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What's for Dinner?

When’s the last time you reassessed what you’re feeding your dog(s)? If it’s been a while, you might find it interesting (and perhaps a little overwhelming!) to learn how many alternatives there are to the traditional dry kibble canine diet. While kibble is certainly convenient from many perspectives, it’s not always the healthiest or most palatable food for your dog. Your senior dog may benefit nutritionally from a change of pace food-wise, and if your dog is still a few years away from senior status, you may literally add on years to his or her life by switching to a more nutritious, fresh food diet now.

I had my eyes opened to the myriad of kibble alternatives during the year that I worked part-time for a small retail dog business that specialized in high end, natural dog food, treats, and supplements. While I had pretty much always fed my dogs good quality kibble mixed with a little wet food, I’ve since switched my current dog Charlie (an 11.5-year-old Lab mix) to a totally non-kibble diet. We’ve experimented with a variety of formats and brands, and I must say, he’s been a very willing participant in the process!

The subject of canine nutrition and food choices is a vast one, so this post is simply meant to “whet your appetite” (pun intended) for potentially making a change and to offer some ideas for branching out. Many pet food companies have expanded their product lines to include kibble as well as other alternatives, while others specialize in fresh food only. Some sell online only and others sell both online and in brick-and-mortar retail stores; consider both options for the best variety. (Please note that neither I nor FLFO have any affiliation with foods mentioned or linked below, and their inclusion here is not meant as an endorsement, but rather to show examples of various formats or brands.)

If you’re thinking of making a switch, or just want to learn more, here are some things to consider:

Start slowly. Your change doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” process. If you aren’t ready to give up kibble entirely, you can certainly supplement a kibble diet with what’s called “toppers” or use any of the fresh food alternatives in conjunction with kibble. In all cases, you’ll want to introduce any new foods slowly anyway, to avoid any tummy upset that might arise from moving too quickly.

Learn about different formats. Dehydrated foods (such as The Honest Kitchen) or freeze-dried foods (such as those from Stella & Chewy, Primal, or Sojos) all need to be rehydrated with water or broth before serving. They are shelf-stable and require no refrigeration until rehydrated. Gently cooked foods (such as Open Farm, The Farmer’s Dog, Just Food for Dogs, or My Perfect Pet) are often prepared using a sous vide technique. They are sold frozen and need to be defrosted before using, with any leftovers kept in the fridge. Raw foods (such as Small Batch, Bones & Co., Bravo, or OC Raw) are becoming much more mainstream than in previous years and are also sold frozen. They typically come in patties, sliders, nuggets, or chub type versions. Some companies (such as Dr. Harvey’s) make a dehydrated base type formula that can be used in conjunction with fresh meat or other protein (or with one of the just listed commercial fresh food choices) to make a complete diet. Be sure any option you choose is labeled as “complete and balanced,” whether that’s as sold or as mixed with a separate protein source that you provide.

For Charlie’s every day meals, I currently use either Dr. Harvey’s Canine Health or The Honest Kitchen Whole Grain Base Formula combined with various kinds of gently cooked commercial food. I like to rotate brands and protein sources for variety. Charlie’s favorites are Open Farm and Nom Nom, but we use other brands as well. When we travel, or when he boards at a kennel, I switch him to a freeze-dried food that doesn’t need refrigeration as it is much more practical in those circumstances. (However, the freeze-dried is unfortunately much more costly as well … see the next section!)

Evaluate cost and shop smart. There is no doubt you’re going to spend more by switching to a fresh food diet for your dog, so be realistic about your budget. I like to comparison shop by figuring out the per ounce cost of different foods in the same format (get your math skills ready!) so you can really tell what’s the best bargain. Comparing the cost of different formats (dehydrated vs. gently cooked, for example), is much more difficult, however. In general, I have found that buying a gently cooked food or frozen raw food is reasonably manageable for my 60-pound dog but using a freeze-dried food on a regular basis would only be cost-effective for a smaller dog.

Two potential ways to save money: first, many online companies offer an initial discount for trying out their food, so this can be a good way to see if your dog likes it before making a large outlay of dollars. Second, look for companies that sell in larger quantities or as part of a subscription or autoship program, as that often brings the price down. For example, a 1-pound package of Open Farm gently cooked food retails for $10.50 in a local store near me. In contrast, if you buy 18 pounds directly from the company as part of their autoship program, you’ll pay $142.49, an overall savings of $46.51. The disadvantage is that the 18 pounds has to be all the same flavor … no mix and match. (I’ve asked the company to reconsider this!) Most autoship programs let you easily skip shipments or cancel your subscription entirely, so as long as you keep track of the shipment dates, I feel it’s a relatively risk-free way to keep costs lower.

Note: While cost is certainly an important factor in deciding what to feed, please don’t compromise on quality in order to get a better deal. Check reviews and ingredients of any food you are considering and try to stick with those that have a proven track record. Two sites that can provide helpful guidance are The Whole Dog Journal and Dog Food Advisor.

Consider your storage space. If you are going to use a food that comes frozen, make sure you have enough freezer space to accommodate this choice. As of now, Charlie’s food pretty much takes over the whole top drawer of my freezer and I always have to juggle other things in the freezer before placing an order for more. (If you are lucky enough to have a separate, free-standing freezer this likely won’t be an issue for you.) Also, keep in mind that each company packages their food differently and some are easier to store than others; that can actually be a dealbreaker in deciding about one brand versus another!

To sum up, there are many good quality kibble foods on the market, and you may certainly opt to stay with that format due to cost or other considerations. At a minimum, however, try to incorporate some version of a fresh food diet into your dog’s meals. After all, much of our human culinary pleasure comes from the variety of foods we have at our disposal; shouldn’t our canine companions enjoy a similar experience when their food dish is placed before them?

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