Enhance your dog's meals with fruits and veggies.
Cook's Corner column by Mary Straus, published in Dog World Magazine, March 2010
Dogs have no nutritional requirement for carbohydrates, which has led many people to believe that vegetables and fruits provide no benefit to dogs. But these foods pack a big wallop when it comes to nutrition, and could help your dog live a long and healthy life. Here's how to safely incorporate them into your dog's diet.
Benefits of fruits and vegetables
Filled with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients (organic plant compounds thought to improve health), fruits and veggies can help prevent certain types of cancer, protect vision, support the immune system, and even prolong life.
Many fruits and vegetables are high in fiber, which is often helpful to dogs with digestive problems. Increased fiber can alleviate both diarrhea and constipation when used in proper amounts, but too much can actually cause these problems. Canned pumpkin (plain, not pie mix) is frequently recommended to help normalize stools because of the fiber it contains. Some forms of fiber called prebiotics nourish the beneficial bacteria, or probiotics, in the intestines.
Low in fat and calories, non-starchy veggies can play an important part in diets for dogs that are overweight or need to stay lean because of arthritis, diabetes or other health problems. Starchy veggies such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squashes, provide more calories, so quantities should be limited if your dog is overweight.
Up to half of a homemade diet can be composed of vegetables and fruits along with grains, although some vegetables may cause gas if fed in large quantities. At least half the diet should come from meat and other animal proteins, such as eggs and dairy. Because commercial foods, particularly dry foods, are already high in carbohydrates, it’s best to balance added vegetables with an equal amount of animal proteins.
Which fruits and veggies to feed
You can feed your dog almost any fruits and vegetables. Exceptions include grapes and raisins, which can cause kidney failure in dogs for unknown reasons, and onions, which can cause anemia. (A small amount of onions in leftovers isn’t a concern, but don’t add them to your dog’s diet.)
Deep-colored foods, including dark leafy greens, carrots, sweet potatoes and blueberries, generally provide the most nutrients.
Legumes, such as beans, lentils and green peas, are great sources of antioxidants and fiber. When combined with grains, they provide more complete protein than either offers alone (although certain amino acids can only be found in meat and animal products).
Herbs, including parsley, cilantro and ginger, can also be fed. Ginger is good for digestion and may also relieve inflammation caused by arthritis.
Healthy fruits to feed your dog include bananas, apples, pears, melons and berries.
Feed a variety of vegetables and fruits, not just the same ones. Fresh is best, but it’s fine to use frozen and canned vegetables and fruits – just watch out for added salt or sugar in canned varieties.
Vegetables must be cooked or puréed to be digested by dogs. Whole, raw veggies aren’t harmful; they just don’t provide much nutritional benefit.
The vegetable's cell walls are protected by cellulose. To reach the nutrients inside, the cell walls must be broken down. Humans and herbivores do this by chewing; our flat molars are made to grind down plant matter. But dogs don't have flat molars – theirs are sharp and scissor-like, for cutting through meat. Dogs don't chew food as much as they bite off chunks and swallow. Cooking and puréeing vegetables breaks down the cell walls.
The best way to cook non-starchy vegetables is by steaming; fewer nutrients are lost that way than by boiling. You can add the water used for cooking to your dog's meals to recapture the nutrients lost in the cooking process.
Starchy veggies should always be cooked before feeding; baking or microwaving works best for these foods. Legumes must also be cooked before feeding. Soak dry beans before boiling or cooking in a pressure cooker.
If you feed raw veggies, purée them in a food processor, juicer or blender. Fruits can be fed raw without being puréed. Overripe fruits are most easily digested.
I like to blend a large batch of fruits and veggies in my food processor, then freeze them overnight in muffin tins to create “veggie muffins” that can be bagged and thawed individually for meals.
If your dog doesn’t like vegetables, try mixing them with yogurt, cottage cheese, low-sodium or homemade broth, or meat drippings. Offer a variety – don’t assume that if your dog doesn’t like broccoli, it won’t enjoy sweet potatoes.
Some limitations apply
Cruciferous vegetables, such as arugula, asparagus, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, radishes, rutabaga, turnips and watercress, can suppress thyroid function when they're fed raw in large quantities. However, they are among the healthiest foods you can feed, so don’t avoid them; just cook them rather than feeding raw, except in limited quantities.
Certain vegetables are high in oxalates, which can contribute to calcium oxalate bladder and kidney stones in susceptible dogs. Breeds at particular risk include the Bichon Frise, Lhasa Apso, Miniature Poodle, Miniature Schnauzer, Shih Tzu and Yorkshire Terrier. Dogs with liver shunts and those with Cushing’s disease are also at higher risk of forming calcium oxalate stones. [See Calcium Oxalate Kidney and Bladder Stones for more information.]
Spinach and Swiss chard are particularly high in oxalates. These and other high-oxalate foods should be fed in limited quantities, or avoided altogether if your dog ever has developed calcium oxalate crystals or stones, or belongs to one of the high-risk groups.
Raw, crushed garlic has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antiviral properties, but it can cause anemia if fed in large amounts. Limit garlic to no more than half a small clove per 20 pounds of body weight daily.
Vegetables from the nightshade family, including white potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers, may increase arthritis pain in some dogs. If your dog has arthritis, try eliminating these foods to see if its condition improves.
Avocados can cause gastric upset in some dogs due to a substance called persin. Avocado is high in fat and calories, and so should be fed in only limited amounts.
Whole foods or supplements?
Although some of the nutrients found in vegetables and fruits can be obtained from supplements, it is unclear whether they provide the same benefits. Whole foods contain other naturally occurring substances that act synergistically with the nutrients we know about. For best results, nothing beats real foods.
The evolutionary diet of wolves and dogs didn't include many plants, but evolution's main concern is procreation, not longevity. If you feed a homemade diet, don't let your dog miss out on the myriad benefits of fruits and vegetables, which can contribute to a long and healthy life.
You can contact me if you have any comments, but I regret to say that I can no longer respond to questions about individual dogs. See my Contact page for more information. My name is Mary Straus and you can email me at either or