As senior veterinarian at Southeastern Guide Dogs, Dr. Kevin Conrad spends weekdays caring for as many as 100 dogs in training and another 100 or so puppies born on campus.
On weekends, he's cooking up dog food for his own pets and the occasional guide dog puppy with tummy troubles.
In his 30-plus years of practicing veterinary medicine in Florida, Conrad said he has never seen a puppy with digestive problems that couldn't be helped by home-cooked meals.
Trained at the University of Florida, the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine and the University of Tennessee's Canine Rehabilitation Program, Conrad has been helping pet owners fix dog fixins for years. That includes being chef for some guide dog users and staff at the Southeastern campus in Palmetto, where he has served for the past five years. He also treats some of the dogs who end up as pets. About 40 of his clients are cooking their own dog food.
His own dogs, Butterscotch and Bourbon, are elderly. But with a diet of homemade food, Conrad said, they play like puppies.
"It's a huge trend and it's getting more and more popular," he said.
Suzy Wilburn, director of admissions and alumni support at Southeastern, credits Conrad's recipes with putting the pep back into her guide dog Carson, 8. Visually impaired, Wilburn was matched with Carson in 2011. In the first two months as her guide, Carson gained 6 pounds.
"He was on a strict diet, but when the wind blows he can gain weight," said Wilburn. "I felt like it was my fault."
On a Saturday in 2016, Carson got his first Conrad-prescribed meal including chicken livers, sardines, turkey necks, olive oil, broccoli, mushrooms, kidney beans, grains, garlic, a calcium tablet and a splash of vinegar.
"By Tuesday, I saw a difference in his energy level," said Wilburn. "He was like a kid again." She serves him dry kibble in the mornings and home-cooked meals at night.
"He's thriving," she said. Conrad adjusts Carson's menu depending on the season, adding more water and watery fruits and vegetables in hotter months. Carson likes summertime because he gets watermelon as a treat.
"He has his own Crock-Pot and he knows it's his," said Wilburn.
Kennels like those at Southeastern, full of Labradors, golden retrievers and a mix of both called goldadors, can become a breeding ground for illnesses. When traditional treatments don't work for a particular dog, Conrad stops by the grocery store on his way home to purchase ingredients for a home-cooked diet.
Plenty of people still buy commercial dog food. A 2015 Nielsen survey reported Americans spend $9.5 billion a year on it.
Dr. Susan Wynn of BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Atlanta prefers homemade pet food in many cases, but usually recommends processed foods from companies like Hills, Purina, Royal Canin and those with nutritionists on staff and high standards for quality control.
The best food companies analyze raw materials in foods at their plants, she said, check for toxins and heavy metals, have strict cleaning protocols, analyze food for nutrient content and test for bacterial pathogens such as salmonella.
"It's true that various companies may do some of these steps, but not many do all," she said.
Wynn prepares individual diet plans for her patients, depending on their personal profiles.
"I got into nutrition the way a lot of holistic vets do," said Wynn, who also serves as a consultant to several start-up companies making and selling homemade pet foods. "You notice sick animals. You want to help them but you find that you often can't. Sometimes the owners find the secret. Many times, it's food, and many times, it's homemade food."
Healthy, home-cooked meals alone do not make a complete and balanced diet, according to veterinary nutritionists. Pet meals usually need some supplements.
Foods should be formulated according to standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, an organization of state and federal regulators that helps develop the regulations for pet food safety.
Some university veterinary programs as well as private practitioners can help pet owners design nutritionally complete and balanced diets for a fee. Or at websites like balanceit.com or petdiets.com, pet owners can input foods to determine needed supplements. The companies make money by selling the supplements.
Pet owners should do their homework.
"Veterinary nutritionists should be board-certified, which means they have a DACVN (Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Nutrition) after their DVM (doctor of veterinary medicine)," Wynn said. "This is important because there are mail-order degree programs out there giving laypeople letters that basically say they have read a couple of popular books on nutrition, and making them look every bit as educated and official as a real veterinarian."
At Southeastern, Conrad works with several nutritional specialists. His patients are considered "special needs" dogs because they are training to become working dogs. They need more protein than average retrievers. He has been contemplating feeding fresh foods to all of the dogs in his training kennels, performing blind tests with groups of dogs.
But fresh food is a costly endeavour. Each year, Southeastern spends about $58,000 on food. To serve home-cooked food to all of the dogs in the training kennel would cost about four times that much, according to Conrad's calculations. It also takes time to shop for and prepare the meals.
Conrad is motivated to find more affordable ways to serve fresh food to the future guide dogs. It's part of a program that includes a treadmill and a hydrotherapy pool as well as a hyperbaric chamber for restoration after workouts.
"We want our dogs to be stronger," he said. "And they need enough food and good food to sustain their conditioning."
Wilburn supports all programs to graduate healthier service dogs and help them work until age 11. But, as a dog owner, she really just wants her dog to live as long as possible.
"He's part of my family," she said. "I adore him."
Kathy Saunders is a Times correspondent and a board member at Southeastern Guide Dogs. Contact email@example.com.