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Decoding "Natural" Dog Food

Holistic and Organic Dog Food Diets

By Lauren Leonardi . April 27, 2012 | See Comments

  • expert or vet photo
    vet verified

    Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM

    Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

    Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Ithaca, NY

Decoding Natural Dog Food

Natural, holistic, and organic dog foods are among the fastest growing sectors in the pet food market.

Just like with food you’d find in a grocery store, natural, holistic, and organic dog foods are among the fastest growing sectors in the pet food market. While terms like “holistic” and “organic” can be confusing and even at times misleading, a few things tend to be true of foods that come from organically inclined manufacturers. While what’s in organic foods may vary, it’s what’s not in organic foods that remains more consistent.

What do the Terms “Natural,” “Organic,” “Holistic,” and “Homeopathic” Mean?

Natural

The term “natural,” as it applies to dog foods, refers mostly to the processing of the food and not how the ingredients are grown or raised. “Natural” dog foods will typically exclude artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and sometimes growth hormones or GMOs. However, foods that tout their “natural” ingredients may still utilize petroleum-based and artificial fertilizers, synthetic growth hormones, and pesticides. The term natural, as it applies to food, is an unregulated guideline instead of a regulated requirement, which is the case with certified organics.

Organic

Organic is where regulated requirements come into play. The USDA often does unannounced inspections to ensure manufacturers adhere to a strict set of guidelines, both in the growth phase, as well as the processing and handling phases of food production. Certified 100% organic pet foods will never contain GMOs. Foods that are organic at any percent will not contain synthetic herbicides, persistent pesticides, or irradiation. They’re also required to adhere to a number of other best practices having to do with environmental pollution and cruelty-free animal care.

Holistic

A holistic philosophy is one that is concerned with a complete, whole system, rather than the individual parts of a system. “A practitioner of holism will not just eliminate a single ingredient when a dog presents with an issue. They’ll reevaluate the pet’s entire regimen of food, exercise, medications, supplements, and lifestyle,” explains Dr. Emmett Hughes, D.C., a clinical nutritionist and doctor of holistic medicine and homeopathy. In dog nutritional terms, holistic foods are whole, healthful, and balanced for the dog.

Homeopathic

Homeopathy is a medical practice founded on the principle of treating “like with like.” Homeopathic remedies contain very diluted doses of substances that would trigger symptoms of the targeted illness in a healthy person. According to Hughes, when the diluted dose is given to the sick patient, the medication should “trigger in the patient’s own body a natural system of self-healing.” Some contemporary medicinal sources dismiss homeopathy as ineffective or outdated; however, the medications are so diluted that, at the very least, they won’t hurt a dog’s health. And while there exists no true homeopathic food, as the food would have to be tailored to each illness, you can have a homeopathic practitioner make home formulations to combat your dog's illness.  

What Are Holistic, Homeopathic, and Organic Dog Foods Made Without?

Organic, holistic, and homeopathic dog foods are generally made without some key ingredients commonly found in commercial dog foods. Organics are regulated while “natural” or “holistic” foods are not, but the below are items that most organic dog food brands tend to leave out. They also tend to be the buzzword ingredients natural and organic enthusiasts hope not to see in a label.

Animal By-Products

There’s a lot of misleading information floating around about what “animal by-products” really mean for your dog’s health. Animal by-products consist of rendered carcass parts; this includes internal organs, feet, necks, backs, or unlaid eggs. The majority of animal by-product meals, however, will come from chicken or cattle innards. While this sounds gross and unappealing, keep in mind that ingredients labeled “chicken meal” also contain a mixture of meat and chicken innards. The innards actually contain certain nutrients that aren't in meat, so selecting a food with "chicken meal" that includes both can be a smart choice for your pet. While most animal by-products are perfectly nutritional, a vast range of quality food falls under that title, and it can be very difficult to discern from the label exactly what kind of animal by-product is contained in the bag. Thus, animal by-products have a stigma that often keeps organic and other health food brands from including it as an ingredient. When deciding on dog food, remember that “animal by-products” are not risky or unhealthy, it’s just less predictable what part of the animal your dog will be eating.

Antibiotics or Steroids

Most animals in the larger factory poultry and beef farms are subject to long term, daily administration of antibiotics and/or steroids. Although there are strict laws to ensure that any meat for consumption has not been on antibiotics just before slaughter, organic foods are likely to have come from animals who were not treated with these medications.

Chemical fertilizers

Chemical fertilizers are not allowed in certified organic products.

Bio Engineered and Genetically Modified Organisms

If a label reads “100%” organic, it should not contain any genetically modified matter at all. However, if a label reads “contains organic ingredients,” or something similar, the food might still contain up to 30% genetically modified products.

Chemical Additives and Artificial Preservatives

The most common chemical antioxidants were designed to extend the shelf life and reduce rancidity in pet foods.  Some people believe that these chemicals are harmful to your pet’s health. Organic foods will not have any chemical or artificial preservatives; instead, most organic foods will be preserved naturally with forms of vitamin E or rosemary extract.

Wheat and Corn

Wheat and corn may cause allergies in some dogs and cats, and while some natural pet food purveyors will include these grains, most organic companies will not. If your pet is allergic to these ingredients, a simple label-check will keep these grains out of your pet’s diet.

Artificial Flavors, Colors, and Dyes

Your dog doesn’t care if his kibble comes in red, yellow, and green pellets. Those colors are there to make the food look appealing to you, not them. “If a food is made well, with lots of real protein, the scent and flavor of that food should naturally appeal to a pet. Adding fake scents and flavors is unnecessary, dietarily speaking,” explains Dr. Janet Tobiassen Crosby, DVM. Most organic and natural dog foods will not bother using artificial flavors or dyes. Recently, the food additive "animal digest" has been under fire as a low quality palate enhancer. Animal digest is a broth included in dry food to make it smell and taste more enticing. This ingredient is very loosely regulated and often comes from “4D” meat (dead, diseased, disabled, dying before slaughter), so long as it is considered clean and does not include an excessive amount of hair, horns, hooved, or feathers any animal meat can be converted into animal digest. While this ingredient’s origins are repulsive, some argue that it has no negative impact on a food’s quality.

Criticism

The primary challenge when it comes to organic and natural foods is cost. The argument most enthusiasts make is that by spending the money on presumably higher quality food now, you’re helping to save yourself costs in medical expenses down the road.

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This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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