illustration of a grain crossed out

Is the Grain Free Diet Good for Dogs?

As of late, the popularity of grain free pet food has exploded. But is thestalk of corn grain free diet good for dogs?

Some pet parents seem to think so. According to the New York Times, grain free dog food accounted for 44% of pet food sold in specialty stores.

This popularity perhaps stems from the fact that some dogs experience food allergies and some of these allergies are believed to be caused by certain grains like wheat, rye, barley, oats, rice, corn, etc.

Since then, there has been a large market for grain free pet food. The question is, is it warranted? Or just a waste of money?

What is a Grain Free Diet?

Let’s tap into what exactly is a grain free diet, shall we?

But first, you should get acquainted with the premise behind it and get some good history about the ancient canine’s eating habits under your belt.

It’s common knowledge that dogs are hunters at heart and before they were domesticated, they raw meat on brown wooden surfacepreyed on other animals to feed their hunger. How would you describe this diet? You guessed it, raw and protein-based.

One blogger said it best:

“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.” – Canine Journal

Here’s another quick history refresher. Remember the Industrial Revolution, when consumer products became mass-produced with the advent of technology and machines?

Manufacturers started mass-producing dog food. But to cut down on production costs, they would add grains like corn, wheat, and barley. This solution was cheap and added bulk to the end product.

It’s widely believed that a dog’s digestive system has a hard time breaking down these complex fibers.

Because these compounds are hard to digest and some of it remains undigested, many people think that most dogs that eat grains suffer from health problems like food sensitivity, food allergies, obesity, etc.

Hence, the advent of grain-free dog food and its extreme popularity.

What Are The Benefits of a Grain Free Diet for Dogs?

Some pet parents believe that the grain free diet is perfect for dogs with food allergies. So obviously, this would be a motivating factor in buying grain free dog food.

But what are the other benefits your dog can reap from a grain free diet?

  • Shinier coat
  • Healthier skin
  • Increased energy levels
  • Less shedding
  • Better breath
  • Less itching
  • Less frequent stools
  • Reduced flatulence

dog running across grassy field

The Science Behind the Grain Free Diet

Well, it’s simple. There is no science behind feeding your dog a grain free diet. Furthermore, there is no reliable evidence that shows feeding your dogs grains is harmful to their health.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t feed your dog a grain free diet? No, absolutely not. If his needs call for it, by all means, do what you have to do to keep your pooch happy and healthy.

But many pet parents spend large amounts of money on grain free dog food–which is typically more expensive than regular dog food–when their dogs don’t really need it. They look at the listed health benefits on the package and fall prey to good marketing.

So why do I say that most dogs don’t need a grain free diet to live a long, healthy life?

Well, first, before I answer that question, let’s examine why some dog owners buy grain free dog food in the first place. Some owners buy grain free dog food because it seems like a healthier option and it just seems like an overall good idea. But many of them buy it because they believe their dogs are suffering from food allergies.

And they probably are.

But who’s to say grains are the culprit?

Research has shown that dogs aren’t likely to experience food allergies from corn and other grains. According to a literature review of 278 dogs with food allergies, beef was the most common allergen, accounting for 95 of the cases reported. Dairy was the second leading cause, being responsible for 55 of the cases. Only 7 cases identified grains as the culprit. 7 cases out of 278!

Ready for some more science?

Here’s the kicker.

Dogs are no longer the primitive creatures they used to be. According to Robert Wayne, a canine geneticist from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), dogs have adapted to the human diet. When it comes to food digestion, they aren’t like wolves, that are more wild and undomesticated.

wolf in the snow

Wayne conducted research in his lab on the genetic makeup of dogs and wolves. The research showed that most wolves possessed only two copies of a gene involved in starch digestion. In contrast, dogs carry between 3 and 29 copies of the gene. This means that over time, dogs have developed a higher tolerance to grains in their diet.

In fact, the average dog can tolerate 50% of his diet as carbs, according to Cailin Heinze, an animal nutritionist at Tuft University’s Cummings Veterinarian Medical Center.

Should You Put Your Dog on a Grain Free Diet?

That will depend entirely on your dog and your budget. It will also depend on your vet’s recommendations. If you do decide to put your dog on a grain free diet, make sure you check with your vet first.

In my opinion, for most dogs, a grain free diet is not needed. But in some cases, although rare, your dog might need grain free dog food to sustain his health and wellness. He may really be suffering from food allergies caused by grains.

How do you tell if the allergy is coming from grains? Simply remove grains from your dog’s diet and look for improvement. If there is none, something else in your dog’s diet is likely the cause. Or it could be something different altogether like a health problem.

If there is an improvement in your dog’s symptoms, then grains probably are the culprit. Invest in an affordable, high-quality grain free dog food and see if it makes a difference.

And make sure you give your dog a taurine supplement as grain free dog food features ingredients that are low in the essential amino acid taurine. But we’ll get to that in the coming sections.

How to Tell if Your Dog Has a Food Allergy

Now you know that you shouldn’t give your dog grain free food unless you’re absolutely certain his allergies are caused by grains. But how can you tell if your dog has a food allergy in the first place?

According to petMD, here are some signs of food allergies to look out for:

  • Constant scratching
  • Excessive hair loss
  • Bald patches
  • Sores and scabs
  • “Hotspots”

Obviously, these symptoms may resemble those of other illnesses, which is why it’s important to take your furry friend to get checked by the vet, to rule out any other problems. Your vet will most likely run a few necessary tests to help pinpoint what might be causing the allergy.

Breeds at Higher Risk of Developing Food Allergies

Certain breeds have increased chances of suffering from food allergies. They include:

dachshund dog
Dachshund
  • Retriever
  • German Shepherd
  • Dachshund
  • Cocker Spaniel
  • Springer Spaniel
  • Dalmatian
  • Irish/English Setter
  • Bichon Frise
  • Miniature Schnauzer

Health Concerns About Grain Free Dog Food

There have been some concerns that grain free diets pose health risks to dogs. These risks are increased if dogs are on the diet for a long period of time.

Just recently (July 2018), the U.S. Drug and Food Administration (FDA) released a statement warning pet owners and veterinarians about the possible link between the grain free diet and canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

This was particularly alarming because dog breeds that weren’t genetically prone to the disease (i.e. Whippets, Shih Tzus, Bulldogs, Miniature Schnauzers, etc.) were diagnosed with it.

Large breeds dogs like Boxers, Great Danes, Newfoundlands, Saint Bernards, Doberman Pinschers, etc. are more commonly affected by the disease.

green legumes
Legumes

Canine DCM occurs when a dog’s heart muscles begin to malfunction, resulting in an enlarged heart. Because the heart is larger, it has to work harder to pump, resulting in a buildup of fluids in the chest and abdomen. This can cause decreased energy, difficulty breathing, cough, and even collapse.

The diets in cases reported to the FDA consisted of potatoes or legumes such as peas and lentils, which are supposed to be healthier alternatives to grains and easier to digest.

Dogs diagnosed with the disease had low whole blood levels of taurine. Certain grain-free foods like legumes and peas–common ingredients in some grain free dog foods–have low levels of taurine. Taurine deficiencies have been linked to heart disease.

One study was conducted in 2018 to determine if there was any connection between a grain free diet and DCM as well as taurine deficiency in Golden Retrievers. The dogs that participated in the study were normally fed a grain-free diet.

The results showed that when given a regular commercial diet and taurine supplements, 23 of the 24 dogs diagnosed with DCM and taurine deficiency showed significant improvement in heart function. Their taurine levels increased as well.

While these findings are definitely enough to give pet parents “paws” before buying any more grain free dog food, there is still a lot more research to be done. There are other factors that could be at play when it comes to the correlational relationship between grain free diets and heart disease.

Conclusion

The popularity of grain free dog food has increased exponentially over the years. Manufacturers of this type of dog food are certainly making a killing, preying on concerned pet parents who want to see their dogs healthy and thriving. If you’re concerned that your dog isn’t getting the nutrition he needs, check out these easy recipes.

And if you’re going to target your dog’s diet for a specific problem, then you should focus on obesity, which is affecting roughly 56% of dogs (more than half!) in the U.S. But that’s another problem for another post.

Do you feed your dog a grain free diet? If so, what brand? Leave a comment below!

16 thoughts on “Is the Grain Free Diet Good for Dogs?

  1. Reply
    Lucas - February 9, 2019

    I really liked the way your website was set up–very clear and to the point. Your research seems to be very well done. It’s wonderful to see someone take the website builder for something as wonderful as this. Each section seems to be very informative and well-written. it is clear to me that this is something you truly care about and really enjoy.

    1. Reply
      Britney - February 11, 2019

      Thank you, Lucas! I really do care about this topic and enjoy writing about it.

      Dogs rule!

  2. Reply
    Rob - February 9, 2019

    The simplest solutions are the best. You’re quite right. How to tell if grains are causing problems for your dog? Remove grains and see the results. Unfortunately, like human diets, pet food producers know that people will follow fads. We think we’re paying extra to do something good for our pets when we may be having no affect at all. A useful article. Thank you.

    1. Reply
      Britney - February 11, 2019

      You hit the nail on the head, Rob. Sometimes we don’t think to consider the simple solution.

      And you’re right, consumers with pets often invest in products that claim to do a certain thing or provide some type of benefit when it’s really not needed.

  3. Reply
    Theresa - February 11, 2019

    This was interesting. I don’t have a dog of my own, so this isn’t something that I have given much thought to in the past. But I have a grandpuppy, so it’s good information to pass along to my daughter. The comparison between dogs and wolves was interesting, too. Thanks for the information.

    1. Reply
      Britney - February 11, 2019

      Hi Theresa!

      Maybe your daughter can benefit from the information, especially if she’s considering feeding her pooch grain free food. It’s just something to think about.

  4. Reply
    Selenity Jade - February 11, 2019

    I love this article and I freaking love that you resorted to science instead of fad beliefs. Excellent. Seriously.

    I have a cat, and have been researching better foods for them, like cats are more carnivorous than dogs and require more protein in their food, which is apparently why cat food is bad for dogs.:)

    Looking forward to more well-written articles from you!

    1. Reply
      Britney - February 11, 2019

      I freaking love your enthusiasm, Selenity!

      And while science isn’t my strongest subject, it’s very important to bring it into the equation, especially for popular phenomena like diet fads, in which people rant and rave about.

      And you know something funny? Someone had bought my dog some cat food. And she tore it up. I think she enjoyed the extra protein! 😉

  5. Reply
    SkyPath - February 11, 2019

    I always like to read about dogs. I have a dog. He’s a mixed breed.

    This article can help my dog, so I definitely will save this and share this with all of my friends who have dogs! Thank you so much!

    1. Reply
      Britney - February 11, 2019

      So glad this was helpful to you.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. Reply
    Eric Cantu - February 11, 2019

    A couple years back, when my puppy Guinness was getting continuous skin irritations from bug bites that would get infected, I decided to go with a grain free dog food because I had heard they could have an effect on their skin and coat. The change was immediate. Never again did he get those inflammations. I stand behind grain free 100%. Great article! Nicely written 🙂

    1. Reply
      Britney - February 11, 2019

      Eric, it’s so great to hear that the grain free diet helped your dog with his skin irritations. That’s amazing!

      I think I’m going to do more research about the benefits of a grain free diet.

      Thanks for sharing this!

  7. Reply
    Boby - February 11, 2019

    Honestly, you have no idea how much I learn every time I get to visit your wonderful content and I’m not exaggerating by saying that!

    Your content is always in-depth and will save tons of time on research for everyone who is a proud owner of a dog.

    My knowledge of grain-free diets for pets is basic to say at least.

    Thank you so much for changing that!

    Keep going the same way, your readers will appreciate it!

    1. Reply
      Britney - February 11, 2019

      That means a lot! I work so hard on these posts to provide my readers with value.

      And that is my aim — to keep pet parents from having to go here and there for research. I want to be able to provide them with research-based information right here, on this single website.

      Thank you so much for reading!

  8. Reply
    terry lemoine - February 12, 2019

    Hi Britney
    My take on feeding pets grain-free food is an excellent idea, and I’m basing it on the knowledge that their is much scientific research showing feeding grain-fed (corn) to beef cows and dairy cows, besides hormones and antibiotics negatively effects the health of those animals. And furthermore, the meats off of grain-fed beef cattle, and the dairy (milk, cheese)off of grain-fed dairy cattle are much less nutritious than feeding these animals on natural grass or field grass. So, all natural is the best way, and that would mean with pets, feeding them natural meat-type food like nature intended. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Reply
      Britney - February 15, 2019

      Thanks for the insight, Terry!

      That is really interesting. I definitely agree that the natural way is the best way.

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