Updated: Dec 18, 2022
Ah, kibble. Truly the siren song of pet food: it lures us in with the promise of being simple, convenient, and cheap, then dashes our hopes of a healthy diet for our pets upon its starchy shores. Kibble is a relatively new invention in the pet world, first appearing in its current form during World War II when meat and tin—used in cans of dog food—became rationed for the war effort. From there, cereal companies created pet foods with the same methods and equipment as their breakfast cereals. This resulted in a cheap, shelf-stable product that could be delivered to consumers in cardboard boxes (and later, resealable plastic bags).
Sounds like a win-win situation, right?
Unfortunately, it’s never that easy. “Cheap food is an illusion,” Michael Polland said in the documentary Fresh. “There is no such thing as cheap food. The real cost of the food is paid somewhere. And if it isn’t paid at the cash register [...], it’s charged to your health.”
For all the things pet parents may appreciate about kibble, it can also be the biggest detriment to your pet’s overall health. Skin allergies in dogs have risen 15%–20% over the last 10 years, while UTIs and kidney disease remain a chronic issue for cats—and all of these problems can be caused by kibble! So without further ado, let’s chow down on six of the weirdest things about kibble that we’ve all accepted as normal but really, really aren’t.
A disclaimer: As with everything, not all kibble brands are created equal. Some are of higher quality than others, so not every point on this list will apply to every brand. That being said, some points, like our first two, are universal among kibble companies, just by the very nature of how kibble is made.
1. Lack of Hydration
When kibble brands claim to be a completely balanced diet, they forget one key element: water. (We know that’s not a groundbreaking statement, reminding everyone that our pets need water, but it seems to get overlooked in kibble diets.) Of course, most pet parents leave out a water dish, but our pets have evolved to get most of their water from their food, not an external water source. Cats are even worse with this than dogs: having descended from desert-dwelling species where there wasn’t an abundance of drinking water, cats lack a strong thirst drive. Since their bodies tell them they should be getting most of their fluid intake from their food, cats on a kibble diet don’t venture towards the water dish until they’re already dehydrated.
2. Heat-Blasted Nutrients
Let’s get a little technical. We generally cook our food because it can make some nutrients more easily digestible, but our pets’ stomachs are much more competent than ours. They don’t always require the extra boost of digestibility that comes from cooking. In fact, cooking food can decrease certain health benefits that our pets would get from raw, fresh food. For instance, cooking foods reduces water-soluble B and C vitamins like thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), and fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. Even minerals see a significant decrease—most notably with potassium, magnesium, sodium, and calcium.
When kibble is made, all the ingredients are combined into a dough that undergoes something called the extrusion process. This is where the dough is exposed to extreme heat and pressure, essentially cooking out any of the nutrients and minerals that were initially present. As an added detriment, these high temperatures increase the oxidation and toxic reactions that come from cooking, resulting in harmful substances like Advanced Lipoxidation End products (ALEs) and Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs) in the food. These can contribute to acute and chronic diseases over a lifetime of feeding.
All of this means that while kibble companies may list all the nutritious and mineral-rich ingredients they’ve included, those ingredients may not provide the expected nutrients in the end-product. Instead, fats, synthetic nutrients, and flavour enhancers are sprayed onto the finished kibble to make up for what was lost in the cooking process.
3. Excessive Carbs and Sugars
There’s a time and place for carbs in a healthy diet—they are, after all, an easy source of energy. But anyone who has ever been on a late-night carb binge can tell you there can be too much of a good thing—and that goes especially for our pets.
Obesity in pets is one of the top issues veterinarians see in Canada. It primarily stems from overfeeding and poor nutrition, which can be a potent combination—especially when you have to feed a certain amount of high-carb kibble for your pet to get the micronutrients they need. Modern kibble is anywhere between 30%–60% carbohydrates—that’s nearly four times the carb content in the ancestral canine diet! Cats need even fewer carbohydrates: specifically, they should be getting small amounts of low glycemic veggies high in fibre but low in sugars, similar to what they would be ingesting from their herbivore prey in the wild.
4. Cheap Price Tag
An enormous bag of kibble for pennies on the pound seems like a deal too good to be true—and it is. Even when kibble brands advertise how much meat they put in their product, the meat they include is often “meal” made from leftovers from the human meat industry. In other words, whatever we have decided is not fit for human consumption. This can consist of the skin, bones, feet, intestines, and other less-savoury portions of often dead, dying and diseased animals. From there, these leftovers are cooked under intense heat on average 4 times, dehydrated, and reduced to a fine powder that is now so nutrient-devoid that nutrients have to be added back in to meet AAFCO standards.
We all know that highly-processed food is terrible for us, but at least we as humans get to make that choice when we pull into a drive-thru—your pet has no option but to eat whatever is put in front of them day in and day out. When did we decide that “you get what you pay for” applies to everything but our pet’s diet?
5. Lack of Variation
Speaking of day in and day out, there are some issues with eating the same meal every
day. This topic is a bit controversial, with the main argument against rotation being that switching up your pet’s diet is a recipe for gastric distress. We’d like to counter that by pointing out the underlying catch-22 at the center of this argument. While it’s true that switching foods too quickly can potentially upset your pet’s digestive system, these upsets are generally the result of an unhealthy microbiome to start with…which is the result of eating the same food every day. Dometic dogs and cats evolved as scavengers, eating whatever was available to them throughout their day and expending energy to hunt only when necessary. Just imagine the variety in their microbiome from eating this way!
Even if a pet’s meal is advertised as meeting the basic nutrient requirements, it’s still
just that: the basic requirements. Why would we aim to give our dogs and cats the bare minimum? While switching up our pet’s meals keeps it exciting for them, cultivating their culinary palate isn’t the end goal. Instead, the focus should be on developing a healthy range of gut bacteria by providing foods with different nutrient profiles.
Simply put, complete and balanced nutrition in every bite is not the way any species naturally eats, yet this is kibble’s claim to fame. It’s not normal to get every single nutrient in the right amount in every bite—that would be like us surviving on nothing but powdered smoothies! Instead, you accumulate the correct nutrients over time through multiple meals and through a variety of foods. It may not seem like the most efficient method, but it’s what our bodies—and our pet’s bodies—were designed to do.
As a bonus argument against a lack of variety in your pet’s diet, we should mention adult allergies in pets. Have you ever had a pet suddenly develop allergic symptoms or sensitivities despite nothing in their food or environment changing? It’s a little-known fact; however, eating the same food every day can actually increase the possibility of sensitivities developing later in life.
6. Dubious Expiration Dates
Do you eye an open 2-month-old bag of bread with suspicion? You should probably treat your pet’s open bag of kibble the same way. Kibble packaging can claim some pretty incredible best-by dates of up to 18 months, but that’s often some labelling trickery. Those 18 months only count while the bag is still sealed—once it’s opened, those sprayed-on fats begin to oxidize and become rancid within a few weeks! Yes, kibble is advertised as easy and safe, but when dry food is stored, handled, or fed incorrectly, it can be just as dangerous as low-quality and rancid raw meat.
I’m Stuck With Kibble…What Should I Do?
Despite all of the above reasons, we understand that sometimes kibble remains the best option for some pet parents’ lifestyles and budgets. If this is the case for you, here are some easy tips to try:
Choose higher-quality kibble with transparent sourcing whenever possible.
Remember that “grain-free” does NOT mean carbohydrate-free.
Buy in smaller quantities so you can use up a bag before the fats start to go off.
Store kibble in a cool, dry area in something sealable (and always remember to keep it sealed between uses!)
For cats in particular, try soaking the kibble in water or bone broth to promote adequate hydration.
Don’t be afraid to try adding meal toppers or supplements, whether it’s whole, fresh food or pet-branded nutrient boosting products.
Switch up proteins to help your dog or cat eat a more well-rounded diet.
The Bottom Line
Almost every pet parent has bought into the dubious “complete and balanced” diet many kibble brands claim to offer—and that’s fair enough, as they can be so convincing! However, it’s important to remember that there is no governing body for pet food regulations in Canada beyond importing foods and labelling standards. This means that pet food companies are required to list everything they include in their kibble, but that doesn’t mean that everything that’s in it is good for your pet. In the end, taking an active interest in your pet’s food and making changes that are appropriate for both you and your dog or cat is the most important step you can make for their health.