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Looking for a natural, organic dog food? You’re on the right track by searching online, but there’s an important distinction between the two that you should know. "Natural" and "organic" have different definitions. A key distinction between these two terms is that "natural" is a trait of the specific ingredient, while "organic" includes the entire life span of the ingredient (whether it originates from a plant or an animal). So, what do these terms really mean?

Natural Dog Food

The word "natural" describes something that comes from nature—versus something man-made—and does not contain anything chemical or artificial. But, in the pet food world, that definition is even more specific. In fact, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) defines the use of the word “natural” for pet food products. According to AAFCO, “natural” refers to:  

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.

There is a range of dog food products available that use the word "natural" on their packaging. But to truly understand what you're getting and the ingredients inside, it helps to play close attention to how the word is used. For example, the labels on Purina® Pro Plan® Natural Formulas say "Natural Plus Essential Vitamins and Minerals," because the formulas contain natural ingredients plus some added vitamins and minerals that are needed to ensure that the food is complete and balanced.  So, what if you are looking for an organic dog food?

Organic Dog Food

Like "natural," the term "organic" is defined and regulated. However, AAFCO does not have an official definition for organic that is specific to pet food so the guidelines are borrowed from the human standards. In the United States, pet food standards have been submitted to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program, but have not been approved to date. Thus, pet foods with organic claims must follow the human standards and be certified by third-party auditors approved by the USDA.

The human organic food standards are lengthy, but here are a few key points:

  • The organic production of grain and plant ingredients prohibits the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as, genetic modification (GMOs).
  • Meat/poultry must be sources from animals raised without drugs, such as antibiotics and hormones, to promote growth.
  • The animals must be fed organic feeds and must be allowed access to the outdoors.

If a farm or producer passes all of the criteria, they receive a USDA organic certification. The use of the USDA Organic seal on a product’s label is determined using the following guidelines:

Package can display the USDA Organic seal and 100% organic claim on the front of the bag.

Percentage of organic

Labeling guidelines


Package can display the USDA Organic seal and 100% organic claim on the front of the bag.


Package can display USDA Organic seal.


Package can state “made with organic ingredients” and list up to three of these ingredients on the front, but it cannot display the seal.

Less than 70%

Package can list organic ingredients in the information panel, but cannot use the word organic or display the seal.

It's much easier for an ingredient to be natural or organic than it is for an entire dog food formula. That's because in order for a formula to be natural or organic, every ingredient  used would have to adhere to the regulations. So, a truly "organic, natural dog food" formula would have to contain at least 95% organic ingredients, AND use only natural ingredients that are not chemically synthetic.

There are a number of natural dog food options and organic dog food options available today. And if you know how to decipher the labels and read the ingredients, choosing the one that’s right for your dog will be much easier. Good luck!