Black dog sitting in field

Is Grain Free Dog Food Better? Benefits and Risks of Grain Free Dog Food

Before we jump into the pros and cons of grain-free dog food, let’s go over some basics.

First off, what is grain-free dog food? As the name implies, grain-free dog food does not contain any grains, such as wheat, corn, or barley.

Grain-free dog food is often made with grain substitutes like white potatoes, sweet potatoes, green peas, chickpeas, and carrots. In addition to vegetables, starches, and legumes, grain-free dog food often contains “exotic” proteins that more closely resemble ancestral canine diets, such as bison, wild boar, and even kangaroo.

The Rise of Grain-free Dog Food

Grain-free dog food has risen in popularity over the past decade, mirroring diet trends among humans. Increased demand for food free of chemicals, common allergens, and additives has spilled over into the pet food market, with marketers in both industries capitalizing on the health food craze.man holding grain

The melamine pet food recall of 2007 also prompted many pet owners to rethink their dog food decisions. After experiencing an uptick in reports of dogs and cats falling ill and dying from certain types of pet food, the FDA and USDA launched an investigation.  They discovered that wheat proteins shipped to the U.S. from China for pet food manufacturing had been contaminated with the toxic substance.

Due to the proliferation of health-consciousness among consumers and their fear of tainted ingredients shipped from overseas, the pet food industry has experienced a surge in grain-free dog food sales.

At the end of 2017, grain-free dog food accounted for 44% of sales in pet specialty stores in the U.S., up from a mere 15% in 2011.

Benefits of Grain-free Dog Food

Pet owners tend to choose grain-free dog food for three primary reasons.

One reason is that owners deem a grain-free food to be an all-around healthier option.

Two, owners may discover that their dog has an allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity to grain, causing serious gastrointestinal issues and other health complications when left untreated.

Healthy dog food, isolated on white

Lastly,  pet owners mistakenly conclude that their dog is allergic, intolerant, or sensitive to grain.

In regard to reason number one, grain-free dog food is often branded by marketers as healthier than other alternatives—though it’s not necessarily due to the absence of grains. Grain-free food often consists of higher quality ingredients and whole proteins rather than low-quality byproducts and harmful additives. Nevertheless, always beware of false or misleading advertising from brands trying to take advantage of consumer trends.

Regarding reasons two and three, some dogs are allergic or highly sensitive to grain. However, grain is one of the less common allergy-inducing foods among dogs, with beef and dairy ranking as the most allergenic foods.

Furthermore, food triggers just 10% of all allergies in dogs. Most allergies are caused by the environment and fleas. Therefore, it’s probably best to work with your veterinarian to ensure your dog receives the correct diagnosis.

Potential Risks of Grain-free Dog Food

Evidently, grain-free dog food offers some unique benefits, but is it actually superior to other types of dog food? And is it the right choice for your dog?

The best food for your dog is ultimately up to you and your veterinarian to decide. However, understanding the potential risks of grain-free food is a critical component in making an informed decision.

Grain-free dog food recently made headlines when the FDA issued a warning about its suspected link with dilated cardiomyopathy (D.C.M.), a potentially fatal disease most prominent among large breed dogs. With a recent swell in D.C.M. cases among smaller dogs, some veterinarians are ringing the alarm bells.

One common factor they have noticed in reported cases is that these dogs have diets heavily based in grain-replacement carbohydrates like peas, lentils, and potatoes.

Border Collie running in a field

Although these findings are a cause for concern, pet food manufacturers have not yet initiated any recalls.  The sample size of recent D.C.M. cases is still too small to draw any conclusions. Also, it is presently unclear whether it is the lack of grains, the overconsumption of legumes, or something else entirely, that is causing the unusual increase in D.C.M.

We recommend you stay on top of the issue as more research develops.

If I Buy Grain-free Dog Food is it Gluten-Free?

What may not be so obvious though is how grain-free dog food differs from gluten-free dog food, another popular type of pet food.

Like human food, dog food labeled “gluten-free” does not contain gluten, a protein found in certain grains like wheat and barley. Not all grains contain gluten though, which is important to understand if you discover that your dog is allergic, intolerant, or sensitive to grains and/or gluten.

While grain-free food will always be gluten-free, gluten-free food may not always be grain-free.

How to Figure Out If Your Dog Is Allergic to Grain

Although grain allergies are relatively rare in dogs, it is critical to dogs’ health and safety to know their status. Yet with so many ingredients in dog food, it can be a daunting task to figure out if a grain is an allergy-causing culprit, or if food is responsible at all.

Fortunately, there are some helpful ways to ease the process.

    1. One recommendation for determining food allergies is to feed your dog food made with limited ingredients.
    2. Also, ensure the food only contains a single grain so you can figure out which particular grain may or may not be the problem. With fewer ingredients to consider, it is much simpler to rule in and out specific foods.

Generally, allergic reactions to food will affect your dog’s skin while food sensitivities and intolerances will affect your dog’s digestive system. Symptoms can take up to 12 weeks to change though once you adjust your dog’s diet, so the process does require considerable patience and discipline as well as assistance from your veterinarian.drawing of dog scratching

If you suspect your dog is allergic to grain, look out for the following

  • Itchiness
  • Excessive hair loss
  • Bald patches
  • Skin inflammation
  • Sore and scabs

These symptoms can be warning signs of others issues.  So, make sure to consult your veterinarian for a professional diagnosis.

Final Thoughts

Unless you and your veterinarian determine that your dog is allergic to grain, it is probably not essential that your dog’s diet consists solely of grain-free food.

Although some people argue that grain is unhealthy for canines since it is not native to their protein-rich ancestral diets, dogs have adapted to eating grain and most breeds can digest it easily.

If you decide to make the switch to grain-free though, make sure to transition gradually.  Pay attention to changes in your dog’s behavior, skin, and gastrointestinal functioning.

Also, be sure to stay up to date on current research regarding the potential risks associated with grain-free diets.

Lastly, don’t forget to consult your veterinarian about any questions or concerns you have along the way!


Image Credits:

Black Dog with a scarf- Photo by Yuki Dog on Unsplash

Border Collie- Photo on Pixabay