VetVits October 20, 2016

If you eat organic foods, shouldn’t your pet eat the same? This is a question that health conscious pet owners across the globe are asking themselves, but the answer isn’t as straightforward as we would hope. Here, we hope to give you all of the information you need about organic diets, to help you decide how to best meet your dog’s nutritional needs.

What does an organic diet for a dog consist of?

Organic pet food diets are available as commercial dog foods, in both canned and dry formulations. In the UK and European Union, organic labelling on pet foods means that 95% of the ingredients are certified organic. All ingredients used for pet food has to be fit for human consumption except for pet foods that contain by-products, which are labelled ‘not for human consumption’. According to labelling standards, all commercially-prepared pet foods, both organic and conventional, that are sold as ‘complete pet food’ or ‘complete and balanced’, must meet a certain level of vitamins and minerals. This is so that you, as a dog owner, can feel confident that your pet is getting all the nutrition he or she needs. If a pet food is labelled as ‘complementary pet food’ it will not meet all of the pet’s nutritional needs and is intended for intermittent feeding only.

Organic food is grown without pesticides and herbicides and is also considered to be non-GMO. To people who eat organic, these are important health points and it is natural that people would want their pets to eat the same high-quality, sustainably-produced organic ingredients in their pet foods as well. In theory this is fantastic, but there is a catch. The supply of organic ingredients is much more limited than high-quality conventional ingredients: there is simply much less organic food being produced and the bulk of what is produced is sold for human consumption, leaving behind very little high quality organic ingredients for dog food. Just because a pet food is labelled organic it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be of a higher quality than conventional formulas — on the contrary, it may be the other way around. As well as the questionable quality of organic ingredients due to limited availability, the potential lack of labelling regulations (depending on location) and cost of organic pet foods are other major concerns (1).

What are the alternatives?

An alternative to commercially-prepared organic pet food is cooking for your pet at home, to ensure the highest-quality ingredients. If you can get in contact with a veterinary nutritionist to develop a few recipes and you have the time to cook for your dog, this is a fabulous option (2). The downside to this is the time and effort it takes to cook and the expense of consulting with a nutritionist, as well as acquiring organic ingredients. To reduce costs, you can buy ingredients and cook in bulk, and then freeze to save on time. Some veterinary nutritionists provide online or phone consultations or ready-made recipes, which will also save on time and money. It is not advisable to prepare homemade dog foods without consulting with a veterinary nutritionist. Different breeds, ages and sizes of dog have different and specific nutritional needs from each other and from humans, so you run the risk of chronic malnutrition if you do not formulate the recipes correctly.

Another option for pet owners that are concerned about the nutritional quality of conventional foods is feeding raw, or the BARF diet. However, there are lots of things to be aware of when considering this type of diet for your dog. BARF stands for biologically appropriate raw food. The risks of feeding your dog with a raw-meat diet includes infections with parasites, bacteria and viruses (3). Some of these pathogenic organisms also have zoonotic potential, meaning they can spread to humans. Additionally, dogs eating raw-meat diets often show nutritional imbalances. Over-supplementation and deficiencies of nutrients are frequently found, especially regarding calcium, the trace elements copper, zinc and iodine, vitamins A and D, and the calcium:phosphorus ratio. This malnutrition can cause clinical symptoms, such as brittle bones, behavioural changes, or changes to their hair and coat. Checking and optimising your dog’s diet by a board-certified nutrition veterinarian is therefore strongly recommended (4). All raw products should be fed straight from the freezer to the pet’s bowl (don’t let any meat defrost or sit out at room temperature for more than 20 minutes), and pet food dishes should be washed/disinfected daily. Avoid feeding your dog too much liver as it contains heavy metals and completely avoid raw fish. If your dog does follow a raw food diet, you should ensure that they are on a regular de-worming schedule, and if there are any immune-compromised persons in the household, raw-feeding is strongly discouraged due to the risk of infection.

Dogs of all ages and sizes benefit from high-quality nutrition. Just like people, pets are what they eat. Pet foods are generally shelved like alcohol: top shelf is best. Organic labelled foods are often assumed to be ‘top shelf’ options, however each dog has their own individual needs that should be taken into account and prioritised before they are automatically placed on an organic diet. In general, it is best to avoid grocery store brands and work with your veterinarian to choose the best nutrition for your pet.

1 Laflamme D, Izquierdo O, Eirmann L, Binder S.Myths and misperceptions about ingredients used in commercial pet foods.Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2014 Jul;44(4):689-98, v. doi: 10.1016/j.cvsm.2014.03.002. Epub 2014 May 10. 2 Weeth LP. Focus on nutrition: Home-prepared diets for dogs and cats. Compend Contin Educ Vet. 2013 Mar;35(3):E3. 3 Freeman LM, Chandler ML, Hamper BA, Weeth LP. Current knowledge about the risks and benefits of raw meat-based diets for dogs and cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2013 Dec 1;243(11):1549-58. doi: 10.2460/javma.243.11.1549. 4 Kölle P, Schmidt M. [Raw-meat-based diets (RMBD) as a feeding principle for dogs]. [Article in German]. Tierarztl Prax Ausg K Kleintiere Heimtiere. 2015;43(6):409-19; quiz 420. doi: 10.15654/TPK-150782. Epub 2015 Nov 23.

Author info: Sarah Wooten is a small animal veterinarian and certified veterinary journalist. She is a 2002 graduate of the prestigious School of Veterinary Medicine at University of California in Davis. She practices in Greeley, Colorado part time at Sheep Draw Veterinary Hospital and writes for multiple online and print publications.

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