If you're seeking a healthier lifestyle for your dog, natural dog food that doesn't contain artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or chicken by-product meal seems to be a good choice. But how do you know if it's right for your dog? Here are the ins and outs of your pup's food to help you and your veterinarian make the best choice for him.
Defining Natural Dog Food
There is no official government body overseeing the production and labeling of commercial dog food ingredients in countries like the US. But Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) does provide an official definition for pet food manufacturers to adhere to, which most states enforce, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
According to the AAFCO, in order to qualify as natural, dog food ingredients must be "derived from plant, animal or mined, unprocessed or subject to physical, heat, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not subjected to chemically synthetic process."
Natural vs. Organic
You might also think "natural" is synonymous with "organic", and you wouldn't be alone; many people believe the two terms are interchangeable. But the organic label has its own specifications. An organic label doesn't just describe the ingredients of your dog's food, but also the methods by which they were grown and processed. Organic foods and ingredients are free of pesticides and other chemicals that can compromise the freshness of the final product. They should also be free of irradiation and genetic modification–GMOs, for instance. In order for a dog food to be labeled as "certified organic" by the USDA, it must contain one hundred percent certified organic ingredients and processes need to be considered organic, while the labeling term "made with organic" requires that only seventy percent of the product be organic.
Holistic and Raw Food
"Holistic" is another term that often gets mixed up with "natural" in the marketing of dog food. Whereas some commercial pet food manufacturers will use this term on their food labels, according to PetMD, there is no official definition or guideline as to what it means. Often, holistic refers instead to a homemade regimen of whole foods and natural ingredients, and the term can also encompass "raw food," which consists mainly of uncooked meat. But these types of holistic and raw pet meals have serious drawbacks.
Most importantly, it is very difficult to provide the right nutritional balance with homemade dog food, especially if done without the guidance of your vet. And although proponents of a raw pet food insist that raw meat is closer to the customs of their canine ancestors (think Paleo for dogs), the Journal of Animal Science confirms domestic pups have evolved to properly digest carbohydrates. In fact, they now require a certain amount of carbohydrates and fiber for healthy, well-balanced nutrition.
Another pitfall of raw pet food is that they place dogs at greater risk for parasites, bacteria, and other food-borne pathogens. Dogs may have the reputation of being iron stomachs with four legs, but the health risk is still significant enough that most vets advise against it.
Benefits of Natural Food
Sometimes artificial dog food ingredients and chemical processing can lead to unexpected health problems for your pooch. According to the National Canine Cancer Foundation, some chemical additives, like ethoxyquin, can lead to skin allergies and organ issues for your pet. Even some preservatives used in commercial dog foods could actually be toxic to dogs–ingredients merely considered "feed grade," according to PetSafe, which should be absent from natural dog food. Purchasing natural food helps you avoid ingredients that could be toxic or harmful to your dog. It's also worth noting that artificial ingredients can have a negative impact on the environment. If either of these things concerns you, natural dog food is probably the better choice for his bowl.
Most important to your dog's health is the quality of ingredients in his food. Here are the typical dog food ingredients you'll find on the label:
- Meat or meat meals. "Meat" consists of muscular tissue or animal organs such as the heart or tongue. "Meat meals" are made from ground-up meat byproducts, which indicate parts of the animal that are considered unfit for human consumption (things like feet, brains, and intestines–not to spoil your own appetite). Meat meal can serve as a quality protein source for your pooch, and due to its low water content, is often used in dry dog food.
- Corn and grain. Ground corn or other grains such as wheat or oats often make up a significant portion of dry dog food. While concerns have been raised about whether these grains play a part in allergies and skin conditions, corn is a nutritious source of carbohydrates and little evidence exists to suggest it's an allergen.
- Fruits and vegetables. Many natural foods include fruits, berries, and vegetables such as carrots and greens on its list of ingredients. These can serve as a better source of carbohydrates than grains, but whether they actually provide a benefit depends on the amount included.
- Vitamins and minerals. Many natural dog foods are fortified with additional vitamins and minerals, such as A and B vitamins and zinc oxide, to compensate for the inherent nutritional value that other ingredients lose during processing.
- Fats. However sensitive you are to seeing fat content in your own food, a certain amount is essential. Either plant or animal fat, like chicken fat, is usually added to dog food to improve his hair and skin and make the food taste better at the same time.
Health (In Order of Appearance)
When determining whether a dog food is of good quality, another thing to look for is the order in which ingredients are listed. Just like your products, ingredient labels must list ingredients in order of quantity from greatest to least. The best quality dog foods will include protein at the top of the list and ideally specify a named protein source such as trout or chicken ahead of "meat meal." Protein should be followed by whole vegetables, fruits, or grains, whereas fats should be a bit further down the list. Look for a specific type of fat, such as "pork fat" or "soybean oil," as opposed to generic terms like "animal fat" or "vegetable oil."
However, just like any food, it is important that your dog's food is balanced to meet his nutritional needs. Look for dog food made with natural ingredients with added supplements such as vitamins, amino acids and antioxidants. These additional nutrients, may not be found naturally, but they provide a significant role in your dog's overall health such as muscle growth. If you're in the market for a natural dog food, do not shy away from foods that include these additional nutrients, as they are added in to promote canine health.
Ultimately, the decision concerning what type of food to feed your pup boils down to what's best for him, as well as his lifestyle. The real test is in how he responds to his food, and whether or not your choice for him leaves you both better off. If you ever have any questions, always consult your veterinarian. They can help assess the needs of your particular pooch and provide recommendations for your to try.
Jean Marie Bauhaus
Jean Marie Bauhaus is a fiction author and freelance writer and editor. She frequently writes about pets and pet care from her home office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is usually "assisted" by a lapful of cats.