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Is Food Coloring Safe for Dogs? What’s in Food Coloring?

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By Nicole Cosgrove

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Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Lorna Whittemore

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The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Most food is processed, both for humans and for dogs. Processing alters the natural state of food and removes bacteria, improves their shelf life, and makes them visually appealing. A big part of this is color—most of what we eat would be gray (and unappetizing!) without food coloring.

But is food coloring safe for dogs? What’s in it? The colors are added for our benefit since our dogs can’t perceive them. Dogs don’t need them, and they offer no nutritional value, so it begs the question as to why we bother at all?

Although food coloring is generally safe for dogs to eat, you may prefer to avoid it.

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What’s in Food Coloring?

Artificial food colorings were originally made from coal tar. Now, synthetic food dyes are derived from petroleum or crude oil. The final products are tested to ensure they contain no traces of petroleum.

Some food coloring is made from plant-based materials, such as Blue No. 2, the same indigo dye used to color denim. Other natural sources of pigment include turmeric, a plant that grows in India, and cochineal, an extract from an insect that creates a red color.

food coloring in bowls with spoons
Image credit: Tabeajaichhalt, Pixabay

Is Food Coloring Safe?

Food coloring has a sordid history in our food industry. Companies weren’t always honest and transparent, often using food coloring to hide spoilage or the discoloration in older food. Some of the colors contained hazardous materials like lead and arsenic as well, compounding the issue.

Then, the Food and Drugs Act of 1906 banned the use of toxic food coloring. The approved food coloring came from coal tar dye. In the 1950s, this coal tar dye was also banned, leading to the Color Additives Amendments of 1960, which enacted strict oversight for color additives in human and animal foods.

Now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strictly regulates all color additives used in food. The certified colors include fewer than 10 approved colors, and colors derived from natural pigments in plants, minerals, and animals are allowed. The FDA also regulates the amount of food coloring allowed and its disclosure on the packaging.

dog eating food from a dog bowl
Image Credit: Mat Coulton, Pixabay

Are Food Colorings in Dog Food? Are They Safe?

According to the FDA, approved colors are safe in human and pet foods when used as directed. Some food colorings have been shown to be hazardous in large quantities, but these don’t include the FDA-approved colors and they must be used in much higher quantities.

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) allows color additives in pet food as defined in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act:

  • Any dye, pigment, or substance that when added or applied to a food, drug, or cosmetic, or to the human body is capable of imparting color
  • Includes substances that, when fed to animals, impart color to meat, milk, or eggs
  • Includes chemical and food-like substances

For pet food, all certified color additives are “artificial” by definition and the FDA’s approved colors. Colors exempt from certification are derived from natural sources, such as plants, minerals, algae, or animals. Colors must also be labeled and listed.

In short, according to the FDA and AAFCO, color additives are safe for dog food. The limited research in this area finds that dogs are more likely to have allergies to protein, not food coloring. Still, this is not an area that’s been extensively researched.

dogs eating
Image Credit: Phuttharak, Shutterstock

Can I Dye My Dog with Food Coloring?

Some people may want to know if they can dye their dog’s hair. Human food coloring is generally safe but human dyes, such as hair dye or colored hairspray, should be avoided. It is not necessary to dye your dog and runs the risk of skin irritation and so is not recommended.

If you do decide to go ahead, avoid putting food coloring on any areas of your dog with open wounds or sores and keep the food coloring away from sensitive areas like the eyes, nose, or inside the ears.

Another thing to keep in mind is that food coloring stains easily. Even if you can “set” the food coloring with a hairdryer, it could still rub off on your furniture or clothing.

French Bulldog snuggling beside owner
Image Credit: Mylene2401, Pixabay

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Overall, food coloring is safe for dogs, both in food and topically. Many dog foods contain both FDA-approved artificial and natural color additives, and the limited research in this area presumes them to be safe for human and pet consumption. Ultimately, the choice to use food coloring for your dogs is yours.

Featured Image Credit: Yakov Oskanov, Shutterstock

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