I’ve spent the better part of my 20+ years of dog ownership trying to find THE perfect food for my pups. I’ve tested probably close to 100 different brands over the decades, but nearly ALL had one thing in common: no grains. But in light of recent studies, along with anecdotal evidence from a close family member, I’m really starting to question that decision. Is grain-free dog food REALLY better for your pup? Let’s discuss.
Grain-Free Dog Food: Is it REALLY the best option?
Like most of you, I paid close attention to the 2018 FDA warning about certain diets and canine dilated cardiomyopathy. I read every line of the announcement and studied every single graph. Then I dismissed it. After all, decades of experience and vet advice told me that grain-free was THE way to go. One little study isn’t enough to make me change my mind about something. After all, for every one out there, there’s equally sound research that says the exact opposite thing.
Then, my aunt called me last week to tell me that her beloved Irish Wolfhound wasn’t doing so well. He’s almost 9, and sadly giant breeds don’t often live beyond 7 often. So, we kind of thought that he was just coming to the natural conclusion of his life. She took him to the vet, heartbroken at the thought that it would be the last time he rode in the car with her.
The good news first: That sweet pup is still with us. The bad news? He has DCM. The vet told her to take him off ALL grain-free foods (she was only using a canned grain-free food, his kibble had high-quality grains in it).
After talking to her, I’m not only wondering whether grain-free dog food is REALLY better, but whether it’s even the SAFER option. So, let’s get the answer to that question out of the way first.
Is Grain-Free Dog Food Actually HARMFUL to dogs?
The answer to that is a big fat “it depends.” I know, I can’t stand when people say that to me when I just want a straight answer. But really, it truly does depend on your dog’s breed, needs, and overall health. As usual, your best bet is to talk to your vet and come up with a diet that’s right for your dog. A totally grain-free diet could be harmful for:
- Dogs with heart problems
- Pups with major food allergies (most allergies are protein-related)
Beyond that, though, I can’t find any legit evidence that grain-free diets are necessarily BAD for your dog. By legit, I mean “not sponsored by any particular dog food company” and actually backed by either science or an expert’s opinion.
Even the FDA admits that while there seems to be a link between DCM and certain foods, there’s no definitive evidence that a grain-free diet is the culprit. Vets are quick to point out that the problem stems more from what food companies use to replace the grains than it does from the lack of grains themselves.
Of the potentially problematic foods, according to the FDA report, “93 percent of reported foods contained peas and/or lentils, and 42 percent contained potatoes/sweet potatoes.” So, it would be far more accurate to say that grain-free foods containing peas, lentils, or any type of potatoes are potentially harmful rather than ALL grain-free foods are harmful.
But the original question still remains: is grain-free dog food REALLY better overall?
Is grain-free dog food REALLY better than the alternative?
Don’t hate me, but once again the answer is “it depends.” For some dogs, yes, grain-free is the better way to go. While protein allergies are more common overall, some dogs truly are allergic to most grains. Some pups have health conditions that improve when grains are removed from their diet. So, yes, for SOME dogs, grain-free really is better.
That said, for your average healthy dog, grain-free food really isn’t “better.” But don’t just take my word for it. I’m just some random girl on the internet to you, right? Let’s look at some expert quotes on the subject.
Whole grains contribute valuable nutrients
Tufts University’s school of veterinary medicine had this to say about grains:
“Whole grains, rather than beingfillers, contribute valuable nutrients including vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and fiber to diets while helping to keep the fat and calories lower than if animal products were used in their place.”
They go on to write,
“It is becoming more common in the saturated pet food market for manufacturers to perpetuate myths to sell diets and increase market share.Grain-freediets are often an example of this strategy. Many of these diets merely substitute highly refined starches such as those from potatoes or tapioca (cassava) in place of grains. These ingredients often provide fewer nutrients and less fiber that whole grains, while costing more.”
Dogs CAN digest grains
Dr. Jennifer Coates of PetMD busts a common myth surrounding grain-inclusive foods. She writes:
Contrary to what you might have heard, dogs do have all the digestive enzymes needed to break down, absorb, and utilize nutrients from grains…While it is true that dogs don’t make salivary amylase, their pancreas does make the enzyme, and since dogs tend to swallow large chunks of food without chewing, the need for salivary amylase is questionable. The lining of the dog’s small intestine also produces brush border enzymes that are responsible for much of the carbohydrate digestion.
Should I take my pets off grain free diet?
When asked this question, vets at the University Veterinary Hospital replied,
“Yes. We recommend changing your pet from a BEGR diet until we know more. There is no proof that grain-free is better! The fact is that grain allergies are rare, so there’s no benefit of feeding pet foods containing exotic ingredients. Food allergies in dogs are an allergy to the protein not a grain. And while grains have been accused on the internet of causing many diseases, grains do not contribute to any health problems and are used in pet food as a nutritious source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.”
FYI, BEGR foods include:
- Boutique companies (small, independent brands)
- Exotic proteins, like kangaroo, alligator, and other novel ingredients that were typically reserved for dogs with food allergies in the past
- Grain-free dog food
- Raw dog food
Check out their full discussion on the topic in the video below:
Rebuttal: Boutique brands were unfairly implicated
In the interest of fairness, I think it’s important to point out that the FDA may have been a bit hasty in calling out boutique brands, at least according to one expert review printed in the Journal of Animal Science.
“…an exhaustive review of the literature provides evidence of conflicting information. For example, boutique diets, defined as produced by a small manufacturer, have been implicated in association with DCM. However, when the FDA report is broken down into which pet food manufacturers made the called-out diets, 49% of the brands listed were made by one of the six largest pet food manufacturers in North America. Given that almost half of the brands listed on the FDA report on June 27, 2019, are not manufactured by boutique pet food companies, it is unlikely that an association can be made to DCM.
Shouldn’t my dog eat like a wolf?
I feel like this needs to be addressed, because there are a lot of people out there who believe we should feed our dogs the same diet that wolves eat in nature. Dogs are not wolves. I repeat, DOGS ARE NOT WOLVES. They haven’t been wolves for thousands of years. In fact, some newer studies show that they never were wolves to begin with, but rather wolves and dogs split off from another common ancestor.
Regardless, according to the AKC, dogs differ from their wild counterparts when it comes to digesting grains. They write:
“…in fact, scientists believe that one of the physiological changes that helped dogs evolve alongside humans was the ability to digest starch. Dogs have differences in 10 key genes compared to wolves that enable them to better utilize grains than wolves can.
Grain-free or not, it’s the overall quality of the ingredients that matters most
Sometimes, grain-free foods can actually be the worse option because some foods use unhealthy fillers to replace the grains (like those aforementioned peas/lentils/potatoes). If you’re on a tight budget, you can often find a really good high-quality grain-inclusive food for less money than even the the “subbest” of the sub-par filler-filled grain-free brand. Which option do YOU think is better?
Rather than focusing on whether or not the bag includes those magical words “grain-free,” it’s important to look at the whole label and read between the lines (literally and figuratively).
What to look for besides just the words “grain-free”
It’s interesting to note that the WSAVA Global Nutrition Committee (a worldwide authority on the subject) makes no mention of grain-free or grain-inclusive in their guidelines for selecting pet food. In fact, the word “grain” doesn’t even appear on the leaflet. Here’s what they recommend looking for in a brand:
- Does the brand employ a nutritionist, and not just as a consultant but as someone with actual say in the final product?
- Who developed the recipe? It should be “experienced pet food formulator” such as someone with a PhD in animal nutrition and NOT just some random dog owner, breeder, or trainer.
- What is the quality control process for both the ingredients and the finished products?
When it comes to the label, look for:
- A “nutrition adequacy statement.” Look for words like “complete diet.”
- Calorie content. “Having access to accurate pet food caloric content can help prevent unintended overfeeding,” WSAVA writes.
- Contact information. Every bag and can should have very clear and easy-to-find contact info. It’s definitely a red flag if a company makes it hard to get in touch with them.
- “Made by” AND “made in” information. Not only should you easily be able to see which parent company owns the brand you’re considering, but you should also be able to see where it’s made without having to go on a scavenger hunt around the entire bag.
Ultimately, choosing the best food comes down to YOUR dog’s needs and, honestly, your budget. In a perfect world, money wouldn’t enter the equation. Let’s get real, though, for most of us money is a VERY real issue.
Talk to your vet to determine what your pooch needs, then spend some time investigating different brands that fit your budget. Don’t exclude any just because they contain wholesome grains unless your vet specifically says your dog MUST eat a grain-free diet.
What do you think? Is grain-free dog food REALLY the better option or just marketing hype? Share your thoughts below.