Home cooking: your dog will thank you

Mayna Lopez's dog, Coco, has an inoperable tumor on her thyroid; home cooking has improved her health. — Photo by Susan Waldrop

Gone is the time when tossing a pork chop bone or scraping leftovers into his bowl was the only home-cooked food the family dog got. These days, preparing special dishes for Fido or Fifi is no longer considered something only an eccentric pet owner would do.

It may be because people consider their dogs more like people than in the past, or a result of the current focus on healthy eating. Pet food recalls have driven some owners to cook. Others want to know exactly what is in their dog’s dinner and to avoid “fillers” and worrisome ingredients.

Often, an owner starts preparing health-giving meals when a sick dog isn’t responding to treatments or is not interested in eating.

We spoke to Vineyarders who are dedicated to cooking for their dogs. Many add supplements and vitamins. Several said the family cat shares the diet and thrives on it too.

People say that cooking for their dogs is easy and often economical compared to buying commercial pet foods. These interviews left little doubt that cooking a dog’s food at home can be a boon to both animal and owner. Seeing that big doggie grin as Rex watches you fill his dish may be the best reward.

Some cook fresh ingredients to mix with packaged food. For 12 years, Lorraine Clark of Vineyard Haven has cooked high-quality chicken for her little Bishon Frise, Angel Grace (and she often serves it to her husband, Richard, too). A West Highland Terrier owner poaches organic chicken breasts. Jan Hyer serves roast chicken to her Great Pyrenees.

Mayna Lopez of Vineyard Haven was devastated last May when she learned that her dog, Coco, had an inoperable tumor on her thyroid. She considered radiation and chemotherapy, but did not want her beloved pet to undergo such treatments. She chose the best thing she knew to keep Coco, a Labrador retriever mix, as healthy and happy as possible: home cooking and lots of love.

She researched nutrition for dogs with cancer. She decided on a high-protein blend of slow-simmered ground beef, a little garlic, and water, with raw carrot added at the end. Reading that cancerous tumors feed off sugar, she serves no starchy vegetables, grains, or biscuits.

Ms. Lopez was thrilled when her friend Mary-Jean Miner gave her a crockpot that streamlines cooking. Her vet is encouraging about the diet, and the tumor hasn’t grown. Coco, 6 1/2, looks healthy, has exuberant energy, and eats with gusto. Ms. Lopez takes comfort in preparing the meals Coco enjoys.

“I’m so grateful for the way she’s coming along,” Ms. Lopez said. “I’m loving every minute of it and she’s happy about her diet.”

Wes Nagy of Vineyard Haven began cooking for the family dogs five years ago when Buster, a Shepherd/Husky/Wolf mix, was seriously ill. When told that Buster had only a “one in 100” chance of surviving for more than six months, Mr. Nagy headed for the kitchen.

He began feeding Buster a home-cooked protein, starch, and vegetable diet. The dog not only survived his illness, but thrived.

Mr. Nagy and his wife, Lisa, also own Julius, a black Labrador retriever who enjoyed the diet. He soon dropped excess weight, becoming trim and perky, which Mr. Nagy attributes to the absence of “fillers” common in dog food.

Though Buster passed away after five years of healthy eating, Mr. Nagy continues to cook for Julius, now 13, and Daisy, the “baby of the family,” a 200-pound English Mastiff. Both are healthy and glossy.

Like others who cook for their dogs, Mr. Nagy has a routine and makes meals in quantity. He buys chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, and frozen vegetables on sale, or ground turkey in large packages from Reliable Market. He adds organic vegetables left over from family groceries. Mr. Nagy bakes meat, adds a little garlic, serves it with an equal amount of potatoes or white rice, and a side of veggies. Treats are raw carrots. The dogs love the tasty diet. “There’s nothing I feed the dogs that I wouldn’t eat myself,” said Mr. Nagy.

Liz Wilson’s yellow Labrador retriever, Basil, suffered from severe skin allergies, including painful “hot spots.” Veterinarians worked long and hard to solve the problem, and Basil did show some improvement. Ms. Wilson’s veterinarian recommended Chinese herbs and a diet of specialized, expensive canned food.

Basil’s skin condition was not fully cured and the cost and environmental impact of “all those cans” inspired the Oak Bluffs woman to research cooking for animals with allergies.

For 18 months, Basil has dined on a hearty mix of baked ground turkey, brown rice, and canned pumpkin with flax oil. The doggie goulash is garnished with chopped raw apple, yogurt, and parsley.

“His coat is gorgeous — people don’t believe his age — and his energy is great!” Ms. Wilson said about her vibrant 10-year old. “His digestive system works well, his coat is strong, healthy and thick — no hot spots at all!”

When Nancy and Charles Blank of Oak Bluffs got their West Highland Terrier pup, MacDuff, there had been a dog food recall. Nervous about feeding her new little pet commercial food, Ms. Blank decided to cook for him instead. Now seven years later, “Duffy” still enjoys a home-cooked diet of boneless chicken thighs, occasional ground turkey, and a bite of steak from the table if he begs hard enough.

Ms. Blank relies on Reliable Market for her chicken. She boils and refrigerates several thighs. At mealtime, Ms. Blank microwaves the chicken, then chops and sometimes mixes it with dry kibble. MacDuff is picky, though, and often devouring the chicken and leaving the hard pellets behind.

Sometimes Ms. Blank simmers a whole chicken for soup. Then she and the dog share the meal.