Grain-Free Dog Food

Grain-free dog food, is it healthy for dogs? Is it really healthy to remove grains from your dog's diet? In short, there is no blanket answer that fits every dog. We'll help you decide whether a grain free diet is necessary for your dog. The purpose of this site 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.

Are dogs meant to eat grain or not?

Well, numerous very popular dog food brands contain rice, wheat, corn, and barley, to name a few grains — certainly this indicates that dogs are omnivores. You could also argue that your dog is an omnivore because he may eat materials that are not meat. This could include grass, fruits, and miscellaneous objects.

We know this. Your dog will eat things that are not classified as meat, he is not a stict carnivore. That said, there is something to keep in mind...

...primarily, your dog is a carnivore[1]. Grains or carbohydrate foods should not occupy a substantial percentage of his diet—and yet cereal grains comprise up to 60% of the typical commercial dog food diet.

An Argument Against Grains

Your dog's biological makeup is conditioned to digest primarily meat protein and some simple carbohydrates like fruits and light vegetables, 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 enzymes to break down complex carbohydrates or starches, they are often left undigested in the gut. In many cases, he 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, and 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. 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" for dogs in general. 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. That said, there is no clear indication giving evidence that these ingredients are in fact causing DCM in dogs.

We're discussing cereal grains, and we stand by our position that dog food void of cereal grains is best, unless the manufacturer 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 ideal for dogs because it offers better nutrition, but in some cases it is totally necessary. When a dog is displaying signs of dog food intolerance or food allergy, it becomes absolutely vital for health. 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. For instance,"This dog food is grain free, so that means it's healthy," or other rationalizations based on minimal research.

Even a so-called healthy grain free dog food can be undesirably processed and/or contain less than ideal ingredients.

Either of these scenarios can make a "good" dog food, in effect, not so good. 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

The question begs to be asked, "what about meat quality?" 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.

Wait...What?

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].

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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Cereal Grains

Your dog does not require any cereal grains to be healthy, but, with that said, some dogs do just fine with some grain in their diet. Here is a list of cereal grains in dog food and a review of their value and use in your dog's diet.

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Best 16 Ingredients for Dog Foods

Dog food ingredients should be healthy and natural. Here's is a short list of healthy, grain free dog food ingredients that can be included in your dog's diet. . .