Cooking for Your Dog's Health

Q&A with Susan Thixton, authors of Dinner PAWsible.
By Claudia Kawczynska, October 2015

Whole food, real food, clean eating: however it’s described, many of us are turning—or returning—to minimally processed, additive-free food made by nature rather than machines. In their newly revised cookbook, Dinner PAWsible, holistic veterinarian Cathy Alinovi and pet food safety advocate Susan Thixton apply that concept to the world of companion animals. They suggest that home-prepared meals incorporating healthy ingredients are eminently do-able alternatives that not only improve our animals’ health but also, are easier on our budgets. Bark recently spoke with the authors.

For years, we’ve been told that variety in a dog’s diet is a bad thing, yet in your cookbook, you encourage it. Why?

We promote variety for pets for the same reason it’s recommended for humans: to provide a balance of vitamins and minerals. Eating different foods from meal to meal helps achieve this.

How should we go about switching our dogs from commercial foods to a diet that incorporates the recipes from your book?

Changing brands of commercial pet food quickly (from one meal to the next) can cause some dogs to have “tummy issues,” aka diarrhea. So, to be safe when making the transition, we recommend switching slowly: for example, one-quarter new (home-prepared) food to three-quarters old (commercial) food for two or three days, half-and-half for another two or three days, and so on. Dogs who’ve been eating real food all along can be switched right over to the recipes we provide.

When preparing meals for our dogs, how can we be sure that the nutrients are bio-available? And, related to this, why is “lightly cooked” better than “thoroughly cooked”?

Remember when commercial cat food was introduced and researchers discovered that taurine had to be added, even though it was made with meat? Taurine, an amino acid [protein’s building blocks] cats require, occurs naturally in meat; however, in the manufacturing process, the meat was overcooked to the point that the taurine broke down and was no longer available as a nutrient.

It’s the same thing with cooking for dogs—if you cook the ever-living daylights out of meat, the nutrients will be degraded, while cooking it lightly leaves more nutrients accessible to the body. Feeding raw meat is also acceptable, but we recommend that people avoid feeding their dogs raw ground meat from the grocery store, as it is often contaminated with bacteria that can be harmful. Vegetables are a bit harder for a dog to digest, which is why we recommend lightly cooking them; if you feel you need to boil veggies, add the cooking water to your dog’s food, as boiling tends to leach the vitamins into the water.

You advise boiling a whole chicken and then using the bones to make a broth that incorporates apple cider vinegar. What’s the advantage of adding vinegar?

Chicken can really be prepared by any method; broiling or baking works great too, and still leaves you with bones you can use to make broth. (Regardless of how you prep your chicken, don’t overcook it. We recommend using a meat thermometer to make certain the meat is cooked to the proper temperature of 165 degrees.) Apple cider vinegar helps leach the minerals from the bones, which gives you bone broth, a powerhouse food source.

Most of your recipes have around 10 to 15 percent fat. Why is fat important for dogs, and do highly active dogs need more?

For dogs—for all mammals, actually—fat is an energy source and provides nutrients necessary for an efficiently functioning nervous system. Some, like working sled dogs, need an amazing number of calories, on the order of 10,000 kcal a day when they’re running at top speed (10 times the amount comparably sized pet dogs require), and fat helps them meet these requirements. While our recipes are designed for pet dogs who are moderately active, they can be modified for higher energetic needs, which also come into play during pregnancy, puppyhood and agility work. We discuss these modifications at the beginning of the book, and we’re available to help individuals with specialized requirements.

Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing when it comes to some ingredients, for example, nuts and seeds? I use a NutriBullet to make drinks for myself and my dogs that include ground hemp, goji, flax and other seeds and nuts. It seems our dogs would also benefit from high-value “smoothies” made with raw leafy veggies, fruits and seeds, moistened with broth or whey. What do you think?

Just like humans, dogs can get too much of a good thing, although it takes repeated daily overeating of one item to cause a problem. Fresh grinding makes rich foods like seeds and nuts—wonderful sources of protein and trace nutrients—more digestible, as well as helps the body access their wonderful omega fatty-acid oils. You can make great pet food add-ins by using a NutriBullet, Vitamix or even a coffee grinder.

Why don’t you advocate a raw diet?

We promote minimally processed food, raw or cooked. Our original concept was to help pet owners new to real food get started, and some are grossed out by the idea of raw meat. We’ve found that as people become more experienced, many do switch to raw foods. On the other hand, some dogs—those who are older or who have particular health problems—cannot comfortably digest raw meat, so cooking it lightly makes sense for them.

You point out that not every meal needs to be complete and balanced. In the overall scheme of things, how important is balance, and how can we be assured that our dogs get all the nutrients they require?

Consider human diets: every meal, every bite, is not 100 percent balanced and complete. But over the course of a few meals with a variety of ingredients, balance is achieved. The same thing works for our dogs: variety fills in any “holes” that may exist in individual recipes. We like the concept of providing balanced nutrition through whole-food ingredients instead of via synthetic supplements (which is what most commercial pet foods use).