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Dog Natural Nutrition - Level 1

The Complete Guide to Your Dog's Diet
Learn about the necessary ingredients for optimal health, and about the natural options.
By Marcia King

As dog owners, we often wonder about what we're putting into our pets' food bowls.

Are homemade diets more nutritious than commercial formulas? Should we strive to feed our dogs a raw diet that is closer to the type of food wild dogs would have found in nature? If commercial diets are the best choice, how the heck do you read that label? Do terms such as "organic" or "holistic" really mean anything?

To starting answering the question, let’s begin by looking at what dogs need.

Protein, fat, carbohydrates, and key vitamins and minerals, all in the correct ratio, are the foundation for a complete and balanced diet, says David Syverson, a member of the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) Pet Food Committee.

  • Protein provides mass, muscle, and bone strength, builds and repairs body tissues, helps maintain normal nerve and muscle function, and makes cells. Proteins form enzymes that metabolize food into energy and hormones that regulate various body functions such as salt and water balance. 

  • Fat provides concentrated energy, contributes to taste, is essential for healthy skin and coat, provides the body with essential fatty acids, and helps with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

  • Carbohydrates, composed of sugar, starches, and dietary fiber (grains and vegetables), provide energy and help digestion.

  • Vitamins and minerals are involved with various roles, including metabolic functions, energy production, and electrolyte and fluid balance.

Making sense of the label
Labels can be confusing because they sometimes mix required information and voluntary marketing information — “the latter of which is usually emblazoned in far bolder font and style than the required information,” says Syverson.

The label information that counts the most and that you should look for is:

  1. Nutritional adequacy statement, which defines the purpose (i.e., adult, puppy, etc.) of the product. 

  2. Ingredient list, presented in descending order of weight. The first three to five ingredients represent the majority of the contents of the food. 

  3. Guaranteed analysis, which indicates the minimum or maximum percentages of protein, fat, fiber, and moisture in the product.

  4. Feeding directions give you a starting point for how much to feed your dog.

  5. Careful with calories: Calories usually aren’t listed, but roughly, the more fat in a product, the more calories, although the amount of water and fiber in a formula skews that correlation.

Tasty terminology: Natural, organic, holistic, human grade
Many dog foods are promoted as being “natural,” “organic,” “holistic,” or having “human-grade” ingredients. But what do these terms mean and, crucially, are there standard criteria that make these terms meaningful?

“The terms ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ are regulated by AAFCO; ‘holistic’ and ‘human-grade’ are not specifically defined by AAFCO,” states veterinary nutritionist Edward Moser, industry consultant to the USDA National Organic Program’s Pet Food Task Force. “All of these terms receive the same oversight from the Federal Trade Commission’s truth in advertising laws. Whatever the label or ad says must be the truth.”

So what do they mean? Moser explains:

  • “A natural pet food cannot contain any chemically synthesized ingredients except for vitamins and minerals.” 

  • “Until specific pet food organic labeling guidelines are adopted, right now AAFCO models enforcement on what the human regulations are, that is different levels depending on the percentage of organic ingredients. For example, ‘100 percent organic’ must have 100 percent organic ingredients. ‘Organic’ must have 95 percent organic ingredients. ‘Made with organic’ would mean a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients.”

  • “‘Human-grade’ has no AAFCO definition, although there is some talk about coming up with one. Right now the term is mainly an indication that the product contains ingredients from processing plants that supply ingredients for human consumption.”

  • “‘Holistic’ describes the entire management system of the animal — what the pet eats, where he eats it, where he sleeps, what kind of healthcare he gets — rather than the specific dietary attributes of a pet food.”

Home cookin’: A good choice?
Why do some dog owners bother with home-cooked doggie meals when there are convenient commercial alternatives?

  • For some, homemade meals are a lifestyle choice that celebrates natural foods. Forget about the boxes, cans, and bags. Nothing but fresh meats and produce for themselves — everything made from scratch. And that goes for the family dogs, too.

  • Some pet owners, concerned and scared about pet food recalls in recent years, believe that home-prepared meals offer a reliably safer alternative to commercial formulas. Keep in mind, though, that human foods also get recalled due to contamination. “Our food is no safer than pet foods,” warns Susan Lauten, Ph.D. 

  • Sometimes it’s what the doctor ordered. “In cases where the animal has more than one disease and there is no appropriate veterinary food product which addresses those conditions, I recommend home-prepared meals,” says veterinary nutritionist Rebecca Remillard.

Although home-prepared meals are generally more expensive and time-consuming, it’s not difficult to provide complete and balanced nutrition if you are careful, Remillard says. “It’s usually just proper portions of meat and grain, plus or minus vegetables, and a vitamin-mineral supplement. However, you must know which supplements to add to the meal, so you should discuss your recipe with a nutritionist or veterinarian first.”

For healthy homecooking, always measure your ingredients, follow the recipes exactly, don’t substitute ingredients, and cook and store prepared food properly, Lauten advises.

The raw food diet
Does raw food, being closer to the natural diets of wild animals, offer better nutrition for dogs? Experts are divided.

“There is no scientific evidence base that shows benefits for feeding raw food,” says veterinary nutritionist Iveta Becvarova. “Conversely, multiple studies document that raw meats may contain harmful bacteria and parasites that may cause illness of pets.”

“Benefits include overall health improvements, including relief from allergies and anal sac problems, better oral hygiene, and improved skin and hair coat,” says veterinarian Carol Osborne. “My seven years of research, backed by double-blind clinical trials, showed that pets respond very well to a balanced, wholesome, natural diet. Whether a pet responds best to a raw food or a cooked homemade diet depends on the specific pet.”

Marcia King is a DOG FANCY contributing editor who lives in Toledo, Ohio.


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4 of 99 Comments View All 99 Comments

Give us your opinion Give us your opinion on Natural Nutrition 101

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Lizette - 203665   Sacramento, CA

10/4/2013 11:25:27 AM

Very helpful since I prepare my dogs food.

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Matthew - 287451   Nazareth, PA

9/28/2013 12:51:39 PM

the information about the terms often seen on pet food labels is always helpful to read about and keep in mind

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Sue   Nashua, NH

5/1/2012 7:26:34 AM

How can Holistic be put on some dog food then if it isn't actually a dietary attribute (or totally based on dietary) - what would it mean?

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Sharon   Woodbridge, CT

4/27/2012 5:50:25 PM

Great information! Now, if dog food could use a system like NuVal -- it would make decisions so much easier when choosing which brand to buy!

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