"Natural" Dog Food Explained

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.”

by Darcy Lockman