Grain-Free Dog Food

Grain free dog food, is it healthy for dogs? Can a grain free diet provide good nutrition for dogs? A new study has raised some controversy over the subject. We're here to provide some guidance on the subject of canine nutrition and how grains may (or may not) fit in his diet.

First, there is no blanket answer that fits every dog nuritionally. In some cases, a grain free diet is necessary for dogs. In other cases, a single grain diet may be in order. Our goal is to provide a guide to grains in dog foods, and how to do your own "quality check" when shopping for food for your dog.

Is Your Dog an Omnivore?

When addressing the issue of grain free diets, the question is raised whether dogs are carnivores or omnivores. It's true that your dog may eat many things that are not classified as meat (and some things not even classified as food in general). This fact has been used for years by the big 3 dog food manufacturers to support their claim that dogs are omnivores. But dogs are not omnivores, and even more, they can't properly digest grains.

Primarily, your dog is a carnivore[1]. But, while your dog is not a strict carnivore, he has very little carbohydrate requirements and actually no nutritional requirements for grain. Keep this in mind when thinking about your dog's diet.

Grains and carbohydrate foods should not occupy a substantial percentage of the canine diet—and yet cereal grains comprise up to 60% of the typical commercial dog food diet. Why? It's because these grains are inexpensive fillers and create profit for the dog food manufacturers that use them in their recipes.

Unfortunately, numerous very popular dog food brands contain rice, wheat, corn, and barley, to name a few grains. Over the years, this poor nutritional paradigm has passed along a number of chronic dog food related diseases to our precious pets.

An Argument Against Grains

Your dog's biological makeup is conditioned to digest primarily meat protein and some simple carbohydrates like fruits, light vegetables and plants, similar to a wild wolf[2] [4]. It's important to know that there exists very little natural support in the dog body for breaking down or metabolizing complex fibers and grain. His body is naturally adapted to a diet that is grain free. In fact, the only time a wild dog would consume a significant amount of grain is when it is in the stomach of his prey.

Read: Dog Food Related Diseases

Because your dog does not naturally produce the enzymes to break down complex carbohydrates or starches, these materials are often left undigested in the gut. In many cases, dogs will rely on fermentation to complete digestion, and for some, the material will remain in the gut.

This ineffective way of digesting food takes its toll. Over time, this undigested food breaks down and compromises the lining of the gut, making dogs prone to allergies, immune system issues and digestive disorders.

Some dogs maintain great health on whole, single-grain dog foods, while many dogs do not do well with grain at all. But when there are health risks involved, why take the risk?

Are Grain Free Dog Foods Safe?

A recent statement from the FDA created a scare about grain free diets. Based on a number of complaints collected over the 5 year period, they stated they were investigating a possible link between diet and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs.

It's important to highlight that the FDA did not call out grain free diets specifically, neither was there a conclusion to any findings. Rather, the warning was:

"Diets in cases reported to the FDA frequently list potatoes or multiple legumes such as peas, lentils, other ‘pulses’ (seeds of legumes), and their protein, starch, and fiber derivatives early in the ingredient list, indicating that they are main ingredients.” 

In harmony with the FDA, we also consider these starchy ingredients to be merely fillers and totally unnecessary for dogs as a main component to their diet. But that said, we don't want to jump to any conclusions or assume a simple answer can solve a very complex issue. There is no clear indication giving evidence that these ingredients are in fact causing DCM in dogs. And, as stated by the FDA, certain breed are well known to have a genetic predisposition to the condition in the first place. Lastly, the question of bias is raised while many veterinary nutritionists and practitioners receive funding from companies like Purina, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, and Royal Canin, and with clinical trials sponsored by Blue Buffalo.

Going back to our discussion about cereal grains, we stand by our position that the safest dog food is void of cereal grains. Feeding your dog a biologically appropriate diet is never a bad idea. But also be cautious of any "grain free" dog food where the manufacurer has filled the gap with a bunch of low quality starchy ingredients.

Further supporting the idea that grain-free food is safe for dogs is the fact being that cereal grains typically contained in commercial dog foods can harbor hidden contaminants. This is because these cereal grains are the cheapest possible product, often feed grade. These grains can conceal mold or mites, to name a few, and, the storage mites they contain have been directly related to grain-related diseases in dogs.

When Grain Free Dog Food is Necessary

Grain free dog food is necessary when a dog is displaying signs of dog food intolerance or food allergy. Dog food allergy signs include rash, licking, biting, and vomiting. Dog food intolerance can be identified by gas, loose stool, or diarrhea.

Read: Signs of Dog Food Allergies and Food Intolerance

Grain Free Dog Food Quality Concerns

When choosing the perfect grain free dog food for your dog, It becomes important to avoid getting hung up on any one thing. Just because a food is grain free does not mean it is healthy. These types of rationalizations are based on minimal research. Even a so-called healthy grain free dog food can be undesirably processed or contain less than ideal ingredients.

A good dog food will have plenty of good ingredients. Perhaps your dog does well with a wholesome single-grain dog food such as rice, oats or millet—all considered cereal crops (cereal grains). While we need to pay attention to the grains and fillers in a dog food, we should pay equal or more attention to the meat contained in the dog food.

The Problem With Processed and Cooked Meats

Meat quality is a top concern in dog food. While considering a grain free diet for your dog, we should also pay attention to the nutritional value of the most important dog food ingredient—meat. In the wild, the wolf will hunt, and in desperate times, he will scavenge—this is what makes him an opportunistic carnivore[2]. Once he finds a fresh kill, he drags it to the nearest campfire and cooks it up until it's well done.


Of course a wild dog would never process or cook his meat. He eats the carcass raw, the parts with the highest biological value first, and as fast as he can. Meat, raw meat specifically, is your dog's number one food of choice and his body does best when fed a primarily meat protein, and specifically, raw meat[3]. You may think it gross or unsafe to feed your dog raw meat, but consider that your dog's digestive system is very different from your own. His highly acidic digestive tract is fully equipped to handle raw meat, and is not as susceptible to the same issues humans have.

Taking this one step further, not only is your dog's meat cooked, but processed in such a way to be shelf stable for several months. While it may not always be possible to feed your dog raw, we suggest feeding your dog raw whenever possible.

Dog Food Quality Checklist

When choosing any dog food, even a grain free dog food, its important to to consider the following questions:

  • Where do the ingredients come from?
  • What is the grade, or quality, of all the ingredients (especially the meat)?
  • How is the dog food processed?
  • What are the quality control procedures?

Cites and References

1.Stacy L. LaPoint, Why Raw Diets for Cats and Dogs Make Sense.

2. Marion Schwartz, A History of Dogs in the Early Americas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997)

3. J Anim Sci. 2007 Dec;85(12):3285-93. Epub 2007 Jul 3. Protein quality of various raw and rendered by-product meals commonly incorporated into companion animal diets. Cramer KR, Greenwood MW, Moritz JS, Beyer RS, Parsons CM.

4. In vitro fermentation characteristics of different carbohydrate sources in two dog breeds (German shepherd and Neapolitan mastiff). M. I. Cutrignelli, F. Bovera, R. Tudisco, S. D’Urso, S. Marono, G. Piccolo, S. Calabrò. 15 MAY 2009

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