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Fresh dog food is in. The antithesis of kibble, fresh dog food looks like something a person could eat. It’s made from blends of whole-food, human-grade ingredients such as ground meat, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and even tofu. Pet parents have all kinds of anecdotes about how much their dogs improve after switching over and report everything from healthier skin to higher energy levels. But that can be hard to quantitate. Dr. Susan Bohrer, CVA, CVFT, and co-founder of the fresh dog food delivery brand Chi Dog, has seen firsthand how feeding pups this way improves their well-being.
She started Chi Dog in 2017 with her co-founder, Dr. Chris Berg. Before that, her line of work involved teaching pet parents how to make whole-food, cooked meals for their dogs at her veterinary clinic, which incorporates the tenants of Chinese food therapy (shí liáo), an aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
In essence, it’s all about matching common ailments that our canine companions suffer from to whole-food ingredients that are known to heal. Both Bohrer and Berg have seen their canine clients’ lab work improve for all kinds of issues, from gastrointestinal (GI) upset to arthritis.
“It’s so common to see dogs deal with things like inflammation when we feed them processed food. We saw again and again how whole, cooked food can be like medicine,” Bohrer says. “We thought, if we can get dogs, especially the ones suffering from health issues, off of overly-processed kibble, then their condition will improve.”
She’s right, and that’s why Chi Dog focuses on lightly cooked, whole-food ingredients that are tailored to address specific health concerns — the same way that a human would use Chinese food therapy. Plenty of research suggests that “food is medicine” — a core tenant of Chinese food therapy — is more than an idiom. Diets heavy in highly-processed foods are known to increase the risk of chronic health issues in humans.
There are fewer studies like this on the canine front, but research suggests a link between inflammation, poor immune function, and other health conditions in dogs. Just like in humans, whole food ingredients may improve these conditions, leading to a healthier pup.
“We’ve been doing things for years, and we wanted to really focus on a whole-food diet that’s as close to the tenants of holistic medicine veterinarians are taught and teach their clients,” Bohrer says. “It’s about matching the right foods to a specific problem, or even which foods to choose to prevent or relieve health issues.”
Chi Dog’s meal plans, which were all developed by a veterinary nutritionist, incorporate Chinese food therapy’s use of “heating” and “cooling” foods to address certain concerns. Traditionally, heating foods are used to treat conditions like fatigue, digestive issues, and anemia. Cooling foods, on the other hand, treat “hot” conditions, such as dry, itchy skin, rashes, and constipation.
“I got frustrated that I kept making these recipes, but there wasn’t a program that holistic vets or pet parents could use to help their dog,” Bohrer adds. “So, we wanted to make food with more intentional ingredients. Real food is good for dogs, but we wanted the recipes to be based on Chinese medicine and the food that’s used to treat diseases and imbalances.”
For example, the “Earth Diet” is made for dogs who suffer from obesity and inflammation. It’s made from eggs, tofu, and sweet potato. The “Fire Diet” is made from a base of turkey, millet, and carrots, and is used to improve heart health, reduce inflammation, and alleviate skin conditions. Each meal contains skin-healthy oils and a proprietary blend of vitamins and minerals to ensure that dogs get everything that they need.
In addition to that, all of the food is lightly cooked — not raw. Not that Bohrer has an issue with raw-food diets. “Some dogs do well on a raw diet while others just do terrible,” she says, adding that cooked food gives dogs the benefits of whole-foods without the GI issues. “It makes it gentler and easier for the dogs to break down.”
One big difference between Chi Dog and Chinese food therapy is the lack of organ meat, a “heating” food that’s commonly consumed in East Asia and a lot of other places in the world.
“In our industrial food complex, organ meat is not as well-regulated for human consumption because we don’t eat a lot of it,” Bohrer says. For example, one 2020 study found a higher prevalence of antimicrobial-resistant food-borne bacteria in grocery store food around Nashville, Tennessee, compared to ground meat.
“We keep things aligned with what you would find in your kitchen — ground meat, vegetables, and a little bit of carbohydrates,” Bohrer says. They use only whole grains —think brown rice and barley — because in humans, refined grains are linked to inflammation. “We’ve seen the same thing happen in dogs, and the processed kibble industry happens to be heavily based on processed ingredients,” she adds.
Another thing that was critical to Bohrer: The food had to be tasty. What pet parent doesn’t want to see their dog tail-waggingly excited to eat? Chi Dog meals may be holistic, but don’t associate it with bland health food.
“We love our dogs, so it makes sense to feed them something that they actually love. I always tell clients, ‘I want you to cook for your dog every now and then.’ It’s a wonderful way to care for them,” Bohrer says.
But Bohrer also understands that doing that on the regular is too time-consuming for many Americans. “We want to give dogs a wholesome diet so you don’t have to worry about balancing vitamins and minerals, and you don’t have to sit there crushing calcium in a mortar and pestle,” she says.
Disclaimer alert: This article is here to share information. But, much like pineapple on pizza, the topic may be controversial. Meaning, not all vets or pet professionals agree. Because every pet is a unique weirdo with specific needs. So, don’t take this as fact or medical advice. Talk things over with your vet when making decisions, and use your best judgment (about both your pet’s health and pizza toppings).
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Kat L. Smith
Kat L. Smith is a writer and editor based in Queens, New York. They have written for LIVEKINDLY about a wide range of topics related to sustainability, lifestyle, house plant care, and food. They share their apartment with their adopted dog, Layla, and Vivi, a one-eared cat.