Choosing and using a grain-free kibble

Because of living in the Tiny Apartment of Happiness (we love it, but 1000 sq ft with six people and two dogs is tight), for the first time in ten years we’re not feeding a raw diet to our dogs. I tried, because I believe in it so much, but the kitchen is very small (the floor space is maybe 6×4) and every other square inch of the place (aside from the bathrooms) is carpeted. Neither dog particularly likes Bravo, because they like the experience of chewing bone. They were dragging the Bravo around or trying to bury it in the carpet, giving me heart attacks and making me spend hours scrubbing up after them.

So for the months we’re here, we’ll be using a grain-free kibble. As a result, I’ve spent more hours than I’d care to count researching ingredients and the different brands that are available in our area. The choice I made may not be the choice you’ll make, but since there are so many misconceptions about grain-free kibbles I thought it would be worthwhile to look at them in depth.

Misconceptions about grain-free foods:

1) They are made of meat. Sorry; no. As far as I am aware, any conventionally made kibble that goes through a normal extrusion/cooking process has to be bound together as a dough.

Conventional kibble uses a mixture of different grain flours, meeting a nutritional profile as cheaply as they possibly can. They usually rely on either inexpensive feed grains (ground corn–which, by the way, includes the dried cob; it’s not just the corn kernels) or the bits and portions left after another industry uses the whole grain. That’s where brewer’s rice, feeding oatmeal, and anything called “fines” or “gluten” or “meal” come from.

Grain-free kibbles need to make a dough too, so instead of using grains they’ll use vegetable matter that when ground is like flour, and can hold things together the way flour does.

The most common thing used is potato. When potato is dried and powdered, you can mix it with other stuff and cook it and the result will make a decent kibble. Other companies use pea flour (dried field peas–the kind that you make split pea soup with, not sweet peas–makes a flour when ground). A few use tapioca, which is powdered manioc root.

Whatever they use, the result is a kibble that is NOT all meat. You’re still feeding kibble; it’s not the same thing as a raw diet. It’s not even a substitute for a raw diet–I would say that in many cases it’s the best kind of kibble you can feed, but it’s still a kibble.

2) They’re all basically the same.

WOW is this not true. They vary wildly in terms of ingredients, protein, fat, vegetable sources, etc. It’s a brand-new industry and there’s virtually no standardization yet. You need to read and compare ingredients carefully, and stay on top of new introductions. One good place to begin is at the Dog Food Project, but even as good as they are they don’t have an encyclopedic list. So expect to do quite a bit of research and be very cautious about reading ingredients and analysis data.

3) The more meat is in the ingredients, the more is in the kibble.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time looking at ingredient lists before I came to this conclusion, and I’m still not a million percent sure, but I think that the old rule of “look at the first four ingredients” is wrong when it comes to grain-free kibbles.

The reason I think the ingredient list can be misleading is that in several of the kibbles it doesn’t at ALL match with what the protein percentage would be if the kibble really did have that much meat.

Dried cooked meat is between 60 and 80 percent protein. So any time you have a protein percentage below that, you know other things are in the mix. Bone is one of them, which is fine because we want some bone, but bone doesn’t change it all that much. What really brings the protein percentage down is vegetable matter.

Take Taste of the Wild High Prairie as an example. The entire ingredient list (removing the vitamins) is bison, venison, lamb meal, chicken meal, egg product, sweet potatoes, peas, potatoes, canola oil, roasted bison, roasted venison, natural flavor, tomato pomace, ocean fish meal.

The protein percentage of this kibble is 32%. That’s HALF what you’d expect if it was pure meat, and about as much as lots of puppy kibbles. One that has an identical protein percent is one of the Royal Canin puppy foods, the ingredients of which are chicken meal, brown rice, chicken fat, rice, corn gluten meal, dried beet pulp, chicken, natural chicken flavor, powdered cellulose, dried egg powder.

Look at these two–reading the ingredients, there’s no question which one you’d point to as having more meat. So why do the protein percentages not bear out a difference?

My guess – and I am not sure exactly how to confirm or deny this – is that potato is so light that you can have a huge amount of it and it still stays in a low position in the ingredient list (which is in the order of decreasing weight). The company also splits the potato ingredients by using sweet potatoes and “potatoes” (white potatoes). So between the sweet potatoes (very light) the pea (I would guess a dried pea flour) and the potato, there’s a lot of vegetable matter in this kibble. When you consider that the first meat ingredients are listed in their whole (uncooked, undried) forms, which means they were weighed before being cooked and dried, you can see how the meat ingredients got bumped to the top of the list and the vegetables to the end.

This kind of manipulation of ingredient lists is VERY VERY common, especially with foods that are marketed based on your perception of them being mostly meat, and that’s why you have to question whether the analysis of the food reflects the picture that is implied by the ingredient list.

Now look at the ingredient list of Orijen’s Adult grain-free food: Deboned chicken, chicken meal, turkey meal, russet potato, lake whitefish, chicken fat, sweet potato, whole eggs, turkey, salmon meal, salmon and anchovy oils, salmon.

At first glance, you would prefer the Taste of the Wild. It has “sexy” ingredients like venison and bison; it just seems more exclusive. And it has more meat ingredients before you get to the potato.

But the analysis of Orijen’s food tells a different story. It’s 42%, much higher than Taste of the Wild’s. And the company states that the kibble is 70% meat products.

To make a long story short, look closely at the analysis to tell you how much meat is actually in a grain-free kibble. Higher protein typically means more meat.

4) You should follow the AAFCO recommended ages and feeding amounts on the bag.

In my opinion, grain-free kibbles are much easier to wreck a dog with than conventional kibbles.

Conventional kibbles are crap, sure, but they will at least minimally nourish your dog and there’s a lot of fudge factor in how much or how little you can feed.

Grain-free kibbles, at least the good ones, are more like racing fuel. You have to very carefully control how much you feed, because they’re so high-calorie that dogs can get overweight VERY quickly. And in my opinion, even if the AAFCO says that the food is for all life stages, I would never feed a puppy a grain-free kibble.

When you feed a raw diet, you’re actually feeding only a small amount of food plus a ton of moisture. But because the portion size is big, the dog feels satisfied, tired, and full. That makes it a great diet to feed to puppies–they get relatively few calories for a big payoff of chewing and a full stomach.

Grain-free foods, on the other hand, have all that moisture taken away and are very nutritionally dense. You’ll feed a fraction of what you’re used to feeding in conventional kibble. That can be really tough for a dog to adjust to–they’re used to walking away from the food bowl feeling full. So many owners will feed too much, because the dog acts starving all the time. And a starving puppy is that much harder to resist.

An adult that eats too much will just get fat–which can be difficult to reverse but as long as you get on top of it quickly no long-term damage is done.

A puppy that gets too many calories doesn’t get fat–it grows too quickly. It will grow its bones faster than its muscles and tendons can match, and fast growth/heavy calorie load is STRONGLY associated with joint disorders later in life. Yes, this includes hip dysplasia–puppies kept lean and slow-growing become adults with an EIGHTY PERCENT reduction in hip dysplasia when compared to adults who were puppies that ate as much as they wanted.

I would also say that for the average adult dog, the recommended feeding amounts for the grain-free foods are too high. Right now we’re going through a bag of Solid Gold Barking at the Moon, which recommends 1.5 to 1.75 cups a day for a dog Clue’s size. She is actually getting HALF A CUP a day. The amount she gets looks comically small. But she maintains her weight on that amount; she’s even put on some bulk. We’re very close to being able to lift exercise restrictions for her, so at some point she’ll be able to run a couple miles a day and I’ll have to bump her food up a little, but there is no way she’s going to ever get 1.75 cups.

A friend of mine who was feeding her elderly GSD (intact dog) a grain-free kibble found that she had to feed no more than three-quarters of a cup a day. If she went up from there he gained too much weight.

So I would strongly advise, especially in a breed like the Cardigan where most of them have low metabolic needs and gain weight quickly, that you start off with a very small amount and only increase it if the dog starts getting too thin. And, I might add, get to know what normal weight is–way too many corgis of both types are fat, even though their owners or breeders think they’re normal because corgis tend to stay rather tubular. They go from a thin tube to a thick tube and owners think it’s OK because they don’t have a belly or a fat rear like a Lab gets. Not so.

So what did we end up using? I actually plan to rotate a couple of brands. Right now we’re about half-way through a bag of Solid Gold Barking at the Moon. It has a high protein percentage, indicating that it’s got a lot of meat, but at least some of its protein is coming from potato. I like Solid Gold as a brand because my Danes tended to do very well on it (when they went into homes that didn’t feed raw), and to be honest I had a choice between this and a brand I really didn’t like (you may guess from my picking on it above that it was Taste of the Wild, which is a Diamond food and I think is rather deceptive in its descriptions).

I didn’t realize that a 15-lb bag was going to last us eight weeks, even feeding it to two dogs. It may even go longer. If I had, I would have gotten a 4-lb bag instead!

I think it’s doing a decent job with the dogs–it’s not raw, and I immediately notice the difference in skin and coat and muscle, but they look better than conventional-kibble-fed dogs–but I’m not thrilled about one of the protein sources being potato.

So when we’re coming to the end of the bag (or, if I start to see something I don’t like in the dogs, even sooner) we’re probably going to switch to Orijen, since I found a source for it that is not terribly far away. Orijen is by far the most forthcoming about actual proportions and ingredients, which I find refreshing and want to support.

If we want to further switch, I’ve been wanting to try the fresh meat mixes, like Volhard’s NDF or Sojos grain-free. Those are an entirely different method, and I would like to have some personal experience with them so I know whether to recommend them to friends and puppy buyers.

Until then, you can listen closely and hear the rustle of big foil-plastic bags in my kitchen for the first time in a decade. I wince a little bit each time, but so far the dogs are OK and that’s all that matters.


8 thoughts on “Choosing and using a grain-free kibble

  1. Hi Johanna,
    I followed you here from a galaxy far away…:P I have a motive in hanging around learning from you–looking fwd (in a couple of years) to being the best (pet) dog owner I can– first need to figure out what breed is best for my family and then where to get said dog from…I have two Qs for you at the moment, do you have a how to select a breed thing written up around here somewhere? I thought I saw one from you a while back but can’t turn it up now…Hmm…The other Q is what blogs/essp forums you know of about breeds types, ethical breeding, dog bahviour, general living with dog type stuff that you would recommend as being fairly or totally on the mark. Any help would be appreciated, I am trying to do this right but I admit I am a bit lost at it…Thank you in advance…

  2. Hello!

    Another grain/potato free kibble you may want to look into is Great Life. ( ) While I do feed my 2 Cardis primarily a raw diet, I used this prior to switching to raw, and I still keep some on hand for convenience. My guys love this kibble and seemed very healthy on it. Of course, they like the raw even better!

    Taryn with Cardis Wilson & Jimmy

  3. We’ve been feeding Orijin for about 2 years now and are very happy for it for the most part. Both our dog’s coats showed an almost immediate improvement and they are healthy and happy. My one concern, is as you mentioned, you don’t have to feed much of it. Our fairly sedate 65 lb Malmute X Border Collie X who knows what else eats about 3/4 cup a day, and our high energy Irish Red and White Setter eats about 1 cup. I think that their level of chewing has increased to make up for not feeling full, and I’m not sure if I should be trying to provide something else to make up for this. One of these days I’m going to try feeding raw, but I haven’t quite wrapped my brain around the logistics yet.

  4. We’ve switched to kibble for now too due to new puppy Bella (rough collie show prospect) coming at the end of the month and we chose Orijen. He’s only been on it for two weeks but yah… we’ve been feeding FAR too much. He’s getting pudgy already. Thanks for the reminder to scale down the amount!!!

  5. Okay… Loki’s 27 lbs, intact. How much of Orijen do you think I should be feeding a day? He’s fairly active… and what puppy food would you suggest for our new baby Bella?

  6. I’m always so happy that I stopped by to read your thoughts/blog… I hadn’t wanted to bother you with more food questions, and *had* been wondering how you’d manage the proper care & feeding of the dogs while living in the apartment. I was hopeful you’d share and as usual, you don’t disappoint.

    We’ve been feeding our Bluetick Coonhound the basic Canidae (it’s easy to find at our local feed stores which is a minor miracle given where we live), and supplementing whenever we can with fresh pork chops, beef cuts, ham or pork shoulder bones… it depends on what the family’s eating, we’re not shopping fresh just for her yet. One thing she’s made very clear is that she will not eat uncooked poultry, so I wind up partially roasting any chicken or turkey I’m going to feed her, which makes me nervous about some of the bones not being safe, etc. Another thing that’s driving me crazy is that she seems to be having the dry skin issues that we’re all struggling with because we live in the SW desert… I’ve thought about adding some olive or flaxseed oil to her kibble, but I’d like to read more on the subject. Like, does she need more FAT in her diet, or does she just need more MOISTURE in her food?

    Would it be possible for you to address these questions in a post sometime soon? I asked on a local parenting forum if anyone raw-feeds their dogs and quite a few people replied that they’d tried and their dogs hadn’t liked it. I wonder if they just tried the wrong things, or if food pickyness is as common with dogs as it is with children…

    Anyway, I think I’m not alone when I plead with you to keep the posts about care & feeding coming because they’re so incredibly informative and helpful. We recently boarded EllieMae with the lady who runs the rescue we adopted her from, and when we picked her back up the woman told us “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it because she’s GREAT!” I had tears in my eyes and immediately thanked you in my heart for helping me be a better, more confident dog “mamma” to this wonderful dog. She really is doing great and we owe a lot of that to you & this blog. 🙂

    PS: do you still have your cat? I haven’t seen the cat mentioned in any recent posts but I’ve probably missed a few. I’ve also really wanted to find some reliable resources for feeding my almost-1yo cat, who is getting a bit chunky and seems to be having some constipation issues (not sure if these are food-related or just a behavioral thing)

  7. I am so glad I popped back to see how Clue was doing and came across this posting. You were able to take “food reading” and have it make sense for me. Thank you for that! I have done my best to read labels and numbers and I could not wrap my mind around it. In one post, it all makes sense to me now.

    I am getting ready to go raw with my boys but have been putting it off until after Cardigan Nationals as I don’t want to be going through a change and dealing with issues then driving long distance with them. Nor do I want to change any routines and mess up my Cardi’s groove with herding.

    Thanks again for such an insightful post,
    Colleen and Da Boys

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