Features November 2000 Issue

Does Your Dog Eat Grass?

Sprouts are easy to grow, inexpensive, and nutritious for your dog.

Throughout the ages, veterinarians have developed theories to explain why dogs sometimes eat grass. Many believe that dogs are instinctively attempting to treat an upset stomach with the grass shoots; the fact that eating grass sometimes causes a dog to vomit lends some credence to this theory.

The fact is, fresh young grass shoots – like most fresh, young, green plant sprouts – taste good and are packed with nutrients. Why wouldn’t an “opportunistic omnivore” like the dog be attracted to eating grass?

Due to the environmental pollution and contaminants – not to mention the larval form of some intestinal parasites – that can be found on outdoor grass, we wouldn’t recommend allowing your dog to eat just any grass. However, you could do him a big favor by adding some healthy sprouts to his diet. There are dozens of seed and grain sprouts that are inexpensive to buy and easy to grow, as well as beneficial and easy to digest for any dog.

Our “kitchen farm” included (from the left)
wheatgrass, radish sprouts, alfalfa sprouts,
and clover sprouts.

Nutritional bonanza
If seeds are considered the first stage of life for a plant, sprouts are stage two, the tiniest stems of plants emerging from wet seeds. Most edible sprouts are ready to eat as soon as three days after germinating, although some are grown for as much as 10-12 days. At this stage of life, the little plants are loaded with nutrients; pound for pound, many plants contain far more digestible vitamins, minerals, protein, and enzymes in their sprout stage than they will as adult plants.

For example, by weight, alfalfa sprouts contain more vitamin A than tomatoes, green peppers, and most fruits. Thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2) and niacin are abundant in alfalfa, wheat, rye, and sunflower sprouts. All the sprouted grains – especially wheat, oats, and rye – contain about three times as much vitamin E as in the dried grain form of the food.

The minerals in sprouts are absorbed from the water used to rinse them while growing, and are “chelated” by the plant – that is, bound to amino acids in such a way as to make them maximally bioavailable to the body. Sprouts are good sources of calcium, potassium, and iron, as well as vital trace elements.

While the plant proteins found in sprouts cannot be used to replace animal proteins in a dog’s diet (they lack the complete amino acid profile needed for canine health), they can augment diet nicely, especially if the dog already receives fresh meat in his diet.

Because they are so rich in enzymes – the catalysts that help break food into simpler, more usable forms – sprouts are considered practically “predigested.” Some people who feed vegetables to their dogs add digestive enzymes to the food to help the dog digest them; this is unnecessary with sprouts. During sprouting, much of the starch contained in a plant seed is broken down into simple sugars by amylase. The proteins are converted into amino acids and amides by protease, and fats and oils are converted into more simple fatty acids by lipase.

In addition to these well-understood nutritional benefits, sprouts contain a wealth of chlorophyll, a protein compound found in green plants. Numerous nutritionists think that some dietary chlorophyll benefits humans and other mammals and the supplement makers have responded to the opportunity; there are a number of canine nutritional supplements that include chlorophyll from various sources (blue-green algae, wheatgrass, barley grass, etc.) on the market. Chlorophyll advocates claim the substance is unrivaled in its ability to stimulate the body to repair body cells damaged by wounds or abrasions. These effects are largely unsubstantiated – but if you’re a believer, eat some sprouts! The green ones offer chlorophyll in spades.

And, finally, sprouts contain a lot of fiber and water and, therefore, are helpful in overcoming constipation in man or beast.

Will he eat ‘em?
Most dogs that are accustomed to eating fresh foods will readily try sprouts of different varieties, although, like people, dogs do display personal preferences. Radish sprouts have a zesty, spicy flavor that some dogs love — and sends some dogs away to a corner, licking their lips and looking at you suspiciously. Alfalfa sprouts and clover sprouts are among the mildest and easy-to-grow sprouts, and most dogs lick these up with relish, even if they are simply stirred in with the dog’s food.

Gallon or half-gallon jars give sprouts more
room to grow than one-quart jars. However,
quart jars are adequate for growing small
amounts of fast-growing sprouts like clover
sprouts, above.

Many people who feed sprouts to their dogs prepare the sprouts in a blender or grinder along with the other components of the dog’s homemade meal. Kathleen McDaniel, of Burbank, Illinois, uses sprouts of organic red clover, radish, and peas in her four dogs’ meals, preparing the raw sprouts in a food processor along with other vegetables. “I first noticed sprouts while shopping for organic vegetables for the dogs — always paying attention to their health before mine! Very sad!,” she jokes. “I figured that I would buy some as well as try to find out some information about them. After some investigation and discovering that they do pack a vitamin ‘punch’ as well as being high in saponins, I do put them on salads for myself.”

McDaniel’s dogs range from 1 1/2 to 11 years old, but they all seem to like sprouts well enough. She comments that it’s difficult to say how much she feeds to each dog, since she makes food for her entire pack at once.

“I put about one to two cups of sprouts into the veggie mix that I feed my dogs, and I divide that between four dogs,” she says. Once they are processed, a cup or two of sprouts condenses into about a half-cup of juicy pulp that McDaniel describes as a baby food consistency. For the record, McDaniel says she has never tried to grow the sprouts herself, claiming she is “terrible with green things.” She buys her sprouts ready to eat “and always organic.”

Patty Smiley, of Pine Grove, California, also feeds sprouts on a regular basis to her pack of three dogs: a 13- (or so) year-old Border Collie/Springer Spaniel rescue, a seven-year-old male Flat-Coated Retriever who is a show/performance dog, and a two-year-old female Flat-Coated Retriever, also a show/performance dog.

Smiley says she has been feeding sprouts to her dogs for about seven years. “I first learned about sprouts years ago when the health food movement began. I eat them myself, although I like them only in salads and on some sandwiches. I don’t eat them daily like the furkids do!” she says.

Smiley does grow her own sprouts, rotating between alfalfa, various clovers, broccoli, radish, and mung bean sprouts. She adds the sprouts to the dinnertime veggie mix that the dogs get with their meat-based diet. “A typical meal might include a clove or two of garlic, an organic carrot, five or six dandelion leaves, about 1/4 cup of sprouts, and maybe a small bit of fruit with some water,” she describes. “I put all the ingredients into my blender, whirl them until well pulverized and then this mixture gets divided between the three dogs. It comes out to about a tablespoon, possibly two, for each dog.”

Easy to grow
I’ve eaten my share of sprouts through the years, and though I thought they were “just okay,” I never enjoyed them until I grew and sampled some. Wow! What a difference! These three-day-old sprouts were sweet, crunchy, and fresh-tasting, not “grassy” or sour like some sprouts I’ve eaten. Now that I know first-hand how easy it is to grow them and how delicious they are, sprouts are definitely going to be added to the family diet – my Border Collie included, of course!

Though all sorts of specialized sprout-growing gear exists, all you really need to grow sprouts are seeds and water. There are all sorts of trays and growing boxes that allow for perfect drainage – but jars work just fine. Experienced sprouters use wide-mouthed gallon or half-gallon jars – but easier-to-find quart jars work well, too. I would suggest using what you have at hand until you see how easy the process is and how well your dog (and you!) like the sprouts before you go looking for sprout-growing kits.

I had to call a few health food stores before I found one in my area that carried various sprouting seeds; they also carried plastic-meshed jar lids that allow the sprouts to breathe and keep insects out of the jars. I tried in vain to find the wide-mouthed gallon or half-gallon jars and ended up using quart Mason jars – ones that my new plastic lids did not fit onto. I made do by covering the jars with cheesecloth fastened with rubber bands; this worked just fine!

Every source of information I had for growing instructions seemed incomplete – until I tried the process and found it really is that simple. Basically, you soak about a tablespoon or two of the seeds you have selected for a few hours (small seeds like alfalfa and clover only require 3-4 hours; larger seeds like wheat can be soaked overnight) in a jar filled with plain water. Then, strain the water off through the cheesecloth or meshed lid; gently slosh the seeds around as you pour so that the seeds settle more or less evenly across the side of the jar. Then, set the jar on an angle so any excess water drains out. I put my jars in the dish drainer next to my sink.

About two to three times a day (more in hot weather, less in cool), runs some cool water into the jar, allowing it to fill. I found it helpful to jiggle the jar so that empty seed husks floated out. Then, drain all the water out, and replace the jar on its side. It’s important to keep the jars angled so that the seeds are not lying in a puddle of water, which can make them rancid.

When buying sprouts, freshness is important.
Go ahead and open the sprout containers;
don’t buy ones that appear wilted or moldy.

Avoid draining the seeds so quickly that you bash them about the jar; damaged sprouts will stop developing and begin rotting, wreaking your crop. In retrospect, I was excessively gentle with the tiny sproutlets on days one and two. By day three and four, I realized the resulting sprouts were sturdier than I had thought. Just don’t bang them around.

You don’t need to put the sprouts in a dark place, nor should you place them in direct sunlight; the heat tends to make the jars steamier and wetter than is good for the sprouts (they decompose before they are tasty). I smelled the jars each time I rinsed the sprouting seeds, and was encouraged by the fresh, clean odor emanating from the growing seeds. If I had smelled an “off” odor, I was prepared to dump that batch, but it didn’t happen.

Taste a few sprouts every day as they mature, and “harvest” them out of the jars when they taste good. For me, this happened on day three, when the clover, alfalfa, and radish sprouts tasted perfect. I gave them a final rinse, pulled them out of the jar with a pair of tongs (I didn’t use wide-mouthed jars), and put them in a crisper in the refrigerator, where they remained quite edible for a couple of days. After three days in the refrigerator they began to taste like store-bought sprouts, and I threw the rest out; I was spoiled by fresh-grown sprouts already!

I didn’t like the taste of the wheatgrass sprouts at all, not on day three, or five, or eight, when it had grown far too tall for my little quart jars and began to decompose. I’ll try wheat again in a bigger jar and wait the recommended 12 days before I pass judgement on wheatgrass.

But it’s what your dog thinks of the taste that’s important! For his part, my Border Collie was indifferent to little piles of sprouts in his food dish, but cleaned up all four types of sprouts when I ran them through the blender along with the dressing of vegetables and cottage cheese that I’m putting on his food these days.

Sprout buying tips
Are you convinced you have a “black thumb?” We truly believe that even you can grow sprouts – but it’s okay if you really don’t want to. Sprouts are available at many grocery, produce, and health food stores.

When buying mung bean sprouts, (the crunchy white sprouts often used in Chinese cooking), select white, unbruised sprouts. Brownish rootlets or signs of wilt indicates that the sprouts are past their prime.

When buying sprouts that are sold pre-packaged in a plastic container, go ahead and pop open the container and have a good look at the sprouts inside. Sometimes the sprouts look fine from the outside of the container, but when you look inside, you can see saggy or soggy-looking sprouts, or fuzzy white mildew growing between the sprouts. Don’t be disappointed at home, after you’ve paid for and hauled those sprouts back to your kitchen! Go ahead and take a peek at them in the store! Pass on any sprouts that look less than perfect.

Sprouting Resources
• Sproutman Publications: Books on sprouting and sprout recipes, seeds, specialized growing equipment, etc. Ph (413) 528-5200; www.sproutman.com.

• International Sprout Growers Association: Information about nutrition, safety. Ph (413) 253-8965; www.isga-sprouts.org.

• Sprouthouse: Organic sprout seeds, sprouting trays and jars, recipe books, and books about sprouting. Ph (800)-SPROUTS; www.sprouthouse.com.


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