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Adding just a small amount of fresh food can improve the quality of commercial pet foods tremendously.
Thoughtful choices can complement your dog's diet and deliver key nutrients dogs need that are particularly fragile for the highly processed nature of most kibble dog foods.
Why fresh dog food is helpful for rescue dogs
Rescue dogs are in a unique situation, often moving from place to place and adjusting to unfamiliar surroundings, likely dealing with more stress as they're processing everything. They're also more likely to be positively impacted by extra nutritional support which for all of us, dog or human, affects not only the body but also the mind and behavior.
Nonprofit rescues are working valiantly, whether in physical shelters or foster homes, to give their dogs the safety and shelter, vet care, training, and food for the best possible safety net and relaunch on the way to their new forever lives. And I'm committed to canine nutrition and supporting the amazing work of rescues with what I can bring as a canine nutritionist.
As an admirer of rescues and lover of rescue dogs, I wanted to share a few pro tips canine nutritionists know about simple, powerful ways to enhance dry dog food/kibble with fresh dog food.
These easy, targeted fresh food additions can make a world of difference in a dog's health and well-being, both physical and mental.
And since these dogs might never have had the chance to eat fresh food in their lives, you'll get the added joy of seeing how much dogs love it while the foods help them thrive at the same time!
Why fresh dog food is good for all dogs
Of course, these tips for meal prep and enhancing your kibble with real food and human grade ingredients in your fridge or left from your own meals aren't exclusively for rescue dogs. For the many pet parents feeding your pups a dry dog food diet, I invite you to join us as we talk about replacing 10-20% of the kibble in your dog's meals with some of these fresh foods! It's so doable and so worth it.
The science behind the benefits of kibble combined with a small percent of fresh food
First a word or two about why and how 10-20% of fresh food plus kibble works for your dog's diet...
Forget what you may have heard that you have to serve all fresh dog food or raw food only or an entirely homemade dog food diet to give dogs good nutrition.
The great news is that science-based studies have shown that replacing your own dog food, the kibble/dry food, with as little as 10-20% fresh food has an exponentially positive effect on reducing disease and illness and can help other health concerns such as allergies as well.
What AAFCO standards mean and what's missing
Another important fact for all rescues, fosters, and pet parents to know: most commercial dry food, regular or grain free, is produced to AAFCO standards for a nutritionally balanced diet (you'll find the notation on your package label) which means it's been balanced to meet minimum established nutrition requirements for dogs.
While that doesn't assure rescues and pet owners about what might have been lost in processing, quality of ingredients, or the impact of preservatives, etc. of the dog food brands you're feeding, you do know they were formulated as a balanced diet to AAFCO pet food standards.
That's also why replacing no more than 20% with fresh food is not only simpler than an all-out fresh food diet, it's smart and safe because it's not enough proportionately to change the nutrient balance while still delivering outsized nutritional benefits in your dog's food.
(If you do ever want a full fresh homemade dog food diet, that's where certified nutritionists come in to make sure it's complete and balanced. I can always give you tools to make it easier or I'm available here to work 1:1 with you to develop the best fresh food diet/dog food plan for your nutritional needs.)
5 pro tips to including fresh food in your pet food - what to add & why
Let's jump into enhancing your dry dog food with 10-20% fresh, real ingredients...
Pro tip 1: Antioxidants, protein, & healthy fats for your dog
When I select fresh foods to add to a processed diet to create a simply healthy dog food, I base selections on traditional whole foods, keeping in mind all the nutrients they bring, how they support overall health and address specific health issues. And also how easily purchased and prepared they are.
I am always thinking antioxidants, protein, and healthy fats. These are 3 pillars of a dog's best health, critical nutrients with their nutritional value strongest when food is fresh and often damaged in dog food processing.
That means for example, I'm looking for ingredients like:
- Berries high in antioxidants like blueberries, raspberries, blackberries
- Green leafy veggies like spinach, kale, Swiss chard
- Fresh herbs
I also choose foods based on the particular health issue I'm seeking to address such as:
- Canned pumpkin for digestive issues
- Flaxseed meal or oil for skin and coat health
- Yogurt or cottage cheese for immune support
Pro tip 2: Fruits & vegetables - feed your dog the rainbow
A great way for rescues and pet owners to enhance a dry dog food with antioxidants from fresh ingredients is to feed the rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables.
Richly colorful outside is a good sign they're more likely to be an antioxidant super food inside with all the vitamins so important for a dog's immune system and for keeping our dogs healthy overall, arming them against diseases like cancer and health issues like seasonal, environmental, and food allergies, along with serving as supportive anti-inflammatories. You'll also be feeding valuable phytonutrients, often damaged in processing foods, so fresh is the way to get them.
And by replacing kibble that's often heavy in carbohydrates with high-density nutrients like fruits and veggies, you'll naturally have better weight management to keep your dogs at their healthiest weight now and for long-term wellness.
Start creating your fresh food diet with great options like blueberries (fresh or frozen), organic apple slices, beets, squash and healthful greens such as kale, spinach, or microgreens.
Pro tip 3: Meat - for healthy energy & hearts for dogs
Meat provides high quality protein which is often damaged in kibble/dry dog food processing. Meat gives dogs necessary vitamins and nutrients including the critical amino acid taurine for heart health and energy. Be a bit mindful of the fat content in different cuts of meat and what's right for the dog or dogs in front of you.
If your dog is struggling with weight, you may want to avoid higher fat cuts. If your dog has little to no energy, you may want to increase the fat content a bit.
And when purchasing meat for your dogs, I recommend organic, grass-fed, and hormone/antibiotic-free whenever possible as they will have higher nutrient content than conventionally raised animals that are also often treated with chemicals and hormones.
A variety of fresh meats to top off kibble are good choices: beef, chicken, lamb, turkey, lean ground beef/ground turkey, and more.
Organ meats (liver, kidney) may seem less accessible, but frozen liver, for one, is inexpensive, readily available at grocery stores, and easy to serve no-prep raw if you'd like. These organ meats are very rich and high in nutrients so serve in small amounts - a little goes a long way in every sense of it for dogs.
Pro tip 4: Bones - use caution & RAW only for your dog
Raw bones fresh or frozen, are a win all around. Even a picky eater loves a good bone. Always give separately from food, serve raw or frozen raw (easily available at the grocery), in small amounts throughout the week.
(And always share bones when you're around to keep an eye on your dogs for safety, to avoid any choking or guarding issues.)You'll be combining the enrichment and calming of good long chew with high-quality protein rich in essential amino acids. Added bonus: raw bones are excellent for your dog's teeth.
Bone broth is another wonderful addition to pet food, easily poured over kibble. Bone broth nourishes and strengthens the gut and creates a natural antioxidant defense in dogs' bodies.
Pro tip 5: Healthy fats & fish & eggs give your dog the perfect protein
Healthy Fats, particularly essential fatty acids like Omega 3s, are harder to get from processed dog food but key for hydrating and moisturizing skin and coat from the inside out, calming itchy skin, keeping joints fluid and strong, fueling brain development, and acting as inflammation warriors for heart health.
Fish and eggs offer excellent protein sources with high levels of healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. Fish is a lean protein making it perfect for dogs struggling with weight but needing quality nutrition.
Eggs are one of the few foods that contain Vitamin D which is important for calcium absorption for strong bones and teeth. They're also good for brain development and cognitive function.
My favorite secret weapon to add Omega 3s is sardines, canned and packed in water. Easy to find on the grocery shelf, keep on hand, and add to the rotation to top off your dog's meal.
And for the perfect protein in its own package and no prep...
Eggs. We talked about meats and other ways to deliver protein, but don't forget the simplest and least expensive - eggs! They're often called "the perfect protein" because a single egg is packed with high quality protein, a full range of vitamins and minerals, and all 9 of the essential amino acids a dog's body (and ours) needs to access all the good protein and nutrients.
You can feed your dog or dogs eggs raw (no prep!) or hardboiled and mashed as a high-performing kibble topper. Shells can be included in limited amounts (organic to avoid any preservatives sprayed on shells, also mashed or ground.) You'll want to give in smaller amounts for little dogs, of course.
The power of 10%-20% fresh dog food for your dog
Taking just 10-20% of calories and targeting the diet with naturally nutritious fresh foods is a powerful everyday tool we have to keep dogs healthy. When we thoughtfully choose food, we can often see 50% daily needs met of water soluble vitamins & nutrients, 100% daily needs met of essential fats, 100%+ daily needs met of some antioxidant nutrients (like E), all while being mindful to keep minerals and calories within acceptable levels.
We also provide many non-essential nutrients that aren't required in commercial food and may be destroyed if they are there in the first place.
I cannot say enough how powerful targeted nutrition is - especially for dogs who otherwise might not get any fresh food at all.
There are endless creative ways to enhance a kibble diet with fresh foods - the key is to start small and add gradually as you learn what your dog likes, keeping an eye on calories. When in doubt, always seek professional guidance from canine nutritionists or a Board Certified Veterinary Nutritionist before making any significant changes to your dog's diet.
Have fun, enjoy the journey, and let us know how it goes for your dog and if you have any questions.
Next up in the Kibble Channel on Dogly
If you're struggling to find the best dog food for your dog, whether that's a raw diet, homemade dog food, or choosing between commercial pet foods, continue on to the next step-by-step guide in the Kibble Channel. Go there next or you can check out other ways to expand your nutritional knowledge for your dog in learning which nutrients your dog could be missing in his/her diet or what it means to feed your dog for a certain life stage.
Hop over to the Kibble Channel if you'd like to ask a question in the Community discussion or start any of the step-by-step guides in Needed Nutrients or Life Stage Feeding. And if you ever need more personalized nutrition guidance, please reach out!