What Is Holistic Dog Food?

Natalie Stilwell, DVM, MS, PhD
By Natalie Stilwell, DVM, MS, PhD on Jun. 24, 2019

Reviewed for accuracy on June 24, 2019, by Dr. Natalie Stilwell, DVM

With pet ownership on the rise in the US, the pet industry is seeing an uptick in pet food sales across the board. According to the American Pet Products Association, American pet owners spent an estimated $30.32 billion on pet food in 2018, which represents a 4.3 percent increase over 2017 spending.

Pet owners are not just buying more kibble—many are seeking out healthier, premium-grade pet foods for their four-legged family members. This includes natural and holistic options.

But understanding what constitutes “holistic” dog food is a tricky matter. If you’re considering trying a dog food that’s labeled as holistic, here’s what you should know about what that term means, how it’s different from natural dog food, and which ingredients you should look for.

What Does “Holistic” Mean on Dog Food Labels?

While you may be inclined to think that you can draw parallels between holistic medicine and holistic food, the reality is that the term “holistic” carries a different weight and meaning with each use.

Currently, within the pet industry, there is no universal or standard definition of what classifies a dog food as holistic, says Dr. Travis Arndt, director of the Animal Medical Center of Mid-America.

Sometimes, says Dr. Arndt, the words on dog food bags and containers are simply used as marketing tactics to entice consumers.

“Knowing that pet parents want what is best for their dog, ‘holistic’ gives them the impression that the food will be nutritious and balanced and will benefit the pet’s total health and wellness,” Dr. Arndt says.

Dr. Angie Krause, DVM, CVA, CCRT, and owner of Boulder Holistic Vet, agrees that the term “holistic” is not clearly defined in the pet food industry. “Holistic pet food is more of a movement towards a less-processed diet with higher-quality ingredients,” she says.

Industry Standards for Pet Food Labels

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets quality standards for animal feed and pet food, adding a label to products that the organization deems “complete and balanced” nutrition for animals.

“One of the things AAFCO does is establishes regulations for pet food and sets standards for nutrition,” says Dr. Arndt. “While they have definitions for words like ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ when it comes to pet food, they do not define ‘holistic,’” he says.

Holistic Dog Food vs. Natural Dog Food

AAFCO defines natural dog food as:

“a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources, either in its unprocessed state or having been subject to physical processing, heat processing, rendering, purification, extraction, hydrolysis, enzymolysis or fermentation, but not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices.”

That means a dog food using the term “natural” needs to be free from chemically synthesized ingredients, additives and preservatives.

A few examples of chemically synthesized ingredients that are not allowed in natural pet food include:

  • Propylene glycol

  • Calcium ascorbate

  • Preservatives such as BHA and BHT

  • Artificial flavors and colors

AAFCO makes an exception for synthetic vitamins and minerals, which can be included in natural pet foods. For these diets, the product’s label will indicate the diet is “natural with added vitamins and minerals.”

However, since the label “holistic” does not have a formal, regulated definition, dog foods labeled as holistic may contain some or all of the above ingredients.

“While the terms [natural and holistic] are often used together, they typically aren’t used interchangeably,” says Dr. Arndt. “Because of the regulation and oversight, the term ‘natural’ ensures that ingredients have come from natural sources. It carries more weight than the term holistic, since there is no regulation for those claims.”

Holistic Dog Food Ingredients

Because any dog food brand can label their formulas as holistic, it’s up to pet parents to conduct more research into ingredients and read food labels carefully.

While there is no standard for holistic dog food ingredients, some pet food brands include specific additives or ingredients that are thought to promote overall wellness in dogs. These ingredients might be probiotics, vitamins or minerals, or supplements reported to help with certain conditions, like joint and skin health.

“The current and past trend in holistic diets includes grain-free formulations that substitute legumes and potatoes for wheat, corn and soy,” says Dr. Krause. “Adding superfoods to formulations like fruits and greens is also a popular trend. Raw diets and air-baked kibbles are also largely popular.”

But Dr. Arndt says that pet parents shouldn’t assume that all ingredients in a holistic dog food are good or beneficial to their pets. “Without a standard definition, pet food companies can use any ingredients they choose and claim that the food is holistic,” he says.

Choosing the Best Holistic Dog Food

Pet parents can choose from a variety of holistic dog foods. “Holistic foods come in the standard kibble and canned, but also come in raw preparations,” Dr. Krause explains. “Within the raw food category there are dehydrated, freeze-dried and raw patty or chub formulations.”

Before you decide which holistic dog food brand is the best for your pup, make sure you do your research first. Here are three steps you can take prior to purchasing a holistic dog food:

1. Talk to Your Veterinarian

Dr. Arndt says that it’s important for dog owners to talk to their veterinarians to find the best food to fit their dog’s individual lifestyles.

“Some dogs don’t do well on raw or limited-ingredient foods, and home-cooked diets require pet parents to be diligent about making sure nutritional requirements are met,” he says. “Working with your veterinarian is the best way to ensure your dog is getting the nutrition and diet he or she needs.”

2. Do Your Research on Dog Food Brands

In addition to speaking with a veterinarian, pet parents should read the ingredient labels on holistic dog foods carefully. They should also research the company and the brand responsible for creating and manufacturing the food.

Dr. Krause recommends that pet owners consider the following three things when researching holistic dog food options:

  • Recalls. What is the recall history of the brand? Some brands have had at least one recall due to incorrect labeling, ingredient contamination or another issue related to product quality or safety. Get the details if possible.

  • Quality Control. Determine what type of quality controls the company has in place to test food quality. These tests can help ensure foods are correctly labeled and free of contaminants.

  • Formulation. Ensure that the formulas are approved by a veterinary or animal nutritionist and meet AAFCO minimum requirements.

3. Make Sure There Is an AAFCO Label

Since there is no oversight of holistic dog foods, Dr. Arndt says that a label from AAFCO is important for ensuring a baseline of balanced nutrition.

“AAFCO sets the minimum standards for pet food nutrition, so look for a statement that says the food provides complete and balanced nutrition,” he says.

By: Deidre Grieves

Featured Image: iStock.com/AVAVA

Natalie Stilwell, DVM, MS, PhD


Natalie Stilwell, DVM, MS, PhD


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