Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.
What Does the Label Say?
The demand for convenient, efficient, and cost-effective ways to cultivate agriculture for the modern world has led to unethical food-production methods at the expense of human health, the environment, and animal welfare.
Although words such as "free-range" and "organic" may sound enticing, some companies may adhere to minimal welfare standards given the USDA’s vague requirements for the label. For instance, the criteria for "free-range chicken" is "access to the outdoors," but it doesn't specify the length of time spent outdoors and it doesn’t mean that chickens aren’t debeaked.
Misrepresentation on Food Labels
These methods have, unfortunately, become mainstream and conventional. The meat industry, in particular, not only allows animals to be raised inhumanely, but the resulting meat product is also sometimes higher in bad fats when the animals are not fed the diet that they have evolved to consume for the sake of cheap production.
The conditions of today’s meat-production factories are prompting many people to switch from conventional grocery store brand meats to brands that claim higher standards and advertise their products with words such as "free-range," "grass-fed," "humanely raised," and "antibiotic-free." Sometimes these words can be misleading, but overall, they are an encouraging progression in the industry that seems in dire need of improvement. Always check the farms that a brand gets meat from to see if they meet reasonable standards and aren't using the terms while cutting corners.
There is now a demand for more ethical and sustainable agriculture, and pet foods are among the products that you should consider upgrading to promote the humane treatment of livestock. There are a few commercially available choices to select from and the options are growing.
Why Buy Higher-Quality Foods for Pets?
While the expense of free-range foods for pets may be off-putting, supporting ethical food production is an enormous benefit. Purchasing free-range brands of pet foods are a vote for standards in the food industry overall—such as removing battery cages and other forms of mistreatment—even if it is only a slight improvement.
Supporting such efforts will continue to open the market for similar products in the future, and perhaps they will be more affordable as well, providing for a healthier environment for pets, people, and livestock.
New Descriptions in the Market
- Vegetarian-fed (pigs)
- Grass-fed (cows)
- Hormone, steroid, and GMO-free
Which Meats Are Raised More Humanely?
Some meats tend to be raised more humanely or naturally than others. Chicken, pigs, turkeys, and cattle are more likely to be raised using poor factory farming methods than animals such as sheep, bison, and deer because these animals do poorly in confined environments.
Animals That Aren't Factory-Farmed
The following animals cannot be raised with battery farming methods, therefore, any pet food you buy that only contains these meats are more ethical.
- Deer (venison)
What About Feeding Raw-Food Diets?
Raw meats such as fish, chicken, turkey, bison, venison, rabbit, and even kangaroo (reported to contain high levels of beneficial conjugated linoleic acid) are sometimes purchased for pets at local farmers' markets or even ordered online. Some websites that sell meat for people may offer pet food selections. One advantage to these diets is that you know exactly what’s in it and where it comes from, but is this the healthiest most evidence-based choice?
Originally, I was an advocate of raw-feeding, but I have since reversed my opinion. In short, the raw-feeding model is based on the failed logic that nature provides optimal nutrition. If you still want to buy these meats, it's best to consult a certified canine nutritionist and cook the meats to kill any potentially harmful bacteria.
1. Frozen-Prepared Meals and Raw Meats
Many dealers that provide meat for people also sell cuts for your pets. This section lists some dealers that offer these selections. I do not advocate for raw diets (at all) or homemade diets without consulting a nutritionist, but if you want to use whole meats, pick up some meat from animals that have been properly raised for yourself and your pet from some of the dealers listed below.
I have listed most of the farms that the meats from these providers are derived from. Some suppliers are better than others, but all that are listed appear reasonable at minimum.
Hearst Ranch Pet Food
Hearst Ranch offers grass-fed, pasture-raised meat along with its line of offerings for people. Their animals are free-roaming and allowed to forage naturally.
US Wellness Meats
US Wellness Meats is a dealer of humanely-raised meats in which the animals are allowed to forage and live in the open space of a farm. The cows are exclusively fed grass their entire lives (not finished on corn). Their website has a pet section, yet any of the meat selections make acceptable feeds for dogs and cats as long as bones are not present. They offer organ meats, ground beef, and bones, which I do not recommend. This site can be economical if you order in bulk; there is a small processing fee and a minimum amount must be met in order to place an order.
K9 Natural Frozen Raw Nibblets Dog Food
Made from “grass-fed, ranch raised meat from New Zealand,” this food does not contain grains or starch. Although it has low protein content, it contains only high-quality meats and vegetables, including organ meat. This food also contains other varied ingredients such as mussels, which are claimed to provide a natural source of glucosamine. Frozen food may be ordered online and is sometimes offered in smaller specialty pet shops.
Raw Advantage meats come from select suppliers. The food is ground raw and in chunk or "chub" form:
- the turkey comes from Diestel Turkey Ranch
- the chicken comes from Petaluma Poultry Processors or Nature's Premier Organic Company
- the beef comes from Western Grasslands Beef (DBA Panorama Meats, Inc.)
- the duck comes from Maple Farms
Rad Cat Raw Diet
As described on the Rad Cat Raw Diet website:
We use the highest quality muscle and organ meats in all of our natural, holistic pet foods and treats. Our meats are US-sourced, USDA-inspected, hormone and antibiotic free, free-range or pasture-raised. We use the same meats found at your finest natural food stores. All of our muscle and organ meats are ground partially frozen at the time of processing to ensure only the freshest quality.
Rad Cat Raw Diet can be purchased from other online dealers if you are not located near one of their retail stores in Oregon.
2. Freeze-Dried and Dehydrated Food
Freeze-dried foods are said to be the healthiest processed option outside of raw food. There are a few brands of freeze-dried food that contain free-range meats and other healthy ingredients as well.
The Honest Kitchen
The Honest Kitchen’s dog food and cat food contains USDA free-range human-grade chicken. Both are grain-free but do contain sweet potatoes. The supplier of The Honest Kitchen’s chicken is Petaluma Poultry, which has received a "Step 3" in the Whole Foods Gap Rating for humanely raised meats, offering a reasonable and better alternative to conventional farming methods.
The food has the consistency of dry dirt, smells of vegetables, and requires the addition of water. This food also makes a good additive to pelleted or raw food diets. The Honest Kitchen offers other freeze-dried foods with turkey, chicken, beef, and fish.
Addiction Pet Foods (Brushtail)
This is a raw, dehydrated option containing the wild-caught brushtail (Trichosurus vulpecula). The website states that this prominent marsupial decimates forests, making it an environmentally-friendly choice. This is also a good option for pets with allergies.
Stella and Chewy's Freeze-Dried Dinners
Of the Stella and Chewy's Freeze-Dried Dinners, the venison variety is most likely to have truly humanely processed meat ingredients. The product description is as follows:
Raw, farm-raised, cage-free chicken, Raw, naturally raised, cage-free poultry, Raw, grass-fed venison, Raw, farm-raised rabbit, Raw, naturally raised beef, Raw, naturally raised, cage-free poultry, Raw, naturally raised lamb, Raw, wild Alaskan salmon & raw, naturally raised beef.
3. Dry Food
Here are some recommended dry foods.
Blue Buffalo Adult Free-Range Lamb and Brown Rice
This food contains New Zealand free-range lamb and is free of hormones, antibiotics, and steroids. Lamb is generally raised with superior standards in New Zealand. This food is not grain-free, however. Blue Buffalo brands can be easily found in chain pet stores.
Addition Dry Pet Foods
Addition Dry Pet Foods uses meats that are obtained from healthy game animals such as salmon, venison, kangaroo, lamb, and brushtail. This food is grain-free with oats or potatoes and contains supplemental additives. This brand is also suitable for dogs and cats with allergies to certain meats.
Wysong's Nurture With Free-Range Pheasant
This food is recommended for both dogs and cats. It is a pelleted food that is also combined with shreds of TNT™ cold-processed, free-range pheasant (this processing method does not use heat, making the food essentially raw with the same benefits). It is high in protein, and the first four ingredients are animal-based. However, this food also contains chicken that is not said to be free-range.
Wysong is a company that acknowledges that dry food is not an optimum diet for pets. It strives to provide the best nutrition in kibble form and has developed processing techniques to preserve the nutritious value of raw food. Wysong is not as common in popular chains, but some brands can be found in more specialized stores or ordered online where bulk orders would be the most financially sound (be sure to look up the most useful coupon codes).
ORIJEN and ACANA (My Favorite)
Champion Petfoods is the leader in free-range meats and/or wild-caught fish. Their products ORIJEN and ACANA are my favorite. These dry foods come with other healthy plant-based ingredients and minimal potato content (the food is grain-free). The ingredients are varied and both products contain many different protein sources (for example, up to six red/white meats and three different types of eggs in "Regional Red").
I would like to caution potential buyers that some people have found varieties of this food to be "too rich" (especially Regional Red, which is very high in protein) and have reported symptoms such as diarrhea in their pets.
My senior dog did fine with ORIJEN's "6 Fish" but experienced issues with the impressive ingredients of Regional Red. It would be best to experiment with smaller quantities first, and if problems arise, try diluting the foods with other brands. ACANA is better for less active or older dogs. This brand is not inexpensive, but deals can be found online.
ORIJEN and ACANA Food Production
4. "Certified Humane" Food
Open Farm is a brand that emphasizes the humane treatment of livestock and has achieved a certified-humane label which is uncommon for pet food supplies. Their sound animal care standards include habitat enrichment, space (stalls, cages, and crates are forbidden), and clean resting areas. The produce is "[m]ade with 100% Certified Humane meats, Ocean Wise recommended wild-caught fish and locally grown, non-GMO fruits & veggies."
Open Farm food comes highly recommended and Dog Food Advisor states the following about the product:
Open Farm is a grain-free plant-based dry dog food using a notable amount of whitefish meal as its main source of animal protein, thus earning the brand 4.5 stars.
5. Canned Food
Consider adding canned food to your pet’s diet if they are only receiving dry food. This will add much-needed moisture content. Be advised that canned food commonly has low protein values and should not constitute most of your pet’s meals.
Newman’s Own Organics (Canned Organic Beef Formula)
Newman's Own Organics uses free-range beef. According to the label, “[E]ach free-range, grass-fed animal is maintained in an area equivalent of two soccer fields.” The meat is from Uruguay and is USDA organic. This food does contain soy, brown rice, and barley.
The specialty online site Only Natural Pet sells freeze-dried treats consisting only of meat cuts that are labeled free-range chicken, certified Wagyu, free-range whole Kobe beef, or free-range grass-fed bison.
The Only Natural Pet site also sells free-range bully sticks from grass-fed Brazilian cattle and many other true free-range-derived chews for dogs. Other brands also offer free-range or game-sourced meat treats due to their economic feasibility.
Consider Shopping Locally and Supporting Small Farms
There are also smaller producers of raw diets for pets that may be found in your local town or online. Give them and your local farmers' markets a try for more humane and healthy alternatives to conventional pet foods.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: Are Arcana and Orijen dry dog foods both organic and human grade for dogs and cats?
Answer: They are dry and human-grade. I don't think they are organic, but that label is meaningless.
bre on June 03, 2020:
whyyyyy is blue buffalo on here? not at all humane or truthful about ingredients.
Roger Gordon on May 20, 2018:
Is Newman's salmon in its wet dog food farmed or wild caught
Meg on November 10, 2017:
Thank you for all the work you went to for this.
The thing is - I have an 11.5 year old German Shepherd dog (they live to be about 12.5 usually), she was diagnosed with hip dysplasia at 2, at about 5 I switched to to Vdog. Her hips stopped getting inflamed and she stopped limping (which makes sense since when I went vegan my arthritis cleared up), her coat got all glossy, she has tons of energy - goes on a 30 minute run three times a week.
At first the vets said "Oh no! You can have a vegan dog" Now they say "Wow, don't change a thing"
No one can believe how old she is.
All of that was just unexpected perks. The reason I switched her is because I couldn't justify killing another animal so she could live.
Emma on July 21, 2017:
Thank you so much for the research and providing such valuable information.
aleshia on April 18, 2017:
Juse thought I'd mention that Acana has changeeld the name of their duck biscuit from Free Range Duck - to "Free Run Duck" recently. Not sure if they had been falsely advertising their product or if they changed from free range to free run (free run is barn raised).
JillS on March 22, 2016:
Thanks for this post - very helpful to me in my search for the right food! You should check out and add Open Farm pet food to the list (www.openfarmpet.com). They make grain free dog food and cat food and are the first Certified Humane food on the market. Very sustainable company and very transparent about what's in their food. My guys loved it!
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on February 04, 2015:
Katy Cummings-- I'm sure there are plentiful dog foods with bison and no fish meal. I tend to avoid feeding fish because I don't like the way they are handled, but most people don't have a problem with it and it's still uncertain how much pain fish feel. If Solid Gold is an expensive brand I would rather my money go to an ideal choice, but if it's a decent value my favorite choices mights not measure up. Find what's financially convenient for you and the closest to your ideals. Lamb-based foods are also prominent.
Katy Cummings on February 04, 2015:
THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS! I've been going crazy trying to find something for my new dog. I ended up buying Solid Gold's King Wolf dry food - the main meat source is bison, but there is also "fish meal" of an unknown species and source I'm not completely happy with. I was wondering what your take on the Solid Gold brand is. Thank you!
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on June 18, 2014:
HelpNeeded-- You can try canned cat foods that contain lamb, bison, or venison. A great brand is Nature's Instinct.
HelpNeeded on June 18, 2014:
I have a cat who is allergic to grain and chicken, and I am having a very hard time finding a humane wet canned food for her to eat. Any help?
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on February 18, 2014:
Where did you get that information Nyree Jones?
Nyree Jones on February 18, 2014:
Please be aware that the any chicken product in K9 or ADDICTON pet food is barn raised, not free range. Technically barn raised should mean cage-free, however our animal welfare legislation in New Zealand is not strong enough to enforce that.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on February 06, 2014:
Glad I could help you Beth! I'm hoping to add more to it in the future.
Beth on February 06, 2014:
I don't have a dog yet,but am so happy I found this. I have recently gone primarily vegan and while I want to feed my future dog meat, I want to make sure it has been raised and treated the best way possible. This list is so comprehensive, and it answers all the questions I have so far. Thank you for taking the time to put this together!!
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on February 02, 2014:
I'm glad this helps you Samantha Childs. Glad your dog eats a species-specific diet as well. A dog food with meat that has been humanely-raised will provide optimal nutrition.
Samantha Childs on February 02, 2014:
Thanks so much for this! I've been searching for this info! Pet stores don't know and PETA only had vegan foods on its site, so my search was frustrating - at last I know! I don't eat meat, but my dog does, and I want to give the animals that he eats the nicest lives possible. Thank you for writing this article and helping me!
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 18, 2013:
Thank you rebeccamealey!
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 18, 2013:
Thanks a lot, one can also add bones to the meal. I do a little bit of everything.
Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on December 18, 2013:
This is very enlightening and i nformational.Bookmarked to come back to. Thanks for sharing your expertise!
Dr Mark from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on December 18, 2013:
Great information. I am not a fan of all of those "pet burgers" as they do not provide the same benefits of throwing the dog a bone, but they certainly are a lot better than all the processed foods that are being sold as "natural" nowadays. What a crock.
I am pinning this, voting up. Thanks.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on November 04, 2013:
Not my cup of tea Julia, dogs can eat less meat but it's pretty unnatural for them to go meatless. Plus, the bulk veggie ingredients contain starch and possibly gluten, which I do not think is beneficial for dogs. My preferred staple dog foods with veggie ingredients have low percentages of that. I would also encourage you to look at the benefits of raw bones for dogs and dental health (but not too hard, because they can break teeth). I think the optimal diet for a dog is plant and meat based. I admit that veg dog food can probably at least have the same value as most conventional omnivore dogfoods, and at least they don't have low quality meat by products.
Julia on November 04, 2013:
How about vegan pet food? For dogs anyway.. Felines require meat to survive, but not canines! Dogs are true omnivores and thrive on a high-protein, nutritiously balanced plant-based food.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on September 08, 2012:
Thank you for your comment Grace. Humanely-raised pet food is rather on the pricey side but I feel the health benefits (and support of humane agriculture) are defiantly worth it. Also, if more generic brands must be purchased, it's a good idea to buy foods that contain lamb, bison, and other animals that can't be factory farmed to the extent of chicken and cows.
Grace on September 08, 2012:
Thank you so much for this article. I was too occupied with finding the best diet and affordable food for my pets it didn't occur to me to choose humane ones. Your hub has been helpful and I'll give some of your suggested products a try.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on April 17, 2012:
Thanks for the support, sounds like you have a lucky dog being fed a species appropriate diet. Some stores are starting to carry more frozen diets as well. I love a few, such as Instinct, that will hopefully convert to free-range in the future.
Dragonrain on April 17, 2012:
Awesome hub :) Voted up and bookmarked! I feed my dog raw and so far get all of his food at local markets. I've been considering ordering him meat online for some time now but have never tried it before. I'll be sure to come back to your hub and check out some of the links when I'm ready to try ordering online.