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Heat can cause some nutrients to break down, but it also makes others more available to your pup's body. In fact, when you heat food, it actually breaks down the cell walls of vegetables and grains which makes them easier for your dog to digest and increases the nutrients that are available and can go to work in your dog's body.
Overall, cooking your dog's food can be a very healthy choice as long as you understand what ingredients to use and which cooking methods maximize nutrients in your homemade diet.
When you cook beef liver, the heat breaks down some of the nutrients but also makes other nutrients easier to digest and absorb.
Beef liver is a rich source of copper, retinol (preformed vitamin A), some iron, and B vitamins. I use it often as a way to balance copper and zinc in recipe formulations but have to be careful not to use too much as it is packed with retinol which does have a designated "safe upper limit" for dogs.
A tiny amount of 10 grams of RAW beef liver contains 1mg of copper, 0.5mg of iron, 1689IU of vitamin A as retinol, and a good amount of B12 at 5.6mcg.
When we cook beef liver, these nutrient amounts all INCREASE! A tiny amount of 10 grams of COOKED beef liver contains 1.5mg of copper, 0.6mg of iron, 2608IU of vitamin A as retinol, and even more of B12 at 8.3mcg.
Many vegetables and greens we're likely to feed in our dogs' homemade diets also become more nutritious with cooking: spinach, kale, sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, mushrooms, green beans, and more. All of these foods become more digestible when cooked and the usable nutrient content for your dog increases as well.
In any form, spinach is packed with nutrients, but your dog will absorb more calcium and iron if it's cooked. Why? Spinach is loaded with oxalic acid, which blocks the absorption of iron and calcium but breaks down at cooking temperatures.
Cooked or raw, spinach is nutrient-dense. Using the right cooking methods can help you limit nutrient losses that can happen during cooking caused by leaching into water or being cooked too long or at high heat. Steaming spinach (or even better, steaming in the microwave) can reduce spinach's oxalic acid (that interferes with your body's absorption of iron and calcium) by up to 53 percent, resulting in increases in iron, magnesium, and calcium.
Research also shows that by steaming spinach, it retains its levels of folate, a B vitamin important for making DNA and helping to reduce the risk of several forms of cancer.
A quick side note on kale since it behaves somewhat similarly to spinach when cooked. The chemical mechanism that unleashes nutrients in spinach with cooking by blocking oxalic acid happens in kale as well but by blocking isothiocyanates. These enzymes prevent the body from using the iodine it needs for the thyroid (which helps to regulate metabolism).
But lightly steaming your kale deactivates isothiocyanates, allowing your dog to access the benefits of kale's iodine and its many valuable antioxidants.
It seems almost obvious and common sensical that all cooked grains will be more easily digestible and allow for better nutrient absorption. But there's more to the story of how oatmeal, as one example, actually processes more efficiently in the digestive system to deliver nutrients when cooked.
Raw oats contain the anti-nutrient phytic acid, which binds to minerals like iron and zinc, making it difficult for your body to absorb them. Cooking oatmeal in the microwave or soaking oats overnight (making "overnight oats") neutralizes the phytic acid and makes all the essential nutrients in oatmeal more digestible and accessible to benefit your dog (works for humans too, of course).
And what could be easier than "overnight oats" - plus soaking oats overnight makes them digestible like cooking but it's done without heat.
Cooking foods rather than serving them raw can be beneficial for many reasons for your dog. A range of medical conditions can mean that a dog simply can't tolerate raw foods. Some seniors also do better on a cooked diet.
The difficulty in digesting raw foods can result in gastrointestinal issues in addition to the loss of nutritional value with poor absorption. As always, be sure to consult with your vet before making any drastic changes in your pup's diet. When done correctly, cooking is a great way to increase the nutrient content of your dog's food and make it easier to digest.
As with everything, know your dog. Every dog is different and your dog's nutritional profile is your top priority in choosing the ingredients, nutrients, and preparation that's right for your individual pup.
Cooked food is a great way to provide your pup with nutritious meals, but it’s important to remember that not all cooking methods are created equal.
That's what we as nutritionists often refer to as gently cooked or lightly cooked.
Note: The confusion about whether to cook or not to cook likely comes from the fact that most of the big brand commercial pet foods, particularly for kibble, are highly processed with high heat which does, in fact, destroy important vitamins and other nutrients. (Many commercial dog foods spray on synthetic vitamins after production to try to meet nutrient requirements.)
Steaming and microwaving tend to be among the best cooking methods for maintaining nutrients, since they don't involve immersing the vegetables in water or very long cooking times.
Be sure to limit the amount of water used when steaming and cooking for a brief time. Water can leach water-soluble vitamins away from the food. The goal is to keep as many nutrients in the vegetable/greens as possible by limiting cooking time and using as little water as possible. That's why boiling is usually less preferable than steaming/microwaving, but if boiling, keep the less water, less time rule in mind.
Vitamin A in foods becomes more accessible when cooked. This is especially true for vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots, which are good sources of vitamin A. Vitamin B12 also increases when these foods are cooked as the heat helps to break down proteins that would otherwise block absorption.
Even with these methods, stick to low heat and limited time to maximize nutrient retention.
Next time you want to give your dog oatmeal, put your old-fashioned oats in a bowl or glass, cover with water, cover and let it sit overnight or at least 5 hours. You'll have what appears to be cooked oatmeal, with all the nutrient access and digestibility and no fuss, no heat!
Cooking your dog's homemade food can make certain nutrients more bioavailable for your pup. That's why it's important to know the benefits of cooking and not disregard it as an option for your dog's homemade diet.
Part of being a Canine Nutritionist means looking at the nutrients of foods in depth to determine what is best for a specific dog. Specific nutrients (accessible/digestible for your dog) are what make all the difference in dog food and homemade dog food recipes. In making your own dog food recipe, remember - nutrients first, ingredients and preparation method that fulfill the nutrients second.
Make sure to take all variables into consideration when deciding whether to feed a cooked or raw diet. Every pup is different and what works for most dogs may not be best for others!
Now that you have a good understanding of how cooking can impact essential nutrients in your dog's diet, learn how to formulate a recipe for your dog in the next step-by-step guide.
Or hop over to the Home Cooking Channel if you'd like to ask a question in the Community discussion and start any of the other step-by-step guides in Homecooking Basics, Recipes, or Formulating.
If you ever need more personalized wellness guidance, please reach out!
DISCLAIMER: The content of this website and community is based on the research, expertise, and views of each respective author. Information here is not intended to replace your one-on-one relationship with your veterinarian, but as a sharing of information and knowledge to help arm dog parents to make more informed choices. We encourage you to make health care decisions based on your research and in partnership with your vet. In cases of distress, medical issues, or emergency, always consult your veterinarian.