What Every Pet Parent Needs to Know About Natural Dog Food
Buzzwords like 'gluten free', 'holistic' and 'hypoallergenic' teamed with artful images of fresh meat, fish, fruit and vegies abound in the world of natural pet food marketing, but when you scratch the surface it soon becomes clear that not all natural dog foods are created equal. So what makes a dog food 'natural' anyway? And how does the discerning pet parent go about choosing a quality natural food for their pooch?
Natural dog foods are defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) as those made from only natural ingredients derived from plant, animal or mined sources with no chemical alterations or synthetic additives, including ingredients like artificial colours, flavours and preservatives.
What to Look for in a Premium Natural Dog Food
Some key characteristics of premium natural dog foods to look out for are:
- High meat content
- Novel and single protein options
- Complete and balanced nutrition
- Diets to tailored to suit a dog's age, size and lifestyle
- Nutritionally appropriate alternative carbohydrate sources in grain free recipes
- Fair pricing of grain free options
- High levels of micronutrients such as omega fatty acids, antioxidants and prebiotics
- Locally made
Our Top Picks:
Premium, Australian made single and novel protein recipes with >50% meat and no added nasties. Wholesome original and grain free options available.
All natural, grain free single protein recipes boosted with superfood ingredients like blueberries, flaxseed, kale, turmeric and Manuka honey.
Vetalogica's new Biologically Appropriate range features grain free recipes packed with blends of locally sourced, Australian proteins.
Made in New Zealand, Ziwi's air dried and canned recipes are packed with valuable nutrients from ethically sourced meat and seafood, select produce and green lipped mussel.
Most pet foods don't actually disclose how much of their recipes are actually comprised of meat. While dogs and cats can derive protein from grain and vegetable sources, meat is a biologically appropriate protein source which is readily digested and absorbed by dogs and cats.
Pet food labelling can be tricky; for instance, if a food is called 'Healthy Natural Salmon Dog Food', to comply with AAFCO standards it must contain a minimum of 95% salmon after water is removed. Now compare this to pet foods which use the word with, for example 'Healthy Natural Dog Food with Salmon'. As soon as that with appears, it means that the food only needs to contain a minimum of 3% of salmon with the bulk of the food likely to be made up by other cheaper protein sources, such as poultry meal. Now that's a bit fishy...
High quality natural dog foods contain a much higher meat content than other commercial pet foods, which may use other ingredients such as corn, wheat and soy to bolster the protein levels of their foods. While this protein may well be absorbed and digested by your pooch, many pet owners feel feeding a diet with meat as the primary protein source just makes better sense.
Alongside how much meat is in a pet food, it's worth considering the number of different meat protein sources. While variety can be the spice of life, for some dogs certain protein sources may be a trigger for food sensitivities.
Premium natural food brands tend to keep to just one protein source per recipe, this limited ingredient approach helps to reduce the risk of any dietary sensitivities being triggered. Be wary of product labelling and always check the ingredients if you are avoiding certain proteins due to dietary sensitivities, it is common practice to only include one of the protein sources used as the flavour when in reality two or three different meats or meat meals may be used.
As well as offering single protein options, natural dog foods lead the way in novel protein sources.
A novel protein source is one a pet has never been exposed to previously. Food sensitivities and allergies develop over time with repeated exposure to certain protein sources, with meats found commonly in pet foods such as chicken and beef appearing as common triggers. For a dog with a sensitivity to one or more commonly used protein sources, feeding a novel protein source such as venison, fish or kangaroo could be a good way to go.
While in many cases grains such as brown rice can make a valuable nutritional addition to pet foods, many pet parents choose to feed a grain free recipe for a variety of different reasons.
Whatever the motivation is for going grain free, it does pay to be wary of marketing promises and consider the suitability of the alternative carbohydrate sources which have been used in place of grains. In some cases nutritionally dense carbohydrates such as brown rice may be replaced with starchy carbohydrate sources of lower nutritional value like tapioca.
Quality natural pet food brands carefully consider the nutritional value of any carbohydrate sources used in grain free recipes and preferentially select slow release energy sources like sweet potato or chickpeas as an alternative.
On the topic of grain free, it's worth noting that many natural brands charge a premium for grain free options, which may be well in excess of any additional manufacturing costs of using alternative carbohydrate sources. If you do want to go grain free, it's worth shopping around for a brand which offers grain free options at no additional charge.
Most commercial pet food, natural or otherwise, is formulated to meet international nutritional guidelines. These guidelines are generally focused on the macronutrients, (such as protein, fat, or carbohydrates), rather than the ingredients.
But ingredients do matter. High quality, less-processed ingredients contain necessary macronutrients as well as beneficial micronutrients, which are not included in pet food guidelines and are therefore often missing in cheaper, poor quality diets.
Valuable micronutrients to look out for include:
- Omega Fatty acids
- Probiotic cultures
- Prebiotic fibres
Natural food tends to place importance on the quality of ingredients used in a recipe. This allows for your pet to reap the benefits of an entire nutritional profile for each ingredient - including both macro and micronutrients.
For example, your pet may receive an adequate guideline-meeting level of protein from corn meal mixed with processed animal by-products. But if, instead, the same level of protein was sourced from something simple like salmon meat, they will also receive micronutrients such as antioxidants and omega 3 oils that other foods may not deliver.
Omega Fatty Acids, Is There Anything They Can't Do?
Omega fatty acids can offer a host of benefits for your dog. Increased levels of the omega 3 fatty acid, EPA, from marine sources such as green lipped mussel or oily fish can help to support healthy skin and a shiny coat as well as joint health and mobility, kidney, cardiovascular and brain health. Omega 3 fatty acids are now widely utilised in many prescription and veterinary therapeutic diets due to their array of health benefits.
Omega fatty acids from other plant based sources such as flaxseeds can also provide some benefits for dogs however the effects tend to be less potent than those from marine sources. If you are looking for a natural food to help support healthy skin and a shiny coat, make sure you check out the ingredients to see where the omega fatty acids are coming from.
Antioxidants Fight Cell Damage
Antioxidants are found in many natural ingredients, particularly fruits and vegetables including blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, carrots and spinach. Antioxidants protect the body's cells from the destructive effects of free radicals, helping to support a healthy immune system and fight premature ageing.
Pre & Probiotics Keep the Gut Happy
Many natural diets for dogs include prebiotics or probiotics, to help support the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. The right balance of beneficial bacteria can help to improve digestion, helping to prevent problems like diarrhoea and flatulence.
Bear in mind that simply because a ingredient or superfood is added to a natural pet food, it doesn't neccessarily mean it is present in large enough quantities to deliver its associated benefits. As a rule of thumb, the higher an ingredient sits in the list on the bag, the more prevalent it is in a recipe and more likely it could be to benefit your pet.
These days, almost every commercially-available natural food is created in line with AAFCO feeding guidelines. These guidelines specify base levels for all important macronutrients, to ensure your dog receives everything they need to survive.
If you aren't sure about the safety of a certain natural dog food brand, check the label - most will list whether they 'Meet AAFCO nutritional requirements'. If you find a diet that doesn't contain this disclaimer, or that is labelled 'for intermittent or occasional feeding' we recommend that you proceed with caution and ask your vet for their opinion.
Just because a dog food is natural, it doesn't mean all the scientific knowledge gathered over the years about canine nutrition needs to be thrown out the window. Be wary of the natural food that offers a 'one size fits all' solution, because it is clear that some dogs will have varying needs when it comes to nutrition. An 'all life stages' product won't cause any nutritional deficits, however excesses of energy, vitamins and minerals can have adverse effects, particularly obesity due to energy excess in less active dogs.
A premium natural dog food brand combines the scientific knowledge around canine nutritional requirements with a natural approach to formulating recipes. They provide a range of diets to suit dogs of different sizes and ages with varying needs such as large breed, senior and weight control recipes.
If you're exploring natural pet food, chances are you are the kind of globally conscious pet parent who wants to minimise their impact on the environment and support local industry. While we are lucky enough to be able to buy pet food from countries all around the world, it's worth considering the carbon footprint of imported pet foods which have to travel a long way to get here. Australia has a range of top quality pet food manufacturing facilities which means there could well be a premium quality, Australian made natural food available to suit your dog's needs.
Buying locally made dog food doesn't just help to reduce the toll of long distance shipping on the environment, it also means your dog food is going to be fresher and tastier. Natural preservatives may not be as long lasting as artificial alternatives, which means that a locally made natural food that spends less of its life in a shipping container than an imported product, is likely to have a longer shelf life and arrive to you in fresher condition.