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The Happy Dog Cookbook and dog nutrition: Q&A with Sean McCormack, Head Vet at tails.com

The Happy Dog Cookbook and dog nutrition: Q&A with Sean McCormack, Head Vet at tails.com

By whitefox publishing |

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Tell us a little about your career so far. What inspired you to become a vet?

I wanted to be a vet or a zookeeper since I could answer the question ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I suspect a lot of the adults in my life told me I would be a vet as I was so obsessed with animals and nature.

We had pets growing up; mainly goldfish, hamsters, mice, a budgie. I loved watching tadpoles grow into frogs every Spring – fascinating! But when Sheba, my first dog, came along, she was the real inspiration for my career and really helped me realise just how important dogs are in people’s lives. She died aged fourteen and our second dog Suki died aged seventeen just a few years ago. I still miss them both terribly.

I did an undergraduate degree in Animal Science and then went to vet school on the graduate entry programme, so I’ve studied for about nine years in all after school. A long slog, and I’m not sure I could do it again, but I loved learning all about animal anatomy, physiology, nutrition, welfare and health.

I took the standard route into clinical practice after qualifying, initially treating farm animals, domestic and exotic pets and even a few zoo animals. Later on, after moving to London, I mainly treated dogs, cats and exotics. After six years in clinics I wondered what to do next; perhaps specialise or look at alternative vet career options in industry? Then I heard about the tech-driven pet nutrition business that was tails.com. I wanted to know more and get involved.

What does your role as Head Vet at tails.com involve?

I started out almost four years ago at tails.com on the product team, designing new diets for growing puppies or dogs with special health needs, acting as a consultant across the business, creating online content from blogs to video for social media and advising the marketing team on what health claims we could make for our diets. I’ve since moved over to the marketing team and act as the brand’s spokesperson for our customers and within the veterinary community.

I do a lot of educational work, both within and outside the business, lecturing to the veterinary community on nutrition topics and building brand awareness and advocacy. People ask whether I miss all of the animals from daily life in clinical practice, and of course I do, but at tails.com we have fifty-six dogs (at last count) who are eligible to come into the office! So I get plenty of waggy tails and bellies to scratch. I don’t have my own dog at the moment (although I am super broody for one) as I’m just so busy and away from home quite a bit. Luckily I sometimes get to puppy-sit for my teammates.

The bad thing about being a clinical vet is that, more often than not, your patients don’t like you very much because you have to do horrible things like stick needles in them. Now all the dogs at work are happy to see me and I mostly arrive home at a reasonable hour – win win!

Why did you decide to create The Happy Dog Cookbook?

I’d been thinking about writing a book on dog health and nutrition for ages, but then the idea of a recipe book started to emerge, which was more fun and could still cover important issues such as choosing quality ingredients, supporting health conditions with nutrition and the growing problem of pet obesity.

When Annabel Karmel approached us on Instagram to talk about collaborating on a dog nutrition project, the timing could not have been better. I didn’t realise Annabel was such a dog lover, so once we met and chatted about what kind of book we could write together it all got very exciting!

The real reason we wrote this book was to give people a fun cookbook to add to their collection that truly celebrated dogs as part of the family, and provided healthy, delicious and nutritious recipes the whole family would enjoy preparing. I also wanted to share my top tips on keeping your dog happy and healthy for as long as possible.

The Happy Dog Cookbook promotes healthy eating for dogs. Could you tell us a little about the epidemic surrounding dog obesity.

Of course, it’s something we as vets talk about all the time, and at times it feels like we are banging the same old drum. The reality is that, despite all our messaging and concern, pet obesity is on the rise. Most recent estimates suggest that fifty-one percent of dogs in the UK are overweight or obese, but sixty-eight percent of dog owners think their dog is the correct weight! So there’s a massive disconnect.

I think veterinary professionals can sometimes come across as judgemental or unsupportive when doing their best to give advice on pet weight control. We see the negative consequences of weight problems day in, day out, like painful arthritis, reduced mobility, spinal problems, torn ligaments, diabetes and much more. Very often, excessive weight reduces the overall quality of life for our pets, so it is frustrating when pet owners don’t appear to take it seriously.

I hope that my message and advice in The Happy Dog Cookbook is really helpful, practical and supportive. We’re firm believers at tails.com that providing treats is and should be a part of caring for our pets. But it should be done in a healthy way, treating every dog as an individual. If your dog struggles with their weight, then I include advice on lower calorie treat options, and a great practical technique on assessing your dog’s body condition so you know when to lay off the treats and use more exercise to reward your pooch!

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All proceeds of the book are going to a fantastic cause: Street Vet UK. Can you tell us a little about this charity?

Yes, we decided very early on that the profits of the book should go to StreetVet, as we try to support them however we can at tails.com. Our company’s purpose is to improve the lives of dogs and their owners for the better. As a brand, StreetVet’s mission to provide free, accessible veterinary care for the pets of people experiencing homelessness and ours couldn’t be more aligned.

I have a great relationship with the founders of StreetVet, Jade and Sam, and I see the phenomenal work they are doing across the country. It’s a cause that is really close to my heart – helping dogs and humans – and anything I can do to help directly with donations but equally raise their profile is a pleasure for me. Making the book a fundraising opportunity for them was a total no-brainer!

Do you have any quick tips for our readers to maintain the health of their dogs?

Aha, I get asked for these top tips all the time!

1. Provide quality nutrition

2. Choose high-quality ingredients

3. Tailor your dog’s diet to their needs as an individual

4. Provide the right amount of food to maintain the correct weight and body condition

5. After diet, exercise is really important to keep your dog fit and active but also to get out and about and get mental stimulation. If you don’t have time to get a lot of exercise on a particular day, then mental stimulation for your pooch is even more important, so try some reward-based training or problem-solving games with them. I always say ‘a tired dog is a happy dog’ and you can tire them out just as much with fun games and puzzle activities indoors as with physical exercise. Even getting your dog to work for their food is a great way to occupy them, and I give loads of tips on that in the book, too.

6. Finally, work with your vet team if your dog has health problems. We are there to help. All too often I see older dogs with stiff and sore joints, and owners say ‘oh, he’s just old’, when in fact he’s in pain. Your vet team are a fantastic resource to help your dog achieve a happy, healthy and long, old life. So trust them and work with them. They’re probably most qualified to tell you your dog is in discomfort or when that discomfort has progressed to actual pain. Maybe it’s time to start them on some anti-inflammatory medication alongside nutritional supplements for arthritis, for example.

A lot of the time, people avoid getting vet advice for fear of bad news, but working together at the earliest opportunity is definitely the best approach to any problems your dog might have.

Do you have a favourite recipe from The Happy Dog Cookbook?

Yes, I do! I absolutely love my Autumn Fruit Flapjacks, and very often make them for myself. All of the recipes in the book are safe for humans to eat too, they just might not appeal to our preferred tastes as they lack some of the naughtier ingredients like sugar, butter and salt that aren’t so good for dogs. I find the berries in the flapjacks give enough sweetness, but if you need more you could always make one batch for your dog and another for your family with some added butter and sugar.

Annabel has contributed six fantastic recipes to the book, too, which are really fun. Her Beetroot and (dairy-free) Cheese Bone Biscuits are absolutely delicious. Try them plain for your dog and dip them in hummus for yourself. You’ll thank me later!

She has also come up with a really fun Doggy Birthday Cake recipe. That might sound a tad crazy, but in a recent survey eighty percent of UK dog owners said they mark their dog’s birthday with a cake or treat. Now you can bake one at home that is vet-approved. All while supporting a really worthy charity and helping out less lucky dogs and people who don’t have the facility to make homemade treats.

I really hope everyone who buys the book enjoys it, and of course their doggos, too!

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