What kibble should I feed my dog?

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
  • Ingredients
  • % Protein
  • % Carbohydrates
  • Kcal/cup
  • 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.

Here is an article that goes into what laboratory analyses and feeding trials entail and what some of their drawbacks are.

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.

Ingredients

Look on the back of the bag at the ingredient list. Those ingredients are listed in descending order according to their weight. Dogs do best on a primarily meat based diet, so you want to see a named meat product as the first ingredient (for example, “chicken” rather than a generic term like “meat” or “poultry”).

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. 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.)

Unfortunately, there have been many cases (like the Blue Buffalo case mentioned at the beginning of this article) where it has been proven that pet foods actually didn’t contain ingredients they listed on their ingredient lists and/or the foods contained ingredients that were not listed. Since pet food is not required to be tested to prove their ingredient lists are accurate, this is an easy thing for pet food companies to get away with. For this reason, it is important to push for more regulation in the pet food industry. It is also important to chose a company that is trustworthy and has a track record of being transparent with its customers.

For more detailed explanations of pet food ingredient definitions according to AAFCO, click here.

Carbohydrates

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, fiber, moisture, and ash from 100 and you will get the % carbs. Sometimes ash isn’t listed on the label, so we use the average ash % found in almost all kibbles, 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, 3.5% fiber, and 10% moisture. It doesn’t list ash, so we will just use 8%. 100 – 30 – 18 – 3.5 – 10 – 8 = 30.5% carbs.

When comparing foods, it is more accurate to convert to dry matter basis (read more about dry matter basis here), so we can do that before calculating carbs for a more accurate value too. For the Fromm Beef Frittata example above, that means we just divide each macronutrient by its % dry matter, which is 90% (because it is 10% moisture). That leaves us with 33.3% protein, 20% fat, and 3.9% fiber. 100 – 33.3 – 20 – 3.9 – 8 = 34.8% 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, white potatoes.

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.

Concentrated plant based protein ingredients 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 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.

Deficiency of amino acids can cause serious health issues – even nonessential ones, which are not required in a food for it to be considered balanced. Taurine is a nonessential amino acid for dogs according to the NRC, yet there have been many cases of taurine deficiency in dogs causing dilated cardiomyopathy, a serious heart condition. Taurine is considered nonessential for dogs because dogs can synthesize it from other essential amino acids. However, it has been hypothesized that this differs between breeds; some breeds don’t synthesize taurine as effectively as others, meaning they must obtain it from their diet or they will become deficient. Since taurine is primarily found in animal based proteins and not in plant based proteins, this underlines the importance of meat as the main source of protein.

All of this is to say: just because a food meets minimum requirements doesn’t mean it is adequate for all dogs; and it is important to choose a food whose main source of protein is from animal-based, complete proteins, not excessive amounts of other ingredients that could make the protein content of the food look higher but not actually contribute a good amino acid profile to the diet. This is why reading the ingredients is important.

Kilocalories

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.

To calculate how many kcal your dog needs per day, first you should find your dog’s RER, or Resting Energy Requirements. Convert your dog’s weight in pounds to kilograms by dividing their weight by 2.2. Take the weight in kilograms to the power of 0.75 (on most calculators, you will select the “^” button, then type “0.75”), then multiply that number by 70. You will then have your dog’s RER value.

The RER value must then be multiplied by a factor based on your dog’s individual activity level and neuter status. The following table lists these factors:

rer multiples
Source: Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center [link]
For example, I have an 80 pound Doberman. 80 lbs divided by 2.2 equals 36.36 kg. 36.36 to the 0.75th power equals 14.81. 14.81 multiplied by 70 equals 1037. So my Doberman’s RER value is 1037. He is a very active neutered 6 year old male. Since two of these factors apply to him (intact adult and active dog), I will multiply his RER by 1.6 (neutered adult) for the lower range, and 2 (active dog) for the higher range. This gives me a range of 1659-2074 kcal per day.

Now. instead of relying on commonly inaccurate feeding recommendations on the back of the bag, I can calculate how much my dog should eat myself. For example, if I find a food that is 370 kcal per cup, I just divide my dog’s recommended kcal per day by the kcal per cup. 1659 divided by 370 is about 4.5, and 2074 divided by 370 is about 5.5. So my Doberman should eat around 5 cups a day of this particular food.

Dog food brands

For your convenience, here is a table of some of the most commonly recommended high quality brands with their macronutrients (dry matter basis) and kcal per cup. You can click on each formula or brand name to view more information about the food.

Brand Formula Protein DMB Fat DMB Carbs DMB Kcal
/cup
Acana Heritage Free Run Poultry 33.0 19.3 33.0 396
Heritage Freshwater Fish 33.0 19.3 33.0 396
Heritage Meats 33.0 19.3 30.7 388
Regionals Meadowland 37.5 19.3 27.3 396
Regionals Grasslands 37.5 19.3 27.3 388
Singles Lamb & Apple 30.7 19.3 34.1 392
Singles Duck & Pear 30.7 19.3 34.1 392
Annamaet Option 26.7 14.4 46.3 406
Ultra 35.6 22.2 31.3 480
Lean 33.3 10.0 45.2 350
Aqualuk 33.3 17.8 36.7 426
Sustain 36.7 14.4 36.7 392
American Journey Salmon & Sweet Potato 35.6 15.6 34.4 430
Beef & Sweet Potato 35.6 15.6 34.4 433
Chicken & Sweet Potato 37.8 16.7 31.1 436
Lamb & Sweet Potato 35.6 15.6 34.4 430
Carna4 Chicken 31.1 18.9 36.7 505
Duck 32.2 16.7 37.8 535
Dr Tim’s Pursuit 33.3 22.2 33.3 442
Kinesis 28.9 17.8 42.2 413
Kinesis grain free 35.6 20.0 30.6 415
Momentum 38.9 27.8 21.1 518
Metabolite 33.3 11.1 38.9 269
Earthborn Holistic Alaska Pollock Meal & Pumpkin 28.9 14.4 37.8 325
Rabbit Meal & Pumpkin 34.4 15.6 30.0 355
Squid & Chickpeas 37.8 15.6 27.8 355
Adult Vantage 24.4 13.3 48.9 410
Puppy Vantage 31.1 22.2 33.3 445
Primitive Natural 42.2 22.2 23.9 445
Weight control 27.8 7.8 45.6 325
EVO Turkey & Chicken 46.7 24.4 17.2 516
Red Meat 46.7 24.4 17.2 509
Herring & Salmon 46.7 20.0 21.1 462
Farmina Lamb & Blueberry Puppy 38.9 22.2 27.9 480
Lamb & Blueberry Adult 30.8 19.8 37.5 459
Chicken & Pomegranate 33.3 20.0 35.7 470
Boar & Apple 33.3 20.0 36.1 470
Digestion Lamb 27.5 13.2 49.0 390
Skin & Coat Venison 25.3 13.2 49.7 381
Fromm Beef Frittata Veg 33.3 20.0 33.9 408
Chicken a la Veg 26.7 16.7 43.9 395
Salmon Tunalini 31.1 17.8 38.3 408
Lamb & Lentil 32.2 20.0 33.9 408
Pork & Peas 32.2 18.9 36.1 410
Heartland Gold Adult 26.7 17.8 40.0 409
Nature’s Variety Instinct Original Chicken 41.1 22.2 24.4 499
Instinct Ultimate Protein Duck 52.2 18.9 16.7 496
Instinct Limited Ingredient Duck 30.0 18.9 38.9 446
Nulo Medalseries Puppy 35.6 18.9 31.1 431
Medalseries Lamb & Lentils 35.6 18.9 31.1 438
Freestyle Puppy Salmon & Peas 33.3 18.9 34.4 428
Freestyle Adult Lamb & Chickpeas 34.4 18.9 32.8 426
Orijen Original 43.2 20.5 21.6 470
Six Fish 43.2 20.5 21.6 465
Regional Red 43.2 20.5 20.5 465
Tundra 45.5 20.5 18.2 460
Petcurean Go! Fit + Free Adult 37.8 17.8 32.2 435
Go! Daily Defence Adult Chicken 26.7 15.6 46.1 467
Go! Sensitivity + Shine Salmon 24.4 13.3 48.9 427
SportDog Elite Beef 33.3 15.6 37.2 454
Endurance 35.6 25.6 25.6 486
Taste of the Wild High Prairie 35.6 20.0 31.1 370
Pacific Stream 27.8 16.7 43.3 360
Sierra Mountain 27.8 16.7 42.2 338
Southwest Canyon 32.2 16.7 36.7 360
Trout PREY Limited Ingredient 30.0 16.7 38.9 336
Wellness CORE Original 37.8 17.8 31.1 421
Whole Earth Farms Chicken & Turkey 29.5 14.8 41.5 348
Pork, Beef, & Lamb 29.2 14.6 43.3 348
Wild Calling  Elk, Whitefish, & Turkey 35.2 19.8 31.9 432
Kangaroo 25.3 15.4 44.5 408
Zignature Zssential 35.6 17.8 32.2 422
Trout & Salmon 33.3 15.6 35.6 418
Averages 34.1 18.1 34.1
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