I know what you’re thinking: why is The Raw Feeding Community writing about kibble? Well, the answer is simple: not everyone can feed raw. Raw diets require significantly more research, prep time, and freezer space, and typically a bigger budget than would be necessary with most dry foods. For this reason, it would be unrealistic for us to assume that every pet owner can or will switch their dog to a raw diet. But just because someone can’t feed raw doesn’t mean they can’t improve their dog’s diet in other ways, including switching to a high quality kibble.
Quick side note: just as important – if not even more so – than what brand of kibble you choose is what you add to it. There are some really simple supplemental items you can add that come with some really important benefits. (Click here for a couple ideas!) For example, due to the nature of processing and shelf life, all kibble – no matter how high quality – is lacking in omega 3 fatty acids, which are important for skin/coat, heart, and brain health. (Read more about adding omega 3 fatty acids to your pet’s diet here.)
Now that that’s out of the way, back to the kibble!
What should I look for?
Browsing the dry dog food aisle can be an overwhelming experience. Many of the things that might draw you into a specific product probably aren’t actually any real indication of a good quality food, like a bag covered with colorful images of fresh meat and veggies or a brand that boasts that it is made of “natural” ingredients.
As an example, a brand that is notorious for its great marketing yet subpar product is Blue Buffalo. I’m sure you’ve seen the convincing commercials or even run into one of their food reps in a big box pet store. Yet, Blue Buffalo has been caught lying about ingredients and has recently been sued over allegations that Blue Buffalo products have been causing kidney disease in dogs and cats and contain toxic levels of lead. The allegation that Blue Buffalo has been causing kidney disease and urinary stones isn’t a new one, either: this concern has been raised by veterinary professionals for years.
How could this happen? Blue Buffalo is supposed to be a safe, natural, holistic food, isn’t it? It is sold at the price of a high end products, so owners are lead to believe that they are purchasing a high quality product. Unfortunately, that isn’t how it works.
As it turns out, the pet food industry is very under-regulated. Blue Buffalo can get away with claiming that their food is “natural,” “healthy,” and “made with high quality ingredients” even if it is not, because legally, those claims are meaningless. Although AAFCO has defined some terms and set rules for labelling pet foods, they are not a regulatory authority; they cannot approve, certify, test, or authorize pet foods or ingredients in any way – only the FDA and individual state laws can do that.
What all of this means is that if we want to analyze the quality of pet food products, we will have to look deeper than the pretty pictures on the bag or the claims made by the pet food companies.
Here are some things you should consider when choosing a kibble product:
- Life stage
- % Protein
- % Carbohydrates
- Company trackrecord
Adult Maintenance vs All Life Stages vs Growth & Reproduction
If a food is deemed “complete and balanced,” that means it meets minimum nutrient requirements as determined by the National Research Council. Foods that are balanced must meet the minimum requirements, based on laboratory analysis and/or feeding trials, for at least one life stage:
- Adult Maintenance, or
- Growth & Reproduction.
A food that meets requirements for both Adult Maintenance and Growth & Reproduction can be labelled for All Life Stages.
It is important to make sure your growing puppy or kitten is fed a diet that is formulated to meet requirements for Growth or All Life Stages.
Look on the back of the bag to find the ingredient list. Those ingredients are listed in descending order according to their weight.
Ingredients to avoid
- Colors & dyes: these are unnecessary because they serve no purpose other than to make the food look more appetizing to owners. Not only is there no nutritional benefit, many color and dye agents commonly used in pet food, such as red 40, yellow 5, and yellow 6, have been linked to tumor development and other significant health issues [source]. When the risk is high and the benefit is nonexistent, this is something you need to steer clear of.
- Unnamed meat ingredients: including ingredients such as “meat meal” or “animal fat”, the official definition of these ingredients are purposefully vague and leave out key words and phrases found in other ingredient definitions. This allows for pet food companies to use just about anything, from roadkill to “4D” (dead, dying, diseased, and disabled) meats deemed unfit for consumption and anything in between. These ingredients vary widely and may be from potentially dangerous sources, such as euthanized horses.
- Byproduct meals: while byproducts such as organs and bones are actually great sources of nutrition for dogs, unfortunately the ingredient definitions for byproducts allow for intestines, feathers, manure, etc. resulting in an ingredient that can vary widely from one batch to the next and has very low digestibility.
- Menadione (vitamin K3): also seen as “dimethylprimidinol sulfate”; be suspicious of any ingredient that includes “a source of vitamin K” in parenthesis after the ingredient name. Menadione has been banned in human supplements due to significant adverse effects, but is still allowed in pet food. Menadione, also known as vitamin K3, is a synthetic form of vitamin K. However, vitamin K can be synthesized by dogs, so supplementation isn’t even necessary – plus, menadione has been shown to disrupt the natural vitamin K cycle. Like food dyes, the risk is significant and the benefit is nonexistent, so it is best to steer clear. Read more about menadione here.
- Sugars or sweeteners: unnecessary additions to pet food whose only function is to make the food more appetizing to dogs; look out for ingredients such as “cane molasses,” “corn syrup,” or “sorbitol.” Excessive intake has been linked to many adverse health conditions.
- For a more detailed list of ingredients to avoid, click here.
For more detailed explanations of pet food ingredient definitions according to AAFCO, click here.
Meat vs meat meal
Meat meals like “chicken meal” are preferred over just “chicken” because meals are dried and rendered before weighing, making it a much more concentrated source of protein in comparison to a non-meal ingredient, which will be mostly water by weight. So just because “chicken” might be the first ingredient doesn’t mean it is actually the main source of protein – all that means is that it weighed more in proportion to the other ingredients, but that weight includes about 70% water. (Read more about meats vs meals here.)
Carbohydrates are not considered an essential nutrient for dogs or cats, but carbs in moderation can be beneficial ingredients due to the nutrients and fiber they provide. However, notice I said in moderation. Unfortunately, the nature of dry foods’ ability to stick together in bite-sized pieces and have a long shelf life without the need for refrigeration means that all dry food will have a higher percentage of carbs than would be ideal.
Although carbohydrate content isn’t required to be listed on the guaranteed analysis, it is easy to calculate. Simply subtract the % protein, fat, moisture, and ash from 100 and you will get the % carbs (including fiber). Sometimes ash isn’t listed on the label, so we use the average ash % found in most dry foods, which is 8%.
Let’s use a popular high end brand of dry dog food: Fromm Four-Star Beef Frittata. It has 30% protein, 18% fat, and 10% moisture. It doesn’t list ash, so we will just use 8%. 100 – 30 – 18 – 10 – 8 = 34% carbs.
Grain Free vs. Grain Inclusive
Grain free foods have become popular because owners want to avoid unnecessary carbs or ingredients that are not “species appropriate.” But even grain free dry foods must add starches of some type, no matter what. Sometimes, the starches chosen for grain free foods aren’t necessarily any better (or sometimes even worse) than in grain inclusive foods: for example, legumes and white potatoes.
Concentrated plant based protein ingredients, like pea protein, can contribute significantly to the protein content of a food – but this isn’t a good thing. We want the majority of the protein to come from animal-based sources like meat, fish, or egg, because these are higher quality protein sources for dogs. High quality protein means that the protein has a good amino acid profile. After all, that’s what protein is good for: protein in the diet is broken down into individual amino acids, which are then used for virtually every metabolic function in the body.
Legumes or other plant based protein sources are not easily digestible (meaning your dog can’t utilize all of the protein, and the digestive system has to work harder) and are deficient in many essential and nonessential (but important) amino acids. What this means is just because a food is high protein doesn’t mean it provides all of the right amino acids. And when there are a lot of high protein plant based ingredients in a dog food, that means the % protein on the bag might be more plant based than animal protein based.
The amount of certain ingredients must be considered too: for example, while peas and other legumes in moderation can be a great source of vitamins, minerals, and both soluble and insoluble fiber, there has been a recent trend of many brands using excessive amounts of legume ingredients and/or more concentrated sources of legumes (like pea protein). Soy, legumes, and flaxseeds in large amounts can contribute high phytoestrogen levels in the diet, which can cause reproductive and thyroid issues.
Be aware of ingredient lists that contain multiple names for the same or similar ingredients. Remember, ingredients are listed by weight. When a pet food ingredient list has multiple ingredients for the same food, that means the food likely contains more of that ingredient and less meat, fish, or eggs.
The kcal per cup is always listed on the bag. This will be more important for dogs who have trouble keeping on weight or dogs that need to lose weight, but it is good to keep in mind even if your dog is at a good weight because your dog may need more of one food but less of another to meet their needs.
Dog food brands
Here is a table of some commonly recommended higher end brands with calculated dry matter basis macronutrients and kcal/cup. The inclusion of a specific brand or formula in this table does not equate to a recommendation or endorsement of said brand or formula. Likewise, the exclusion of specific brands or formulas does not mean those brands/formulas are not good foods; this table is nowhere near a complete list. This information is for educational and comparison purposes only.
Brand & Formula
|Carbohydrates (including fiber)
|Acana Heritage Free Run Poultry||33.0||19.3||39.8||396|
|Acana Heritage Meats||33.0||19.3||37.5||388|
|Acana Regionals Meadowland||37.5||19.3||34.1||396|
|Acana Singles Lamb & Apple||30.7||19.3||40.9||392|
|American Journey Beef & Sweet Potato||35.6||15.6||40.0||433|
|American Journey Chicken & Sweet Potato||37.8||16.7||36.7||436|
|Dr. Tim’s Pursuit||33.3||22.2||36.7||442|
|Dr. Tim’s Kinesis grain free||35.6||20.0||35.6||415|
|Dr. Tim’s Momentum||38.9||27.8||24.4||518|
|Dr. Tim’s Metabolite||33.3||11.1||47.8||269|
|Earthborn Holistic Adult Vantage||24.4||13.3||53.3||410|
|Earthborn Holistic Puppy Vantage||31.1||22.2||37.8||445|
|Earthborn Holistic Primitive Natural||42.2||22.2||26.7||445|
|Earthborn Holistic Weight control||27.8||7.8||55.6||325|
|Farmina Lamb & Blueberry Puppy||38.9||22.2||30.0||480|
|Farmina Lamb & Blueberry Adult||30.8||19.8||40.7||459|
|Farmina Chicken & Pomegranate||33.3||20.0||38.9||470|
|Farmina Boar & Apple||33.3||20.0||39.3||470|
|First Mate Classic High Performance||35.6||22.2||31.1||567|
|First Mate Classic Maintenance||28.9||16.7||45.6||540|
|First Mate Chicken Meal with Blueberries||27.8||15.6||48.9||537|
|Fromm Chicken a la veg||26.7||16.7||47.8||395|
|Fromm Lamb & Lentil||32.2||20.0||38.9||408|
|Fromm Pork & Peas||32.2||18.9||40.0||410|
|Fromm Heartland Gold Adult||26.7||17.8||46.7||409|
|Nature’s Variety Instinct Original Chicken||41.1||22.2||27.8||499|
|Nature’s Variety Instinct Ultimate Protein Chicken||52.2||18.9||20.0||496|
|Nulo Medalseries Puppy||35.6||18.9||36.7||431|
|Nulo Medalseries Lamb & Lentils||35.6||18.9||36.7||438|
|Nulo Freestyle puppy salmon & peas||33.3||18.9||38.9||428|
|Nulo Freestyle adult lamb & chickpeas||34.4||18.9||37.8||426|
|Orijen Six Fish||43.2||20.5||27.3||465|
|Orijen Regional Red||43.2||20.5||26.1||465|
|Petcurean Go! Fit + Free Adult||37.8||17.8||35.6||435|
|Petcurean Go! Daily Defence Chicken||26.7||15.6||48.9||467|
|Petcurean Go! Sensitivity + Shine Salmon||24.4||13.3||53.3||427|
|Taste of the Wild High Prairie||35.6||20.0||35.6||370|
|Taste of the Wild Pacific Stream||27.8||16.7||46.7||360|
|Taste of the Wild Sierra Mountain||27.8||16.7||46.7||338|
|Taste of the Wild Trout limited ingredient||30.0||16.7||44.4||336|
|Victor Hi Pro Plus||33.0||22.0||36.3||450|
|Victor Nutra Pro||41.8||19.8||29.7||475|
|Victor Ultra Pro||46.2||24.2||20.9||479|
|Victor Hero Canine||36.3||17.6||37.4||397|
|Wellness CORE Original||37.8||17.8||35.6||421|
|Whole Earth Farms Chicken & Turkey||29.5||14.8||46.6||348|
|Whole Earth Farms Pork, Beef, & Lamb||29.2||14.6||47.2||348|
|Zignature Trout & Salmon meal||33.3||15.6||42.2||418|