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 their 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 the Association of American Feed Control Officials (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 commercials.
Here are some things you should consider when choosing a kibble.
What is AAFCO?
AAFCO, or the Association of American Feed Control Officials, is an organization that helps establish rules and regulations for the pet food industry. AAFCO itself is not a regulatory agency, but it works with the FDA and state lawmakers who then adopt AAFCO regulations at the federal and/or state level. Read more about AAFCO’s role in the pet food industry here.
You can purchase the most recent official AAFCO publication here if you are interested. A 14 day free trial is also available online.
If a food is deemed “complete and balanced,” that means it meets minimum nutrient requirements as determined by the National Research Council (NRC) and adopted by AAFCO. 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. To find out if a particular food is appropriate for certain life stages, find the AAFCO statement.
Here are some examples:
It is very 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. Puppies and kittens are not as effective at regulating nutrient levels in the body, and the process of growing and maturing demands more protein, fat, and other nutrients than an adult would require. For these reasons, growing animals require more specific nutrient ratios and higher amounts of many nutrients than adults. Feeding an adult maintenance diet to a growing puppy or kitten means you are feeding a deficient diet, and that can potentially cause irreversible long-term health issues. Large breed puppies grow at an even faster rate thus are particularly sensitive to certain nutrient ratios, and feeding an inappropriate diet can result in skeletal deformities.
In 2016, AAFCO implemented new requirements for large breed puppies. Due to their rapid growth, large breed puppies are particularly sensitive to certain mineral ratios. Incorrect ratios can be very detrimental, and can even cause permanent skeletal deformities. According to AAFCO’s new requirements, All Life Stages diets are supposed to also specify whether or not they are adequate for large breed puppies in their AAFCO statements. Pet food companies were supposed to comply with this new rule by 2018, however it is now April 2019 at the time I am typing this and unfortunately many pet food company still have not updated this information on their websites.
If a diet’s AAFCO statement does not specify whether or not it is appropriate for the growth of large size puppies, I would recommend contacting the company to ask for this information.
“Formulated” vs “feeding trials”
There are two ways a diet can be proven to be “complete and balanced” according to AAFCO:
- by formulation, or
- by feeding trials.
Both methods have pros and cons.
When a diet is determined to be “complete and balanced” by formulation, this means an analysis of the diet showed that met the minimum nutrient requirements and ratios established by AAFCO for that life stage. This is important, but just because a diet is balanced “on paper” doesn’t mean it actually will be in practice; bioavailability, nutrient interactions, and anti-nutrients might have significant effects and can be the difference between balanced and unbalanced, but the formulation analysis will not always reflect that.
Feeding trials involve actually feeding the diet to a group of dogs and obtaining data about their health while they are on this diet, so this method will be more likely to catch issues relating to bioavailability or nutrient interactions than a formulation analysis. However, feeding trials are not anywhere near long enough to determine if a diet is truly adequate. A feeding trial for adult maintenance diets lasts 26 weeks, but only very severe nutritional deficiencies or excesses will be clinically observed in this time frame. Some deficiencies/excesses can even take years before manifesting clinical symptoms! In addition, AAFCO procedures do not require a comprehensive blood panel, further limiting the number of clinical symptoms that may appear on an unbalanced diet in a short time frame. Plus, as more and more evidence emerges that different breeds of dogs can have different dietary needs, feeding trials using one breed of dog (usually Beagles) won’t take breed related differences into account either.
Still, feeding trials are a valuable tool in assessing the adequacy of a diet, and are considered by many veterinary professionals and nutritionists to be the “gold standard” at this time. Some pet food companies claim that they choose not to do feeding trials because of the issues explained above, asserting that feeding trials aren’t a definitive method of assessing a diet’s adequacy… in my opinion, something is better than nothing. Meanwhile, other pet food companies do feeding trials that exceed minimum requirements, such as Purina or Just Food For Dogs.
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 – the dogs don’t care what color their food is. 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, may be linked to tumor development and other significant health issues. When you weigh the risk (high) vs the benefit (none), it is clear that colors and dyes are best avoided.
- 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 “corn syrup” or “sorbitol.” While not necessarily harmful in moderation (for example, molasses or honey in treats), consider that kibble is intended to be used as the main or sole source of nutrition for most dogs, and excessive consumption of sugars is not healthy.
- Unnamed meat ingredients: the official AAFCO definitions of ingredients such as “meat meal” or “animal fat” are purposefully vague and leave out key words and phrases found in other ingredient definitions, increasing the potential for highly variable nutrient content and ingredients from questionable sources.
- Mineral oxides: such as zinc, copper, iron, manganese, and magnesium oxide. Minerals exist in many different forms, but they are not all equal in the world of nutrition. Studies show that mineral oxides have some of the lowest absorption rates of all mineral compounds. If the food contains minerals in forms that are not easily absorbed or metabolized, then they won’t be effectively utilized by the body. Without adequate amounts of minerals in balanced ratios, an animal could suffer health consequences including but not limited to an impaired immune system, hair loss, hyperkeratosis, and decreased fertility.
- BHA & BHT: the US Dept of Health and Human Services National Toxicity program states that BHA is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in experimental animals.” Tissue accumulation is greater for BHT than it is for BHA. Still, some studies have found BHA and BHT to be non-carcinogenic, but considering the variety of alternative antioxidant compounds that can be utilized as preservatives that do not show genotoxic or carcinogenic effects and are just as or more effective, the use of BHA and/or BHT seems unnecessarily risky, even if we assume the risk is relatively minimal at low quantities.
- Ethoxyquin: initially utilized as a pesticide, ethoxyquin is an antioxidant compound that is used as a preservative in dog foods whose safety has been questioned for decades. Toxicity observed in in vivo and in vitro studies have demonstrated potential harmful effects. In addition, the concern has been raised that environmental contamination by ethoxyquin due to its widespread use in animal feed may pose a risk to vertebrate and aquatic life.
Some ingredients are controversial, but their bad reputation doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad.
- Corn: one of the crops most commonly treated with the herbicide glyphosate, increasing the likelihood of glyphosate contamination in pet foods containing large amounts of corn. The consumption of high amounts of glyphosate has not been well-studied, but it may be associated with alteration of the gut microbiome (particularly in animals consuming low protein diets). The potential carcinogenic effects of glyphosate are debated. That said, glyphosate has been detected in pet foods without corn too. Another potential issue with corn is the presence of mycotoxins, though some pet food companies have quality control procedures that routinely test for this. A common complaint about corn is that it is not digestible by dogs, but this is incorrect; corn in kibble has been processed in a way that makes it significantly more digestible, and digestibility studies indicate that corn is actually more digestible than peas and lentils in kibble.
- Soy: like corn, soy is one of the most common glyphosate-treated crops. In addition, soy contains compounds called phytoestrogens, such as isoflavones and lignans, which can have both beneficial or detrimental effects. Long-term consumption of pet foods containing significant amounts of soy may be detrimental to reproductive or endocrine health in cats and dogs. Soy isoflavone consumption may be associated with hyperthyroidism in cats; this correlation has not been established in dogs, but thyroid function in dogs does seem to be affected by the long term consumption of soy phytoestrogens to some degree, though the significance of these seemingly minor changes has yet to be established. That said, a number of studies have also demonstrated potential benefits of phytoestrogen consumption in dogs, including chemopreventive and cardioprotective actions.
- Flax: like soy, flax is a major source of phytoestrogens. Anecdotal reports suggest that dog foods containing flax ingredients can be detrimental to reproductive health in intact animals. Though it is a great source of the omega-3 alpha linolenic acid (ALA), this must be converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and/or docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) before it can be utilized, and this conversion is extremely inefficient in dogs.
- Legumes: in the vast majority of grain-free diets on the market today, grains are replaced by legumes such as peas, lentils, and beans. However, there is no proven benefit associated with feeding legumes instead of grains, and according to veterinary cardiologists, it may put your dog at risk of nutritional dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a fatal heart condition notorious for showing little to no clinical symptoms until the dog goes into heart failure. Until we know more about this correlation between legumes and DCM, avoiding them would be the safest choice. Isolated protein ingredients like “pea protein” are particularly worrying, because legumes or other plant based protein sources are not easily digestible and are deficient in many essential and nonessential (but important) amino acids. Like soy and flax, peas also contain phytoestrogens.
- Brewer’s rice: though it has earned a bad reputation because it is a byproduct of the rice industry and is not as nutritionally dense as brown rice, brewer’s rice is a affordable and sustainable ingredient that provides fiber and a digestible source of carbohydrates. Despite claims to the contrary, brewer’s rice is one of the most digestible carbohydrate sources in kibble for dogs. It is also one of the best sources of polyphenols, and studies in rats indicate it may even provide antioxidant and anti-cancer effects, but I have not found any similar studies in dogs.
- Meat by-products: according to the AAFCO definition, by-products include the parts derived from slaughtered animals other than meat, including but not limited to lungs, spleen, kidney, brain, liver, blood, bone, fatty tissue, and cleaned stomachs/intestines freed of their contents, and not including foreign matter, hide trimmings, manure, stomach/rumen contents, hair, feathers, horns, teeth, or hooves “except in such amounts as may occur unavoidably in good processing practices.” Poultry by-products can consist of heads, feet, viscera, and whole carcasses. In theory, by-products can be highly nutritious ingredients; organs like liver and spleen are some of the most nutrient-dense parts of a food animal, providing highly digestible, natural sources of many vitamins and minerals (which is why these parts play such an important part as ingredients in raw diets!). However, the broad definition of what by-product ingredients can consist of means that the nutrient content and quality can be highly variable and is largely dependent on the manufacturer.
- Lamb meal: in digestibility studies, lamb meal consistently ranks the worst of the worst. Lamb meal and rice dog foods were previously associated with taurine deficient DCM, leading to the incorrect assumption that lamb itself is low in taurine (nope – lamb meal is a very different ingredient than lamb itself, and lamb is comparable to beef in its taurine content). Instead, studies hypothesize this issue was due to the extremely low bioavailability of nutrients and low levels of sulfur amino acid (taurine precursors), probably due to the composition of this ingredient being lower in muscle and organ meat and higher in bone, connective tissue, and fat, which are not good sources of amino acids.
- “Novel” ingredients: while novel ingredients can be lifesavers in dogs with food allergies in some cases (though keep in mind that undeclared ingredients can still cause setbacks), they are not as well researched as more conventional ingredients, and what limited studies we do have about them demonstrates that they may carry a similar risk as lamb meal – low digestibility and incomplete amino acid profiles (yet still none of them scored worse than lamb meal in this study).
- Menadione: a synthetic form of vitamin K. The FDA does not allow human supplements to contain menadione, because it does have a much greater potential for toxicity than the non-synthetic forms of vitamin K. However, this doesn’t mean the levels in dog food will cause toxicity. Studies evaluating the toxicity of menadione involve extremely high doses given by intravenous injection, not small dietary doses like those found in kibble. A water-soluble vitamin, menadione is eliminated from the body rather than being stored, so long term consumption of low doses is very unlikely to cause toxicity. That said, vitamin K is synthesized by gut bacteria in dogs, so whether or not it actually needs to be provided in the diet in the form of synthetic additives has been disputed.
- Chelated/organic minerals: organic in this context doesn’t mean the same thing as that organic label on the veggies you buy at the grocery store – rather, the literal definition of organic means that the molecule contains carbon. Chelated minerals are bound with amino acids or other organic compounds – for example: proteinate, glycinate, or methionine. Studies consistently demonstrate a much higher bioavailability in chelated minerals in comparison to inorganic minerals. In other words, more of the mineral is absorbed and utilized by the body, and less is excreted in urine. Chelated minerals can be fed in much smaller amounts than inorganic minerals since they are utilized more effectively. Chelated mineral supplements are more expensive, but a high quality dog food company will opt to use the higher quality, more bioavailable chelated mineral supplements in their food.
- Meat meals: “chicken meal” is 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 raw weight includes about 70% water. (Read more about meats vs meals here.)
- Low temperature, low pressure, low ash: all of these are descriptions of the processing and composition of animal based ingredients associated with higher quality proteins that are generally more digestible and retain more nutritional value.
This is not an exhaustive or complete list of ingredients in dog food. If you don’t see something listed under “good ingredients”, that does not mean it is not a good ingredient!
Carbs are not considered an essential nutrient for dogs or cats, but carbs in moderation can be beneficial ingredients. However, notice I said in moderation. Excessive carbohydrates may contribute to obesity, and can be especially problematic when dealing with certain health issues such as epilepsy. See below to learn how to determine the amount of carbs in your pet’s food.
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 about 8%.
Grain free vs. grain inclusive
Grain free foods have become popular amongst some owners because they want to avoid unnecessary carbs or ingredients that are not “species appropriate.” But even grain free dry foods must add starches of some type to keep the kibble together in bite-size pieces. Sometimes, the starches chosen for grain free foods aren’t necessarily any better than in grain inclusive foods.
Concentrated plant based protein ingredients, like pea protein, can contribute significantly to the protein content of a food. 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. High quality protein means that the protein has a good amino acid profile and is highly digestible. 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.
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, leading to potential health issues. 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.
Here’s an example of an ingredient list before and after a small change that makes the food look very different: