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The Wonders of Winter Squash for Pets

Autumn is such a lovely season for its cool breezes, beautiful leaves and harvest picking. We conjure idyllic images of ourselves sipping hot cocoa, wearing a cable knit sweater and cozy scarf while picking apples at an orchard or pumpkins from a patch. We take the pumpkins home, carve them for Halloween, and roast the seeds. Pumpkin is a particularly prevalent ingredient this time of year, but canned pumpkin is popular with many people year-round as a tasty and nutritious food for our four-legged companions. But in our love for canned pumpkin and its use for our companion animals, we often forget about all of the highly nutritious varieties of fresh winter squash prevalent this time of year.

wonders of winter squash

I have wondered why most of us do not consider using fresh off the vine pumpkin or other winter squash – such as butternut, acorn, sweet dumpling, Hubbard, red kuri, delicata, kabocha, spaghetti or buttercup – more often in food for us or our companion animals. So, I called up a pumpkin patch farmer, Colony Pumpkin Patch, and posed this question to them. Co-owner, Katie Colony, confirmed my thoughts. We agreed that in general people are hesitant for one or more reasons, including:

  • They do not know how to cut up the squash. It’s true; these are not your run-of-the-mill fruits with soft skins, but rather they have hard rinds and odd shapes. (Yes; they are technically fruits according to botanists.) They also take a little bit longer to chop up, but you can get a lot of food from one winter squash. Believe me; the first time I bought a butternut squash, I thought, “What did I just get myself into?” I almost sliced my finger off! However, I soon got the hang of it.
  • Preparation time. Yes; preparation is lengthier from scratch instead of canned. Of course, this is like making cookies from scratch compared to buying a premixed roll of cookie dough.
  • Many of us assume that all squash tastes the same and has the same texture. This most definitely is not true. Just like their unique shapes, the taste differs between each variety. Think of apples. Honeycrisp, golden delicious, red delicious, Granny Smith, and Jonathan do not have the same taste. With squash, the sugar, dietary fiber, vitamins and water content vary to make up their unique flavor profiles and textures.
  • They don’t know how to prepare it. We often think of complicated recipes that we find online, but you can steam or bake most winter squash and it will taste delicious.

Don’t feel bad if you haven’t tried squash more often. The most comprehensive ingredient database in the world, the United States Department of Agriculture National Nutrient Database, does not provide nutrient values for many of the winter squash varietals, probably because of lack of popularity and small harvest window.

So, you ask…why bother with winter squash at all – for yourself or your companion animal? The health benefits are amazing and they add a wonderful variety to meals!

Health Benefits of Winter Squash – Phytonutrients

Many of the winter squash varieties are full of vitamin A, vitamin C and carotenoids (e.g. beta-carotene). Carotenoids are phytonutrients that provide the red, orange and yellow pigments found in winter squash.

Phytonutrients are naturally-occurring plant chemicals with potent antioxidant properties. They have been shown to convey a number of health benefits on those who eat them, including protecting against heart disease, cancer and blocking tumor activity. Carotenoids, in particular, are known as “pro-vitamin A” because they are converted to the active form of vitamin A.

Phytonutrients may work via a variety of mechanisms, including:
  • Serving as antioxidants.
  • Enhancing immune response.
  • Enhancing cell-to-cell communication.
  • Causing cancer cells to die (apoptosis).
  • Repairing DNA damage caused by exposure to environmental toxins.

Health Benefits – Soluble Fiber

As a pet parent, you have probably heard a lot about the anti-diarrheal benefits of pumpkin. The reason for this is simple – soluble fiber. Soluble fiber absorbs water and slows down the digestive process in the gastrointestinal tract. Conversely, insoluble fiber adds bulk to the stool and tends to speed up the passage of food through the digestive tract.

In essence, soluble fiber “bulks” up the stool, helping to control the loose, watery stools characteristic of diarrhea. Clinical studies show that soluble fiber helps regulate stool frequency and consistency in people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

It should be noted that the magic of pumpkin’s soluble fiber is enhanced in the canned form because it is highly concentrated. This is done to thicken the product so that it can be used as an ingredient in foods such as pumpkin pie while still holding its form.

Other winter squash varieties do not have as much soluble fiber. Also, I only found one plain canned butternut squash (without onions) from Farmer’s Market. However, this should not discourage you from trying it if your four-legged companion does not like canned pumpkin or you want to add variety to his diet.

Tips for purchasing pumpkin or other winter squash:
  • Certified organic
  • BPA-free can
  • NO spices of any kind
  • No added sugar or other fillers

Winter Squash for Pets

Don’t be afraid to try winter squash for your four-legged companion. It is jam-packed with health benefits. In fact, I often use winter squash in the home-cooked recipes that I formulate for my canine clients.

Also, don’t be afraid to offer different types of squash to see which one(s) your dog or cat likes best. I had mentioned previously that not all winter squash is the same for a few reasons. The taste and texture of each varies.

Butternut squash – possibly the most popular of the non-pumpkin winter squash varieties – is often compared to sweet potato. Sweet potato has become a staple ingredient in commercial pet foods and like pumpkin is a popular anti-diarrheal agent. However, many dogs are developing food intolerances to it.

Let’s take a look:

winter squash comparison chartAs you review the above chart, you may think, “Why not stick with sweet potato if my dog doesn’t have a food intolerance to it? The vitamin and mineral counts are higher.”

 

While this is true, sweet potato has a high concentration of carbohydrates and practically twice as many calories per 100 grams compared to all of the squashes.

Which leads me to obesity…the leading health threat to companion animals, predisposing them to conditions such as osteoarthritis, cancer and diabetes. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, over 52.7% of US dogs are considered overweight or obese. Preventing obesity is another reason why winter squash is a great alternative to sweet potato.

You may notice that spaghetti and acorn squash are rather lacking in vitamin A and beta-carotene compared to the other varieties. They are actually lighter in color, proving that the brighter and more vibrant colors indicate a greater abundance of the antioxidant carotenoids. By the way, when we judge a winter squash for nutritional value, we look at the interior, as the rind can be misleading. For instance, butternut squash looks tan and dull on the outside, but it is a beautiful bright orange on the inside!

Below is a wonderful Shopper’s Guide to Winter Squash, courtesy of New Pioneer Food Co-Op.

winter squash chart

Recipe: Anti-Inflammatory Thai-Style Butternut Squash Soup

Think dogs don’t eat soup? Think again! Here is my recipe for my “Chase-approved” Anti-Inflammatory Thai-Style Butternut Squash Soup. It’s quick, easy and full of anti-inflammatory ingredients. Plus, your canine will go crazy for it!

Ingredients
  • 10 oz butternut squash, cubed (preferably organic) (or substitute 1 10-oz bag frozen cubed butternut squash) (Note – you can use more to increase the size of the recipe. Just also proportionately increase the other ingredients.)
  • 1/4 cup canned, unsweetened light coconut milk (preferably organic)
  • 1 TB maple syrup
  • 1 ¼ cups water (preferably filtered or spring water)
  • 1/8 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp turmeric
  • 1/8 tsp ginger
Directions
  • If using fresh butternut squash, prepare it so that the flesh is removed from the skin, seeds are removed and the squash is cut into approximately 1-inch cubes, then transfer to a medium-sized pot. For frozen, empty the butternut squash directly into a medium-sized pot. Add ¼ cup of the water. Bring mixture to a boil and reduce the heat to medium. Cook until the squash is completely tender, stirring frequently and breaking up the chunks of squash with a wooden spoon.
  • When the squash is fully cooked, stir in the coconut milk, maple syrup and remaining water. Stir to fully integrate. Add the cinnamon, turmeric and ginger and stir. For a smoother consistency, use an immersion blender to puree the mixture or transfer the soup to a standing blender, puree and return it to the pot.
  • Use the “finger test” to be sure the soup is cool enough for your four-legged companion. Be sure that you can immerse your finger in the soup without it feeling uncomfortable to the touch.

Makes approximately two cups.

Here’s a photo of Chase enjoying his Anti-Inflammatory Thai-Style Butternut Squash Soup!

Chase eating winter squash soup

As always, I hope that you enjoyed this article and I welcome your comments and feedback!

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. i never thought about giving my dogs soup thanks for the info will try this recipe for my German Shepherd