When grain-free dog food swarmed the pet nutrition market, it quickly rose to popularity. Whether due to pet parents assuming it was a healthy dog food choice or our focus on eating gluten and grain-free or something else, the fad took off.
During its rise to popularity, pet parents may not have had all the information they needed to choose wisely. But, with the somewhat recent FDA investigation into grain-free dog food and its “potential” link to canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), pet parents started asking more questions.
Based on the data collected and analyzed, the FDA believes the potential association between diet and DCM in dogs (breeds not commonly prone to this heart disease) is a complex issue that may involve multiple factors. And the ingredients substituted for grains, including lentils, potatoes, and peas, may hold the answers to unlocking the problem.
While the debate about grain-free dog food continues, it’s smart to understand healthy balanced nutrition. And then decide whether grains should or shouldn’t be a part of your dog’s diet.
Why go grain-free?
There’s nothing inherently unhealthy about grain-free dog food, but I worry that pet parents have a misconception about the value and reasons for eliminating grains from their dog’s diet.
I’ve had pet parents of healthy dogs ask about the benefits of switching to a grain-free diet. I tell them that there aren’t any benefits — not for an otherwise healthy pup. A healthy dog is better off remaining on the food they’ve been eating. First of all, changing their diet can challenge their digestive system and needs to be done slowly and with good reason.
But their question is understandable — they want the best dog food for their companion. But the grain-free popularity is often based on a few fundamental misunderstandings.
Misconceptions about grain-free dog food
Grain-free is the same as carbohydrate-free.
Starch (a type of carbohydrate) is essential in making kibble. You’ll also find plant-based ingredients like potato, sweet potato, tapioca, or other sources of carbs listed on the label.
Grain-free equals high protein
Many pet parents who want to increase the protein level in their dog’s diet believe that grain-free dog food is the equivalent, but that’s not generally the case. Often, you’ll see an alternative to grains, such as peas listed as the first ingredient (rather than meat) in a grain-free dog food recipe. Following that might be something like chicken meal and fat.
If your dog requires more protein, meat should be the first ingredient, but high-protein isn’t necessarily the healthiest choice either.
You’ll want to work with your veterinarian or a pet nutritionist to understand your dog’s nutritional needs. It’s only healthy if it supports your dog’s particular dietary needs, which can differ vastly from pup to pup.
Dogs can’t digest grains
Dogs have all the digestive enzymes needed to break down, absorb, and utilize nutrients from grains. Their system has evolved over thousands of years. Their wolf ancestors digested grains when they devoured the stomach of their prey, filled with undigested grains and other plant-based food.
Our dogs’ pancreas makes the enzyme digest, and the lining of their small intestine produces brush border digestive enzymes.
Dogs are allergic to grains
It’s rare for dogs to have a “true” dog food allergy, where their system misidentifies a protein source as an invader and produces histamine in response. If your dog is itching, chewing, and scratching incessantly, it is more likely an environmental allergy. They share many of the same symptoms.
A reaction to food is far more often associated with food sensitivity (commonly marked by gastrointestinal issues) to proteins found in beef, dairy, and chicken. The grain is rarely the culprit. While grain-free dog food often claims that it will cure many of the symptoms associated with allergies like itchy, dry skin, it won’t be an effective solution if the allergen is environmental or a different food source is to blame.
Health issues that could benefit from a low-grain or grain-free diet
There are legitimate reasons for shifting your pup to grain-free dog food. As always, the dietary shift is best guided by your veterinarian or pet nutritionist to ensure you select healthy dog food for your pup’s unique nutritional needs.
Overweight or obese dogs
Obesity is one of the most common health issues in dogs. Pups with weight control issues can benefit from a diet lower in grains and other carbs because their body will utilize the fat (and protein) for energy. Their system also needs to burn more energy (calories) to break down fat and protein during digestion. Keep in mind that any protein not utilized by the body to build new muscle will become fat.
The downside: Grain-free diets have less fiber. A high-fiber diet helps to keep pups feeling full. So, a diet low in fiber may leave puppies feeling hungry, and their parents might be inclined to overfeed them. Whatever the dog doesn’t burn for fuel will be stored as fat.
So, grain-free will not help every pet’s weight loss goals, but it’s an option for some.
Dogs diagnosed with diabetes or cancer
Sometimes vets recommend a low-carbohydrate diet for dogs with health issues like diabetes or cancer. Unless the pup is overweight, a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet containing fish oil may speed recovery and extend a disease-free state of remission. As well as help manage insulin production for diabetic pups.
Some grains will have higher glucose levels, which challenge insulin levels in diabetic pups. And the gluten and lectins in some grains can cause inflammation. But, not all grains trigger inflammation.
Dogs with chronic gut inflammation
Chronic gut inflammation erodes the most superficial layers of the intestines. That inflammation then impairs and decreases the secretion of enzymes and other products that aid in digestion, absorption, and even immunity. Malassimilation of carbohydrates can cause diarrhea. If this continues, the malabsorption can lead to increased bacterial fermentation and bacterial overgrowth, which can cause gas, discomfort, diarrhea, along other issues.
Grains play a role in a dog’s diet
While eating grains may not be right for every pup, they do possess various beneficial properties. So, it’s best to factor in both sides of the grain-free debate when choosing the best dog food for your pup.
- Healthy bowel: A diet rich in fibrous foods, like whole grains, can help manage large and small bowel diseases. They can delay gastric emptying, slow small bowel transit time, bind toxins and irritating bile acids, and normalize gut motility. Plus, the slower transit of fiber helps pets feel full longer, which aids in controlling their appetite.
- Nutritious: Whole grains are a nutritious source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.
- Healthy gut: Certain fibers are beneficial in the growth of healthy bacteria in the stomach.
- Low fat: Grains also have a lower fat content than meat. The right balance of healthy, whole grains can benefit dogs on a reduced-calorie, low-fat diet.
- Lean protein source: The gluten in grain can provide quality protein to your dog’s diet. Although it is not as bioavailable (intestinally absorbable) as animal-based protein, high-quality whole grains can help fortify the other protein sources in your dog’s diet.
Weigh the pros and cons of grain-free dog food
Regardless of the pros and cons of grain-free dog food, the most nutritious meal for your pup is one that has the right balance of protein, carbs, fats, and nutrients. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all diet — every dog is different. Formulating a healthy dog food that supports your dog’s dietary needs is based on factors like age, activity level, health issues, size, and more. Their diet may or may not need to include grain.
There are many healthy dog foods available both off the shelf or through a dog food delivery service. But, the only surefire way to know your dog is getting the nutrition they need is to work with your veterinarian or order personalized dog food formulated by a pet nutritionist. Finding the best dog food for your pup is worth the effort and will help ensure they have the healthiest life possible.
Dr. Laura Duclos leads the research and development team at Puppo. She has more than 16 years of experience developing nutritional pet food that supports animal health and wellbeing. Her clinical research has been featured in prominent publications and scientific journals. She has been an invited speaker at numerous international veterinary conferences on pet nutrition and innovation.