"Natural" Dog Food Explained

By Darcy Lockman

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Vegan Amy Rader knows her dog, Henry, needs meat protein, but she hates the possibility that chemically processed additives are going into her 5-year-old beagle’s food. The new “natural” label on pet foods -- and what that precisely means -- has also puzzled the Seattle-based social worker. “It’s similar to buying organic for myself,” explains Rader. “A lot of words that sound pretty good are on the packaging, but I’m not always sure exactly what they mean, and I end up spending way too long in the pet store.”

Dr. Katy Nelson, DVM, an emergency veterinarian in Virginia, suggests that Rader try a different approach when selecting a dog food. “Do your research before you go to the pet store,” Dr. Nelson advises. “Labels are confusing. I’ve spent hours lecturing about them to veterinary students, and even they still have questions when I’m done!”

Below, Dr. Nelson explains current industry standards for natural kibble, and weighs in on whether this food is right for your pet.

What the USDA Says
Believe it or not, the federal government has taken an interest in protecting pet food consumers from misleading claims. Like food for humans, food for dogs must adhere to the United States Department of Agriculture’s definitions of “natural.” According to the USDA, a food can only be labeled “natural” if it is minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients or added colors.

Minimally processed can be fine, but sometimes that means it has no preservatives, so you need to be careful with expiration dates.” If it’s preservative-free, buy less of it. Ideally, you’d choose a food that contains natural preservatives like vitamin C and vitamin E rather than no preservatives at all.

What AAFCO Says
The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) provides a more specific description of the labeling requirements, adding that chemically synthesized ingredients may not be present in vittles claiming to be natural. Two common chemically synthesized ingredients in pet foods are propylene glycol and BHA. They both must be listed as ingredients on the labels of pet foods that contain them.

What the Veterinarian Recommends
While Dr. Nelson sees the value in natural pet foods, she also advises dog owners to proceed with caution, keeping the following guidelines in mind:

  • Remember that “natural” is not the same as “complete and balanced.” Make sure any pet food you select has conducted AAFCO-endorsed feeding trials or satisfied AAFCO’s dog food nutrient profiles.
  • When choosing a food, give your furry friend’s health issues top priority. “You can find natural foods that also address some common health problems like weight and joint trouble, but you may have to look a little harder,” says Dr. Nelson.  
  • Talk to your veterinarian before choosing any diet for your dog. “Don’t rely on the 16-year-old stock boy to help you decide what your dog should eat,” advises Dr. Nelson.
  • Don’t make a good deal your top priority. “The most expensive brands are not necessarily the best, but quality of ingredients -- natural or otherwise -- does tend to increase with price,” concludes Dr. Nelson.

After consulting Henry’s veterinarian, Amy Rader found a natural food that satisfied her concerns. It also seems to be satisfying Henry’s. “He gobbles it up,” she says. “So I guess we both feel good about it.”

Darcy Lockman is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Dog Daily. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and Rolling Stone. She lives in Brooklyn with the prettiest pug dog in the five boroughs.

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Posted on March 11, 2012

Ara says: I couldn't help but feel the ntomioes rise up as I read this yes, losing a pet is one of the hardest things ever to go through. I have had to say goodbye to two very special cats I loved one after about 14 years who became very sick with diabetes and had to be put to sleep, and the other I had only had for about 6 months and he suddenly expressed symptoms of a congenital disease for which there is no cure and also had to be put to sleep. I have never cried so hard! But in both cases I was able to find peace in knowing that they both had been so well loved while here, and I firmly believe that our pets will be there to greet us when we get to Heaven! The first kittie I had to say goodbye to, I actually had a dream where she came up on my bed to let me know she was all right, and that comforted me tremendously. I am so sorry for your family's loss of a long time, trusted friend to preserve memories, maybe putting together a nice scrapbook of photos that the kids could do themselves? I love how you were able to help your children say good bye to him and help them understand as much as possible what was happening. I hope you will one day be able to find another lucky puppy you can give a loving home!

Posted on March 10, 2012

Thomas says: No one seems to be pouring scorn on hmnuas sharing food with each other. We bond over nice dinners at favorite restaurants, cooking for each other, making special deserts for a loved one or family. It's, quite frankly, one of our societies favorite bonding activities. Why would we want to eschew a powerful bonding experience between our two species? Dogs need food and most LOVE food too. I don't think they would have been hanging around people in the beginning of their domestication because they found our praise' so valuable, and I certainly don't think they would have started hanging around us if we started to use force and intimidation to foster relationships. I share food with my dogs all the time. They learn to behave around food. They learn that I'm extremely valuable. They learn lots of cool and useful stuff. They learn to like the process of learning. I find it probably the best bonding experience we can have with our dogs. Sharing food. Thank you, Jean, for a great read!

Posted on February 9, 2012

Manyek says: he would take him but was rttlcuaent and it made my husband uneasy so he brought the poor pointer home. I thought he was the saddest thing I’d ever seen. His coat was lackluster and he was so thin that you could see his heart beating through his chest. He followed my husband wherever he went, adn my hubby had to sleep on the couch with him because he kept having panic attacks. 4 years later Buster is still with us and is a happy boy. He’s so devoted to my husband and we love him so much. He had to go on meds for his panic attacks, but now he is healthy, happy and well adjusted.

Posted on January 18, 2010

jesse gonzalez says: My Dog is 2 years old is a Purrro Color Whait me comment is he no want to eat his food dog only human food, sinse my father love came to live whit my an my old lady, by 6 months what q,do on this problem .

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