Organic Pet Food: How Big a Deal? 10 Useful Thoughts

Organic pet food. You see it in the stores, read about it online, hear it discussed on the street. The O word is in every aisle of Whole Foods for people foods, and organic agriculture is the fastest growing food sector, with worldwide global sales of $63 Billion.

But how important is it for you to feed organic food to your pet? I'll look at several oft misunderstood points and share with you what I've learned over my decades as a holistic vet.

1. Organic Food: Good for the Eater. Flies Tell Us.

A brilliant middle schooler in my state named Ria Chhabra did a science fair project on fruit flies eating organic and non-organic foods to see if that variable made a difference. It did. The science so impressed some university researchers that they helped Ria publish her data in a journal. The fruit flies on the organic food showed greater longevity and fertility than those raised on conventional foods of the same type. The organically fed flies survived starvation and oxidative stress significantly better than the conventionally fed guys. Activity levels of the organic fed flies was higher than their conventional cohorts.


2. Q: Is it the Greater Nutritional Value or the Lack of Pesticides that Makes Organic Food Better?

A: Yes.

The above study didn't answer this question. But the health benefits to the organically fed fruit flies was striking. And we know from earlier work that organic food is higher in nutrients, no question. Organically produced milk had more of the good fatty acids, aka omega 3, and less of the bad guys, omega 6. Good for your heart, and for lessening inflammation overall, something every species can benefit from.

Plant derived nutrients that may help prevent cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, along with vitamin C were significantly higher in organic fruits and vegetables. (Let's just ignore the Stanford study that made the news in 2012 showing no apparent nutritional benefit. Likely a "cherry picking" of studies that made up this meta analysis, and likely driven by moneyed interests. A co-author of the study has ties to the tobacco industry, which tried to debunk the link between cigarettes and cancer with devious methods.)

We've already established pesticides aren't good for you. Pesticides cause cancer. Common knowledge. Pesticides kill bees. Here's one more: a tie between pesticide laden foods and kids with ADHD. Tip of the iceberg, all this.

An early experience in my own daughter brought this home like no other. When Hannah was 2-3 years old, she started reacting to potatoes in our diet. First, it was ear aches. But I'll never forget one instance that brought my sweet little girl pure agony. She woke up crying in the middle of the night, and the crying became painful. Half asleep, wailing, she couldn't tell me what was wrong. Her ears were okay. What is it, honey? Finally, it became clear: her vulva was on fire -- red, angrily inflamed, and really painful.

Avoiding potatoes kept her out of trouble, but I was curious. Was it a potato allergy or trouble with the pesticides that they grew in? (Potatoes are one of the "dirty dozen" for pesticides) Betting on the latter, we grew some amazing organic potatoes in our garden. They were huge, bursting with flavor, and a complete meal in themselves with a few amendments. Hannah ate these right alongside her parents and never had a single reaction from then on.

It was the pesticides, no fault of the potato itself.

3. The Food Change that Benefits Pets Most is Not to Organic.

This one is coming from more than 20 years as a holistic vet. Across the board, the greatest benefit from a dietary change came from getting pets off the usual toxic kibble on the market and onto home prepared foods. That includes what I call the "Expensive Junk Foods" like Science Diet and Hill's Prescription Diets and their ilk, often found in Dr. WhiteCoat's clinic.

Without exception, getting the toxic and lifeless kibble out of the diet and switching to even cooked homemade food brought my patients more energy, cleaner coats, improved stools, better breath, and fewer symptoms of chronic disease. In short, they zoomed ahead to become Vital Animals shortly after the change.

The change from there to organic pet food? Imperceptible. I just couldn't see further gains in those that made that next jump.

 4. Organic or Not, Food Needs to Fit Genetic "Expectations."

A corollary to #3 is this: food needs to be close to what a species has evolved over millennia to eat. Dr. Wysong said this best, and it's shaped my thoughts about food for the past 25 years.

Think of a time line. One inch of that line is the amount of time mankind has been living the modern, post industrial life, about 200 years worth now. Processed foods are prominent in this time period -- you can buy them in a bag or a box, they can stay on the shelf for months without rotting, and they (sort of) keep one alive.

Now, run that line out to include the amount of time life has been present on our little planet, adapting to the natural environment, eating natural, unprocessed foods. How far would it go? 276 miles!

Genetically speaking, it's obvious that we and our animals adapted to the 276 miles, not the modern inch, right? So, feeding with that in mind leaves kibble out in the cold. It's nothing like a carnivore "expects" genetically.

This is another way of saying that organic food is clearly not the sole reason my patients make such huge improvements when they leave the processed food for something more natural, more like prey.

Have you read about Texas Ray yet? Big old Texas cat boy on "healthy" food whose owner said "To hell with this, you're getting sick!" Miracles ensued. Ray never looked back.

5. At Least Organ Meats Should Be Organic, Right?

Ah, a common myth that needs busting. The liver usually catches the blame for being a storehouse of toxins like pesticides. It's actually not the case. It's the fat that stores these largely fat soluble poisons, not the liver or kidneys, which filter but don't store.

And, if you think about the intelligent "vital force" in the background keeping us well, it makes sense, doesn't it? The liver is so important and performs so many key functions that the Chinese medical paradigm calls it the "general" of the body. Not a likely place to store pesticide residues, while the fat is pretty non-essential.

6. Organic Additions That Are Drop Dead Simple.

If you want to add something organic to what you're feeding your carnivore companion but feel hard pressed to make a totally organic balanced diet, try this simple addition: organic raw eggs. Those hens who get out on the grass and peck around for bugs and live without constant antibiotics in their feed are making some pretty amazing eggs. You may have seen them in your own frying pan: these yolks are deep yellow, almost orange, full of beta carotene and they stand up when cracked.

Adding these kind of eggs to any diet, in raw form, is a simple upgrade, and one you can start today.

  1. Open fridge, grab an egg. Or two or three, if you're feeding a Great Dane.
  2. Crack over current pet food. Raw.
  3. Feed it. Watch the eager appetite.
  4. Smile. You've just improved on what you were feeding, by adding some really healthy raw protein with no down side to it.

Easy peasy.

7. Organic Brown Rice? In My Dog's Food?

You can find foods bragging about organic ingredients and think you might be on to something really great. Until you think more deeply, and consider how much of this brag may be clever marketing vs thoughtful ingredients based on understanding the end eater.

Here's an example of a food called Advanced Dog Formula, from Newman's Own Organics. I only excerpted the ingredient list until it reached salt:

Chicken, Chicken Meal, Organic Oats, Organic Barley, Organic Peas, Organic Soybean Meal, Organic Sorghum, Organic Brown Rice, Organic Millet, Organic Rice, Chicken Fat (Naturally Stabilized with Mixed Tocopherols [a Source of Vitamin E]), Organic Flax Seed, Dicalcium Phosphate, Organic Carrots, Chicken Liver, Sea Salt

So, you know enough about reading labels to know that the order of ingredients is based on relative quantity. Here, you see the chicken and chicken meal are not organic, but the next eight ingredients are. And they are carb-rich grains, mostly. Who are you feeding this to, again?

A cute little wolf or a domestic lion, right?

And how much grain, organic or otherwise, would those cousins and ancestors in the real world be eating, exactly? You got it: nada. None. Zip.

You obviously need to think again if you're thinking this kind of "organic" pet food will enhance your Vital Animals.

8. Organic Meats Carry Less Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Risk.

These last few are broader thoughts on feeding organic foods. They have an effect on the planet, people included.

Antibiotic resistance, or the plague of "superbugs" that don't die with the usual antibiotics, is a problem borne largely from the livestock industry, where feeding low level antibiotics is commonplace. The resistant strains of bacteria that emerge from the guts of the livestock can pass this resistance on to those bacteria that cause disease and death in humans. The European Union banned the feeding of antibiotics year ago, in large part due to this understanding. The U.S. livestock industry has a lot of money and power behind it, and the practice continues.

Organically raised meats and eggs don't add to this burden. Antibiotics are not allowed in organically raised food animals, period.

 9. GMO's and Their Dangers are Eliminated in Organic Foods.

A whole other can of worms, but suffice it to say that genetically modified organisms (GMO), where a gene from another species is spliced into that of the target crop or animal, is associated with significant illness. Pigs refused to eat GMO corn. Pigs. You know, the species who can be raised on kitchen waste and aren't known to be particularly fussy about their food choices. When they have no other choice, GMO soy and corn made them sick.

Monsanto, the main perpetrator of GMO, is joined by some big boy brands in not wanting you to know GMO's are in the food you eat. If you'd like to vote with your pocketbook, here's a graphic that shows which brands supported GMO labeling legislation and which wanted to keep you in the dark.

Note: when you hover over the graphic with your cursor, you'll see it change to a magnifying glass. Click anywhere on it to enlarge it and you'll be able to read it easily.

10. Organically Raised Food Animals are Easier on the Planet and the Animals Themselves.

Ever seen the horror called a CAFO? In what has to be one of the smelliest, foulest nightmares any animal could land in. These factory feed lots and cage batteries are so heinous that taking pictures of them is often illegal.

Enough said.

Confused Now? Here's My Take.

While I tend to think eating organic food is much more important to our species, living to 80-90 years of age as we do, it's obviously of benefit to all who eat it, and it helps the planet in a broader way. Less pesticides in the water and air, more sustainable than conventional farming methods, animals are healthier and more humanely raised, etc. etc.

When clients ask, "Do I have to get my raw meat, bones, and veggies as all organic?" I answer no. But if you can afford it, organic pet food will be healthier for those you feed, no question.

Remember, the experience in the vast majority of pets improving their health and getting more vital came from getting them off the kibble and on to something more fitting to their genetic history. Even if you go slowly, that's a good direction to take on the Natural Path.

What steps on this part of the path have you already taken? Do you feed organic pet food? Any advice for those just starting out?

Photo by wonderworks

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  1. Nash Rich on March 23, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    I’ve always been a little confused about what organic means. I understand a little better now. I’m glad that we are making our food healthier, and I think we can do it for our animals too. I can see how it would be easier on the animals too. Thanks for the info!

  2. Eliza Cranston on November 4, 2015 at 7:18 am

    Thank you for this great information about organic dog food. I’m trying to improve the diet of my golden retriever because I’ve heard that they sometimes have more complex dietary needs than other breeds. I really like the idea of cracking some eggs over my dog’s food to add nutrition. I’ll keep all of this information in mind as I find the best food for him!

  3. Tricia on March 3, 2014 at 2:45 pm

    When I made the switch it was to whatever my grocery store had on sale. Going from $60/mo in kibble to over $500/mo in organic meat was not even remotely possible. Store bought meat was my gateway.
    Then with time I was able to source elsewhere for better quality and price. Today I am able to feed 2 Great Danes a quality raw meat diet for the same price as premium kibble.
    For those just getting started – Don’t get hung up on “perfection”. Non- organic choices should not stop you from making the transition. Imagine if you couldn’t find any organic veggies. Would you choose corn chips instead?

    • Will Falconer, DVM on March 3, 2014 at 5:13 pm

      Great point, Tricia! Kibble is much like cereal or chips compared to real meat. Definitely not a small step down.
      And my hat remains off to you for finding your way through this with both improved vitality and cost effectiveness accompanying your changes.

  4. Lizzy Meyer on March 3, 2014 at 11:36 am

    GREAT, Great, read. Thanks for writing about this topic. I find the potato story incredible because it just goes to show the pesticides and chemicals that are ON the food are the worst offenders. The innocent potato when grown properly without chemicals is a whole other plant. It does not even cause reactions-very cool story!
    I can see the big picture here-getting animals off of kibble and onto real food regardless of its source. Feeding conventional meat is a huge positive thing one can do for their animals’ health, if the alternative is kibble. The benefit is extreme.
    Personally, having worked on a CAFO, I know what goes on first-hand and I only lasted 3 months. I simply cannot feed those animals to my animals. Having worked the “sick pen” I wish to have ZERO part of that industry. This is not about GMO or Organic, but a more foundational problem of how those animals are treated. If we’re going to eat them, we had better respect them and treat them well.
    I find it totally acceptable to buy a 4-H or locally raised animal to feed my dogs, even if it was most likely fed GMO grains, but overall had a pretty good life. I have no doubt that GMO meats have effects on animals eating them-but there’s no proof yet. I think we have to do the best we can.
    Sure, finding local, sometimes grass fed, sometimes wild meats/bones/organs, or other humane sources is not as easy, but I feel good about feeding it to my small pack of two. I also think that the health of that animal who was slaughtered carries over to those who consume it.

    • Will Falconer, DVM on March 3, 2014 at 2:45 pm

      Oh God, Lizzy. You actually worked in one of those huge operations? I can imagine that would shape your choices in the future in a big way.
      I, too, saw some brutality in the dairy industry, when I first graduated and landed in Wisconsin once more. 95% of the farms were small and knew each animal personally, but there were a few big operations of several hundred cows, and I saw a very different relationship between producer and cows. One was a herd full of stub tailed cows. I knew this happened with a sharp knife and no anesthetic when they were calves, and the cows all looked like they were living in a concentration camp. Luckily, they were the exception.
      So, yes, how the animal is raised is another consideration. It probably means more to you and I, having seen it up close, than those whose only experience of meat is in the supermarket, in cling wrap.
      Thanks for sharing your insights and personal experience, Lizzy.

  5. elle on March 3, 2014 at 10:46 am

    I think we all need to be cognizant of this subject and do whatever we can to not support the animal confinement industry where livestock is fed not only GMO’s but many other horrifying things (there are dead animals lying all over in those facilities and the operators confide that they grind up these dead, diseased animals and feed them to the other confined animals in the facility. They parrot the big animal confinement corporations like Smithfield and Tyson who say that by feeding the remaining animals these diseased ones, they will receiving immunity from those diseases. Goodness, anyone who believes that needs to have their head examined. Why don’t they grind up healthy ones and feed those to the animals? Wouldn’t that be a smarter alternative if they had to continue such horrific practices?)
    Not supporting that industry means that we make sure the meats we feed to our dogs are from grass-fed, pasture-ranged, hormone-free cattle, pigs, chickens, etc. We owe it to ourselves and to our animals to take a stand.

    • Will Falconer, DVM on March 3, 2014 at 2:37 pm

      Wow, Elle, that’s how to spread Mad Cow disease, is this really happening? In cattle? You sure?

      • elle on March 3, 2014 at 3:32 pm

        A friend who is working with ranchers and farmers witnessed this with a pig confinement facility. I don’t know about cattle, but this is really happening. I can connect you with her if you like. Let me know.

        • Will Falconer, DVM on March 3, 2014 at 5:11 pm

          Ah, yes, pigs. Who’d eat about anything, including their own. How long before they’ve got prions floating around like the BSE/Mad Cow?
          Thanks for the clarification Elle.

          • Kathi Richards on March 20, 2014 at 12:19 am

            My understanding is that feed lots and ranchers are not supposed to feed pigs to pigs, or cows to cows. I am not sure if this is a law. However, this does not stop them from feeding cow to pig and pig to cow. The BSE transmits either way. Horrifying, yes.

  6. Maryanne on March 3, 2014 at 9:25 am

    If you are feeding raw meat and if those animals are raised on 100% GMO corn and soy, as chickens often are, aren’t you taking a chance with the same tumors arising as have been shown to arise in the pathetic little lab rats who were force fed GMO corn and soy? Where are the studies at to look at the amount of GMO in the meat of the animal who was fed GMO? I would agree that a diet predominant in grain or with any added grain isn’t doing dogs and cats any favor. My concern remains with the meat from the animal that has been fed GMO and what that is doing to the dogs and cats. Especially when it is fed raw to our dogs and cats. Do you have additional information on this concern?

    • Will Falconer, DVM on March 3, 2014 at 9:57 am

      Hi Maryanne,
      It sounds like a big unknown to me. I doubt very much if it’s been studied yet. My initial guess would be the risk would be less eating meat of one who ate GMO’s than eating GMO grains directly.
      We may not know for some years, I suspect. Unless another brilliant middle school kid wants to take this on, there’s not likely to be funding for such a study.

    • Tina on March 3, 2014 at 10:41 am

      There’s a similar study, nothing about GMO, but soy isoflavones which trigger allergies in both people and animals.
      Here’s a popular explanation of the results: