Is organic pet food worth the price?

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX -- When you’re shopping for pet food, you might come across claims like “natural” or “organic”.

But is it worth the extra cost? 3 On Your Side’s Gary Harper took a look at what those terms really mean.

Pet owner Ilana Jacqueline tried 10 different brands of food for her dog, Happy. She researched ingredients and read labels, trying to find a food that wouldn’t upset his stomach.

“It was very frustrating at times trying to figure out what the claims were actually trying to say,” Ilana says.

We found that while the FDA and USDA regulate certain terms on the bag or can, not all claims are regulated or even clearly defined.

“There are a lot of buzzwords out there right now that pet food companies are putting on their labels, because it’s what’s hot in the market,” says veterinarian, Dr. Katy Nelson.

Organic is one of those buzzwords. The FDA says there are no official rules governing the labeling of organic food for pets.

Same goes for the USDA, although this agency will certify a pet product if it meets certain organic standards for humans.

And don’t go looking for the definition of holistic either.

What about claims like premium, super premium, and ultra premium? These foods are not required to contain any different or higher quality ingredients.

“Those are defined really by the marketplace,” says Pet Food Institute President Duane Ekedahl.

The Pet Food Institute says the manufacturers comply with current laws and keep an eye on standards set by other agencies.

“As we learn more about the nutrition requirements of cats and dogs, and as new ingredients evolve, the profiles are revised," says Ekedahl.

But vets say the terms might be more about marketing. We found no definition for “natural” but there are industry guidelines set up for pet food companies to follow. There should not be artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.

“You can still be using by-products; you can still be using all sorts of things that might not be the best quality, but they’re still natural, so you can put natural on your pet food label,” says Dr. Nelson.

Look for claims that say “complete” and “balanced”. That’s actually defined by law, and a company must prove its food contains all the nutrients necessary for a healthy dog or cat.

So why would pet food makers put all those terms on products? The Pet Food Institute says pet owners will know the difference.

“They know the coats, they know the energy levels they, they know how much the cat or dog likes the foods,” says Ekedahl.

Meantime, down owner Ilana says doing all the research to find the best pet food was confusing at times, but worth it.

"My dog is very happy and healthy now that he is on the right food," says Ilana.

The USDA says it's working to come up with rules and regulations to define exactly what is "organic" pet food.