When Bernadette Kazar's 8-year-old cocker spaniel, Ruby, was diagnosed with liver failure, the prognosis was grim. The local vet prescribed lots of pricey medication and a special, and expensive, prescription diet.
The Heidelberg woman, who does not have bottomless pockets and also has other dogs, all rescues like Ruby, found herself with limited options until Cathy Alinovi stepped in with long-distance help and encouragement. Ms. Alinovi is a veterinarian with a degree from Purdue and a busy practice in the state of Indiana, who has also become certified in veterinary food therapy, veterinary acupuncture, Chinese herbal therapy and aromatherapy. She has co-authored a book with Susan Thixton on home-cooking for pets called "Dinner PAWsible," a cookbook of healthy dog and cat meals.
While the book addresses recipes for healthy pets, Ms. Alinovi says it is also possible and beneficial to cook for sick pets. She gave Ms. Kazar a special diet prepared using human-grade ingredients, such as white fish and sweet potatoes, that would alleviate the need for the pricey prescription food. The diet, written specifically for dogs with liver failure, was formulated by nationally recognized veterinarian/researcher Jean Dodds.
It is important to note that Ruby was continuously monitored during this period by her local vet with Ms. Alinovi providing email support, phone calls and encouragement on the dietary aspects of Ruby's treatment.
Ms. Kazar followed the diet religiously and with continuing medical care and vet-prescribed medication, test results showed improvement in Ruby's liver. In fact, after six weeks on the diet, blood tests showed the dog's liver numbers were back to normal. However, Ruby had other significant life-long health issues that could not be overcome by diet or love. With great reluctance and a heavy heart, Ms. Kazar made the sad decision to euthanize Ruby last April.
What Ms. Kazar saw during Ruby's time on home-cooked meals made her such a believer in feeding a diet of varied, wholesome, human-grade food, that she has permanently transitioned her other dogs to an all home-cooked diet.
Ms. Kazar reported that after the diet change, Ruby stopped licking her paws, which she had done for the 21/2 years Ms. Kazar had owned her, and was slobbering significantly less. Another of her dogs, a blond cocker, Chanel, no longer has dark tear stains. And an older dog, 13-year-old Godiva, has shown increased energy.
"They all lost weight from the diet," says Ms. Kazar. "Anywhere from 2 to 5 pounds. They are trimmer. They drink less water and poop less."
A new addition to the home since Ruby's passing, Avon, a blind, formerly overweight, 10-year-old King Charles spaniel with an enlarged heart, has lost 9 pounds on the home-cooked diet, and now walks for one hour a day with the other dogs.
Ms. Alinovi says many veterinarians do not take a holistic approach, which includes nutrition. "Vets look at illness with medicine. What pills can we give? We aren't trained in nutrition," Ms. Alinovi says.
"Our 'nutrition' training is delivered by the pet food companies who buy us lunch and buy us dinner and tell us about their great research. ... So, when patients become ill, vets want to prescribe a veterinary diet made of low-quality, highly processed ingredients that do not help patients heal."
Veterinarian Larry Gerson, founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic and author of the Post-Gazette Pet Points column, disagrees.
"Nutrition is now one of the five vital assessments advocated by the American Animal Hospital Association. We discuss diet on almost every annual physical. To say that veterinarians are not current on nutrition is wrong," he wrote in an email.
Ms. Alinovi insists that many health issues can be successfully treated with dietary changes alone.
"Quality nutrition provides more moisture, more nourishment and less inflammation to the healing body. If we reduce inflammation, we reduce stress on the body. Less stress improves quality of life," she says.
Just because there are no raw components in a home-cooked diet, that doesn't mean it isn't controversial. "Since the '70s, we've been trained that people food is not healthy [for dogs], dog food is." Ms. Alinovi goes one step further, saying that like humans, animals benefit from a varied diet.
"People don't eat the same thing day after day. This is how we balance our meals. If all we ate was cereal for every single meal, we'd need a lot of supplementation, too."
She does recommend additional calcium be given to a pet on a home-cooked regimen, and that can come simply and cheaply from egg shells (recipe below). For special diets like the liver cleansing diet, short-term (two-four weeks) supplementation shouldn't normally be needed.
"For patients with crazy liver disorders, using the liver diet long-term may need a little balance added in with a vitamin," Ms. Alinovi says.
"There are some nice animal-specific vitamins out there," she says, naming Standard Process, Whole Body Support and Missing Link. Veterinarians can also suggest ones with individual components for your dog or cat.
Ms. Alinovi says pet owners will find that dogs and cats on a home-cooked diet shed less, lose fat and generally feel better. The liver diet that Ms. Alinovi prescribed for Ruby is "a simple, digestible recipe that doesn't tax the liver," she says, noting that mainstream vets will say it isn't balanced.
"Short-term, we have to heal the liver. ... Once healed, a proper diet that prevents future liver injury will be great."
In fact, Ruby was being transitioned off the liver diet and onto more varied foods in the weeks before she died. Ms. Kazar's dogs now eat a wide mixture of fruits, cooked meats and vegetables with some additional supplements for individual issues such as CoQ-10 and hawthorn berry for heart murmurs in two dogs, and the 13-year-old also gets glucosamine chondroitin for her arthritis. All the dogs receive a fish oil supplement.
Ms. Kazar says she has had no diarrhea issues with any of her brood during the food change. And, she reports, all her dogs have much less gas. Her daughter, Melissa Church, has transitioned her dogs to home-cooked after seeing the changes in her mother's pets, and she, too, reports less slobber, less water drinking and less gas.
Ms. Kazar is looking into offering home-cooked pet meals for sale.
"Animal Friends has a saying, 'Think outside of the cage,' " says Ms. Kazar. "Maybe we need to think outside of the bag of dog food."
Dogs with Liver Issues
For dogs with liver issues ranging from failure to damage from long-term use of anti-epileptic medication to liver infection. (From veterinarian/researcher Jean Dodds.)
• 1 1/2 cups white potatoes
• 1 1/2 cups sweet potatoes
• 1 1/2 cups of zucchini
• 1 1/2 cups green beans
• 2 cups cod fillet or other white fish
Wash potatoes, cut into chunks, leaving the skin on. Cover with water and simmer until tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Cool, reserving cooking water, and peel potatoes.
Wash and dice the zucchini. Add green beans, then steam or cook until tender. Using liquid from the potatoes, poach the cod in a frying pan. Mix all ingredients, including remaining water, together until well blended.
Yield: Approximately 8 cups. A 30-pound dog should normally eat 2-3 cups of this total in a day. Three to four smaller meals are easier for the liver to process than one or two larger ones. This recipe will keep in the fridge about 3 days.
For those patients who will be eating this diet long-term, Ms. Dodds recommends using half the "normal" dose of a vitamin mix from Missing Link.
Cancer diet for dogs
• 1 cup lightly cooked turkey breast or lean stew beef
• 1 cup cottage cheese
• 2 cups cooked brown rice
• 1 1/2 cups steamed broccoli
• 1/2 cup steamed mushrooms
• 1-2 tablespoons olive or coconut oil
Combine all ingredients.
Yield: Approximately 6 cups. A 30-pound dog should eat 2 to 3 cups per day.
Ms. Alinovi makes an exception to her rule here and suggests feeding raw meat instead of slightly cooked.
"Most importantly, buy safe meat. I do not advise meat ground at the store for these recipes. Grind your own. Why raw? The least inflammatory of the foods. Some dogs may need help digesting raw food. Either build up to it slowly, add some digestive enzyme or barely cook the meat to get your dog started eating raw."
Dry the shells of 6 to 12 eggs in a 250-degree oven for 20 minutes. Grind shells in a coffee grinder until fine. Store unused egg shell powder in the refrigerator.
Susan Banks: email@example.com or 412-263-1516.