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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, natural dog food.
Dr. Gary Richter, DVM 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 a natural dog food formula.
While high-quality can be a shorthand for natural and organic dog food, 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 typically 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, requires industry certification. 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 traditional foods. 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 who care about the environmental impact of their purchases often prefer foods featuring organic ingredients, for instance.
On the other hand, if your primary concern is your dog’s health, you may be looking for a natural dog food because it contains 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 on the list of ingredients. 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 dog’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 and grain-free 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.
The FDA is still investigating so, 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?
The Best Affordable Natural Dog Foods
Natural dog food doesn’t have to break the bank. We’ve rounded up some of the most affordable options in natural and organic dog food. Check them out below!
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 it features a top-notch, limited ingredient formula that may be ideal for dogs with food allergies or sensitivities.Shop on Chewy Shop on Amazon Shop on Petco
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.Shop on Chewy Shop on Amazon Shop on Petco
If you’re looking to upgrade your dog’s diet, you can’t do better than fresh food. This chicken recipe packs a punch with protein and nutrition, featuring whole-food ingredients like fresh chicken, carrots, and peas. Ollie’s fresh food is human-grade and completely free from fillers and artificial additives. It is also much less processed than traditional commercial pet food.Shop at Ollie
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.Shop on Chewy Shop on Amazon Shop on Petco
Taste of the Wild has been a popular choice in affordable natural dog food since 2007. Diamond, the makers of Diamond Naturals, own the brand. 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.Shop on Chewy Shop on Amazon Shop on Petco
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.Shop on Chewy Shop on Amazon Shop on Petco
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.Shop on Chewy Shop on Amazon
This fresh dog food has plenty of protein and features simple ingredients: turkey, eggs, brown rice, carrots, spinach, and fish oil. Nom Nom goes the extra mile in creating a custom meal plan for your dog and portions his meals according to his caloric requirements. You’ll enjoy convenient deliveries of fresh dog food made with restaurant-quality proteins and vegetables, all prepped right here in the USA.Shop at Nom Nom
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.Shop on Chewy Shop on Amazon Shop on Petco
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.Shop on Chewy Shop on Amazon Shop on Petco
Tender and True is a small brand that first launched in 2014 and 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 humanely raised. Note that this food is for small, medium, and large breeds and it is not intended for large-breed puppies below 70 pounds.Shop on Chewy Shop on Amazon Shop on Petco
Packed with protein from organic chicken and supplemented with more than 20 superfoods for balanced nutrition, this high-quality kibble ships directly to your door. Jinx offers Subscribe & Save deals on their nutritionist formulated, vet approved recipes along with a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee. Designed for optimal digestibility, this kibble helps improve gut health, immunity, and skin and coat condition.Shop at Jinx
If you’re wondering how much to feed your dog, we made a quick video for you, here: