The term “grain-free” has been gaining popularity in the pet food world, just as gluten-free foods have been filling the shelves at grocery stores for humans.
While many pets thrive on grain-free diets, it’s important that you have all the facts before you switch your dog to one.
This article gives you what you need to know about grain-free canine diets — from what’s in store-bought food to homemade dog food recipes.
But first, let’s start with the basics.
What’s Considered a Grain?
Basically, grains are the seeds of grasses that we’ve cultivated for consumption.
The most common grains include:
Each grain has three distinct layers:
- Bran: the hard outer layer, which is where most of the fiber comes from
- Endosperm: the inner layer that holds most of the starch
- Germ: the reproductive part bursting with micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals
When foods are listed as whole grain, it means that they’re made with the entire grain including all three layers. Grain-free, on the other hand, means that no part of these grains is used in the food whatsoever.
The Thinking Behind Grain-Free Dog Food
DNA has shown that all modern day dog breeds are descended from the gray wolf.
Grain-free advocates believe that since wolves don’t forage for grains in the wild, domesticated dogs should also forgo them in favor of more meat and protein.
In fact, many argue that specific genetic characteristics passed on from wolf to dog actually make it better for them to be designated as meat eaters, not grain eaters.
For example, dogs’ sharp, pointed teeth seem to be designed for the purpose of tearing flesh and gnawing bones, not grinding down corn or oats.
Further, dogs have short gastrointestinal tracts, which are better suited for quickly digesting meats. Grains take longer to process and may lead to digestive issues.
Just like humans evolved diets based on what our Paleolithic ancestors hunted and gathered, dogs have evolved over tens of thousands of years to be able to digest what their ancient wolf ancestors couldn’t eat.
Thanks to the various genetic mutations stemming from our pet’s ancestors, most dogs can digest grains without a problem. Scientists believe it was these mutations that helped dogs digest discarded crop products such as wheat and corn that made them more domesticated.
The addition of grain to the evolving dog’s diet isn’t a bad thing. There’s a reason the dietary food pyramid includes carbohydrates and grains: they are an excellent source of energy and offer health benefits such as fiber, protein, and antioxidants. Many dogs actually do better with grains in their diet because they provide much needed fiber to help their digestive systems stay healthy and regular.
While most grains are generally well tolerated, sometimes certain grains can cause trouble for your pet if he’s allergic to them.
“Ten percent of all allergy cases in dogs are food allergies.”
Symptoms of a food allergy in your pet — which is different from a food intolerance— include, but are not limited to:
- Itching and scratching
- Constant paw licking
- Chronic ear infections or inflammation
- Gastrointestinal trouble
- Chronic diarrhea and gas
- Itchy bum
If your dog has one or a combination of these symptoms, speak with your veterinarian about the possibility that he may be allergic to a specific trigger food. While grain-free products keep hitting the market, there may be other ingredients causing trouble for your dog.
The top 10 most common food allergy triggers in dogs are:
According to one study, when 278 dogs with food allergies were evaluated, researchers discovered that beef was responsible for 95 of the allergic cases reported, higher than all of the other food triggers. Dairy was responsible for another 55 cases and came in second place.
Keep in mind that your dog could be allergic to more than one food item on this list. So in order to separate a possible beef allergy from a grain allergy, you’ll need to do some experimenting.
Check the ingredients on your dog’s current food. Do you notice multiple different sources of meat, grains, fruits, or vegetables? Any one of these could be causing his allergy.
Consult with your vet about starting a diet specifically aimed at pinpointing your dog’s trigger foods. Your vet will be able to help you plan out a very basic diet that still meets all of your dog’s dietary needs. Monitor your dog’s flare ups and let your vet know when he seems to be getting back to normal. Remember that reactions usually take a few days to a few weeks to manifest as symptoms of a food allergy.
When your dog is free and clear, you can slowly start re-introducing foods back into his diet one at a time to see if he’ll react negatively. For instance, if your dog is doing well on a cooked chicken only diet and you add corn back in and notice the flare ups returning, there’s a good chance your dog may be allergic to corn.
However, if your dog happens to be allergic to corn, don’t assume that he’s also allergic to every other grain when they are so very different from each other. You’ll need to let the corn pass through his system until he’s stable again and try adding a new grain, such as brown rice, to his diet to see how he reacts.
If you discover that your dog is allergic to most or all grains, you may want to seriously consider feeding strictly grain-free dog food.
If your dog seems to tolerate grains well, he may be allergic to the other ingredients in his dog food.
Controversial Ingredients in Dog Food
If you’re purchasing foods from a store, make sure you can easily identify all of the ingredients. You’ll not only feel confident knowing that you’re feeding your pet whole, nutritious foods, but it will also help you identify specific ingredients in case your pet has a bad reaction to any of them.
Common controversial ingredients you may see include:
Many pet owners avoid the use of corn in their dog food due to its association with bloating and joint swelling.
Others believe that dogs shouldn’t eat too much corn just like humans should stay away from high fructose corn syrup.
Dogs metabolize corn in a similar way we digest sugar, which means they’re susceptible to hyperactivity, exhaustive crashes, and difficulty concentrating.
Corn is also a pathway” ingredient for Mycotoxin contamination, which are toxic substances that flourish when certain mold and fungus infect grain crops like corn, wheat, and barley.
In 2007 there was a worldwide pet food recall based on contaminated wheat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley) from China that was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of dogs from renal failure.
Wheat gluten is typically added to pet food as a way to bump up protein and carbohydrate levels cheaply. Some dogs may have trouble digesting gluten.
Gluten-free diets may or may not contain grains. For instance, corn is a grain, but it’s also gluten free. Grain-free diets are always gluten-free.
Beet pulp is added to food to provide fiber and bulk to your dog’s stool and keep digestion flowing regularly. Fiber also keeps your dog’s colon healthy. There are many myths about the dangers of beet pulp, but they have been highly debatable.
Overall Nutritional Analysis
First and foremost, always choose products that have the seal of approval from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which means it has been certified as nutritionally balanced and complete for your pup.
Grain-free diets are usually higher in protein and fat than typical dog food. Check the guaranteed analysis on every package to monitor these ratios. Protein should be around the 20% range and fat in the 10% range.
Since ingredients on the package are listed by weight, meat should be the first ingredient, ensuring that it makes up the majority of your dog’s food. Good quality protein sources should be one word ingredients such as ‘chicken,’ ‘duck,’ or ‘rabbit.’ Specific animal meal is also considered a high quality protein source, as long as it’s identified as ‘bison meal’ as opposed to ‘meat meal.’
Carbohydrate-rich vegetables such as potatoes and peas are used in grain-free diets as a substitute for grains, so keep that in mind if you’re trying to control your dog’s weight. An excess of fat and carbohydrates can lead to weight gain.
But the extra protein and fat will also provide a great source of energy for your dog, so your lazy dog may become playful again. Conversely, your high-energy dog may become a handful.
Dr. Mercola recommends staying away from products with soy ingredients as soy is estrogenic, meaning it mimics the way the hormone estrogen works in your pet’s body and “wreaks havoc on your pet’s endocrine system.”
Although grain-free pet foods may seem more expensive, owners notice that their dogs seem to eat less thanks to the dense nutritional profile in grain-free foods.
Remember to switch your dog’s food gradually by mixing a bit more with his old food every day until the ratio is all new grain-free food. This will be easier for your dog’s digestion to transition.
Don’t be afraid to look up ingredients that are unfamiliar to you. If you find that scouring labels makes your head spin, you can always try whipping up your own homemade dog food.
According to Dogster, your dog’s grain-free diet should consist of 50% vegetables, 40% meat, and 10% fat. Check with your vet as to which supplements and vitamins your dog needs. If your dog has specific veterinary issues you’ll need to adhere to his dietary guidelines as well.
Grain-Free Dog Food Recipes
Here are three simple grain-free dog food recipes:
5 lbs. chicken
2 cups red cabbage
2 apples, skinned
2 cups spinach
5 whole eggs, raw or cooked
Chop up all parts of the chicken and boil in a pot large enough for all of the ingredients until it’s almost fully cooked. Reduce to a simmer and add the diced veggies and apples. Simmer until the chicken is cooked through. Remove pot from stove, let cool, then add the eggs and olive oil. Stir to combine.
This can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to five days.
5 lbs. fresh ground turkey
5 whole eggs, raw
2 ½ cups of lentils
3 cups of diced mixed vegetables
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Cook the lentils until tender. Dice and cook the vegetables until soft. Combine the lentils, vegetables, eggs, and meat in a large bowl. Mix together well and form into balls. Place on a cookie sheet and bake until cooked and browned all over, about 45 minutes.
Let cool before giving to your dog. Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to five days.
2 ½ cups of coconut flour
1 cup of applesauce
1 ½ cups of pure pumpkin puree (NOT pie filling)
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Roll out dough and shape cookies with your favorite cookie cutter. Place cookies on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 25 minutes.
Consult a Vet
Speak with your vet if you suspect that your dog may be allergic to grains. Many dogs thrive on high quality grain-free diets and these simple recipes should help you transition easily.
Don’t feel pressured to switch your dog to a grain-free diet if he’s not allergic to grains. Whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa provide excellent health benefits for your dog. Bonus: your dog can enjoy these grain-free recipes and others if you’re still on the fence about grains.