Kibble is often marketed to dog owners as the complete and perfectly balanced diet for dogs, but independent research suggests otherwise. Studies show that kibble lacks variety in important nutrients (especially protein), it’s high in calories (contributing to the increasing numbers of canine obesity), and there’s a significant lack of transparency on the ingredients list label.
Despite these facts, most dog owners want to stick with kibble — it’s convenient, fairly cheap, it saves time, and we don’t have to put much brain power into our dog’s daily meals. If you want to make your dog’s kibble diet more nutritious but aren’t ready to commit to a raw or home-cooked diet just yet, enriching the food bowl with fresh supplements is the best step toward providing more nutritional diversity. Here are five simple ways to boost your dog’s dry meals!
The Issue With Feeding Only Kibble
Many published studies point out the downsides of kibble, often with researchers looking into different kibble brands and testing for the presence of individual toxins (like glyphosate, for example) or determining the effect of lead ingredients in commercial dog food on the health outcomes later on. You may have even noticed several kibble brands recalling their products due to a harmful amount of certain ingredients. You can see the FDA-documented recalls dating all the way back to 2017 right here — including the brands that were recalled, their recalled products, and the official reason for the recall.
A study that compared three different types of dog food (raw, vegan, commercial) found that dogs fed commercial diets generally have poorer health than dogs fed a raw diet or even a vegan diet (which we do not recommend). This particular study was done by surveying dog owners about their pet’s health and type of diet. Commercial food did very poorly in this survey. The results showed dogs fed the standard diet had more yearly veterinarian visits on average, and their owners reported gastrointestinal, mobility, and behavioral issues at higher rates than owners feeding the alternative two diets. The most commonly reported health issue among the dogs in the study that were fed the commercial diet was gastrointestinal trouble, followed by problems with bones and muscles.
Fresh and diverse dog food provides way more nutrients than feeding the exact same formula of kibble throughout the dog's life ever could. A different study showed that dogs fed a commercial diet had a less abundant and diverse microbiota than dogs fed a natural diet that consisted of meat and vegetables. The composition of microbiota is crucial for the dog’s overall health, as it’s at the core of a well functioning immune system. One thing that has the most significant impact on microbiota, and therefore on our dog’s health and longevity, is their diet. Knowing this, it is safe to conclude that when we make choices about our dog’s meals, we are simultaneously making choices about their health.
Improve Your Dog’s Diet One Kibble Topper at a Time
1 — Probiotics
The gastrointestinal microbiota of dogs consists of trillions of microorganisms residing in the digestive tract. These microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc.) play a significant role in supporting the entire immune system as a whole. Multiple studies have shown that the composition of gut microbiota affects allergies, the respiratory system, the digestive system, kidneys, obesity, diabetes, endocrine system, nervous system, and much more.
One of the best and easiest ways to support the diversity of your dog’s microbiota is to add probiotics to their food. Probiotics are supplements that already include beneficial organisms for your dog’s gut. Microbiota can rapidly change even with small tweaks to the diet, so it’s never too early or too late to start supplementing with probiotics. In older dogs, probiotics help protect the neurological functions that may be declining with age. In younger dogs, probiotics can help prevent possible health issues down the road. One study found that puppies who were given probiotics in the first 6 months of their life had significantly lower chances of developing atopic dermatitis. When probiotics were given to dogs with existing atopic dermatitis, their condition visibly improved.
There are many different types of probiotics on the market, and some dog food companies will even put this word on their label to make their product more appealing. I recommend buying an individual supplement rather than treats or kibble that claim to include probiotics — those usually don’t disclose which bacteria are included and in what quantity. A good probiotic supplement will contain a variety of different microorganisms that are clearly written on the label. You can also supplement probiotics by including fermented foods in your dog’s diet. Yogurt, kefir, and buttermilk are fantastic options if your dog can tolerate dairy!
2 — Moisture
Kibble is extremely dry, which is why dogs often drink a ton of water right after eating their meal. The problem is that the kibble soaks up the moisture and then expands in the dog’s stomach, making them bloated and at a greater risk for stomach issues. You can help prevent that by soaking the kibble for a few minutes before you give it to the dog so that it expands while it’s still in the bowl rather than later on in the dog’s stomach. You can soak the kibble in water or bone broth! There are a ton of bone broth recipes on the internet, but the basis is always the same: you cook vegetables and bones together for at least 12 hours. Afterward, you are left with a broth packed with minerals and collagen, which is known to support the dog's bones, gut health, and immune system.
3 — Organ Meats
Dogs have evolved to survive on various diets provided by their humans, but biologically speaking, they still have very specific nutritional needs that are akin to those of carnivores. The key element in their diet needs to be protein, which is why they will intuitively choose foods with high protein content if given a chance. Since carbohydrates are cheaper than protein and can still provide dogs with some energy (even though they have little to no biological need for them), many kibble manufacturers choose carbohydrates as the main ingredient in their products. This results in dogs who have less energy than is optimal for their species and who lack essential amino acids that can only come from protein. This kind of nutritional imbalance can negatively compromise health outcomes.
You can supplement your dog’s kibble diet with any raw or cooked meat, but organ meats are especially recommended as they are the most nutrient dense food of all! Aside from protein, they also contain important minerals and vitamins. Research has shown that dogs fed a raw meat diet (including organs) have a more diverse and plentiful microbiota than dogs fed commercial diets. Many holistic veterinarians support the glandular theory, which is built on the hypothesis that feeding your dog specific organs supports the health of those organs in their body.
For example, dogs with liver issues could benefit from eating liver, dogs with heart issues could benefit from eating heart, etc. The idea is that the organ they’re eating makes up (to a certain extent) for the organ that isn’t working properly in their body. This is especially important for dogs with hormonal imbalances, such as dogs with thyroid issues or de-sexed dogs.
4 — Healthy Fats
Fats are a crucial part of the canine diet. Next to protein, they are the most biologically appropriate source of energy for dogs. They also ensure the absorption of crucial fat-soluble vitamins. One of the good indicators of whether your dog is getting enough healthy fats is the appearance of the skin and coat. A diet with a low fat content can result in a very dry coat and poor skin condition. Because kibble can be deficient in its fatty acid content, consider adding healthy fats to your dog’s meals.
Fish (such as plain sardines) and high-quality fish oil are great sources of omega-3, an essential nutrient for the dog’s optimum cognitive function. When purchasing fish oil, do your homework and only get it from reputable sources; low-quality oil can be rancid! Other sources of omega-3 include chia seeds, flaxseed oil, or an individual omega-3 supplement that you can buy at a pet store. Another healthy oil that you can add to your dog’s diet is coconut oil! It contributes to the health of your dog’s teeth, skin, coat, and more.
5 — Fruits & Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are a well-known source of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. When carnivorous animals consume the internal organs of herbivore animals, they get the nutritional benefits of plants without eating them directly. It’s nature’s way of balancing the scales — carnivores still need vitamins, but their digestive tract cannot properly digest plants in its original form. Herbivores and carnivores have very different digestive systems! Even though dogs have evolved to live as omnivores (meaning they can consume & digest both animals and plants), the composition of their digestive tract is much closer to a carnivore. One only has to look at their teeth to know what food they’re biologically meant to be eating.
And yet, because they are omnivores, dogs have the ability to digest carbohydrates and fiber even when consumed directly. In order to get all the nutritional benefits, though, carbohydrates and fiber should be partially processed when offered to them. Fruits and vegetables should be pureed, steamed, or slightly cooked before you add them to the dog’s food bowl. Of course, they can still get raw fruits and veggies as an occasional snack, but generally speaking, making sure these are properly processed is essential for comfortable digestion and nutrient absorption.
Not all fruits and veggies are safe for dogs! Never play the guessing game with this. Each time you want to introduce new fresh food to your dog's diet, double-check that it's safe for them to eat. Here are some of the best vitamin-rich vegetables and fruits that you can safely add to your dog’s kibble: carrots, broccoli, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, bell peppers, peas, blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries. You can also offer apples, pears, watermelon, and bananas as a snack, but avoid overusing them (and skip them altogether if your dog has diabetes or a genetic predisposition for it).
Improving Your Dog’s Diet in a Safe Way
If your dog is not used to eating fresh foods, start slow. Your dog’s digestive system will need time to adjust, so I recommend you introduce one fresh food (or no more than two fresh foods) at a time. Initially, your dog may have some diarrhea — it shouldn’t last more than a day, and you can take it as a sign that you have likely added too much too soon. If diarrhea keeps repeating, stop adding that particular food.
When I first started changing the diet of my own dogs, I had difficulty figuring out where to start. There are so many foods out there; how do I know which ones to introduce? The first helpful step is reviewing the ingredients in your dog’s kibble. The first ingredient listed on the label is the most abundant one, and it follows like that in decreasing order. If the first listed ingredient on your dog food is a starchy vegetable or a grain, start by mixing some fresh protein sources into the kibble. If you notice that fat sources are missing, pour a small amount of fish oil over the kibble. Notice a lack of vitamin sources? Pick one fruit and one vegetable to start with.
There is no perfect mathematical equation for this; you have to follow your instincts and watch how your dog responds. Keep in mind that the whole point of enriching the kibble with fresh food is variety, so don’t overdo it with any one supplement. It’s not about finding the one golden supplement — it’s about providing a diverse palette of flavors and nutrients.
Another way to start is by considering your dog’s existing health issues. Dry coat, impaired vision, old age, lack of energy, allergies … All of these can point to nutrient deficiency. Again, start slow. Pick one issue and one type of nutrient to supplement. This is perhaps an easier way to start, as you don’t have to decipher food labels. Once you see a visible improvement in your dog’s health, you’ll also be more motivated to keep up with the fresh foods.
When my very first puppy was about six months old, she started losing large amounts of hair. I learned about quality salmon oil through researching the issue online and speaking to my veterinarian, so I decided to give it a try. Not only did her hair stop falling out, it also improved in texture! It went from being spiky to feeling soft and shiny. This experience (and many that followed) taught me that kibble is not nutritionally complete after all, and that it is worth exploring alternative options.
If your dog is eating a veterinarian-prescribed diet or needs medication, speak to your holistic veterinarian before making any changes to their diet! Some fresh foods and supplements that are beneficial for healthy dogs can mess up the proper metabolism of certain medications or directly contradict veterinarian-prescribed diets.
Wernimont, M. Susan. Radosevich, Jennifer. Jackson, I. Matthew. Ephraim, Eden. Badri, V. Dayakar. MacLeay, M. Jennifer. Jewell, E. Dennis. Suchodolski, S. Jan. “The Effects of Nutrition on the Gastrointestinal Microbiome of Cats and Dogs: Impact on Health and Disease.” PMC, 25/06/2020.
National Research Council of the National Academies. “Your Dog’s Nutritional Needs: A Science-Based Guide for Pet Owners.” National Academy of Sciences, 2006.
UK Department of Health. “Nutrient analysis of fruit and vegetables: summary report.” Crown, 03/2013.
Kim, Junhyung. An, Jae-Uk. Kim, Woohyun. Lee, Soomin. Cho, Seongbeom. “Differences in the gut microbiota of dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) fed a natural diet or a commercial feed revealed by the Illumina MiSeq platform.” PMC, 21/11/2017.
Knight, Andrew. Huang, Eason. Rai, Nicholas. Brown, Hazel. Clegg, Simon. “Vegan versus meat-based dog food: Guardian-reported indicators of health.” PMC, 13/04/2022.
Luna’s passion for learning about canine psychology and behavior began when she adopted a severely reactive puppy from a local shelter. She is now a big advocate for positive reinforcement and compassionate training. As a writer, she strives to spotlight the topics that fly under the radar and be the voice for all who cannot speak for themselves.