There are many reasons why an owner may choose to cook for their dogs.
Whether you are DIY cooking or are interested in receiving a cooked recipe, this guide will cover information regarding the pros and cons of cooking, when I might choose cooked over raw, nutritional considerations, cooking methods, supplementing, cookware, and ingredient yields (calculator provided).
When it comes to cooking for dogs, it is important that nutrient guidelines are used, such as NRC.
You are what you eat absorb.
Bulk Limiting: Dogs That Just Don’t Eat Enough
I am not religious about raw feeding. I don’t feel that dogs who truly prefer cooked food are somehow benefited more by forcing raw foods and those raw foods being rejected. I don’t think that a stressed owner also benefits their dog. For enrichment reasons, if a client submits an intake form that describes a dog that prefers cooked food (and there are no health issues indicating not to!), I am more than happy to formulate a diet that accommodate that. No food is nutritious if it is not consumed, including raw.
Health Conditions + Digestibility
Any condition that affects the dog’s ability to digest food may indicate the use of a cooked diet. Senior dogs see a decrease in their ability to digest and assimilate nutrients. Cooking (NOT overcooking) actually increases the digestibility of the food and liberates many phytonutrients in plant matter In protein, amino acids become more digestible. Don’t get me wrong, raw diets also receive an excellent digestibility score, but cooked foods score even higher. Senior dogs that continually have loose stools, rumbly bellies, licking, gulping, and flatulence for reasons unknown (including a vet check), can often be rid of these symptoms by cooking the food (and providing other digestive support).
Adverse food reactions, specifically relating to leaky gut, may also indicate the use of a cooked diet. I talk a lot about adverse food reactions and why a cooked diet may lead to decreased particle size at the gut barrier.
These are only a few examples of a cooked diet being beneficial for therapeutic reasons. Other conditions may also include certain cancers, pancreatitis, kidney disease, liver disease, IBS, colitis, and more. These can be highly individual and will depend on simply what the dog does best with. Any condition that affects digestion can certainly at times indicate the use of a cooked diet. Many times we start with cooked and it allows us to move to raw in the future.
Owners who are weary of raw food ideology, regardless of whether their feelings are factually justified, should not be pushed off of feeding fresh food to their dog by raw food extremists. For many, cooked food is simply what the owner feels comfortable with and a balanced home cooked diet is an incredibly healthy choice. There are no studies that show dogs will be harmed by feeding balanced cooked meals rather than balanced raw meals in the context of a high quality fresh food diet.
The owner may also have sick family members, or may be sick themselves. Raw feeding can be safe if the owner takes precautions, however some owners may feel more comfortable depending on their lifestyle. This includes dogs that tend to get a bit messy while eating.
I never pass judgement about an owner who is choosing cooked over raw, especially when done correctly. I am here to help Feed Thy Dog and support both the owner and the dog while providing the dog with excellent fresh food.
Just about all risks in feeding a cooked diet come down to improper formulations. Even unbalanced raw diets that follow ratios (like PMR) can fare better than many cooked diets on the internet. Raw feeders tend to be..passionate…about what they are feeding whereas cooked diets pop-up all over the internet.
No doubt about it- prepping dog food takes time and adding cooking to the process means even more time and more dishes to clean. I recommend breaking up the prep process over the course of multiple days in smaller time chunks if needed.
Potential Presence of Harmful Compounds: HCAs & PAHs
Raw foods do not contain HCAs and PAH’s (heterocyclic amines and polyaromatic hydrocarbons). Heterocyclic amines can be carcinogenic and mutagenic. Polyaromatic hydrocarbons exist in the environment and can be produced in food that is cooked at high temperatures. The ability for the body to store and excrete PAHs depends on the individual and the type of PAH. Some metabolites of PAHs can bind to DNA and unhealthy cells can then reproduce. HCA are formed when amino acids and creatine react at high temperatures and some have been shown to be mutagenic- causing mutations from altering DNA and gene expression. If you want more clarification on the biochemistry aspect of this, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org! I would love to share what I have learned.
The concern that cooking at high temperatures is unhealthy is valid and is just one factor (of many) that demonstrate the benefits of fresh food over kibble. Reduction of these harmful compounds means being careful in the cooking process, which is discussed in the cooking methods section. For many pets, environmental exposure can pose an even larger risk. Using cooking methods that do not rely on indirect heat, shorter cooking times, lower temperature are not of concern compared to food that gets burnt. Because homemade cooking typically does not use processed meats, it is inaccurate to conclude that cooked foods are inherently carcinogenic. Much of this ideology comes from the incorrect assumption that red meat in general causes cancer.
Requires Thoughtful Formulation
For me personally, I choose thoughtful formulations using nutrient requirements for raw and cooked diets. However, for the average owner not using nutrient guidelines, cooking can become even trickier. Unaudited raw diets tend to fare better than unaudited cooked diets (not always the case) primarily because extremely important nutrients, like calcium, are not present in high enough amounts without supplementing. In a raw diet, calcium comes from bones and bones should never be fed if they are cooked. From my personal experience, homemade cooked diets often lack organ meat.
We already saw above that cooked diets are actually more digestible than raw. However, those opposed to cooking will claim that the loss of enzymes and bacteria on the raw meat mean that the food is not as digested. Even with the destruction of these compounds, it simply is not the case as described earlier.
Many claim that the bacteria found on raw meat is more beneficial to the gut. However, the gut microbiome is more complex and while dogs fed raw diets have very different levels of bacteria, this bacteria load can sometimes be useful to some dogs, but harmful to others. This strongly depends on the bacteria population in each dog. I have seen healthy and unhealthy gut biomes in raw fed and cooked fed dogs- including kibble fed dogs.
Total Loss of Nutrients
The number one myth about cooked diets is that cooking literally destroys ALL nutrients. Of all the claims I hear repeated, this one may be the most irritating because it is easily provable that cooking does NOT destroy all nutrients. Simply utilize the USDA database and look up the nutrient values for a cooked item vs. a raw item (note that moisture loss results from cooking). When nutrition professionals formulate a cooked diet, we utilize the cooked values because there certainly is a loss of some nutrients, but nothing anywhere near the claim of 100% loss. Also, as we will see in the phytonutrient section, cooking can liberate some compounds. Also, the increased digestibility helps support nutrient uptake.
Supplementing + Whole Foods
Calcium must be supplemented in some form in a cooked diet because raw bones should not be cooked and fed, even if they are ground. It is possible to do a hybrid diet where the food is cooked and the raw bone is fed either with or away from the meal.
There are also non-essential nutrients that are still beneficial that can be absent from a cooked diet. Those are also covered.
Of course, usual nutrients that are frequently short in both raw and cooked diets like omega 3, vitamin E, and vitamin D should still be met. I am only covering nutrients unique to cooked diets.
As mentioned, calcium needs to be added because no cooked food contains enough calcium naturally for a dog to consume- this does include dairy. Dogs need more calcium for their size relative to humans. Below are several options for calcium supplementation. Click here if you are unsure of how much calcium and phosphorus your adult, healthy dog needs.
Bone meal will provide calcium and lots of phosphorus. Bone meal can be useful when the diet is short in phosphorus. I use something similar to bone meal which I have listed above- but is not exactly the same thing. The bone product above is frequently unavailable, so if you don’t see it right now, another similar option is NOW Bone Meal or Kal which is found here or you can check other websites for it.
I really have been liking Animal Essentials Seaweed Calcium for dogs because many owners also struggle to provide enough magnesium in the diet and this supplement rounds out the magnesium levels quite nicely- but not every dog will need the extra magnesium. Note that it will also gently increase the iodine levels, too.
Eggshells provide calcium as well, but they must be thoroughly dried (baking) and ground to use. Their calcium levels vary and so I don’t use them for a nutritionally sensitive dog. 1 g of eggshells, ground provides about 400 mg of calcium.
Calcium carbonate is also easy to use and will only provide calcium and without phosphorus and magnesium. Because meat heavy diets are already high in phosphorus, calcium carbonate can be an ideal choice when the diet is high in meat, especially pork products. Calcium carbonate is the form found in things like eggshells.
All B vitamins are affected by cooking with some being affected more than others. For this reason, I personally provide clients with a B complex supplement at doses that compliment the food- but not at carelessly high doses. Not only can heat affect B vitamins, light and freezing can further reduce their levels in food. Rather give guidelines for each B vitamin, I will make recommendations to preserve them as a whole.
Losses of B vitamins can range anywhere from 30-60% depending on the cooking method, the source of the B vitamin, and the B vitamin in particular will affect this range. For example, Niacin can be relatively “sturdy” while Thiamin can see significant losses. The following are general guidelines that will help you preserve nutrients in cooking:
Avoid excessive heat.
Prolonged high heat increases the risk of nutrient destruction. Be mindful of the level of heat you are using and only use what is needed to gently cook the food. You certainly don’t want any of your cooked foods even approaching charred levels.
Reduce Exposed Surface Area
Carefully Use Dry Heat
When using liquids to cook, reusing and having the dog consume the cooking liquids will mean that there is often minimal loss to the nutrients and phytonutrients in some cases. Liquids can be reused in carbohydrate cooking as well. If you are unable to do this, dry method may be better.
I prefer Thorne B Complex or Thorne B Complex Vet (if you can source it). These supplements provide a lot of b vitamins and while b vitamins are typically added fresh, supplements often provide an abundant amount and so I have my clients mix it right into their batch..
If you are wanting to add a B complex added daily and fresh for small dogs, this Mercola one is a nice, low dose. I do find it to be somewhat overpriced. Contains beef.
Minerals are much more heat stable than the water soluble vitamins. However, some losses can still occur when cooking. The guidelines listed above will help mitigate these losses as many losses have to do with the liquid loss. It is important to use the proper nutrient profiles for cooked vs. raw foods when formulating. That being said, nearly all minerals can still be met without supplementing in a cooked diet with the exception of calcium.
I do not personally feel that raw fed dogs need a taurine supplement or that we can say with strong evidence that cooked diets require additional Taurine. Taurine can easily be lost in water during the cooking process. Cat Lane, Dip. CFN has stated that Taurine is one of the few insurance supplements she uses in cooked diets. For cooked diets, I do choose to proactively dose with taurine at levels provided by Monica Segal:
Up to 20 lbs: 125 mg daily
21-50 lbs: 250 mg daily
51-85 lbs: 500 mg daily
86+ lbs: 1000 mg daily
Glycine is a non-essential amino acid that dogs can synthesize and is not technically required in the diet However, similar to other non-essential nutrients, there is the potential that dogs, particularly larger breeds, are unable to synthesize glycine at an optimal rate (this may also be true of other large land animals). Glycine protects tissues from wear and tear and is abundant in bones, connective tissue, and skin. In humans, we know that glycine is important for sleep and mental health.
Because cooked diets do not include bone, I recommend making a conscious effort to provide skin if the dog can tolerate the fat. Providing connective tissue is also encouraged and can be done by cooking whole chicken and feeding all the connective tissues rather than reaching for chicken breasts only (if fat is tolerated). Many fish that are inclusive of bones (like canned sardines) also provide glycine.
Bone broth is another way to provide glycine. You can make your own or purchase bone broth, being mindful of any added ingredients. Many of my clients enjoy freezing into molds or using broth to cook starches. Bone both can be high histamine and is something to consider for certain conditions.
Gelatin is another great way to provide glycine in a cooked diet. These can be made into cubes or added as powders. I am able to buy this in bulk from whole food type stores.
Dogs do not require dietary vitamin C and can make their own. However, that is not to say that some dogs (or even all dogs!), don’t benefit to one extent or another from dietary Vitamin C. Raw foods are higher in vitamin C. Vitamin C is especially stable in raw liver. I don’t supplement vitamin C in cooked diets unless a condition or lifestyle indicates to do so. However, I do provide some raw plant matter that is blended. For athletic dogs or dogs with high antioxidant needs, I do supplement vitamin C.
Non-essential does not mean non-beneficial.
I don’t recommend that plant products are used to meet a lot of the nutrient requirements, so I won’t write about how to mitigate essential nutrient loss, but rather focus on phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are affected by cooking as well and the type of phytonutrient and the type of plant matter affect losses. However, there is a general trend among cooking methods and their effects on phytonutrients. There is no single “best” way to cook plant matter because plants contain many different beneficial compounds that are affected differently by various cooking methods.
Boiling- Boiling preserves and even improves the availability of carotenoids (think of foods like orange carrots). However, boiling negatively affects beneficial polyphenols (think fruits) glucosinolates (think cruciferous veggies). Generally, boiling can negatively affect many different phytonutrients but can be a safer bet if wanting to reduce the amount of goitrogens.
Steaming- Steaming negatively affects carotenoids and can do so to an extreme degree but tends to treat polyphenols and cruciferous compounds much better than boiling.
Microwaving- Microwaving tends to negatively affect glucosinolates but not carotenoids. However, cooking time and the power used in the microwave can vary results significantly. Microwaving a sweet potato is not a big deal compared to microwaving broccoli. Of course, the amount of water affects this as well.
Frying- Frying plant matter is not as applicable to dogs as it is to humans because of the addition of fat. Frying can have a wide range of effects- some studies showing minimal losses while others showing greater losses. Regardless, frying veggies can produce carcinogens- there really aren’t many positives to frying veggies for dogs.
Pressure Cooking- It is likely not best to pressure cook all your plant matter. However, pressure cooking potatoes, beets, celery, and eggplant does not affect the phytonutrients as much as it does leafy greens.
One approach may be to rotate cooking methods. You could also aim to boil foods that you wish to liberate the carotenoids, feed raw berries and apples, and steam cruciferous veggies and leafy greens as a general rule of thumb.
Remember, just because there is a decrease in levels of phytonutrients after cooking does not mean there is a decreased benefit. You are what you absorb, not eat. Cooking can liberate phytonutrients and increase their activity. Total levels of phytonutrients does not translate directly to their activity level.
Cooking Starches: Gelitization & Retrogradation and Timing
When you cook starches, like sweet potato, the starch actually becomes more digestible as molecular bonds are broken. When the cooked starch cools again, the structure rearranges into a more crystalline structure- a process called “retrogradation.” Some of the starch then sees reduced digestibility rates, but can be beneficial to the gut. The takeaway here is more for informational purposes and that we don’t precisely know the energy levels assimilated from food. Tracking what your dog eats and how their energy and weight responds is the most accurate method for assessing energy balance.
Generally speaking, carbohydrate sources like quinoa, buckwheat, barley, and oats should be cooked well, adding water as needed. This is more water and longer than how you would cook for a human. Sweet potatoes should be very soft as well. This is true regardless of the cooking method, though instant pots can be fantastic for cooking starches because adding water is often not required to get that mushy-texture we are seeking.
Quinoa, barley, and buckwheat are a few examples of carbohydrates that should at least be soaked for for 8 hours and rinsed. Diets that contain high amounts of those ingredients may need their mineral requirements adjusted.
Cooking Animal Products: Methods & Timing
When it comes to cooking meat, we already discussed losses of water soluble nutrient above. We may also add to this that the same rules apply: Reduce surface area exposed to liquids, avoid high heat at long cook times, if using high heat cook, for shorter amounts of time. There isn’t a reason to thoroughly brown ground beef and food made for dogs should not be charred.
When formulating, simply use the nutrient profile for the cooked product.
Cooking methods like grilling or broiling often include long cook times at higher temperatures which may increase the levels of undesirable compounds and increase the amount of fat lost.
Baking, searing, pressure cooking, and poaching are all safe ways to cook food as long as you follow the guidelines above. I personally use gentle searing, poaching, pressure cooking for clients and use baking when they prefer this method of cooking.
Animal products should not be cooked with plant matter as they have different cooking times. Many ask how long they should cook animal products. Generally speaking, you can follow FDA guidelines, but many dogs do not need fully cooked meat to reap the benefits of a cooked diet if we are seeking to merely increase digestibility or increase palatability and we can therefore cook it less than that what we would for a human.
Cooking actually helps increase the digestibility of food, including the amino acids found within the food. Cooking helps unravel amino acids and can be thought of as pre-digestion.
As mentioned above, safe cooking practices to preserve protein quality include not overcooking meats and therefore not cooking meats with carbohydrates.
It should be noted that the process used to make kibble involves high heat, meat, and carbohydrates. This level of heat and this type of processing can produce harmful compounds. Even though we are cooking homemade food, this high level of heat and cooking practice is not used in the usual home kitchen.
Again, the rule of thumb to limit exposure to heat and not use excessive heat applies to preserving the quality of fat in the food.
Polyunsaturated fat (such as EPA and DHA), are prone to oxidation when cooking. Fish should not be cooked at high temperatures, and surely not fried as a major loss in essential fatty acid can occur.
Frying oils can also produce aldehydes- I wouldn’t recommend frying any food for your dog.
If you are going to cook with additional fat for whatever reason, choosing a saturated fat or an oil lower in long chain fatty acids is a better choice- butter, lard, tallow, coconut oil, avocado oil, and EVOO.
Fat can be lost during methods like grilling or broiling.
Always add fish oils fresh at feeding time.
Cookware can certainly affect the quality of the food.
Traditional non-stick cookware (like teflon) makes cooking and cleaning a breeze. However, the chemical used to make Teflon, Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), is classified as a possible carcinogen by the WHO. Exposure to this chemical is not just through Teflon cookware and can be found in the environment. There isn’t conclusive evidence to say that it causes cancer to dogs, but is not something I would recommend as the best cookware choice. Additionally, I wouldn’t purchase this cookware because of the environmental concerns. I do not recommend this use for humans, but I especially do not recommend these types of cookware for animals, especially because some can be quite toxic depending on when the item was purchased. Please phase out your non-stick cookware.
Plastic cookware should be avoided for several reasons. BPA is the most commonly known for its carcinogenic activity and interference with estrogen, but even BPA free plastic cookware can have estrogenic activity.
Glass cookware and enameled ceramic is timeless and abundantly safe.They can take longer to cook with, but they provide even cooking.
Cast iron is also a great choice, and unless you are using a lot of acidic foods to cook with, the iron is not of concern. You may choose to avoid this if your pet has an issue with iron. Copper and aluminum are more likely to leach into food and are not cookware I typically recommend.
Stainless steel without non-stick is very useful for quickly cooking meats and even organ meats. Some sticking may occur, but is a trade off for using a safe cooking material.
Try not to get overwhelmed. Quality, safe cookware isn’t cheap and it is best to start out small. Perhaps start with a pan, slowly replace your food containers, start replacing spatulas etc. My kitchen tools are still not ideal, but I have slowly improved many of the containers and pans that I use (cast iron and stainless steel for me!).
I have a list of products that I have including the glass containers I use for prep. I also have a list of the chef’s knife, pan, pot, spatula, kichen scale, instant pot, etc. that I use and are often seen in pictures and videos. It can be found below!
When formulating a diet, you use the nutrient analysis of the cooked food, not the raw food. However, cooking raw food will change the weight. If you need 100 grams of cooked chicken breasts, you need to start with more than 100 grams of raw materials. Here are two fantastic resources for charts that contain cooking yields: here and here. However, I have also made this calculator for you to calculate cooking yields of commonly cooked products. If you are a more rule of thumb person
Organ meats, especially kidney, can see up to 50% reduction from raw. Always carefully weigh cooked organ meats- they are dense with nutrients.
To determine dry weight of quinoa needed, start by using 35% of the cooked weight (100 grams of cooked quinoa is from 35 grams of raw quinoa)
To determine dry weight of buckwheat needed, start by using 28% of the cooked weight (100 grams of cooked buckwheat is from 28 grams of raw quinoa)
To determine dry weight of oats needed, start by using 20% of the cooked weight (100 grams of cooked oats is from 20 grams of dry oats)
To determine dry weight of long grain rice needed, start by using 35% of the cooked weight (100 grams of cooked rice is from 35 grams of dry rice)
If you liked this guide you may like my cooking course that is set to be released soon. I know I said January 2020, but as life had other plans. I enrolled in organic chemistry and my husband and I are in the process of buying and building a home. I am in the process of recording videos for the course and this post includes just some of the content in the course.
Hans-Dieter Belitz, Werner Grosch, Peter Schieberle, Food chemistry, Edition 3, Springer, page: 318-323, year: 2004, ISBN 3-540-40818-5, ISBN 978-3-540-40818-5
Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism
NRC Nutrient Requirements of Dogs & Cats
Small Animal Clinical Nutrition
Fundamentals of General, Organic, and Biological Chemistry