What's in Natural Dog Food?

Ashley Joy, DVM
By Ashley Joy, DVM on Jan. 8, 2021


We all want to offer the best in nutrition to our pets, but selecting the right diet can be difficult when there are so many options. In many cases, the terminology and “buzz words” used on pet food labels can make it even more confusing.

“Natural” is a term that you’ll find on a lot of pet food packaging. But how is “natural dog food” different from other dog food? Is it an official term? Are natural dog food diets better?

To help you navigate the labels, this guide will explain everything you need to know about the term “natural” and what it means for dog foods.

What Is Natural Dog Food?

The term “natural” conveys an understanding that the item can be found in nature and is not manmade or produced secondary to a chemical or synthetic process. So do pet food companies have to adhere to any regulations to call specific formulas or ingredients “natural”?

Does the FDA Regulate Natural Dog Food?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet defined the term “natural” in relation to pet food labeling. Instead, the FDA relies on the requirement that the label information must not be false or misleading. The FDA requires that all animal foods be safe to eat, produced under clean and sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances, and be truthfully labeled.

Many FDA regulations for proper labeling of products are based on models provided by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This voluntary membership organization provides guidelines for the local, state, and federal agencies that regulate the sale and distribution of animal feeds, including dog and cat food.

What Are the AAFCO Guidelines for Natural Dog Food?

Guidelines established by AAFCO are followed for properly displaying certain terms such as “natural” or “organic” on products. Understanding the meaning of some of the terms used by pet food companies is a great starting point to finding what you are looking for in an individual product.

AAFCO defines “natural” as follows:

“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.”

Essentially this means that an ingredient can be present in its natural state or may have been handled under a nonchemically synthetic process, and it does not contain chemically simulated additives.

When Can a Dog Food Be Called “All-Natural”?

“Natural” can be used to describe certain ingredients in a product or the entire product. A product can claim to be “all-natural” or “100% natural” when every ingredient used to create the product falls under the AAFCO definition of the term.

What Ingredients Are in Natural Dog Food?

The accepted definition of natural encompasses a wide array of ingredient components, as the majority of ingredients found in pet food products are indeed from plant, animal, or mineral sources.

These ingredients are still considered to be natural if they undergo commonly used processing during manufacturing, or if they contain only trace amounts of synthetic compounds.

Ingredients are not considered natural if they have been chemically synthesized. This would include:

  • Artificial flavor or coloring

  • Preservatives

  • Additives

  • Synthesized vitamins or minerals

A product that is labeled as natural will often include a disclaimer stating that there are added vitamins or minerals that are needed in order for the product to be a complete and balanced diet.

What's the Difference Between Natural, Organic, and Holistic Dog Food?

You might see these terms used on their own or with each other on pet food labels, but they are not interchangeable.

Natural Dog Food

Natural dog food implies that the ingredients used exist in nature and are not manufactured by humans. This can pertain to the product as a whole if all ingredients are natural, or to individually stated ingredients such as “natural beef flavor.”

Organic Dog Food

AAFCO defines products as “organic” when they meet the requirements for production and handling set forth by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The NOP regulates that crops, livestock, and agricultural products said to be organic are certified to the USDA’s standards. These products must contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients and will display a USDA organic seal.

Holistic Dog Food

The term “holistic” means taking into consideration a dog’s whole being, as opposed to focusing on individual factors. For dog food, holistic has very little meaning, as there is currently no legal definition nor regulation for it under the FDA, AAFCO, or the USDA. It is often used as a marketing term as it has no accepted specific relation to ingredients that are used in a product.

Is Natural Dog Food Better?

Most people feel that the less processing involved and fewer additives in a food, the better the food is. However, it’s not as simple as a blanket statement that natural dog food is better. As with all products, just because something is natural, it does not necessarily mean that it is safer or of superior nutrition or quality.

Even foods that are all-natural can have too much or too little of individual nutrients, and the addition of some synthesized nutrients such as sources of amino acids, vitamins, or minerals is often required to achieve a food that is nutritionally complete.

While selecting a dog food, look for claims that the product is “complete and balanced;” this ensures that the diet meets AAFCO’s nutrient profile requirements.

No diet is “one-size-fits-all.” Selecting the ideal option for each individual pet is a decision that should be based on a number of factors, including:

  • Life stage

  • Breed and size

  • Lifestyle

  • Special considerations

Your veterinarian is a great resource for discussing diet options and finding the right fit for your pet's needs. They can answer questions and make suggestions that take your pet’s life stage, breed, and medical history into consideration to find the ideal diet to support your pet’s best health.

Featured image: iStock/manushot

Ashley Joy, DVM


Ashley Joy, DVM


Dr. Ashley Joy graduated from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in 2014, after receiving a Bachelor of Science...

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