A dog receives nutrition through his meals, and much like a human being, his nutritional needs change throughout his life. No one dog food is exactly like the next, so it's important to understand how to read ingredients and to weigh the pros and cons of store-bought vs. homemade dog food when you're looking for an all-natural food to feed your pet.
Natural, Organic and Holistic Foods
When choosing a dog food, deciding between natural, organic and holistic can be overwhelming. There are some key differences between the three. The American Association of Feed Control Officials describes natural dog food as natural plant, animal or mined ingredients that may be unprocessed or processed, but doesn't use chemical processes.
Organic dog food usually contains products that had no contact with pesticides, insecticides or herbicides, although some non-organic fertilizers may have had contact. Organic foods use animals raised without antibiotics or hormones.
Holistic food means that all of the food's ingredients have healthy, nutritional value and is created using only human-grade, natural ingredients with no fillers.
Many of these terms overlap with one another on the pet food aisle. For example, a brand of dog food can be natural, organic and holistic at the same time, or it can be natural and holistic, but not organic.
Take Note of Ingredients
Even with a solid understanding of the difference between natural, organic and holistic foods, knowing what to look for can be confusing. Choose food that is nutritionally complete, containing optimal ratios of protein, carbohydrates and fats for your pet's breed, age and activity level.
Chicken, brown rice, apples, cranberries, peas and carrots are examples of healthy, whole ingredients in natural pet food products. Ingredients such as wheat, soybean meal and oats are filler ingredients. They help a dog to feel full but offer little nutritional value -- empty calories. It's also important to look for generic or ambiguous-sounding ingredients: "animal fat" and "meat meal" are generic because they do not name a specific animal and could be of questionable quality. If a food's first few ingredients are corn or wheat, even if it's an all-natural food, steer clear. Choose a food with quality protein, such as chicken or lamb, as the first ingredient.
Homemade Natural Foods
Preparing homemade dog food is a growing and controversial trend. Some experts claim homemade dog food is healthier than store-bought products. Others say it's very difficult to maintain a nutritious balance for a dog when preparing his food at home.
Keep a few things in mind. First, don't simply start giving a dog homemade food. His digestive tract won't be able to handle the abrupt change; homemade food should be introduced gradually and in small amounts.
Homemade dog foods should contain lean, high-quality proteins such as chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, yogurt or eggs combined with the appropriate amount of quality carbohydrates in the form of whole-grain rice or sweet potatoes. Vegetables such as peas, carrots, spinach and green beans can be added. Healthy fats, like olive or coconut oil, in small amounts keep your pet's fur shiny and skin healthy.
Your veterinarian can advise you how much natural homemade food to feed your dog. The average 40-pound dog requires about 500 calories per day, although small dogs eat more for their weight than large dogs do, and puppies need about 20 percent more calories than adults.
Fresh water is just as important as healthy, natural food. A dog should have access to fresh water at all times, as he can easily become dehydrated and ill.
Like human snacks, many dog treats -- even all natural ones -- are simply junk food. Treats should be given sparingly and should never be considered a healthy meal alternative, even if they have all-natural ingredients.
Leeann Teagno has been writing professionally since 2006. An English major, she continues to study information systems management at American Public University. Teagno is an organic gardener, cook and technology buff with past employment in mobile communications. She also volunteers at an animal shelter and operates a home bakery.