You may have wandered down the dog food aisle to see some brands labeled as holistic. But what does this mean? What is holistic dog food? Is it worth choosing holistic over non-holistic food?
What Is Holistic Dog Food?
For many people, general wellness comes from a holistic approach that blends proper nutrition with a healthy lifestyle. It’s only natural that as we seek better health for ourselves through a holistic lifestyle that we extend the same mentality toward our pets.
Holistic dog food is often marketed as dog food that has more balanced nutrition from higher quality sources than conventional dog food.
It may be a bit surprising to find out that there is no such thing as holistic dog food, officially speaking. The term “holistic dog food” is more of a marketing term than it is an official definition.
What holistic means
So what is holistic dog food?
When it comes to health, holistic generally refers to treating both body and mind. People commonly mix the words “holistic” with “healthy,” but when it comes to dog food, it isn’t that simple.
As a marketing term, holistic brings to mind natural, healthy lifestyles. For holistic dog food, the term holistic is typically applied to premium grade foods that have natural ingredients and balanced nutrition.
So what is natural?
The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is the organization that sets the standards for animal food nutrition. Among these standards is how pet food manufacturers can use the word "natural" for their products.
Using the word “natural” in the product description means that all the ingredients in the food must be from natural, rather than synthetically produced, sources. That includes plant, animal, or mined sources.
What goes into holistic dog food?
Like any food, dog food is only as good as the ingredients that you put into it. Many conventional dog food uses ingredients that are feed grade, or ingredients not labeled safe for human consumption.
In contrast, many holistic dog foods may use human grade ingredients. If a holistic dog food claims to be human grade on the packaging, AAFCO requires that ingredients are handled the same way you would in human food preparation.
But beware: Just because a holistic dog food contains human ingredients doesn't mean that humans should eat it.
Know Your Holistics
Though the name holistic is more of a marketing term than an identifier, holistic foods tend to indicate specialized diets. For many pet parents, the answer to the question "What is holistic dog food?" is one of these diets.
The diets include limited ingredient, grain-free, and raw food diets.
When asking the question, "What is holistic dog food?" for many people, grain-free dog foods may be the first foods that come to mind.
Grain-free dog foods are dog food recipes that do not include grain. These include ingredients like corn and wheat which provide structure to conventional dog food recipes.
Instead, grain-free foods use other carbohydrates like sweet potatoes and tapioca.
While pet owners typically view grain-free dog food as a holistic, healthy choice, that may not be the case.
Lisa Freeman, a veterinary nutrition researcher from Tufts University, said in an article in the New York Times, “Contrary to advertising and popular belief, there is no research to demonstrate that grain-free diets offer any health benefits over diets that contain grains.”
Recent controversy with grain-free
In 2018, the New York Times reported that the Food and Drug Administration announced that they are investigating whether grain free diets may contribute to dilated cardiomyopathy, a type of canine heart disease.
Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is typical in large dogs that have a genetic predisposition towards the disease. That includes dogs like Great Danes and Boxers.
According to VCA Animal Hospitals, the genetic incidence is low in small breeds.
Disturbingly, veterinary cardiologists saw an increase in DCM cases in dogs without the predisposition. The common element between all the dogs was their grain-free diet rich in pulses like chickpeas, lentils, and potatoes.
Nancy Kerns, the editor of the Whole Dog Journal, a leading publication for holistic dog owners, noted that not all grain-free foods were under scrutiny.
Kerns also pointed out that the magazine does not recommend grain-free foods for all dogs, noting that such a diet is best for dogs that are sensitive to many grains.
Limited ingredient dog food
As the name suggests, limited ingredient dog food uses a smaller amount of ingredients compared to comparable dog foods. These foods cut out ingredients that are more commonly known as filler ingredients that offer bulk but not nutrition.
Limited ingredient dog foods are ideal for dogs with allergies as the fewer ingredients make it easier to determine what a dog is, or is not, allergic to. Limited ingredient dog foods may be grain-free or contain grains.
If you have a dog with allergies, they may be allergic to the meat in their food. Popular dog food proteins are chicken, beef, and lamb. If you have a dog with allergies to most food, finding a limited ingredient food with a novel protein may help.
Instead of using common foods, they may use less common proteins like kangaroo, rabbit, or boar. Since these proteins are not as popular, dogs have less of a chance of being allergic.
Uncooked dog food
Before dogs became man’s best friend, their wolf ancestors hunted and ate their prey. The idea behind modern raw diets is that these foods give dogs something that more closely resembles wolfish diets of raw meat, bone, and organs. That certainly can qualify as what is holistic dog food.
Benefits and risks
Animal nutritionist Dr. Richard S Patton is a raw feeding proponent. He argues that cooking detrimentally changes the nutrition value in conventional dog food.
However, not everyone is on board with this idea. Despite claims, mainstream veterinarians argue that there is no scientific evidence that raw food diets are better for dogs than conventional food.
There are also other risks. According to a scientific study published in January 2018 in BMJ’s Vet Record, a survey of 35 commercial raw pet foods in the Netherlands showed 86-percent of the samples contained high levels of dangerous bacteria.
Interestingly, these dangerous bacteria pose more danger to humans than dogs. Humans may be more susceptible to these pathogens while handling food. Practicing food safety, including separating raw pet food from human food, is essential.
Jean Hofve, DVM, advises that raw food may not be suitable for all pets. For example, dogs with immune issues or have inflammatory diseases of the gut should not eat raw dog food until their problems are resolved.
Home-prepared raw foods
Many raw feeders choose to prepare their raw meals at home. It's an excellent option for people who want the most control over their dog’s diet.
When preparing your raw food at home, be sure to follow raw food safety guidelines. Raw feeding site Rawsome has a good primer on how to safely handle raw food.
Fresh packaged raw food
If you want to give your dogs the benefits of a raw food diet but can’t home prepare your food, pre-packaged raw food may be the way to go.
Many big box and independent pet stores now include refrigerators and freezers where you can buy a variety of different fresh or frozen raw dog food preparations. These may come pre-portioned into patties or in large tubes.
Specific raw pet food delivery services are also popular alternatives for fresh pet food enthusiasts.
The advantage of these pre-packaged foods is that they are ready to eat. All you have to do is open and thaw, if necessary, and serve. Easy!
Freeze dried raw
If you need a shelf-stable alternative, try freeze or air dried raw foods. Dried foods are great if you frequently travel with your pet because they're lightweight.
Unlike refrigerated or frozen food, however, these do require some preparation to rehydrate. It usually involves soaking the food per the manufacturer's instructions.
In general, you need to use rehydrated food promptly. Only rehydrate what you will need to feed your pet every meal. Do not store leftovers for more than a day, as it can go rancid.
Cleaning the Bowl
What is holistic dog food? While holistic dog food may not be an officially defined term by the AAFCO, its impact has a profound effect on many dog owners.
For pet owners who want to give their dogs the best, the answer to the question, "What is holistic dog food?" is simply: The best food I can give my dog. For those pet parents, holistic dog food is often a premium dog food that is naturally sourced and nutritionally balanced diet.
In this sense, holistic dog food is a great part of a whole dog approach for your dog’s health.
While providing good dog food important, remember that holistic dog food is just part of the equation. Regular exercise and a good, loving relationship with their human are equally crucial to a holistic approach for ensuring your dog leads a happy, healthy life.
What comes to mind when you think of holistic dog food? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!