Is Organic Food Healthier for My Dog than Conventional Dog Food?

If you’re a dog owner and a proponent of organic food, you don’t need any convincing that organic is best when it comes to what is in the dog food bowl. 

Feeding your dog organic food is a matter of choice, availability, and budget. Your dog’s diet may be influenced by your personal values, or because your dog has health issues, allergies, or a sensitive stomach requiring food adjustments.

What Does Organic Mean When it Comes to Dog Food?

Organic pet food must meet the same national standards as organic human food sold in the United States. Right now, there aren’t pet food-specific guidelines. This could be perceived as a good thing — after all, why shouldn’t organic dog food be held to the same standards as organic human food? Dog food follows the U.S. Department of Agriculture Standards set out in the National Organic Program.

Soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives all help determine if a food can be called organic and labeled with the USDA Organic seal.

“Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest,” writes Miles McEvoy, the National Organic Program Deputy Administrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on the website. “Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.”

Organic meat means the animals live in conditions that support their natural, normal behavior (like pasture grazing) and that the animals themselves are fed 100 percent organic feed and are not subjected to antibiotics and hormones, although vaccines are permitted.

Overall, organic food means the product:

  • Has not been grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides

  • Has not been irradiated or grown in chemical fertilizer

  • Isn’t using genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

  • Does not contain artificial preservatives, colors or flavors

  • Has not been injected with antibiotics or hormones (animal products)

  • Has been fed 100 percent organic food (animal products)

  • May contain non-agricultural substances like citric acid, pectin, enzymes, baking soda, or non-organic substances like fish oil and celery powder.

How is organic food labeled?

“Certified organic foods will display a USDA organic seal and must be made of at least 95% organic ingredients,” the Association of American Feed Control Officials states.

If a label claims the product is 100 percent organic, all ingredients must be organic.

If a label says organic, at least 95 percent of the ingredients are organic and the remaining ingredients have to be approved substances (like baking soda, for example).

If a label says made with organic, at least 70 percent of the ingredients are organic.

There are other variations: some products say made with organic chicken (for example). This may mean that 70 percent of the chicken in the product is organic, or that only the chicken is organic and the rest of the ingredients are not. Read the labels, the nutritional statements, and ingredients if you’re not sure.

Products with the USDA Organic seal have been verified by USDA agents, who have ensured the product meets regulations. “Made with organic” products won’t have the USDA seal and contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients.

What are the Benefits of Organic Food?

Fewer pesticides and heavy metals make it into the food

It’s hard to argue with the benefits of reducing the number of pesticides and heavy metals making their way into the dog dish. Fruits, veggies, and grains labeled organic aren’t grown with synthetic pesticides or artificial fertilizers. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, cadmium is a toxic chemical found in soil and absorbed by plants and studies have shown significantly lower amounts of cadmium in organic grains. 

Organic produce has also shown lower detectable levels of pesticide residue, according to the Mayo Clinic. 

The Environmental Working Group releases a “dirty dozen” list of produce contaminated with the highest levels of pesticides. In 2020, the list included strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, and potatoes, so if you’re feeding your dog any supplemental veg and fruit, you may want to consider organic for these specific products.

WebMD notes that people consume less pesticide residue when they choose organic produce. 

Fewer hormones and antibiotics make it into meat products

Meat and animal products (milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs) considered organic haven’t been subjected to antibiotic and hormone therapies, which reduces the presence of those things in the final food products — and therefore, your dog’s digestive system.

Overuse of antibiotics can enable pets, and people, to develop resistance to them, so reducing exposure may mean your dog responds to antibiotics down the road when it needs them to fight off an illness.

How is Organic Different from “Natural”?

Natural and organic are not the same. The AAFCO has guidelines for what is considered natural and also provides limits on how the word natural can be applied to labeling. 

Natural products may undergo significant processing through heat, rendering, purification, extraction, enzymolysis, and fermentation. To be considered natural, the product can’t be subjected to a chemically synthetic process or contain additives and processing aids that are chemically synthetic. 

The FDA notes that natural products don’t contain artificial flavors, colors, or artificial preservatives

Some natural products are also free of byproducts.

What are the Drawbacks of Organic Food?

  • It’s typically more expensive

  • It may only contain organic ingredients and not be entirely organic (read the labels!)

  • There are no specific “organic” guidelines for dog food — only human food

  • Food may claim its organic, but without an official USDA Organic seal, it may not be