(15 minute read)
I made a rookie error the other day in a private Havanese Facebook group I belong to. The group is populated by Havanese fans and many Havanese breeders who show their dogs, so they were happy to respond when a new puppy owner asked “what should I feed my new Havanese puppy?”
Should I Feed My Small Dog Kibble?
Most of the answers? So many people in the group responded to say they feed name-brand kibble to their pups, the kind sold by major corporations and distributed primarily in grocery stores and major chains.
The kibble recommendations shocked me, though they shouldn’t have, as Mars (Pedigree and Royal Canin), Nestle (Purina and Beneful), and Smucker’s (Milk Bone and Kibbles And Bits) dominate the pet food market share. While kibble is technically nutritionally sound, it often contains substantial percentages of substandard carbohydrates that, at best, supply only empty calories and, at worst, can interfere with a dog’s health. I wanted this new puppy owner to understand more than one side of the story.
Reasonable Alternatives to Kibble for Small Dogs
In spite of my better judgment, I joined a few other voices and suggested the puppy owner look into some human-grade, lightly-cooked foods and freeze-dried raw foods. Because I am always a teacher at heart, I also mentioned the potential drawback of high-carb kibble. I suggested the new puppy owner read Dr. Karen Becker’s new book The Forever Dog. It’s a must-have modern treatise on dog nutrition with easy ways to make small but powerful improvements in how we feed our pups.
(Note: When you make a purchase using a link on this post about the best foods for small dogs, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Small Dog Rules @ Downward Sizing Dog. As a Chewy Affiliate and an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. Our full disclosure, disclaimer, and copyright notices are found here. )
At Least, I Thought They Were Reasonable
Given the Facebook response of one particularly vehement kibble fan, you would have thought I’d proclaimed the world is flat. She was so entrenched in her belief that kibble is best for Havanese that she informed me I’d been duped and that Dr. Becker was a quack.
Well, ok then.
For the record, Dr. Becker is a well-respected veterinarian whose education and experience are too long to list here. If you read her latest book (we’re on our second read), you’ll find that (1) many inexpensive, easy paths exist to improving your pup’s nutrition gradually, and (2) Dr. Becker is so reasonable and balanced in her advice that she could be accused of underselling, not over-selling, her dog nutrition research. Hardly the stuff of quackery.
Is There a “Best” Diet For Small Dogs?
We’re not here to claim we have, or that anyone has, “the” answer to small dog nutrition or the best diet for Havanese. In our long life with dogs, we’ve fed grocery store kibble, premium kibble, practically every type of raw dog food in existence, and both commercially prepared and homemade human-grade diets.
Over the decades, every choice we made (and changed) in a quest for the right food for our dogs, we made with the best information available at the time.
And now, multiple research studies point to overwhelming evidence that the less processed a dog’s food is, the healthier it is. Providing fresh, whole foods, even in small amounts, can drastically improve your small dog’s wellbeing. Given this persuasive nutritional research we’ve reviewed, and the small dog diets we’ve studied, we’ve chosen the best food for our Havanese.
We Rotate Meals
We feed the girls a rotation of commercial human-grade, lightly-cooked meals and two different brands of commercial freeze-dried raw. Each brand uses different food preparation techniques. After studying The Forever Dog, we also always add homemade nutritional toppers and use whole food treats. We’re sharing our story here, in the hopes it will help you develop the right diet for your small breed dog.
Kibble vs. Whole Food for Small Dogs
Forty-two billion dollars.
That’s how much money Americans spent last year just on feeding our pets, according to the American Pet Products Association. But with all that money flying around, few people agree on what and how we should be feeding our small dogs. And in this battle for our money, it’s our small dogs’ nutrition and well-being caught in the cross-fire.
The Unhelpful Dog Food Battles: Kibble vs. Cooked vs. Raw
If you’re just beginning your research into the right food for small dogs, you’ve likely heard conventional veterinarians and old-school animal organizations recommend kibble, all kibble, and nothing but the kibble. As my Facebook story demonstrates, kibble is still wildly popular with pet parents.
The Kibble Crowd argues that animal nutrition is so precarious that only big business can get it right. They say that if you feed your dog like you, gasp, feed yourself and your family, your fur kid is sure to meet nutritional ruin. In this worldview, if you don’t feed kibble, you’re slowly starving your dog and endangering the very lives of human family members through exposure to bacteria like salmonella and listeria.
In contrast, the Raw Food Party speaks down to the Kibble Crowd. They’re sure the Kibble people have been duped by impressive marketing tactics, while conveniently ignoring that their favorite raw food companies employ the very same selling strategies. The Raw Food Party might be found claiming you’re slowly killing your dog with kibble laced with euthanasia drugs, mold, and pesticides. Yet obviously, those incidents are hardly common.
In this modern time of internet scrutiny and government oversight, claiming that any commercially-prepared food is “wrong” or “dangerous,” is an extreme and likely unfair stance to take.
Seek Balance In Your Small Dog’s Diet
As with all extremes, both parties are very right and very wrong, all at the same time. We’ve all known people who’ve fed their dogs raw from birth and then lost those same dogs to the very illnesses raw supposedly prevents. And we’ve all likely owned or known a dog raised on the “worst” possible kibble who lived well into his teens.
So let’s stop dismissing either side out-of-hand and recognize there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to freeze-dried raw for Havanese, or raw food for Shih Tzus, or home-cooked for Yorkies, or kibble for Chihuahuas, or any other small dog nutritional question.
YOUR small dog nutrition can be about balance.
The beauty of the battle between raw vs. kibble, is that a well-educated small dog parent holds the power. It’s your money, and with the help of your vet and other nutritional experts, you can make the healthiest small dog food decision for your family.
The Best Food For Small Breed Dogs: Where Do We Start?
We can all agree that, when it comes to food for small dogs, too many options exist. We have budget kibble and cheap canned dog foods, premium kibble and costly canned dog food counterparts, frozen raw meals, dehydrated raw dog food, freeze-dried raw, air-dried foods, cooked fresh-frozen dog food, and home-cooked recipes.
We know what’s right for our pups, but what’s the right decision for you and your small breed dog? Well, you’ve got a bit of research to do after you hear our approach. So many reputable websites have already written about the many benefits (and drawbacks) in feeding lightly cooked fresh or raw food to dogs. We love Whole Dog Journal, Dogs Naturally Magazine, and the research at University of Illinois. We’ll speak briefly about our findings, but this isn’t an in-depth article on food science, and we aren’t picking sides here between kibble vs. raw food vs. cooked vs. homemade.
We’re not interested in that battle, or any battle for that matter. But, we ARE interested in giving you some easy tools for evaluating your small dog’s current food and deciding for yourself whether switching (in whole or in part) from kibble to lightly cooked or freeze dried or dehydrated raw food might provide increased well-being and a longer life for your pup.
Raw Diet Advantages
The vast majority of holistic vets and nutritionists agree that feeding dogs a biologically appropriate diet of fresh protein and fats is the way to go. But only IF (and that’s a big “if) those of us at home can balance those diets nutritionally. However, even if we have the time and talent to act as mini-dog-nutritionists, oftentimes, our dogs aren’t interested in gnawing on chicken legs.
So, holistic practitioners tell us that the next best thing is commercially prepared raw food.
For years, our golden retrievers thrived on frozen raw food. They didn’t have any of the common ear infection issues or weight gain you see in so many other golden fuzz butts.
When we brought home our Havanese Phoebe, though, she took one look at frozen raw and walked away.
So, we embarked on a year-long quest to find the best alternative to frozen raw food. After trying nearly every product on the market, we found three foods the girls were excited to eat. We’ll share those below, but let’s first finish our overview of the raw/kibble debate.
Raw Diet Drawbacks
One of the biggest drawbacks with a raw diet is the fact that when you choose a high-quality raw food with lots of meat and no fillers, it can be expensive to feed your fur kid. More concerning are the health risks associated with feeding some raw diets. (For a quick and relatively balanced primer on these issues, visit the AKC’s article Fresh vs. Raw vs. Kibble.) With respect to these risks, however, note that most companies now use a type of raw processing that retains nutrients while destroying potential pathogens.
In spite of such drawbacks, we feel 110% comfortable our pups are getting the best nutrition, meal-time happiness, and chance for a long, healthy life because we feed them freeze-dried raw and human foods. We guess you could call it a semi-raw diet. Unless your pup has special health issues, deciding on the best Havanese diet or raw food for your small dog isn’t an all-or-none decision. We like having the best of all worlds.
And although we don’t (and won’t) feed commercial kibble, we recognize that others may have financial, health, or philosophical reasons to do so.
But just as we did with Raw, let’s look at the general pros and cons of kibble for small dogs.
Kibble: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
We promised this post isn’t about diving into the “kibble is bad” argument. However, we do want to share our “why” in terms of rejecting kibble for our small breed pups. But first, let’s look at why kibble is so popular.
What’s Good About Kibble?
Kibble is relatively inexpensive and it’s almost always on the shelf at your local grocer or big box pet store. Speaking of shelves, it has a very long shelf-life which can be key in supply-chain crises or other emergencies.
Kibble is usually guaranteed to be nutritionally complete for your pup. And that’s clearly the most important thing. Indeed, some of the longest-lived dogs I know were hunting dogs who thrived on grocery-store kibble. But oftentimes, I wonder if those dogs would have lived healthier, even longer lives had they been fed whole foods.
The Worst Things About Kibble
Everyone knows how most kibble is made, and if you don’t, you can read How Pet Food Is Made by the Global Alliance of Pet Food Associations. Here’s a brief synopsis regarding dry dog foods: ingredients are mixed into a dough, that dough is then “extruded,” or heated under pressure and forced through a machine that cuts the product into bite-sized pieces. Oftentimes, the product is then sprayed with synthetic vitamins and minerals.
In other words, kibble is as about as processed as a dog food can get. Additionally, unless the kibble you’re feeding your pup is marked “human grade” or “fit for human consumption,” it may contain things you don’t want your dog eating, including euthanasia drugs. You can read more about that issue in this Newsweek article: FDA Finds Deadly Pet Euthanasia In Several Common Brands.
Kibble may also contain “acceptable” levels of mold and other mycotoxins. In fact, dozens of dogs died from aflatoxin poisoning just two years ago after eating contaminated kibble. You can read more about the issue (and aflatoxin poisoning of pets in general) on the FDA website here.
And, even though most kibble companies produce safe kibble, free of extruded meats from sick animals or other ingredients you wouldn’t feed your family, that doesn’t mean the ingredients are worthwhile for your small dog’s nutrition or your wallet. Read on for the primary reason we don’t feed kibble to our Havanese.
The Fillers In Kibble
Let’s look at an ingredient list for a specific, well-known brand of dry dog food. For ease of discussion, we’ll scrutinize a popular kibble rated with only 1-star on the Dog Food Advisor website here. This link will show you that the product contains corn, soybeans, beet pulp, and other ingredients that are cheap sources of protein. It will also reveal that a great deal of what it’s made of doesn’t actually contribute to your dog’s nutrition.
We took the guaranteed nutritional analysis of this food and one other kibble, and we plugged it into a Google Sheets calculator to determine the rough percentage of carbohydrates in each product. As you can see above, in both cases, the kibble contained more carbs than protein or fats. With respect to the most popular kibble, the food contained 47% carbohydrate–over twice as much carbs as protein.
Is that amount of carbohydrate bad for your small dog?
Well, it depends on the carb. Carbs are a source of energy, and the National Academies 2006 report on dog and cat nutrition indicates “an adult dog’s daily diet can contain up to 50% carbohydrates” (emphasis added). But, just because a dog tolerates that many carbs doesn’t mean he should. For an overview of the type and possible benefit of carbs in a dog’s diet, we like this Tufts Veterinary school article and this article by canine nutritionist Diana Laverdure-Dunetz.
These articles reveal that (1) dogs don’t NEED carbs, (2) good carbs can be incredibly healthy for dogs, and (3) higher-glycemic carbs are not ideal and could be harmful. Thus, most holistic vets and nutritionists recommend avoiding corn, white potatoes and rice, etc. as ingredients in your dog’s food. Yet, so many kibbles contain these empty carbs.
Add to that reality kibble’s highly-processed nature, and you’ll perhaps understand why our Havanese don’t eat kibble.
Commercial Cooked and Freeze-Dried Raw Food For Havanese with Human Food Toppers: An Easy Solution for Improving Small Dog Nutrition
When Phoebe and Scout turned up their collective noses at fresh frozen raw food (a meal our goldens devoured happily), I wasn’t about to go back to kibble for these two picky Havanese. We tried nearly every brand of high-quality cooked, freeze-dried and dehydrated raw food available. All were excellent, but Phoebe and Scout really enjoy three of them.
Interestingly, each brand offers a different benefit, which we’ll cover in detail in another post where we’ll have room to provide an in-depth review of these foods. For now, we’ll share the foods currently in our Havanese meal plan.
Instinct Freeze-Dried Raw Meals
Instinct Freeze-Dried Raw Meals are made with USA sourced and packaged farm raised beef and non-GMO fruits and vegetables and provide a complete and balanced meal. The little nuggets are rather soft and crumbly and rehydrate well. They’re raw and never cooked, which means they retain all of the valuable nutrients.
And because they’re freeze-dried, you can keep them on your pantry shelf for easy access. The girls eat this for breakfast about five days a week, served with hot broth or water, fresh fruit, and a bit of shredded cheddar cheese.
Available on Amazon
Available at Chewy
Vital Essentials Freeze-Dried Mini Nibs
We’ve found these mini-bites to be the perfect way to add some teeth-cleaning crunch to the girls’ diet, as we frequently grab these for training treats. With a single source of protein, this freeze-dried raw food is complete and balanced, and contains no artificial ingredients, no added hormones and no antibiotics. We hydrate them with warm water or broth for Phoebe and Scout’s evening meal, and we use a fresh protein and mushroom topper. Usually, that protein is salmon or another healthy meat from our own meals. (Note, this food does not undergo high pressure processing, the cold pasteurization technique many raw food companies now use to destroy pathogens. Thus, it’s vital to wash your hands and counters after handling).
Available on Amazon
Available at Chewy
Branded Cooked Food
We love the fresh convenience of foods like The Farmer’s Dog, Pet Plate, Just Food For Dogs, Ollie, etc. While we occasionally cook full meals for the girls, I don’t like to do so on a long-term basis because I just lack the time and patience to balance their calcium and other nutrient needs.
Some of these brands make their fresh cooked meals with only 100% human-grade ingredients, in a USDA kitchen according to the same safety standards used to make human food. We aren’t listing the brand we use right now, because we’re still researching some newer companies. We plan to try two more new formulations and then we’ll do a follow-up. But in the meantime, know that most of the lightly-processed cooked meals available and shipped frozen to your door are a great option.
We use these meals as a stand-alone breakfast and dinner on weekends and during the week as a topper if we haven’t had time to cook.
And That’s A Wrap
Wow, this post grew to be much longer than anticipated. We’ll create a Part II, where we provide a detailed review of Phoebe and Scout’s three favorite raw and fresh cooked foods. We’ll also show you how we rotate their toppers with nutritional powerhouse foods.
For now, back to our original question: what and how should you feed your small dog? As you’ve seen, the answer is neither clear nor easy. There are almost as many dog food options as there are opinions, and it can be difficult to figure out which food is right for your family member.
Here, I’m suggesting that maybe there’s a middle path. Ignore the heated battle about what one type of diet will work for your pup (because there isn’t just one), and instead consider our tact. Choose complete and balanced meals from several brands and rotate them periodically to maximize your pup’s nutritional intake and prevent boredom with the same old meal. Grab Dr. Becker’s book and read about powerhouse nutritional toppers you can make easily and cheaply at home. One final note – remember that every individual pet has different dietary needs, so it’s important to work with your veterinarian to create a diet plan that will keep your furry family member healthy for years to come! And, as with any change in foods, you must work very, very slowly to introduce new foods
What are you feeding your pups now? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.
Caution: our blog articles offer generalized information only. Do not assume that what has been safe or effective for my dogs will be right for your particular dog’s needs! Always do your own research and do not rely on anyone’s blog post as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment of any health condition or problem affecting your dog. Address all questions or concerns about your dog’s health with your veterinarian, animal nutritionist, or other healthcare provider.
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An excellent and highly informative article…thank you! Between reading The Forever Dog and your article, I’m totally on board with feeding my Havanese as you suggest. There’s the data, but more importantly, it just feels right. May I offer a request that you address amounts to feed per meal/per day? Maintaining optimal weight and not over/under feeding can be challenging when food combining.
Hi there, Coralie. You read my mind about the details regarding amount. We’re doing a part II and III of that article, and I’m actually reaching out to an animal nutritionist this week. We use the “rib test” and because we groom daily and give weekly baths, we’re able to monitor the girls’ weight pretty closely. But, I also want to ask her about whether she recommends staying with only one brand. I have a hard time doing that, because (1) sometimes you can’t get the brand you need, (2) my girls will randomly decide they no longer want a particular food, (3) I want options in case a food gets recalled and (4) I like taking advantage of potential nutrient differences
But, it’s also true that small dogs have a higher caloric need relative to their weight than large dogs. In terms of using the human food toppers, Dr. Becker’s book says that if your pups are at or below their ideal weight, you don’t need to reduce the amount of their regular food. But, if your dog is a bit heavy, I believe she says to reduce the regular food by 10% topper amount.
We feed the girls breakfast and dinner – we just halve the daily serving amount of each of them– Instinct and Vital Essentials. Hope that helps – stay tuned for Part II. I’ll try to work the serving size issue into that article.
Thank you…a very helpful reply. Looking forward to parts 2 and 3!
Currently feeding my 5 1/2 month old havenesse puppy Life’s Abundance which is what the breeder insisted on. She keeps scratching and has ear issues along with brown crust in the corner of her eyes. Think I need to change her food. What would you suggest?
Oh – I’m so sorry your pup is uncomfortable like that! So, first, please bear in mind that what I’m about to say is just what I would do for my dog – it’s not intended to replace medical or nutrition advice from a vet!! These are the things I’d do:
1. Do a quick vet appointment just to be sure there’s no bacterial or other medical thing going on.
2. Your current food does seem to have a lot of things that many dogs are allergic to…so perhaps a gradual food change will work. Is there anything in your puppy contract that prevents you from changing foods before a certain age? You might want to check that.
3. Get Karen Becker’s book “The Forever Dog” – it’s linked in my article. You can improve the way you feed your pup almost immediately using Dr. Becker’s toppers. And you can do it even before you change kibble (which again, should be done gradually and only after you check in with your vet about possible medical issues).
4. I use freeze-dried raw for small breeds–I rotate between Instinct and Vital Essentials right now. Sometimes I add in Stella and Chewy’s. But, it will all depend on what your pup likes. I went to the pet store and bought small bags of every premium dehydrated food without chicken in it. And I tried every one until I found two the girls really like.
5. If you’re on Instagram, follow @dailydogfoodrecipes. I love, love the woman who runs it. She’s a certified canine nutritionist and has helped me so much. She’s done a great series on yeasty dogs…and it sounds like that may be the issue your pup is having.
I hope all this helps…so, to recap: first the vet, check the contract- just so you know what it says, consider freeze-dried raw, take a look at Dr. Becker’s book, and hop on @dailydogfoodrecipes for ideas. (Don’t let her raw food feeding scare you off–Hannah takes a very balanced approach and understands most people don’t want to feed their dogs raw food.)
I hope that gives you some idea of what I’d do with my pups. Let me know if I can be of more help, and please feel free to email!