Best Natural Foods for Puppies: What to Look For

PetMD Editorial
March 09, 2016
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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.”

Natural foods will also not include other chemicals, such as BHA and BHT additives—both of which have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, according to the University of California, Berkeley.

The downside to natural foods for puppies? There aren’t many, according to Mahaney. “With any food or treat, there is always some degree of risk that it won’t be digestively tolerated and vomit, diarrhea, decreased appetite, or other health concerns can arise,” he explains. “Yet, when feeding foods that that don’t contain chemical preservatives, moistening agents or artificial colors, there generally should be less risk for toxic exposure or the development of cancer and other diseases.”

Raw Diets and Homemade Meals for Puppies

For pet parents who want to take “natural” a step further, there's always the option of feeding their puppies foods prepared at home—whether raw or cooked.

While many meats can be fed raw or cooked, other ingredients need more specific handling. “If using grains, they have to be cooked, as digestibility is very low if fed raw,” says Morgan. “Vegetables can be fed cooked or raw, but need to be processed in some manner, again for digestibility—simply running them through a grinder or food processor will do the trick.” Raw ingredients, especially meats, may also be associated with an increased risk of food-borne illness in pets who eat them and people who handle them. Excellent food hygiene is essential.

Are these diets for everybody? Not exactly. While Morgan says many of her clients start their puppies on raw food diets straight from weaning, switching from a commercial diet to a homemade diet might require some planning. “Pets need to have a pretty healthy digestive system to digest raw food,” she explains. Adding enzymes and probiotics to the diet can also help, according to Morgan.

One problem with homemade diets is that it takes planning to ensure dogs are getting all necessary nutrients in the correct amount. “An unbalanced home prepared diet is worse than feeding a processed diet,” Morgan says. For example, Morgan says the most common mineral lacking in homemade diets is calcium, and pet parents need to make sure puppies are receiving the proper amount of calcium and other vital nutrients. Too much of a nutrient can be just as dangerous as too little.

Because feeding a homemade diet can be tricky, Morgan recommends always speaking to a veterinarian or pet nutritionist to help you develop a healthy, balanced diet for your puppy.

Image:  via Shutterstock