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Natural Awakenings SW PA, Greater Pittsburgh

Beyond Kibble: How to Shop for the Healthiest Pet Food

Feb 28, 2022 09:30AM ● By Sheila Julson
Golden retriever dog sitting in front of food bowl full of vegetables

Mat Hayward/

People are always striving to improve the quality of life for their pets. For some, this means making homemade dog and cat food or buying meat directly from a local butcher, but not all pet parents have the necessary time, space or finances. While there are better quality kibble and canned pet foods available today than in the past, along with frozen raw and freeze-dried raw foods, an overwhelming volume of choices can confuse even the savviest consumer.

Cecille O’Brien Greenleaf, a holistic veterinarian in San Jose, California, advises pet parents to use the same criteria they do when shopping for human food—look for the freshest, cleanest ingredients possible, a limited ingredient panel and no chemicals and pesticides.

“Look for human-grade ingredients that offer the most vitality,” she emphasizes. She notes that some larger manufacturers have been caught using the least expensive ingredients they could find, including diseased animals that have been rejected from the human supply chain.

Ingredients on panels are listed by weight from highest to lowest, so the first one listed is the one that weighs the most. It should be pure meat—chicken, beef, venison or fish. Proteins such as chicken liver, organ meat or eggs may follow. “If there are many synthesized items in the ingredient list, that is to be avoided,” she says.

Frozen raw and dehydrated raw foods provide optimal nutrition while more closely mimicking pets’ primal eating patterns. The extrusion process that some pet food manufacturers use to make kibble can overcook the product. To compensate, synthesized vitamins are often sprayed onto the finished product, similar to how many children’s breakfast cereals are produced, she explains.

When purchasing kibble, look for brands that are minimally processed and provide vitamins directly from the ingredients; a long list of supplements on an ingredient list means the food has been highly processed.

There has been recent debate within the animal care community as to whether grain-free diets are more helpful or harmful to pets. O’Brien Greenleaf notes the jury is still out on how some grains affect pets or whether grain-free diets are better. “It depends on how contaminated or genetically modified the grains are, and whether grains agree with your pet,” she says. Testing is now available to help determine ingredients to which a pet may be allergic. 

She also recommends adding high-quality fish oil to pet’s food to help quell inflammation that can cause skin issues and other disorders.

Smaller Manufacturers Emphasize Quality Control

Randi Ross owns the franchise in Campbell, California, for Ben’s Barketplace, a Northern California pet food store chain that specializes in quality foods for dogs and cats. She notes that corporate mergers and acquisitions over the years have put many large pet food brands that are carried at big-box stores into the hands of conglomerates that also produce candy, soap and other non-pet products. This can lead to lack of oversight and quality control issues.



Many smaller, specialty pet food stores carefully screen the brands they carry. They offer products made by smaller companies that produce just pet food and embrace a holistic, farm-to-table philosophy regarding how they source their ingredients and manufacture their foods.

The melamine pet food recall of 2007, in which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found chemical contaminants in vegetable proteins imported from China used as ingredients in pet food, prompted many people to look for “Made in the United States” on packages. However, even if a brand is labeled as American- or North American-made, it doesn’t necessarily mean all of the ingredients were sourced from America, Ross says.

Freeze-dried raw meal toppers and pour-over broths have become popular ways to add nutrition and flavor to kibble. When purchasing those products, she says, the same rules apply as when shopping for food: look for single or limited-ingredients on product panels and be wary of excessive filler ingredients like corn or wheat.

“We help educate people on the true cost of pet ownership,” Ross says. “Spending a little more money now on high-quality pet food ultimately keeps dogs and cats healthier, reducing the need for veterinarian visits, pharmaceuticals and antibiotics.”

Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.

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