Is Grain Free Dog Food The Way To Go?

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Golden Retriever in a field of grainChances are you know at least one person who has gone gluten or grain free, who cites the benefits of the Paleo Diet or quotes from the bestselling books Wheat Belly and Grain Brain. Grocery stores have made shelf space for gluten-free pastas, crackers, cereals, cookies, and cake mixes and restaurants offer gluten-free pizza and beer to appeal to grain-free customers. But what about our four-legged fur babies? Learn more about the pros of going grain-free and how it can benefit your pup.

Grain-Free Dog Food History

Long before dog food was scooped from a bag into personalized doggie dishes, canines would hunt and capture raw, protein-rich meals. After all, you don’t see wolves grazing peacefully in a field of flowers. Just like the theory behind the Paleo Diet for humans, protein-based, grain-free dog foods more closely mimics a canine’s natural or “ancestral” diet as a carnivore. However, with the introduction of mass-produced dog kibble around World War II, inexpensive fillers like corn, wheat and barley were added to dog food to create bulk and keep costs down. Today, most commercial dog foods still list corn or wheat as one of the main ingredients.

But while dogs have evolved from wild animals to Internet celebrities, the canine digestive system is still pretty primitive. Dogs have little natural digestive support for breaking down and metabolizing complex carbohydrates and cereal grains. These difficult-to-digest fibers and grains remain undigested, with the body relying mainly on fermentation to break them down. Over a long period of time, this can damage the lining of the digestive system, resulting in bowel inflammation disorders, food sensitivities, food allergies, leaky gut and obesity.

Does My Dog Have a Food Allergy?

If your pup is presenting these symptoms, talk to your vet. A food allergy could be to blame:

  • Excessive flatulence
  • Loose stool/diarrhea
  • Rash and skin irritations
  • Chronic licking, chewing or biting to relieve itch
  • Vomiting
  • Frequent ear infections

Breeds at Higher Risk for Food Allergies

Some studies also show that the following dog breeds may have a larger chance of developing food allergies:

  • Retriever
  • Boxer
  • Chinese Shar-Pei
  • Cocker Spaniel
  • Collie,
  • Dachshund
  • Dalmatian
  • Lhasa Apso
  • Miniature Schnauzer
  • Soft Coated Wheaton Terrier
  • Springer Spaniel
  • West Highland White Terrier

What Are the Benefits of Grain-Free Dog Food?

Most vets today recommend that carbohydrates and grains make up a small portion of a dog’s diet (according to Dogster: 50% vegetables/40% meat protein/10% grains). Many grain-free dog foods (especially the moist and freeze-dried grain-free dog foods) contain more protein and animal fats and fewer carbohydrates than their grain-based counterparts and are therefore more easily digested.

Other benefits include:

  • Helps keep dogs fuller longer resulting in eating less frequently (good news because grain-free/high-protein foods can be more expensive)
  • May reduce canine food allergies
  • More energy
  • Fewer and smaller stools
  • Healthier skin
  • Shinier coat
  • Less shedding
  • Better breath
  • Reduced flatulence

Is Grain-Free Food Right for My Dog?

If your dog is perfectly happy and healthy, then you may not need to make any dietary changes. A good rule of “paw”: always consult your vet before making any major changes to your pet’s diet.

In the meantime, check out the ingredients label on your dog’s food or the brand’s website. If they list corn, wheat or soy as the first ingredients, you may consider gradually switching to a formula the features protein (usually chicken) as one of the main ingredients.

Tips for Going Grain-Free

If you decide to switch your dog from grain-based dog food to grain-free, don’t go cold turkey. Slowly introduce grain-free and higher protein dog food by mixing it in a little at a time. By gradually increasing amounts over the course of a few weeks, you allow your dog’s digestive system to adjust. During the switch, keep an eye on your pup’s stool to make sure they’re not constipated or suffering from diarrhea.

If you see any major concerns during the switch (hair loss, itching, lack of interest in eating or drinking water, etc.), contact your vet for next steps.

Read the Label: Low-Carb Misconceptions

One misconception is that grain free dog food is also low-carb. However, vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, green peas and tapioca often replace the grains in grain-free dog foods, especially in kibble foods, making them as high or higher in carbohydrates than grain-based dog foods. And, as mentioned above, vegetables are healthy for your pet and should make up almost half of their diet.

What About Puppies?

Diets high in protein can be damaging to puppies’ kidneys. Note that some grain-free dog food brands only recommend their food for adult dogs, while other brands have formulas for all life stages and dietary needs. Ask your vet to find out what would be best for your puppy.

Alternative Grain Formulas

A healthier alternative on the grain-based dog food spectrum to consider is “single whole grain” formulas. Some dogs with food sensitivities and allergies do well on single-grain dog foods.

Some grain-based dog food brands, such as Blackwood (View Blackwood on Amazon), offer formulas that are more easily digestible for dogs with mild food sensitivities to severe food allergies. Their manufacturing process cooks the grains at lower temperatures for longer time periods than most regular grain based dog foods. This results in more easily digestible grains because they are cooked more thoroughly.

Our Favorite Grain-Free Dog Foods

Here are a few we recommend based on their reviews and price.

Video: Breaking Down Grains and Grain-Free Diets

This short video explains more about the types of grains in pet food and goes into more detail about how pets digest types of foods differently.

Will Your Dog Go Grain Free?

Considering making the switch to a grain-free diet for your dog? The bottom line is it depends on your dog. So it’s worth trying out to see if you can notice a difference in their health and happiness.

[1] “Best Grain Free Dog Foods” –
[2] “Update on Food Allergy in the Dog & Cat” World Small Animal Veterinary Assoc. World Congress-Vancouver 2001

Have you tried a grain-free diet for your dog?

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Disclaimer: The information provided through this website should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or a disease. It is not a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, you should consult your health care provider.
Kristi is a regular writer for Cover Story Media, including Canine Journal. She has over 10 years of experience in PR and Communications. Her experience ranges from script-writing, event and stage management, coordinating press conferences, photography and writing for local magazines and her own blog. She was born and raised in Mount Airy, North Carolina (a.k.a. Mayberry), and is a proud graduate of Appalachian State University, her heart never wanders far from her beloved Blue Ridge Mountains.

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Denuta Dardane
OK, just bought a bag of Grain free doggie food but lost the receipt, so probably can’t take it back. What grains or food can I add to counteract the grain free nonsense?
Jane Bruner
I feed my dogs diamond natral whitefish and patatoes
Statistical info: The UC Davis study was based on 30 dogs and another 150 since the study was released or a total of 180 dogs. The population of dogs in the us is about 90 million. So even if 10% of the dogs in the US eat grain free that’s still 9 million dogs a sample of only 180 dogs is creating quite an uproar. I have a 17 year old, a 9 year old, and a 6 month old who all eat grain free. Most people guess the 17 year old’s age at around 5, the 9 year old has not had a single health issue ever and he has been eating grain free since his second bag of dog food ever. The six month old is vibrant with the most beautiful coat ever. Their diet will remain the same for as long as their food remains available.
If you’re not going to reference the statistical power of the study or the statistical significance that the results produced then please don’t mislead people by quoting ‘statistical info’… presumably to discredit the findings. The population size has nothing to do with the sample validity. You then enlighten us with your own uncontrolled sample size of… 3 🙂
Jane Bruner
I have chilihuahua and I feed them diamond natral whitefish and potatoes
Take your pup outdoor regularly at the least each hour and proper away after they awaken, at some stage in and after playing, and after ingesting or consuming.
I have a 14 month old beagle. I have switched foods several times, natural balance, fromm, now nitro limited ingredients grain free- salmon and lentil. I didn’t mix food gradually this time. He is going like 3x day poop, sometimes two times in one walk, looks solid but sometimes loose when I pick it up, I changed from fromm cause people say it’s weird that u can only get it from a small mom and pop store. Oh help, now I feel nutro doesnt have too many choices. Thinking of just going to beneful. I also give some wet food to nutro dry. 2 teaspoon with dry. Please help….choices and advice..thank you…my vet said give grain food….big help
Michelle Schenker (Admin)
We would recommend talking to your vet about your dog’s diet and digestive concerns to come up with a healthy plan for your dog.
If Fromm was working and he liked it I don’t see the problem. Their grain as well as grain-free food are both high quality….the grain food is more affordable and will help solidify stool but still good quality. Plus I don’t think grain free is necessarily great for your dog like many think, many related articles to this. Diamond (which is the same as Kirkland at Costco) I have also found to be good and the dogs love it. It is very affordable and good quality. In general I stand by smaller local companies with long history, you know what you’re getting and where it came from. Beneful (and many other big name brands) not long ago had dogs die from eating their food and many lawsuits related to these issues…my friend found chunks of plastic in her dogs’ food and finally switched to soemthing with a better reputation.
Why only mom and pop? I live in Florida (company is in Wisconsin) and I see Fromm this at feed stores and regular pet stores like PetSmart and PetSuppliesPlus. If possible I would avoid big name companies….
If you continue to have problems with every food you try, consider researching “raw diet” I know people with dogs with digestive issues and this finally worked for them.
Marilyn Thomas
The FDA is doing a study on the safety of grain-free dog food. It appears that some animals are having heart issues. I changed back to non-grain-free food until the study is completed. My dog used to struggle to have a bowel movement and using waste bags to pick them up, her movements were hard as rocks, since changing back to “non-grain-free” she isn’t struggling anymore and the movements are normal.
Owner of Kier and Kenna
It is difficult to find puppy food options that are not grain-free but are quality. I know about the heart issues too and don’t want my pup on the grain-free because he is one of the more susceptible breeds. Apparently you can supplement the food with ?Taurine? and something else but I’m having trouble location the specifics about that. Fortunately we have a vet appointment in a few days anyway so I can discuss it with him.
Gordon Bailey
I firmly believe in meat or fish only dog foods with no grains. The food itself may cost more but a healthy dog not having to make several vet visits is a fortune saver. You can always share a little pasta and rice with no sauces and spices.
I love Taste of the Wild, it’s actually the brand not as expensive as the grain-free brands can be. I would not be able to get TOTW if not for their competitive pricing (for the 30 lb – adult breed). Let’s just say, Science Hill Diet is $45, this is also. It’s 5 lbs less, but I try to use a coupon or Petco’s repeat delivery option to bring down the price, otherwise I believe it’s $47+.
Taste of the wild has been RECALLED many times
Owner of Kier and Kenna
Other top quality foods have as well. It makes it difficult to make wise choices. When a great company sells out to another company, you often see a drop in quality. I have never had a bag of TOTW that was being recalled and have used it for a long, long while.
Kathreen Miller
Diet plays a really important role in pets health whether it is grain free diet or raw diet. The main thing is if your pet is getting proper protein, fats, carbohydrates, and carbs etc. Proper nutrition leads to, good health of pets and is natural pain relief for dogs in any sort of pain.
Debra Fair
I have a Great Dane on Grain Free Bison Lamb and Pea. Her anal area is red ,she eats grass, swallows like she wants to vomit,and if she does it is foamy with grass. Every time I take her to the Vet it is “Always”her food. What do I do? Thank you
Kimberly Alt (Admin)
Ask your vet what kind of food would be good for your dog. A change in food can make her feel better.
Gordon Bailey
Try, Now brand salmon!
Pea is full of protein too. You could try alternating her protein rich food with vegetarian canned or vegetarian kibble food. Or mix them in with it. Protein is important but too much is not beneficial.
I would consider researching raw. Perhaps she is allergic to something In. The dry foods causing the anal irritation. It tends to also be easier on the stomach too so many she’ll stop.eating grass. Or else consider a food specifically for allergies and/or digestive issues.
Bison is hard on their stomach, just boil chicken thighs (99 cents per pound) and maybe white rice until her stomache feels better or she might bloat. its cheaper and better for dogs otherwise try to find lamb and rice formula. AND switch your vet!
I just switched to grain free as my older dog was ravenous and going through vet grade dog food quickly $$$
She has stopped licking her paws, she is more satisfied after eating, she’s more calm, and definitely has less gas. In 1 week the differences are very noticeable.
Yesss, the one thing people don’t mention, is why grain-free is so great! The most important thing you can do, is eliminate your fear’s of dog bloat (which I believe, causes 40% fatality in dogs; which is why you must wait an hour before and after any type of exercise, so they don’t develop hardened stomach’s – painful and they will have trouble eating, you will notice their sluggishness in different ways).

Grain-free kibble is better for their digestive systems, which are 100%*** paleo.

All gastro-intestinal illnesses (of which bloat is just one) account for about 15%-20% of all dog deaths (averaged across all ages). I think what you are confusing your number with is the mortality rate of bloat (the percentage of dogs that die when they suffer bloat), which is usually listed as 25-40%.
Dogs will eat their own vomit and your cat’s poop. I’m sure they can handle grain. More energy? I have never seen a dog that wasn’t overflowing with energy, unless it was just completely worn out with exercise. I think this grain-free nonsense is just a ploy to get ppl to spend more money on dog food. Dogs have lived long, healthy lives on kibble for years and years. Unless your dog has some sort of special dietary needs, no reason to change that. Save yourself some money and get the regular, grain-filled food. Your dog won’t give a hoot either way.

Btw, my sister is a dog nut that went meat only with her dogs many years ago. She even wanted to go as far as to bring in live animals for her dogs to hunt in the backyard! I would not allow such a thing because it is disgusting and barbaric. I don’t care what the “natural instincts” of the animal are, I’m not going to be responsible for the death of other animals for that instinct. Millions of dogs live and function just fine without killing other animals. Dog owners sure can be crazy!

You have no clue what you are talking about. I have two dogs that itch constantly. By eliminating the grain from their diets, it has helped a lot. Take the dog to a vet for itchy ears and paws and all they do is prescribe creams that do NOTHING to address the real issue which is diet. I totally disagree with all you are saying and until you experience this issue then you know not of what you speak.
Nichole Stone
We spent thousands determining the allergens and it was actually certain meats amd environmental factors. Beef is supposedly a really common irritant. Foods rich in omegas seemed to help the itching. I think the dawn soap baths and an egg a day with the food was the most helpful for the itching.
Life expectancy is impacted by grain free diet. Dogs can and do live to be 15 to 16 years old instead of 10 to 13. Incidence of Bloat, which is dangerous in large breeds, is dramatically reduced. You are letting your finances determine your food choice. There are quality grain frees with lower price points to make it affordable and you feed less.
And there are humans who survive on little more than rice and water. Therefore all humans MUST be able to thrive on rice and water. The difference is, one is THRIVING, and one is SURVIVING. We switched our dog to grain free YEARS ago. She’s 13 this year and ppl are constantly shocked as she acts more like she is 5 or 6.
If one is that worried about price, 4health puts out a grain free that comes in at just over $1 per pound, and is available at Tractor Supply. We had our dog on it for 6 years until we moved into an area where Tractor Supply is very inconvenient.
Kristy Gervais
Though I agree with your comment, I wasn’t fond of the 4 health food which I had previously used the 4 health prior to switching to grain free.
I use Diamond & my dogs love it!
John MArtin
Comparing the digestive track of a human to a dog is plain silly.
In Humans where absorption of food takes place, the human intestinal tract is a lot longer than a dogs and therefore the body has more time to absorb nutrients from more complex foods such as plant and grain based foods.
Dogs can not digest complex foods such as plants and grains because their digestive track is considerably shorter. Don’t assume that what is good for you is good for your dog – Your NOT a dog.
Gordon Bailey
Look in the mirror before you go calling folks that feed meat to a meat eating carnivore crazy! Remember those farm animals and fish provide fertilizer for all the organic farms in order to produce the vegetables they so crave!
My dogs are allergic to wheat products. Since I have put my dogs on grain free foods their coats are shiny, they don’t stink, and their moods have changed for the better. You don’t have any idea what you are talking about and you definitely are NOT a dog person.
I don’t know, I’m a human, and the tone of the post is odd to me as well.
Denuta Dardane
What’s so bad about odd?
The reason they lick their behinds (which, if you ever bothered to do any research, you would realize), is because they are attempting, very desperately, to obtain unavailable nutrients, or poorly digested materials! So, let’s just posted here. I don’t think I can handle reading your post any further than that (nor is it necessary, just from skimming).
The lack of knowledge in both the OP and the responses is so painful to read.

FIRST, to all you people vouching for grain-free because of itching that stopped, you likely addressed a different allergen causing the itch, most likely beef. See here and here.

SECOND, to those claiming that dogs cannot process grains, you are just flat out incorrect. The genetics of dogs has been altered both intentionally and unintentionally for the past hundreds of years. To expect their required diet to be the same as the Wolf and their predecessors is incredibly simpleminded. They have mutated and evolved several important genes for the process of breaking down grains, and metabolically, there is no difference in their ability to uptake the nutrients.

READ and stop believing your s**** anecdotal evidence!

Jane Bruner
I feed my dogs diamond natral whitefish and potatoes diamond natral a good dog food.and my dogs are chilihuahuas
Hooked on Health
I didn’t even read the whole article. Dogs are carnivores, people. Look at their teeth, exactly the same as other carnivores. This means meat. MEAT!
LeAnda Carver Latstetter
That is why this article is advocating for grain free. That means MEAT!
Hooked on Health
Purchased dog food contains a ton of other ingredients not just meat. They couldn’t afford to sell it if it was all meat plus it wouldn’t come in a bag and be able to be sold on a shelf with a long shelf life. Raw meat is the way to go…

OK, I read the article and it is still advocating kibble, just grain free kibble but dogs do not need vegetables, just meat, organ meat and bones.

The dog’s digestive system is still very similar to the wolf and the wolf lives off raw meat, mice, deer, etc. and some plants/vegetation that they find, so there is a case for dogs to absolutely need some vegetables. Also a diet just of raw meat, bones and organ meat will be too rich a diet and it is known in the dog world that too much protein can cause behavioral problems, agressiveness, etc. So the author is correct in my opinion that dogs need (in a perfect world) cooked root veg as at least 40% of the diet wth raw meat/bones/organs.
Similar, but not at all the same. Domesticated dogs have 10 additional expressed genes that are directly related to the digestion of carbohydrates. I’m not saying don’t feed your dogs grain-free or raw diets, but to compare modern domesticated dogs to wild wolves after thousands of generations of genetic selection is ridiculous.
Sloan D. Payne-Waters
Hahahaha! I was beginning to think I was crazy. I thought this was for grain free, and I know I know how to read!
Dogs are opportunistic omnivores. Sorry to destroy your entire argument. I know this as I have a honours degree in animal welfare and behaviour.
I think you’re going to need a more regimented course. Aand, retake sociology (human). Also, high school biology – digestive system. Humans will also eat anything, hence the sociology, you know what, you figure it out. 😉
it’s unfortunate that you’ve chosen to share this misinformation which is based on marketing instead of on nutrition. You’d be hard pressed to find a REAL expert in animal nutrition who supports what you’re saying here.
I just read the article you cited. It’s from a GRAIN company. They make a lot of assertions that grain is good for dogs but there is not one citation for a research study proving it is so.
DVM student
Please do not attempt to talk down to a DOCTOR of veterinary medicine who is legally considered an expert on this subject. Did you even bother to read who authored this article before you commented? “Kristi is a regular writer for Cover Story Media, including Canine Journal. She has over 10 years of experience in PR and Communications. Her experience ranges from script-writing, event and stage management, coordinating press conferences, photography and writing for local magazines and her own blog.” She has absolutely no expertise on veterinary medicine or nutrition.

Here is another article that may be more palatable for you. It is authored by a DVM and clearly explains that grain-free diets are only beneficial if the pet happens to be allergic to grain, which is quite rare. Dogs do not get Celiacs or gluten intolerance.

Vet doctors like to promote grain in diets to keep dogs sick . Just because they have a degree in veterinary medicine doesn’t mean they are ethical. How are they going to charge exuberant fees if everyone’s pups are healthy . Do your research find a good vet who isn’t out to rob you blind . Also don’t allow them to talk to you in vaccinating every
Year and feed. Grain free!!!!!!
I think you’re overestimating “DOCTOR,” and underestimating the rest of the commenters with experience. No one*, except for one individual, claimed their dog had an allergy. You can still develop digestive issues w/out having an intolerance.

Also, do you have a doctor thing? Because there are doctors that say anything, commit crimes, hurt the vulnerable, white collar-crime, etc etc.

I agree with you. We’ve had standard poodles for 45 yrs, and fed the first two, due to lack of money and experience, with supermarket foods, and as we became more affluent, fed them better, meat based diets, including adding home cooked toppers. Here’s the thing:ALL were healthy, happy and active dogs and lived approximately the same life span, about 12 -13 yrs.
Also read the SkeptVet for more evidence based information.
P.S. We are talking nine doggies over that 45 yr history.