Complete & Balanced Pet Food

Fact or Fiction?


We have all seen the advertisements: beautiful pictures in magazines of dog’s surrounded by colorful fruits, vegetables, grains and fresh meat; dogs happily driving tractors through wheat fields on television and the logo emblazoned on commercial pet foods educating us on the fact that the product “Brand ABC Dog Food is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by AAFCO Dog Food Profiles for all life stages”. That is, it is “complete and balanced” and full of all the wholesome foods you saw in the ad or on the label and that is why you should buy it and only it.  But, is commercial dog food (such as kibble), really “complete and balanced” nutrition?

To understand the pet food industry term “complete and balanced” it is important to understand where that term comes from.  AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) is a private corporation comprised primarily of regulatory officials, advisors and committee members that includes representation from major feed manufacturers and ingredient suppliers.  Membership is voluntary and AAFCO has no regulatory power whatsoever.  Meaning, they are really more of an information service and in their words: look to achieve consumer protection, the safeguarding of health and provide a level playing field in the feed industry.  Directly on their website you will find this: “AAFCO does not regulate, test, approve or certify pet foods in any way. AAFCO establishes the nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods, and it is the pet food company’s responsibility to formulate their products according to the appropriate AAFCO standard.” (scroll to bottom of this page for the disclaimer) The nutritional standards list the minimum nutritional requirements (some vitamins and minerals include a maximum) of the components of diet like protein, fat, vitamins and minerals, laid out in percentages and amounts (interestingly AAFCO lists no amount for carbohydrates; because it is agreed dog’s have NO nutritional need for them, yet most kibble contain at least 40% carbs and some more than 50%).  So, list these minimum amounts and you’re on your way to calling that food “complete and balanced”.  It is important to note that minimum nutrient requirements do not necessarily mean adequate, nor do they mean enough to promote or maintain health.  In fact, it means enough not to cause obvious signs of deficiency during a feeding trial (which only needs 8 dogs over a 26 week period, only 6 of whom need to actually complete the trial without a certain level of weight loss, or changes in some biochemistry results).  For a food to be “complete” it must contain all the necessary essential components of diet and “balanced” in the correct amounts/ratios/proportions. Unfortunately this tends to be rendered, heat processed foods of differing quality, supplemented with synthetic vitamins and minerals and lengthy lists of food ingredients whose definitions can be enough to make anyone crazy as they try to figure it out.  But we are still left with the reality that AAFCO doesn’t actually test these foods to make sure they do in fact contain the levels advertised (whether we agree with the levels or not).  So who is?  Good question….and from my perspective, no one.

To most people, hearing that their dog’s food is “complete and balanced” nutrition is reassuring and brings a feeling that all of their dog’s nutritional needs are being met.  This is not necessarily the case; in my opinion, it is rarely the case.  Every pet, just like every human, has different nutritional needs; those needs depend on a variety of things such as lineage, environment, diet and lifestyle.  Thus one can understand how one food prepared for all dog’s cannot really meet all those different body requirements.  Yet, kibble is a processed food, packaged for long shelf life and convenience of serving, that is advertised to be all your dog needs in one little nugget.

Consider this: NASA (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has spent millions (if not billions) of dollars developing and re-developing “Space Food” (many of us remember that horrible freeze dried Neapolitan ice cream they came up with!!!).  NASA has tried to create the ideal food for astronauts in space; a harsh environment where food preparation must be quick and easy, no debris or crumbs to fill the air, long shelf life and meeting nutritionist’s guidelines.  It must be physiologically appropriate, nutritious, easily digestible and palatable (sounds a lot like what food for dog’s should be!).  Astronauts have had to endure bite-sized cubes, freeze dried powders, and semi-liquids stuffed in aluminum tubes (our dog’s have endured that and some). Most agreed the foods were unappetizing and NASA found that astronauts were returning home with signs of nutrient deficiencies, including weight loss and found astronauts were not eating the food. There were so many complaints NASA had to abandon this notion of food processed and packaged into little single-serve forms, being able to meet all nutritional needs.  What they have now is a vast array of fresh food choices (prepared a variety of ways, with some dried, dehydrated or freeze dried items also) and they may eat from a standard menu designed around a typical shuttle mission of 7 days, or may substitute items to accommodate their own tastes. Astronauts may even design their own menus, choosing from pages of different food, beverage and condiment choices.  What’s the point? Simply put, if NASA couldn’t come up with a little nugget of one food, packaged conveniently in bags for long shelf life, that astronauts scoop into their breakfast, lunch and dinner bowls, that met all the nutritional needs of humans (i.e “complete and balanced” nutrition for adult life stages) how is it that the pet food industry has accomplished this task!!!???  Astronauts were able to voice their dislike of the food- our dogs cannot do that.

I do feel the discussion of “complete and balanced” would be incomplete without acknowledging the role of the bioavailability of food.  Bioavailability is a measure of how efficiently food nutrients are utilized by the body.  Whole foods vs. processed foods vs. synthetic ingredients are all used differently and either more efficiently (whole, natural foods) or less efficiently (processed and synthetic additives).  The standards used by AAFCO aren’t based on natural diets of carnivores; they use highly processed ingredients to determine appropriate levels.  So while some believe having a single standard in the industry is important and promotes health, others feel the standards are inadequate because they are not considering the quality of ingredients, processing and bioavailability and how this impacts nutrient absorption.  We have had decades of “complete and balanced” pet food, yet we are seeing increases in diseases of our pets, not seen before by veterinarians.  Have you wondered why that is?

Mary Straus of the Whole Dog Journal summarizes this topic nicely when she says “a human nutritionist would never expect someone to follow a single recipe with no variation, as veterinary nutritionists routinely do. Instead, a human would be given guidelines in terms of food groups and portion sizes.”  Home-prepared diets that include a wide variety of foods fed at different meals rely on balance over time, not at every meal. Similar to the way humans eat, as long as your dog gets everything s/he needs over each week or two, the diet will be complete with all the essential components of diet and balanced in the correct amount (note: many dogs will require individual and specific supplements or foods because of varying health, environmental or genetic weaknesses). Greg Martinez DVM, likens this to the ancestors of our domesticated pets (gray wolves) knowing what complete and balanced food was; it was the variety of seasonal prey, plants, nuts, and fruit that they as predators relied on, in the ratios correct for the carnivore digestive system: high protein, moderate to high fat and zero to low carbohydrates. Where pet guardians sometimes tend to have trouble is the balancing.  Natural wild diets will balance themselves, ensuring proper vitamin, mineral ratios and amounts. Home prepared diets not based on appropriate prey model or carcass based meal plans, must be altered to ensure the balance remains, or risk long term nutrient deficiencies, similar (or sometimes worse) to those found with processed commercial diets.

What has evolved over decades in the pet food industry is an exact percentage of nutrients needed for our pet’s health, that must be cooked up by pet food manufacturers in order to get it just right.   My problem (one of them anyway) with this line of thinking, is that we as humans have developed in a cognitive manner and this allows us to be able to feed our own offspring, through all life stages.  Yet, according to the pet food industry, we lack the cognitive ability to feed our pets.  I am not saying our pets are furry little humans, anyone who knows me knows I DON’T want people feeling or feeding this way; but they are not so foreign to us that their dietary needs require a PhD, computer programs analyzing chemical structure/components and double-blind studies to tell us a concoction of dozens of ingredients are the only food our pets can eat! They do however require a thoughtful, educated and planned feeding regime, to ensure that the feeding method of choice does in fact deliver everything our pet needs.  I have seen many diets that although well intentioned, simply don’t meet a canine’s nutritional needs. But we are very capable of doing it and doing it well.

A myriad of different ingredients, processed at high heat with added synthetic vitamins and minerals does not create wholesome balanced food.  No meal/food fed repeatedly over time is complete nor is it balanced; including a fresh food diet that is limited in ingredients- this is just as dangerous.  To me complete and balanced is an industry created marketing tool that has been incredibly successful to the bottom line of the company, but at great cost to our pets health.  So, whether you view “complete and balanced” as a comforting, reassuring notion your pet’s food is meeting his/her needs, or see it as an incredibly brilliant marketing ploy…..only YOU can decide! But my hope here is which ever side you land on, it is with a contemplated, educated decision.

Wishing you and your pet family, health and wellness.


Michelle Sykes, B.A., Cert. C.N
Canine Nutrition Consultant
Tail Waggin The Dog
K9 Health & Nutrition The Way Nature Intended

“It’s not just dog food; it’s food for dogs!”


About the Author:

Michelle is the owner of a private consulting company focusing on canine health and nutrition.  Having completed a Certificate in Canine Nutrition through a lengthy program under the study of a registered holistic vet, Michelle has gained valuable knowledge and tools that focus on using nutrition to improve health and mitigate illnesses and disease in our dogs lives.  Additional courses through Hill’s Pet, Purina Veterinary and several other continuing education credits created for practicing veterinarians and experienced vet techs in areas of parasites, urinalysis, hematology and GI, Pancreatitis and Thyroid disease, have provided her with a well rounded range of information to draw upon.  Michelle believes in the holistic health perspective and encourages pet guardians to do so as well.  If you are interested in locating a veterinarian that supports and encourages this approach, please go to or here .



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