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Is organic dog food worth the expense?

I have five pets. Judge me all you want, but I revel comfortably in the pet-hoarding queer stereotype. When it comes to food, I pay more attention to my pets’ needs than mine. To be fair, I try to eat healthy, but my budget is a little tight and I often call a grilled cheese lunch and don’t feel bad about it. That type of thing doesn’t fly for the fur babies, though. For years, I’ve invested a lot of time (seeking out specialty feed stores) and money in my cats’ and dogs’ diets. I want them to be healthy, happy, and live as long as I do (a girl can dream). Recently though, I couldn’t help but wonder if I should really be buying organic dog food, which is more expensive and harder to find.

First of all, what does organic pet food even entail? According to the USDA, the organic label means that food was produced without chemicals, pesticides, or genetic engineering. But labels can also be a little confusing, because if (human) food in a package is at least 70% organic and the rest of the contents don’t violate other USDA standards, it can still be deemed “organic.” It works the same way with pet food labeling.

Pet food companies can be really tricky with their use of language on labeling, so if pet nutrition is important to you, read carefully. Sarah Ochoa, a veterinarian and a consultant for DogLab, an informational database for dog lovers, explains, “Only if the dog food bag says that it is 100% organic and displays the USDA organic seal, then it is truly 100% organic.” This makes sense, as it works the same way in the world of human packaged organic food. Organic or not, Ochoa says to make sure that all dog food that you feed your dog has a AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) statement.

So, say the food meets standards and is 100% organic? Does that mean that it’s better for my pets? Not necessarily, Ochoa says. “Expensive organic foods are not really needed. As long as your pet is eating good quality food, they will be healthy,” she says.

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Daniel Grimnet, a veterinarian in Edmond, Oklahoma, concurs. “I have no problem with owners looking for organic options for their pets, but far more importantly, the diet needs to fit the needs of the pet and have solid science and research behind it,” he says. “Too often, ‘organic’ or ‘all natural’ is used as a marketing ploy to entice owners to purchase a diet, usually for a higher cost, which has no data to back up its claims of being good for the pet.”

“A low-quality diet will not allow your dog to get all the added nutrients that they need,” Ochoa warns. “This means that your dog will get sicker more often.” Grimnet adds, “Diet has a huge influence on a pet’s health in the same way a human diet effects our wellbeing." He tells me that if a pet isn't eating well, they can develop orthopedic diseases such as hip dysplasia, as well as early onset heart disease, bladder stones, and pancreatitis.

So what types of pet food is considered high quality? Since it depends on your pet's breed, size, and needs, it’s best to consult an expert (a human one, versus Google) if you have access to one. “I recommend that owners talk with their veterinarian regarding which food to choose for their pets,” says Grimnet. He also suggests buying from companies that have serious research and development programs and solid scientific data to support their diet. A few of these, he tells me, include Royal Canin, Hill’s/Science Diet, Purina, and Eukanuba.

Also, Ochoa says to look for meat as the first ingredient. This will usually be a better quality dog food than those that list a grain as the first ingredient. Look for the words “beef dog food"; if it’s called something like “beef meal,” the food only needs to contain 25% beef. Another thing to keep in mind: Pets may sometimes show a preference for lower quality food, but their likes and dislikes aren’t necessarily good indicators of quality, says Grimnet. “Remember, just because the pet likes the food, it doesn’t mean it’s good for them. My children love donuts but…”

Due to budgetary constraints, right now, my dogs are eating the cheapest corner bodega kibble with an AAFCO label. I buy organic for myself when I can, and I will continue to do so for my pets. The truth is that, while it may contain the same nutritional values, organic food and farming is better for the environment and better for our bodies. When it comes down to it, it’s a personal preference, just like my multiple grilled cheeses per week.