What Makes Natural Dog Food Different?

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If you're seeking a healthier lifestyle for your dog, natural dog food that doesn't contain artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives may seem like a good choice – but how do you know if it's right for your dog? Here are the ins and outs of your dog food terms and labels to help you and your veterinarian make the best choice.

According to the AAFCO, natural dog food ingredients must be "derived from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or has been subjected to physical or heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not subjected to chemically synthetic process or chemically synthetic additives or processing aids ."

What you need to remember is that none of these processes guarantee any specific health benefit. Foods that are touted as “natural” sound like they have some unique quality, but aside from making a product appear like a healthier choice, there is no substantial meaning behind this term.

Other Terms to be Wary Of

The FDA, state feed officials, and the USDA are the official government bodies that regulate the production and labeling of commercial dog food ingredients in the US, while members of Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) creates the regulations, (but does not regulate) that pet food manufacturers must adhere to. That said, there is an ongoing number of marketing tactics pet foods use to appeal to pet parents, including:

  • “Holistic”: Holistic is another term that often gets mixed up with "natural" in the marketing of dog food. While some pet food manufacturers use this term on food labels, there is no official definition or guideline as to what it means.
  • “Raw”: 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.

Organic vs. “Natural” Dog Food

One term that’s worth paying attention to when it comes to your dog’s food: Organic. While many people believe this label is interchangeable with “natural,” it has its own regulations, and they are the same for humans as they are for pets. An organic label describes the ingredients of your dog's food, as well as 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. In order for dog food to be labeled as "certified organic" by the USDA, 95% of the ingredients inside must be organic. Other seals and labeling terms (e.g., "made with organic") exist, but these are ultimately clever marketing tactics for foods that feature less than 95% organic ingredients.

Human Grade vs. Feed Grade Food

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:If the label says “meat” than it can only be from sheep, cow, pork or goat if not these then the species must be identified. "Meat meal" describes the dehydrating process that meat undergoes for use in kibble or canned food. 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: Although carbs get a bad rap, the scientific truth is that they have a purpose and nutritional value, and are an important part of a complete and balanced pet food. Healthy whole grains like oats, rice, barley, wheat, sorghum, and corn provide protein, fats (like Omega 6 fatty acids for skin and coat) vitamins- minerals and energy.
  • Fruits and vegetables: Many natural foods include fruits, berries, and vegetables such as carrots and greens on their list of ingredients. Fruits and vegetables provide nutrients like vitamins and antioxidants.
  • Vitamins and minerals: Vitamins and minerals, such as A, B, C and E vitamins – as well as zinc oxide – provide an inherent nutritional value for your dog.
  • Fats: For your dog, 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.

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. Typically, a protein source will be at the top of the list, followed by whole vegetables, fruits, or grains, whereas fats should be a bit further down the list. Keep in mind that some therapeutic foods or specific diets may vary, so always check with your veterinarian to know if a food is right for your dog.

With any food, it is important that your dog's food is balanced to meet his nutritional needs. Look for dog food made with added supplements such as vitamins, amino acids, and antioxidants. These additional nutrients play 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 you to try.

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