Best Natural Foods for Puppies: What to Look For

5 min read

By Diana Bocco

More and more pet parents are looking for natural, holistic feeding options for their dogs. This is especially important for puppies, who are at a critical stage where good nutrition can make a world of difference for their health and development.

Defining “Natural” Food

When it comes to pet food, the word “natural” is tricky to define. “Conventionally, the consumer would consider 'natural' to be something that is derived from nature and not from a man-made manufacturing process,” explains Dr. Patrick Mahaney, DVM, owner of California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW) and a popular holistic veterinarian. 

However, that isn't necessarily the case with pet foods. In fact, if you expect a “natural” pet food to contain 100% natural ingredients or ingredients that are completely untouched from their original state, Mahaney says you're unlikely to find one.

The governing body that creates standards as applied to pet foods and treats is called AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). They are the ones who defined the term “natural” when it comes to pet food. While the definition might be confusing, it essentially boils down to natural pet food meaning “a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal or mined sources.” Natural foods can be unprocessed or subjected to physical processing such as heat processing, extraction, purification and other options.

However, for a food to be considered “natural” by AAFCO standards, it cannot contain “any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic except in amounts as might occur in good manufacturing practices.” Simply put, this means that natural foods cannot contain flavorings, preservatives or colorants. Most states have adopted AAFCO labeling practices, which means that in order to use the word “natural” on their labels, pet food manufacturers must comply with this definition.

But labels can be tricky—and often misleading. For example, based on the AAFCO definition, a “natural” pet food cannot contain synthetic vitamins, minerals or trace nutrients. However, manufacturers are allowed to label a product as “natural with added vitamins, minerals and trace nutrients.” This is a disclaimer that means the food is all natural except for the added, synthetic nutrients.

Ingredients to Look For in Natural Puppy Food

When reading labels, look for names you recognize. “You should be able to pronounce every ingredient,” says Dr. Judy Morgan, DVM, a holistic veterinarian and the author of "What's For Dinner Dexter? Cooking For Your Dog Using Chinese Medicine Theory."

“Look for real named meats, not unnamed meats like meat by-products or meat meal.” And when searching for grains, look for whole grains or the actual nutritive part of the grain, not the hulls, bran, or indigestible parts, she adds.

The words “meal” or “by-products” are particularly troubling, says Mahaney. “When looking at the label for natural pet foods, owners should look for ingredients that actually exist in nature,” he says. “Grain and meat 'meals and by-products' don’t exist in nature.” In many cases, by-products mean parts of the animal that are not particularly digestible or nutritious.

Benefits and Risks of Natural Foods for Puppies

When it comes to purchasing a natural dog food for your puppy, Morgan says it's important to understand exactly what’s on the label. “Ingredient splitting—naming corn multiple times as ‘corn gluten,’ ‘corn meal,’ etc.—means there is a LOT of corn in that food,” she says. “The same occurs with grain-free foods; they are just using a lot of peas, lentils, potatoes, or other starchy ingredient instead of grains—which are not necessarily better.”

Among the benefits of a natural diet for puppies, what your puppy is not consuming is key. For example, Mahaney says natural foods cannot contain ingredients such as Propylene Glycol (PG), which is often used in semi-moist dog food to keep it from drying out. “PG is the safer chemical derivative of toxic Ethylene Glycol (EG), which is the antifreeze put into most vehicular engines,” he explains. “Although PG is much safer than EG, it still has no place in food or treats as it does nothing to promote pet health.”

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