Have you ever considered home-cooked meals for your dog? We spoke with Joe Inglis, founder of VetChef, about how he wants to make it easier for pet owners to feed their dog nutritious food they’ll love.
If that name sounds familiar, Joe has featured on a range of TV shows; from his time in Vets in Practice to appearing on Blue Peter, The One Show and Good Morning Britain as the resident veterinarian. He also founded Tails.com and has authored a number of books on his experience as a vet and pet nutrition.
So it’s safe to say that he knows what he’s talking about.
Joe was kind enough to give us some time to discuss VetChef and humour some of my questions.
So what was the inspiration behind VetChef?
I’ve been a vet for many years and I’ve also been in pet nutrition for a long time, founding tails.com back in 2013. That was the start of personalised pet nutrition for me. When I left tails, I started thinking about how to take that even further and began looking at home cooking as the ultimate way to provide tailored, healthy meals for our pets.
Actually, I’ve been into home cooking for a long time – I wrote a cookbook for dogs back in 2005, so I already knew that lots of people already cooked for pets. Also, there was amazing potential to make it a better solution by helping people do it more safely and in a tailored way to their pet’s individual dietary requirements.
For the layperson and dog owner like myself, what do you see as the main benefits of home cooking and preparing the food yourself?
I think there’s lots of benefits really: from the dog’s perspective, obviously taste and flavour is a big one – nothing beats a bowl with freshly cooked food. I think health-wise, there’s the quality of ingredients. So you can feed high quality ingredients with the flexibility really of creating meals that suit your dog’s requirements and preferences, as well as your own.
Nothing really beats a home cooked diet in terms of the flexibility and how effectively you can tailor it to your dog’s requirements.
So with tails, we created a diet out of a selection of 20 or 30 different kibbles mixed together once a month. With home cooked food you’ve got literally 1000s of potential ingredients, and you can change it every day if you want to reflect your dog’s needs.
Another part of the business is the supplements, so how do you educate owners on the need for supplementing diets, particularly home cooked varieties?
One of people’s concerns about feeding a home-cooked diet is getting the nutritional balance and not causing deficiencies. We realised early on that it was quite hard to meet all of those nutritional requirements without a supplement, particularly on calcium, which is quite hard to source from typical home-cooked ingredients.
There are other ingredients, such as copper and iodine, which are hard to get in high enough quantities from a freshly prepared diet.
But by offering supplements, it really opens up additional benefits. Whether it’s providing glucosamine for joint problems, or L-carnitine for adult dogs needing to lose weight. Even different clinical supplements for dogs who have kidney problems or pancreatitis. Whatever it might be, we realised that it’s another way of tailoring the nutrition really precisely to that dog’s requirements.
On the subject of nutrition, have you seen a big shift in awareness around it and are more owners asking around nutrition for their dogs?
Yeah, I think it’s become a really important and well understood area. What we’re aiming to do is to give owners tools to understand their dog’s nutrition, and to manage it really well. Whether that includes feeding commercial foods as well as feeding home cooked foods, they can use our online platform to monitor their dog’s nutrition.
So, I think people are really, really interested in it and understand its value. And, in a few years time, we will look back at the way we used to feed our dogs with a kind of one-size-fits-all, bag of dried biscuits, and feel that was pretty inappropriate. Now, I think we can do better across the whole spectrum.
We’re not saying that feeding dry food is bad or wrong. There’s lots of ways you can feed your dog. But having the tools to understand what you’re feeding and how it affects them and how you can improve that is really useful.
As a vet, you’ve probably encountered dogs with various dietary issues including obesity. So what would your general advice be to those dog owners that are worried about their dog’s diet and how does VetChef provide a solution?
As a vet you see so many problems which are diet-related, or have a strong diet-related component, such as obesity, diabetes, IBD, skin disease and so on. For managing obesity, the flexibility of a home-cooked diet to be able to include ingredients which bulk up the meals, increasing the feeling of fullness, makes weight loss easier to manage. That whole management of calories is more easily done in that way.
But there are lots of other health problems that I alluded to before, which vets see all the time. A really well thought out and scientific approach to a home cooked diet can be a very powerful tool.
One of our plans for the future is to make our recipes and supplements available through vets. So they’ve got another option for people whose dogs require a prescription diet for their dog but they would prefer to avoid processed foods, or that their dog doesn’t want to eat it. I think that’s going to be a really exciting opportunity for us to help vets to help pet owners.
We’ve spoken a bit about what people should be feeding their dogs but is there anything out there that we should really be avoiding for our dogs?
It is important to understand that home cooking for your dog is not simply a case of giving them your scraps or feeding them the same food that you would eat. Because some ingredients are not good for and can even be dangerous for dogs.
There’s the obvious ones like chocolate, which most people know about. But there are plenty of others like onions, unripe tomatoes, some types of mushrooms, grapes, raisins and peanut butter. But in general terms, most ingredients that we use for human cookery are perfectly applicable for our dogs.
Dogs have evolved to be omnivores, they’re very good at processing types of different nutrients. From a very high protein meat-based diet, all the way down to a vegetarian diet with no meat at all. Dogs can do very well on all of those.
Back to your products, you’ve got a product called Buddy that’s coming out soon. What is it and how will it help dog owners cook for their pets?
We identified quite early two challenges for people home cooking. One was nutrition, and the other was the hassle factor. People lead busy lives and cooking for your dog undoubtedly takes longer than scooping some biscuits out of a bag.
So, we wanted to look at how we could help people with that. The idea of Buddy is that it’s like a bread machine for home-cooked food, and makes the whole process of preparing homemade food super simple.
The VetChef app tells you what ingredients to put in and you don’t need to chop them up or prepare them or do anything to them – Buddy does everything. It chops the ingredients, cooks them and mixes them. Then at the end of it, it helps you weigh it out into portions that you can store or serve.
So, instead of standing over a pan for an hour and spending lots of time chopping up meat and vegetables, it takes 30 seconds with Buddy so you can go out, get on with your day and when you come back later on you’ve got a lovely perfectly cooked meaty stew for your dog. So yeah, we’re super excited by it. I think it’s gonna be really transformational for the world of home cooking for dogs.
How do you cater for those fussy dogs and owners that are maybe concerned about going on a home-cooked diet?
I think, generally, dogs much prefer home-cooked food over some biscuits or tinned food. It’s a bit like the difference between a nice home-cooked Sunday roast or a processed ready meal.
So, for most dogs, palatability is absolutely not an issue, it’s the opposite. I think there are some dogs who won’t find particular recipes engaging. But again the beauty of home-cooked is there are a million other recipes out there and different tastes, flavours and ingredients to try.
What are the next steps for VetChef?
We’re building a lot more functionality in the app, to help people manage health conditions. Buddy is launching later this year. So big plans ahead.
And I know you’ve got a lot of menus and recommendations on the site and a subscription service, what are your plans there?
Yes, at the moment VetChef is entirely free to use. In the next couple of months we’re going to be launching various premium subscription tiers which will give people access to a wider range of recipes, more functionality and other features like recipes suitable for more than one dog for example. Our clinical tier of subscription is where people will be able to really manage their pet’s specific health problems and work with their vet. So, there’s loads of functionality that those subscription levels will give people.
Thanks again to Joe for giving us some time to discuss dog nutrition and VetChef. If you’d like to learn more about home cooking and tailored nutrition for your dog, visit the VetChef website and set up your own free account.
For more on what your dog can/can’t eat;