I have a secret I’ve been concealing for years: I’ve been feeding Artemis kibble, at least partially, for as long as I’ve had her. I adopted Artemis in 2016, when all the upwardly-mobile dog parents of New York were feeding fresh food delivery to their dogs (or so it seemed). I tried every brand of fresh dog food available, but Artemis didn’t like any of them after the novelty wore off after the first or second bowl. We always ended up wasting half the order. (And don’t get me started on raw food. Artemis won’t touch that!) So, I quietly went back to feeding Artemis kibble, intermixed with homemade doggie grain bowls and canned food, without telling anyone else because of the shame I felt as a failed dog mom. Kibble suits our family. Artemis and I travel internationally together, and kibble is allowed on-board flights and does not violate customs laws. If Artemis turns her picky nose up at the bowl of kibble, I can cover it and try again tomorrow without wasting any food. We live in a tiny pre-war Manhattan apartment, and I don’t have to store kibble in the tiny freezer or fridge, or worry about salmonella or cross-contamination.
Kibble has its origins in the earliest forms of manufactured dog food made by a London-based American entrepreneur named James Spratt. While in Liverpool, England, he saw stray dogs eating hardtack given to them (or dropped) by sailors on the dock. Around 1860, he began making “dog cakes,” which were made of meat, wheat, vegetables, and beetroot. They were, essentially, biscuits for dogs. Originally, the Spratt company marketed these dog cakes to English gentlemen who needed something portable and easy to feed their high-energy sporting dogs. In 1870, the company launched in American markets. At the time, American families were feeding table and kitchen scraps to their dogs. Very similar to some of the holier-than-thou attitudes of the dog food discourse nowadays, Spratt targeted health-conscious Americans and spent their marketing dollars at fancy dog shows.
By 1905, the Spratt company had competitors. Since the dog cakes were patented, companies like Austin’s and Old Grist Mill came out with “dog bread.” (Imagine that! And we were so obsessed with grain-free diets just last year.) By the 1950s, dry dog food came in cereal boxes, which may be why some dog food companies have denigrated kibble to be nothing more than cereal. But the backlash against kibble and canned food isn’t new, either: In 1963, there was a brand called Speak that sold “soft and moist” nuggets of dog food in trays that somehow didn’t need refrigeration.
And then came the 2000s, when low-carb diets (for humans) became popular. Around 2010, gluten-free diets become popular, and bread was increasingly demonized. We saw that in the manufactured pet foods too, as premium kibbles became grain-free. As veterinarians will tell you, the switch to grain-free dog foods has nothing to do with dog nutrition discoveries. It has everything to do with our desire to impose our diets onto dogs. Last year, as warned by the FDA, grain-free dog foods became linked to heart disease in dogs. “The grain-free versus non-grain-free issue actually has been a huge topic of conversation in the veterinary community because research was recently published outlining why grain-free is actually bad,” Dr. Zay Satchu, founder of Bond Vet, explained at our Raising a Dog in NYC panel discussion in September 2019. “I didn’t know this. I was feeding my pup grain-free prior to that. So, I don’t blame anyone who is also doing the same. What they found was the lentils that are in the grain-free foods actually bind to taurine, which is an amino acid that you need for your heart to function well. So, we’re causing these dogs to be deficient in taurine without even recognizing it. It becomes this disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)—a stretchy heart, basically. The heart chambers open up, and it ultimately leads to death. In early cases, it’s reversible. But it’s kind of scary when you think about that being the food that was broadcasted for all of us to purchase.” Almost overnight, kibbles with grain were placed front and center at pet stores.
Sometime in the past year, kibble has had a renaissance. As any dog parent who gets targeted for Instagram ads knows, there are so many new dry dog food startups hoping to make kibble cool again—as cool as Spratt, crusading against kitchen scraps, made their dog cakes look in 1870. They’re innovating new formulas, adding trendy food ingredients that look like they belong on the menu at Sweetgreen, and appealing to the Instagram audience through branding and influencer collaborations. We’re entering a new age of kibble.
“As time goes on, we have more research into food, and with people generally spending more and more money on their pets, that means that the pet food industry has become more robust,” Dr. Jamie Richardson of Small Door Veterinary tells A&A. “And the consumer has driven that by demanding higher-quality foods for their pets, whether that’s higher-quality ingredients or more research-backed information that goes into the processing and manufacturing of these foods.” She does note, however, that while there’s a lot of money going into dog food innovation, there’s a lot of money going into dog food marketing, too, especially because pet food is not as well-regulated as human food. That’s partly why, she notes, kibble has been stigmatized by raw and fresh food brands in the past decade, even though kibble is usually one of the most research-backed types of dog food.
According to Dr. Richardson, here are basic guidelines for evaluating new dog foods that have popped up onto your Instagram feed:
- Check that the recipe meets minimum (Association of American Feed Control Officials) AAFCO standards.
- Enquire into whether the brand has a full-time veterinary nutritionist. Otherwise, she explains, they cannot formulate nutritionally-sound diets for dogs.
- Prioritize brands that manufacture out of their own plants for quality control.
- Avoid being wooed by ingredients and claims that aren’t backed by peer-reviewed studies. (We should note, though, that dog food brands may be making superfood ingredient claims because those are the marketing buzzwords that work, whether or not veterinarians like them!)
Most veterinarians are not trained extensively in nutrition, despite the all-knowing confidence we place in them, and unfortunately, according to Dr. Richardson, Dog Food Advisor (which I’ve used for years as a shortcut for evaluating commercial dog foods) occasionally misses the mark on their top recommendations, too. “Sometimes, they put the wrong focus on the wrong things and they get sucked into some marketing, as well,” she explains. “They’ve written off some very solid companies, and they’ve put some dubious ones on their lists of good foods.” At Small Door Veterinary, Dr. Richardson personally calls each dog food brand that her patients are curious about, and suggests that all dog parents ask their veterinarians to make calls to dog food brands to get the full nutritional profiles and research-backed studies involved. The only type of dog food she strongly recommends against is raw: “There is not scientific study that supports the health benefits of raw,” she explains. “There are many issues with raw food diets, such as contamination with salmonella, not just for the dog but for the humans in the household, especially if anyone is immunocompromised or an infant.”
While kibble has been unfairly stigmatized, there is one commonly-believed benefit to kibble that is untrue: Kibble does not clean teeth, and wet food is not bad for teeth. “Dental hygiene through daily dental brushing is the only way to really keep your pet’s mouth healthy,” Dr. Richardson says. “Eating only dog kibble does nothing for dental hygiene.”
Of course, Artemis doesn’t care about the branding. And neither do vets. We examined the new buzzy dry dog foods without their fun, eye-catching packaging, breaking down their ingredients, costs, and manufacturing processes.
What’s in it? From the Chicken & Brown Rice recipe: Chicken, Brown Rice, Sweet Potatoes, Carrots, Apples, Kale, Chicken Liver, Chicken Gizzard, Sunflower Seeds, Ginger Root, Kelp, Salt, Mixed Tocopherols (natural source of Vitamin E), Vitamins & Minerals.
What dietary concerns does it address? It is gluten-free and non-GMO. Because it is dehydrated, the recipe is a potential option for those want to feed their dogs raw but don’t want to deal with the inconvenience. Recipes meet AAFCO nutrient profiles by formulation and by analysis of the finished product.
What’s their story? New York-based Spot & Tango launched in 2014 as direct-to-commerce fresh food delivery for dogs, and you can still buy flash-frozen fresh food from them. The official story goes like this: The founders were cooking for their dog, Jack, because they were worried about commercial food recalls. Though they began by shipping within the five boroughs of New York City, they are now available nationwide by subscription.
How is it made? Spot & Tango claims to have a trademarked Fresh Dry process that differs from traditional kibble processing, which uses high temperatures and pressure. The ingredients are compacted together, pasteurized (so they’re shelf stable), and dehydrated at a low temperature in a vacuum chamber to retain their fresh chemical composition as much as possible. The proteins are USDA-grade and manufactured in a Wisconsin factory. Spot & Tango has a team of nutritionists and veterinarians for the R&D and recipe formulation process.
How much does it cost? It starts at $7/week if you have the tiniest dog. For reference, Artemis is about 20 pounds and it costs us $20.24 for a full week’s worth of UnKibble.
What’s in it? From the Chicken, Sweet Potato, and Egg recipe: Organic Chicken, Dried Sweet Potatoes, Chicken Meal, Chickpeas, Lentils, Chicken Fat, Eggs, Potatoes, Natural Flavor, Milled Miscanthus Grass, Tomato Pomace, Yeast Extract, Dried Pumpkin, Menhaden Fish Oil, Dried Carrots, Dried Kelp, Chia Seed, Taurine, Vitamins (Vitamin E Supplement, Niacin Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate, D-Calcium Pantothenate, Vitamin A Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Riboflavin Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Folic Acid), Salt, Dried Chicory Root, Dried Cranberries, Minerals (Zinc Methionine Complex, Zinc Sulfate, Iron Proteinate, Ferrous Sulfate, Copper Proteinate, Copper Sulfate, Manganese Proteinate Sodium Selenite, Manganous Oxide, Calcium Iodate, Ethylenediamine Dihydroiodide), Ascorbic Acid (Source of Vitamin C), Choline Chloride, Biotin, Dried Bacillus Coagulans Fermentation Product, Ginger, Dried Parsley, Chamomile, Dandelion, Dried Spearmint, Cinnamon, Rosemary Extract.
What dietary concerns does it address? It is grain-free and contains patented probiotics. Jinx claims to exceed AAFCO nutrition guidelines.
What’s their story? Jinx was founded by three former Casper employees, which sounds random until you remember that Casper sells dog beds, too. According to TechCrunch, they’re targeting “moderately active” dogs who live in apartments and share the bed with their parents. Sounds like us!
How is it made? Only lean proteins are included. Interestingly, Jinx proudly doesn’t use organ meats, even though offals are usually part of a nutritionally-balanced diet for dogs. Jinx works with Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) certified manufacturers, and lab tests their recipes for stool quality and protein/fat absorption. They have a Jinx Nutrition Council consisting of “animal nutritionists, formulators, manufacturing partners, and regulatory experts” that advises their production process.
How much does it cost? One 4-pound bag costs $22.50. For a 20-pound dog like Artemis, this lasts about one month.
What’s in it? From the Fresh Chicken and Ancient Grains recipe: Chicken, Chicken Meal, Pearled Barley, Brown Rice, Oat Groats, Whole Egg, Natural Flavor, Chicken Fat, Chicken Liver, Carrots, Spinach, Flaxseeds, Sunflower Lecithin, Sun-dried Miscanthus Grass, Dehydrated Blueberries, Kelp, Salmon Oil (Preserved With Mixed Tocopherols and Citric Acid), Sea Salt, Dicalcium Phosphate, Choline Chloride, Potassium Chloride, Yeast Extract, Fructooligosaccharides (Fos), Taurine, Fumaric Acid, Lactic Acid, Citric Acid, Malic Acid, Thyme Extract, Vitamin E Supplement, Zinc Sulfate, Ferrous Sulfate, Zinc Proteinate, Iron Proteinate, Niacin Supplement, Copper Sulfate, Thiamine Mononitrate, D-calcium Pantothenate, Vitamin a Acetate, Biotin, Manganese Sulfate, Copper Proteinate, Riboflavin Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Manganese Proteinate, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Calcium Iodate, Sodium Selenite, Folic Acid, Rosemary Extract.
What dietary concerns does it address? Heed is especially formulated for microbiome health, aka excellent poops (but also healthy skin and fur), due to its prebiotics, which are ingredients that foster healthy digestive tracts (as opposed to probiotics, which are live cultures that may or may not survive by the time they reach the stomach).This USA-made recipe is a great option for dogs with sensitive stomachs who eat grains, and claims to exceed AAFCO guidelines.
What’s their story? Indonesian-born Rei Kawano, who has a background in luxury products, and her co-founder, Melanie Han, an Angeleno, met in business school and bonded over their love for dogs. Rei was inspired, after her family dog passed away, to develop a better dog food.
How is it made? Heed is manufactured in Pawnee City, Nebraska. The recipes are enriched with prebiotics to support microbiome health, which not only promotes good poops but also supports the immune system. Heed has a team of microbiome experts on the advisory team.
How much does it cost? One 5-pound bag costs $35. For a 20-pound dog like Artemis, that lasts about one month of meals. Orders come with human-grade, freeze-dried toppers (made of one-third meat, one-third vegetable, one-third fruit) that you mix into the kibble, which is great for the pickiest of eaters.
What’s in it? USDA Beef, Beef Heart, Beef Liver, Beef Bone, Quinoa, Pumpkin, Wild Salmon Oil, Sunflower Oil, Zucchini, Kale, Flaxseed, Sea Salt, Parsely, Kelp, Chicory Root, Turmeric, Mixed Tocopherols, Ginger, Selenium Yeast, Blueberries, Carrots, Apples, Tomatoes, Shiitake Mushrooms, Broccoli, Oranges, Cranberries, Spinach, Beets, Tart Cherries, Strawberries.
What dietary concerns does it address? This is an excellent option for the pickiest of dogs because it supposedly tastes like treats because it is air-dried! It is also a potentially convenient option for those who want to feed their dogs raw but don’t want to deal with raw meat (or want a travel-friendly option), as the meat is not cooked. It contains digestive aids like pumpkin and ginger, so it is also a possibility for sensitive stomachs. It’s also gluten-free, chicken-free, and dairy-free.
What’s their story? Sundays was founded by a veterinarian and engineer couple to be an intermediary option between kibble and fresh food.
How is it made? In a USDA-monitored jerky factory! Really! As you read above, the ingredients are air-dried to preserve taste, and are a convenient option for those who want to feed raw without the risk of salmonella. The founder is a small animal veterinarian, and the brand also works with nutritionists and food scientists.
How much does it cost? It costs $75 for a 40-ounce box. For a 20-pound dog like Artemis, this would last about two weeks. If you subscribe, the price goes down to $59, though.
What’s in it? From Duck, Salmon, and Venison recipe: Duck, Salmon, Venison, Potato, Pea Protein, Whole Lentils, Whole Peas, Egg, Flaxseed, Minerals, Duck Gravy, Nutritional Yeast, Botanicals & Herbs (Alfalfa, Chickweed, Cleavers, Golden Rod, Nettles, Seaweed, Dandelion Root, Celery Seeds, Milk Thistle, Burdock Root, Marigold Flowers, Rosehips), Prebiotics (Mannan Oligosaccharides, Fructooligosaccharides), Carrots, Apples, Joint Care Mix (Methylsulfonylmethane, Glucosamine, Chondroitin Sulphate), Cranberries, Blackberries, Spinach.
What dietary concerns does it address? It is grain-free and supplemented with glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health and prebiotics for digestion.
What’s their story? Founder Henrietta Morrison started feeding home-cooked meals to her dog, Lily, after Lily fell ill and stopped eating commercial foods. Inspired by this revelation, she re-mortgaged her north London home and launched her brand in 2008 with seven products, after one factory, with capacity open due to the recession, agreed to use human-grade ingredients. In 2019, the company was awarded a Royal Warrant, which means they are official suppliers to the British Royal Family. In 2020, Henrietta sold the company to Nestlé Purina.
How is it made? Lily’s Kitchen is made in the U.K. and continental Europe, with a team of nutritionists and veterinarians advising on the recipe development. While the company aims to use as many organic and all-natural ingredients as possible, they do note that not all nutritional supplements that dogs need can be found naturally.
How much does it cost? A 1-kilogram bag costs £7.80. For a 20-pound dog like Artemis, that lasts about a week. As you can tell, Lily’s Kitchen is only available in the U.K., for now. This is our go-to when we’re in London.
Photography by Tayler Smith