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Natural, holistic dog food…these terms can be seen all over pet stores, with aisles and aisles of dog food products. Do you ever wonder what these words truly mean? The terms "natural" and "holistic", for example, are sometimes used interchangeably. Do they mean the same thing?

In short, no. Although they’re often used together, the terms "natural" and "holistic" have two different definitions:


We typically think of the word "natural" as coming from nature, not made or altered by people. When used in pet food, the word "natural" is defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) as:

    A feed or 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 unavoidably in good manufacturing practices.

AAFCO guidelines allow the term "natural" to be applied to an individual ingredient or to a product as a whole. When describing a product as "natural", all ingredients in the product must meet the definition of "natural" -- the exception is that AAFCO recognizes that some synthetic nutrients need to be included in the formula to help assure the product is nutritionally complete. Therefore, synthetic sources of essential amino acids, vitamins or minerals, can be used provided that the "natural" claim is qualified with a disclaimer statement such as “Plus Vitamins and Minerals” to disclose that synthetic nutrients have been added to the product.

So, in a "natural" dog food formula, all of the ingredients, except for vitamins and minerals, come from sources that haven’t been synthetically produced. For example, Purina® Pro Plan® Natural Formulas are made with carefully chosen natural ingredients, plus essential vitamins and minerals. In addition, these formulas do not contain corn, wheat, soy, poultry by-product meal, or added artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.

Dog foods containing only some natural ingredients, cannot be called "natural" dog food formulas.


Holistic is a general word most often used to describe the whole of an entity, and how the individual parts of something work together to contribute to the whole. For example, in the practice of holistic medicine, a person’s whole self is studied and treated, including both body and mind.

In pet food, "holistic" is a marketing term that’s often used to imply (or 'refer to') whole body health. But, AAFCO does not have a definition of the word, so it is often used freely with no agency or organization to regulate its use. So, if a label says "holistic, natural dog food", only the word "natural" has a true meaning that could apply to the food.

The overuse of the words "natural" and/or "holistic" can be confusing and misleading. That’s why it is so important to not only read dog food labels, but to understand what they mean. If you have questions about an ingredient or terminology, ask your veterinarian or contact the product’s manufacturer. You deserve to know what’s in your dog’s food, because he deserves the best.