the problem is that in a crisis, a BARF diet requires you to be an adept butcher and have a large quantity of livestock on the hoof or small animals easily caught.  This, to me, seems unlikely - I don’t discourage people from trying to hunt pest animals in tough times for their pets, but I don’t think relying on this as a primary diet is something we can expect.

Which brings us to homemade pet foods.  There are a lot of recipes out there, and I think that most of these are probably pretty good, although I do suggest storing vitamin supplements if your vet recommends them.  Generally speaking, these consist of either brown rice or rolled oats, some meat, eggs or milk and some vegetables, all cooked together.  There’s some good precedent for these diets in dogs - for example, herding dogs in the Pyrenees lived in milk and oatmeal.  Some dogs, at least are well adapted to them.

My own feeling is that a combination of a small amount of stored commercial dog food (the very best quality you can afford)  and homemade supplements may be the best option overall for long term storage - that is, your storage of commercial dogfoods will last longer if you only need a little of it, to balance them nutritionally, and that can provide meats that may be hard to come by in storage.  For example, we can store oats and dried milk, which can be made into yogurt and mixed with canned vegetables for a pretty decent fresh food, to combine with the commercial dry food.  Homemade recipes that rely on inexpensive vegetables, bulk purchased grains and either home canned or raised meats and eggs, or bulk purchased dairy dry dairy products (or your own homegrown, obviously) will probably do well in both the nutritional and pocketbook department.

These two sites have recipes and nutritional information about homemade dog foods: 

Ok, what about kitties?  Cats differ from dogs in that they are obligate carnivores - they *have* to eat primarily meat.  While dogs can get along on a vegetarian diet, cats really can’t - yes, I know some people do it, but I’ve not found any vet that recommends it. 

Cat dry and wet foods have approximately the same issues as dog ones - they have some virtues and some non-virtues.  I won’t rehash, because they aren’t that different.  I will say that I’m somewhat persuaded by this vet who recommends against feeding any cat an exclusively dry food diet (she’s got a good cat fud recipe too, a lot of information about nutrition, and some strong opinions disagreed with by two of the vets I consulted, but ymmv):  The above vet also says we shouldn’t be feeding beef at all to cats, for various reasons - I don’t know if that’s right, but she certainly has a point when she notes that cows probably were not the usual prey of small cats in the wild, and I admit, I enjoyed the image it generated.

Because meat is expensive, energy intensive and time consuming to store without a freezer, storing the components of homemade cat food without electricity gets more complex than storing the components of homemade dog food - that is, cats can’t live long on brown rice and milk.  They can and should have small amounts of vegetables in their food, particularly greens, but the majority of their food should be meat based.

A homemade storable diet for cats, assuming that you don’t have a large livestock farm and lots of butchering offal to offer them, would probably involve raising a meat source - pigeons, quail or rabbits being the most accessible to apartment dwellers.  This could be mixed with Vitamin E tablets, cod liver oil,  the eggs of any poultry kept, kelp or iodized salt and bone meal.  Canned clams (not tuna in large quantities) might supply some of the taurine, as might the hearts of butchered animals or hearts obtained from anyone who didn’t want them.

 I have to say, however, that unless you are prepared to raise and butcher livestock, or unless you are committed to pressure canning a ton of cat food, it probably makes sense to store the highest quality commercial foods you can afford for your cats, both from a cost standpoint and from a cat health standpoint.

If I had no choice, my solution for my cats would be to do the best I could, to provide as much meat as possible.  What I wouldn’t do if I could avoid it is turn them loose to hunt their own - feral or loose cats are a major predator for a number of threatened species of bird and small animals.  Just as I don’t think it is cool to use excess kitties in cat food to keep our pets fed, I don’t think it is ok to drive other animals to extinctions.  So that means being prepared.

 For both species, I recommend people also store a bit of kelp (for trace minerals) and nutritional yeast (which provides B vitamins and improves their health).

Edited to add: As people are considering their steps into the informal economy, one area I think might be extremely successful is the production of local, sustainably produced, small scale pet foods.  Even though people have less money to spend, many are extremely attached to their pets (me too), and if you can produce reasonably cost effective, healthy dog or cat foods, that might be a small business that was both useful now and one that might take off if the supply lines for conventional pet foods get cut or people simply want to support local economies.  I recommend it as a possible job.



27 Responses to “Storing Pet Food”

  1. curiousalexa says:

    My former MIL used to scramble eggs and brown ground beef for the farm cats.

    I have read that you can dry browned ground beef for use in backpacking meals, but I would expect that to last days (maybe weeks?), not months, without some type of refrigeration.

    I’m surprised to see you discourage letting cats hunt - keeping rodent population in check is a common recommendation for having cats around in tough times. Although I share your concern for the bird populations…

  2. Sharon says:

    Alexa, I don’t have a problem with cats hunting in limited areas, mostly indoors, say in barns or corncribs, or my house ;-) , but I do think that the damage to the bird population means reducing their hunting ability outside.


  3. Tara says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. We have four dogs (three of them large) and go through a lot of dry kibble. As far as that goes, I’ll say that Costco’s brand (Kirkland) of dry food is by far the best bang we’ve found for the buck in terms of providing a higher quality food for a low price. I homecook about a third of their meals right now - they get raw meat and offal, cooked rice and some sort of veggie. They really like sweet potato and winter squashes. They also get excess eggs from our hens regularly, whey leftover from cheesemaking, any meat scraps I happen to have from our meals and other “handouts” - bits of cheese, occaisional peanut butter, etc. I would also suggest for those with fishing opportunities that I don’t see why dogs couldn’t also be fed fish or fish scraps, at least now and then.

  4. Tara says:

    I’ve found that my animals (dogs and cat), when presented with opportunities to hunt, never actually eat what they kill. They just play with it. Blech.

  5. Karin says:

    Cats are not a native species to North America. So, to let them go feral is like planting purple loose strife in your garden and expecting it to stay there.

    We have 2 indoor cats that do very well with the mice that come into our home. One cat enjoys a little play with vermin before giving the critter its Death Blow. On Christmas day our 2 year old was napping when this great hunter curled up to nap with him. He also provided a Christmas present of a little mouse that he placed by the Wee one’s head.

    The other kitty is not as astute in the hunting but rather prefers long conversations with the mouse before the hunter comes along to handle it.

  6. DEE says:

    We started our extrememly overweight Corgi Arthur on rice,carrots,beans,scrambled eggs or cottage cheese(when it is reasonably priced) and he lost 10 lbs over about 7 months and regained his agility…for a while there he couldn’t make it up the stairs without stopping! Talk aout an easy keeper. So we started feeding it to our 13 year old setter and she is frisky as a puppy. Too bad it didn’t bring back her hearing…poor dog is deaf as a post. After the recalls on commercial dogfood I wasn’t happy feeding that stuff to my pals.

    Heard on the news last nite that many pet owners are cutting back on their doggie’s pampering…thought,how strange when a local grocery chain installed a cooler on the pet food aisle with “fresh” foods for your pet! Wonder whether they are selling much these days. DEE

  7. Survivalist News » Casaubon’s Book: Storing Pet Food says:

    [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » Storing Pet Food I warn y’all, this will probably be incomplete by necessity - there’s no way I could hope to discuss every single pet or critter in existence. You’ll have to research your own sustainable African Pygmy Squirrel diet, I’m afraid. Actually, I’m going, just for reasons of length, to say that we’ll stick, today, to cats and dogs. [...]

  8. Shamba says:

    Oh, thank you for this post, sharon!

    re: hunting cats: my outside cats hunt some on their own but I suspect they do it more for cat sport than for hunger. But they were born feral and I watched their momma cat thing for them to eat and bring them to them. She also got rather large beef bones out of garbage bins-and once whole fish(!)-and brought them for the litter to gnaw on-I found them all on my back patio when i cleaned them up a couple of years ago. Mostly they hang around the front porch and eat what I give them. Much better for them!

    I figure I could always go almost totally vegetarian and give my cats whatever meat I get, if it came to that.


  9. jenn says:

    Great links - I’d like to add to the recommendations that you put some Brewer’s Yeast in the cat food - the cats like it. My cats go crazy for it - one cat seeks it out and if there is a plastic bag from the bulk section that is somewhat yellow colored, he’ll shred it in hopes that it is nootch.

    I feed my cats Premium Edge from Pet Food Express - it has no corn and they like it pretty well. It seems like a good food for them - I buy 4 bags at a time (buy 3, 4th free!) and store them in a big storage bin in my storage shed. The kitties will not go hungry. I’ll have to live on jam and jelly, however.

  10. dewey says:

    “…she notes that cows probably were not the usual prey of small cats in the wild, and I admit, I enjoyed the image it generated.” :) My cat, who thinks she is an apex predator, loved venison whenever she got a chance at it. I could almost see her pretending that she bagged it herself!

    I too have been thinking about how I could feed my cat (who now eats a prescription kibble that I wouldn’t touch if I were starving). I have known a poor developing-country cat who would eat rice and vegetable scraps - but she was half the size she should have been and obviously protein-deficient. Urban cats can’t be expected to hunt for themselves, both because they would deplete the local prey and because they’re at increasing risk of pet theft (if times are really tough, even of being killed for food). I’d like to try the homemade food, but it strikes me as being one of those things my DH won’t go for so long as there is a commercial alternative; I may just have to print out the recipes and quietly save them.

    The suggestion of homemade pet food as a cottage industry sounds brilliant for multiple reasons. Among them, I am sure that intrastate production and sale of animal food is less regulated than that of human foods is, so that you would make yourself much less of a target selling pet food from a noncommercial kitchen that lacks self-closing doors, etc., etc.

  11. Sharon says:

    Yup, in fact, Dewey, I bet if you marketed it as Pet food, but made it appetizing enough, well…you might not want to enquire too closely about whether people had pets for not ;-) .


  12. Kati says:

    *wry smile* And this is why, as much as I love my dogs, I will be advocating AGAINST their replacement when they’ve passed away. I just don’t see the point in feeding and maintaining two beasts (or, even necessarily one) who’s sole purpose in life is to wag their tails and give us kisses. (Maybe if they were retrievers trained to do what retrievers do, or had the appropriate training to make use of their sled-dog roots, I might feel otherwise.)

    Thanks for posting this Sharon. Gives us some insight into the problems facing folks keeping dogs & cats simply as pets without giving them a real job, in the future.

  13. Danielle says:

    Dogs have been traditionally valuable for many tasks, not the least is a built in alarm. Some are also excellent ratting dogs. A good Jack Russel or dog with similar instincts can be invaluable on a homestead. Rats are notoriously difficult to eradicate, very destructive, and very smart, better not to even let them get established if possible, and a good dog or two can really help with that. At any rate, I think we’ve lost a bit of our connection and reliance upon canines.

    As far as food, rabbits are an excellent choice. They breed rapidly and are natural prey for both dogs and cats. Cracked eggs work well, as does excess milk and table scraps. Our dogs eat all our bones even.

  14. Laurie in MN says:

    Thought I’d bring up the point that for cats, a taurine deficiency can lead to blindness. So it’s not the protein deficiency I’d worry about with the stray kitty — it’s whether her eyesight is surviving. :( I have seen vehement vegetarians argue that the taurine in commercial foods is synthetic, and therefore your cat should do just fine on a vegetarian diet with taurine supplements, but y’know what? I’m not willing to risk blinding my cats on that theory….

    I think the reason that many of our pampered house kitties are bad hunters is because they weren’t taught by mom-cat. The teaching is not pretty for humans to watch. *sigh* So it’s often discouraged. Or thankfully, many of us are in rodent-free (for the moment, crossing fingers) housing. I suspect that a mildly hungry kitty, even one with no real hunting skills, would know what to do with a mouse. They would just be messy about it.

    That said, I need to go feed my high-maintenance older girl cat (urine crystal issues as well as allergies/rodent mouth ulcers — so ALL the cats get her 1/2 prescription food to keep excess stuff out of her pee and 1/2 really good cat food with high omega fatty acids to keep her skin happy). Oh, and the other two, who are much, much less picky! :)

  15. Anonymous says:

    As a veterinarian I advise my clients to NOT keep dry pet food in the original container once opened. I learned this as early as 1990 and as late as 2008. One reason is that many times mold will form on the underside of the kibble. As you look into the bag to scoop, you will not see the mold and thus your pet may become ill eating contaminated food. Pouring the kibble into another container will turn the kibble and help you to view it. I have treated several dogs for toxicity due to molded food and therefore do recommend using a secondary storage container. At a large seminar recently, a major pet food company gave a reason in regard to the plastic containers in which some pet foods are sold. There has been measurable leaching of various plastic chemicals from these conatiners into the the pet food. It is recommended (by the pet food company) to store the kibble in a secondary container once you get it home.

    There may not be someone knocking on your door if you sell homemade pet food. However, it is subject to regulation by the FDA and the state. These regard ingredients and labeling. If someone wishes to pursue this venture, the following website has several links for useful info.

    Although I am not a proponent of the pet food companies, I do caution anyone making a homemade pet diet to do their research. Many nutritional deficiencies are caused by poor diets, especially in the growth stage or in times of disease.

    The research I have seen presented as far back as 10 years ago shows that cats have healthier gums, skin and guts if they feed upon mice. There will likely never be a commercial mouse diet as most pet owners cannot get past an ick factor. However, I do agree that cats should not be allowed to roam outdoors. The extensive damage they have done to the bird population has been well documented in the UK as well as the US. I believe birds are more important in the spreading of pollen and seeds than cats and should be considered in our food production. Also, your cat will have far less need for medical care if kept indoors.

  16. Laurie in MN says:

    Anonymous Vet:
    What about the food that comes in large mostly paper-appearing bags? Currently, since we have to mix the food anyway, I scoop it out into a large Tupperware (t) container, but that *will not* hold two bags of the food we get for our cats. Are the “paper” bags OK, or should I look for another container. The bags themselves are stored in an old cooler to keep out bugs, etc. (The cooler was only decommissioned because it developed a crack in the insulation and we didn’t want water getting in there.)

    Yes, I am concerned for the fur people in my house! :)

  17. Jennifer L says:

    she certainly has a point when she notes that cows probably were not the usual prey of small cats in the wild…

    Neither are deer, but I’ve seen venison-based cat food (wet) cat food selling in the stores before. :D

  18. Anonymous Vet says:

    I haven’t treated a mycotoxin problem in a dog in about 8 years. However, I have been a SAHM for the last 5 so I can’t give statistics. What I don’t recall is if my last case was before or after the introduction of plastic lined bags. It would seem that you could pour out the kibble to check it, then return it to the bag as long as moisture isn’t a problem. The plastic could hold in the moisture as well as prevent it from entering a sealed bag. I know of many kennels and vet hospitals that pour large bags of kibble into galvanized trash cans. But the possibility of heavy metal toxicity worries me. The vet colleges, research institutions and many vet hospitals order large food grade plastic containers for this purpose. Try for ideas.

    The seminar I attended was in April 2008. Although the topic wasn’t covered in-depth, I left with the feeling that the plastic containers being used to market pet foods is not human quality, that is, not food safe. If you have food safe buckets for grain storage, you could transfer the kibble to these. Maybe you could get some buckets from bakeries or sub shops.(Yes, I know that there is evidence that these containers and mylar bags leach but I haven’t found a better alternative. The leaching isn’t supposed to be as bad as the non-food grade containers. If anyone has other ideas for food grade grain storage, please post.)

    It would be interesting to know what type of plastic lines coolers. Of course, a cooler would need to shut tightly and be lead free. Remember the issue with lead in coolers and lunch boxes a few years ago? In the 1980′s, I worked for the US Dep’t. of Interior and we stored animal carcasses on ice in coolers to feed wild animals we were re-introducing until they honed their hunting skills. Of course, in the 80′s we weren’t knowledgeable about leaching plastics.

  19. Jennie says:

    I tried to feed my kitty a raw diet for awhile. Some of the things I learned in my trials and research:
    1) home-canned meat loses a fair chunk of it’s nutrition and shouldn’t be relied apon for extended periods of time.
    2)There are raw food/prey based co-ops in many areas. Here in Des Moines, IA there’s a guy that brings a truck up from somewhere in Kansas and announces on a yahoo group when and where he’s stopping and you can ask him to bring you certain poundages of certain cuts. There are providers who breed everything from mice to rabbits to goats and butcher them and freeze them and ship them in bulk to your house.
    3) Most animals will have to be “trained” on how to eat a raw food/prey based diet. My kitty kept trying to eat her raw chicken like it was kibble and she was just wolfing it down and it would come right back up. :-P Issues like bones and skin can be new and challenging to an animal used to kibble.

  20. graycat says:

    Thank you for the pet food column. I do cat rescue and usually have a houseful. Most are ex-ferals that can not be TNR’ed. So this is a very important issue to me.

    Another matter of concern for indoor cats is litter.
    I am currently switching over to pine from clay. Much less weight. WTSHTF it will be dirt and sand, using greywater and rainwater to rinse and reuse. Is dilute cat urine also a usable source of ammonia for fertilizing? Maybe I can go into the rent-a-mouser/fertilizer business!

  21. Laurie in MN says:

    Anonymous Vet:
    We use the cooler to store the opened bags — sorry, I was unclear about that. As of yet we don’t really *store* the cat food longer than it takes them to go through the bags — no back up storage at this point. But as I’d like to put some away (especially the more expensive prescription stuff), I’d like to work out how best to store it before I have several 25 lb bags staring me in the face! :)

    Thanks for the advice — I’ll be marking this for future reference!

  22. Rebecca says:

    Anyone know what brands of food use the um, pet remains, as a protein source? I want to be sure I never feed any of that to my animals if I have a choice.

  23. graycat says:

    If the label ingredients say meat or meat by-products, be suspicious. If they can’t call it beef, chicken, poultry, or pork, then what is it?

  24. Anonymous says:


    We use Pet Promise because it’s the easiest brand for us to find that seems reasonably ethical. Their deal (from their web site and packages) is:

    “* No animal byproducts, those secondary slaughterhouse products that are not generally consumed by humans - such as lungs, spleens, brains, blood, beaks, feet and feathers.

    * No added growth hormones that make farm animals grow more quickly.

    * No antibiotic-fed protein. Antibiotics are routinely used on factory farms where overcrowded conditions can promote disease in animals; our sources raise their livestock and poultry in a humane manner.

    * No rendered meats such as beef, chicken, or byproduct meals. Rendering is a high-temperature process to separate protein and fat that uses slaughterhouse scrap, as well as animal tissue from dead, dying, diseased, or disabled animals.

    * No factory-farm meat or poultry tells you we’re committed to providing your pet with exceptional nutrition that comes from pure protein. Supporting rural farms by using locally and regionally raised animal protein sources helps keep our natural environment and our rural communities healthy and vibrant.

    * No artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. Such additives are unnecessary when a pet food delivers sound nutrition with great taste.”

    It’s more expensive, but I’ve found it goes on sale at pet stores, so I just time my purchases around those sales and store it.

  25. Nataleerae says:

    I use kumpi to feed my dog, and it is amazing. When the pet foods were contaminated a few years ago, I almost lost her, and did a lot of research on the different foods out there. Check it out… You do have to order it and have it shipped (unless you live in CO), and it costs a little more than the stuff at the store, but you use a LOT less, so it evens out.

  26. Josh says:

    I’ve found the Kirkland (Cat) brand to be a high end one and their staff answered my questions about ingredients.

    I keep the food in the original bag, because it has a liner specifically to keep the food fresh, in a bin and then it goes into a opaque feeder dish which holds a few days worth of food so it’s “rotated” in this way to check it for mold/freshness.

    Since I’m not a multi-cat household, I share this bulk bag with a friend, which means the kibble doesn’t go stale. We keep a bit of cat grass growing in a pot. We take it out of the container it’s sold in and put in our own soil, to be sure there’s no mold.

  27. Lucas Ulmer says:

    I think diferrent because my family use another trade name .It’s relaxed and save prices.But next Auto Pet Feeder I’ll consider this this Auto Pet Feeder that you just present.Thank!!!

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