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Choosing the right dog food can be tough. There are so many brands out there, and between diet trends and commercial fads, it’s hard to know what’s best. One thing everyone can agree on: dogs thrive on high-quality foods. Dr. Gary Richter, DVM, author of the Ultimate Pet Health Guide and member of Rover’s Dog People Panel, says, “The single biggest thing you can do to keep your dog happy and healthy is to provide them with optimal nutrition.” For many dog lovers, that means looking for natural dog food, and in some cases, organic dog food formulas.
While high-quality can be a shorthand for natural and organic, it can also be a shorthand for “expensive.” Don’t worry! As it turns out, it’s possible to feed your pet high-quality, natural dog food—even organic dog food—on a budget.
What do “natural” and “organic” mean on dog food labels?
Before we get to the list of affordable natural dog food brands, let’s talk about what “natural” means. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) defines natural as “a feed or feed ingredient derived solely from plant, animal, or mined sources…not having been produced by or subject to a chemically synthetic process and not containing any additives or processing aids that are chemically synthetic.”
Of course, there are quite a few substances “derived from plant, animal, or mined sources” that shouldn’t show up in dog food. When it comes to dog foods, “natural” is a marketing term that means you can expect the food to be free of corn, wheat, soy, food processing byproducts, and artificial colors. But it’s important to read the label closely, as there are no regulations governing the use of the term “natural.”
The term “organic,” however, is backed by industry certification. The Association of American of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) explains that to be labeled “organic,” animal foods must meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s production and handling standards for organic foods for people. This article from The Bark explains that plant ingredients in pet foods must be grown without pesticides, artificial fertilizers, genetic modification, irradiation, or sewage sludge. Animal ingredients in organic dog food, including meat and eggs, must come from animals raised on organic feed, given access to the outdoors, and not treated with antibiotics or hormones.
Because the organic certification process is complex and organic ingredients are expensive, organic dog foods, or foods made with mainly organic ingredients, usually cost more than foods that haven’t earned the “organic” label. But there are some affordable options.
Choosing a natural dog food
When searching for the right food for your dog, consider your priorities. Pet owners concerned about the environmental impact of their purchases are often interested in foods made with organic ingredients.
On the other hand, if your primary concern is your dog’s health, you may be looking for a food labeled natural because it’s likely to have few or no preservatives. You may also be searching for dog food made with only high-quality, single-source proteins. Whatever your top priority, look past the labels and manufacturer claims and check out the ingredients.
For this article, we define “natural dog food” as preservative-free and made from high-quality ingredients. We checked with top veterinarian Dr. Richter for his take on what defines quality dog food. He recommends looking for named ingredients (“chicken” vs. “meat,” for example). You want to see fruits, vegetables, and animal protein. He notes that when it comes to food allergies in dogs, it’s usually the protein that’s the culprit—so if your dog doesn’t do well on a beef-based food, they may be fine on fish.
Bottom line: If you have any concerns about your dog’s diet, be sure to talk with your vet. They can recommend foods based on your pup’s age, breed, and any health conditions, including allergies.
Concerns About Grain-Free and “Exotic” Dog Foods
The FDA is looking into a possible link between DCM (dilated cardiomyopathy) in dogs and the ingredients in certain boutique pet foods. In a 2018 article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Lisa Freeman, DVM, Ph.D., DACVN, explained the issue is not just grain-free diets, but rather, “BEG” diets (boutique companies, exotic ingredients, or grain-free diets).
“The apparent link between BEG diets and DCM may be due to ingredients used to replace grains in grain-free diets, such as lentils or chickpeas, but also may be due to other common ingredients commonly found in BEG diets, such as exotic meats, vegetables, and fruits,” Freeman wrote.
More research needs to be done, and for now, it’s best to check with your vet about any concerns. Dr. Freeman also recommends purchasing food from companies that employ veterinary nutritionists and other experts.
For more about the grain-free dog food diet, see our article, Should I Be Worried About Grain-Free Dog Food?
Read on to learn about some of the most affordable natural and organic dog foods on the market.
The Best Affordable Natural Dog Food
Natural Balance is grain-free and made from a short list of premium ingredients with no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. Best of all, it comes in many different formulas to meet your dog’s specific protein needs. The price is a bit higher than some on this list, but the top-notch, limited ingredient formula is likely to be great for dogs with food allergies or sensitivities.
This high-quality brand offers recipes are free of corn, wheat, and soy and avoids any artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. Whole Earth, owned by Merrick, makes most of their flavors in both medium- and small-breed varieties—the only difference is the size of the kibble.
Castor and Pollux went the extra mile to get organic certification from the USDA for their Organix line of dog food. This truly organic formula includes organic protein, meat or chicken meals, veggies, fruits, oils, and herbs.
Taste of the Wild has been a popular choice in affordable natural dog food since 2007; it’s owned by Diamond, the company that also makes Diamond Naturals. Taste of the Wild is a great option for dogs with allergies and offers several protein sources to choose from, including bison and venison, lamb, salmon, fowl, and wild boar.
Blue Buffalo always features real meat as the first ingredient. The rest of the ingredients include wholesome vegetables, fruit, and grains. There are no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives in this lamb and brown rice recipe, but there are the company’s trademark “LifeSource Bits,” a blend of nutrients enhanced with anti-oxidants.
This brand, often found in grocery stores, includes chicken (raised without steroids) and whole barley, and ihas no corn, wheat, or soy. A natural dog food, it’s free of artificial colors, artificial flavors, and preservatives.
Celebrity chef Rachael Ray’s Nutrish brand is a high-quality grocery store brand. Made with no artificial flavors or artificial preservatives, it has whole chicken as its first ingredient with fiber from brown rice and beet pulp.
This affordably priced natural brand contains no corn, no wheat, and no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. Diamond also makes grain-free formulas at a higher price point. We like that they include probiotics for better digestion in all of their foods, too. Dog Food Advisor gives this brand an average 4-star rating and calls it “highly recommended,” which is more than many bargain natural dog foods receive.
Tender and True is a small brand launched in 2014 that produces premium dog food with an eye to quality sourcing. This grain-free chicken-and-liver organic formula uses organic chicken as the first ingredient. They promise that the chicken is antibiotic-free, sourced entirely from U.S. farmers—and certified as humanely raised. Note that this food is formulated for small, medium, and large breeds, but it’s not intended for large-breed puppies below 70 pounds.
Costco’s in-house brand offers an affordable, well-rated dry dog food. If you don’t have a Costco membership, it’s also possible to buy this brand from third-party sellers on Amazon, though the price is a bit higher than at Costco; around $2 per pound.
Karen Anderson is a writer at Rover. Before joining Rover, she was a writer and editor at Apple and a freelancer for companies including Cardiac Science, Houzz, the Home Owners Club, and the Seattle Times. Her hobbies are dancing, gardening, science fiction, and pet-sitting for friends and neighbors. She shares her house with a delightful clowder of quirky rescue cats.
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