Guide to Grain-Free Dog Food

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Published: July 30, 2020

Updated on January 4, 2020

Grain-free and gluten-free products have gained much popularity among people in recent years, and pet food manufacturers are following this trend, too. But is grain-free dog food the best choice for your dog? 

What are the benefits of grain-free vs. grain dog food? Here’s a guide to grain-free dog diets and how they compare to grain dog food.

What Is Grain-Free Dog Food?

Before we talk about grain-free dog food, you need to know which grains are commonly used in dog foods. These include:

  • Wheat

  • Corn

  • Rice

  • Oats

  • Barley

  • Rye

  • Soy

Are Grain-Free Dog Diets Free of Carbohydrates? 

While grain-free dog foods do not have grains, they do substitute other carbohydrate sources, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, lentils, peas, or quinoa. Therefore, grain-free foods are not carb-free. In some cases, a grain-free food may be equal to or higher in carbs than dog foods with grains.

Is Grain-Free Dog Food Also Gluten-Free?

Grain-free and gluten-free are not synonymous terms.

Gluten-free foods do not have gluten-containing grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, but they may still contain other grains. And grain-free diets may be gluten-free unless they contain ingredients that are hidden sources of gluten.

In addition, studies have shown that commercial dog foods often have cross-contamination during the manufacturing process, and therefore, may not be totally free of the ingredients they claim.

Grain-Free vs. Grain Dog Food

Whole grains provide an important nutritional resource for your dog, including B vitamins, iron, magnesium, selenium, carbohydrates for energy, and fiber to aid in digestion.

You may have heard that grain-free dog food has more meat because it makes up for the lack of grains. Grain-free diets are not all meat, although they may have a higher proportion of meat in them. As we’ve learned, they also substitute some of those grains with other carbohydrates.

You may also think that grain-free dog diets include only high-quality ingredients, but this isn’t necessarily true any more so than with grain dog food.

In certain situations, your veterinarian may recommend a grain-free diet instead of grain dog food. For example, in dogs suspected of having food allergies (also known as an adverse food reaction), a grain-free diet might be recommended on a trial basis to see if symptoms improve.

It is important to recognize, however, that very few dogs have allergies to the grains in dog foods. The vast majority of food allergies are to the protein source (meat) in the food.

Does Grain-Free Dog Food Cause Heart Disease?

There have been recent concerns regarding the safety of grain-free foods and heart disease in dogs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has opened an investigation into the development of dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs that are fed grain-free diets.

Dilated cardiomyopathy is a heart condition resulting in an enlarged heart and thinning of the heart muscle. This weakens the heart and can lead to heart failure and death.

The FDA opened this investigation due to the rising incidence of dilated cardiomyopathy. They have found that with the 1100+ dogs studied, 90% of the products fed were labeled as grain-free diets.

The most recent update came from a virtual scientific forum where “scientific experts from academia, industry, and veterinary medicine” collaborated and discussed their research on DCM. Dr. Steven Solomon, Director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) for the FDA, emphasized that this was not an investigative update, and stated the following in his opening remarks:

“I believe that our approach to date speaks to the fact that, based off the adverse event reports we have received, we have observed an association between certain diets and DCM. However, it has been nothing that would trigger a recall or market withdrawal, because the DCM issue seems to involve more factors than the food itself.”

In the ongoing investigation, he stated that the FDA hopes to

“...explore additional avenues about ingredient levels, nutrient bioavailability, ingredient sourcing, and diet processing to determine if there are any common factors. We have asked pet food manufacturers to share diet formulation information, which could substantially benefit our understanding of the role of diet.”

His advice to pet parents was that the best thing that you can do is to “talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s dietary needs based on their health and medical history.”

Should You Switch Your Dog to or From a Grain-Free Diet?

Your veterinarian should be consulted regarding the best dietary choices for your dog.

There have not been any recommendations issued by the FDA advising whether you should or should not feed your dog a grain-free diet, as their study is ongoing.

The most important consideration in choosing a dog food is that it provides complete and balanced nutrition.

If you are thinking of switching your dog to a grain-free diet, discuss the risks and benefits of feeding a grain-free diet with your veterinarian first.

If your dog is already on a grain-free diet, and you want to know if you should switch to a dog food that has grains, ask your veterinarian what the best dog food option would be for your particular dog.

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