Is Grain Free Food Good for Dogs? A Veterinarian’s Advice

Nutrition has an invaluable impact on our dogs’ lives, as it does with our own. Because we do want what’s best for our fur babies, it’s becoming increasingly trendy to feed our dogs what we eat since what is healthy for us must be healthy for them, right? Well, not necessarily…

“Grain-free” and “gluten-free” are two of the biggest food trends right now. Many dog foods boast containing more meat and fewer (or no) grains, getting back to how our pets’ ancestors ate, but today, I want to break down the ideas behind grain-free dog food and let you know a veterinarian’s take on this fad diets.

What does “grain-free pet food” mean?

A grain-free diet for dogs is void of any grains. Grains are any small, hard seeds, especially the seeds of a food plant such as wheat, corn, rye, oat, rice, or millet. Many people believe that grains in their dogs’ food are simply filler and that eliminating grains from the food will leave their dogs with a healthier, more natural diet; however, that isn’t necessarily true (more on that in a moment)

Why is there a trend to feed dogs grain-free diets?

As with their own overall health and wellness, pet parents are now more aware of the importance and impact nutrition plays in our dogs’ overall wellbeing, and that’s a GREAT thing! We are our dogs’ only advocates, and ensuring they are fed the best diet will certainly help them live long, healthy, and happy lives!

Home-cooked, whole food nutrition, and raw dog food diets are popular for our dogs now more than ever before. All-natural diets with no artificial additives and preservatives are becoming increasingly important when pet parents choose the diets to feed their dogs, and these types of diets can definitely be healthy and fulfilling for our dogs!

However, many pet parents have come to believe that what is healthy for us as humans is also healthy for our dogs. While pets have adapted to eating human food-based diets through hundreds and even thousands of years of living with humans, we should not necessarily make the same nutritional choices for our pets that we make for ourselves.

Are these diets the best choice for your dog?

Some proponents of the grain-free dog diets claim that grains are an unnatural source of nutrition for dogs and feel that dogs’ ancestors did not digest grains in the wild. While it may be true that dogs didn’t sit down to eat a pasta dinner, they did hunt and consume animals that ate grains – therefore indirectly ingesting grains themselves!

However, since our pets no longer live in the wild, dog foods are formulated with our dogs’ activity levels, weight, heart health, and overall wellbeing in mind.

While our dogs’ ancestors may have eaten only a small portion of grains in the wild, dogs have evolved over the years to digest different types of nutrition, including grain. There are several genes in dogs that have been modified over the years to allow them to digest grains and gluten. So, in terms of metabolism, it is not necessary to feed your dogs grain-free pet food.

Some proponents of grain-free dog food diets choose this form of nutrition for their dogs because they believe their dogs are allergic or intolerant to grains. Grain-free and gluten-free diets for dogs are becoming increasingly popular. While these diets are particularly helpful for PEOPLE suffering from celiac disease, gluten intolerances, or allergies to wheat, most dogs do NOT suffer from these same ailments.

If your dog does, in fact, have allergies to grains, a grain-free dog food diet would certainly be an appropriate choice. The following symptoms are what you should expect to see in dogs that have allergies:

  1. Itchiness
  2. Excessive hair loss
  3. Bald patches
  4. Inflamed skin
  5. Sores and scabs
  6. “Hot spots”

How do you know if your pet needs a grain-free or gluten-free food?

While food allergies are common in dogs, grains are not the most common allergen found in pet food. In fact, protein (beef and chicken being the most common), as well as dairy, are the most common causes of food allergies in pets. There are some cases of corn allergies; however, those are uncommon. Speak with your veterinarian if you believe your dog has a grain allergy. Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination and assess if a grain-free dog food diet is appropriate. A food trial with a grain-free dog food may be necessary to determine whether the food is beneficial for your pet.
What is the latest news linking grain-free dog food diets to heart disease in dogs?

Over the past several years, there has been an increase in dogs being diagnosed with a heart condition called Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). DCM is a condition in which the heart’s main pumping chamber, the left ventricle, is enlarged and weakened, and its ability to pump blood is decreased. Over time, it can affect the other heart chambers.

Veterinarians and Veterinary Cardiologists believe there may be a link between “BEG” diets (boutique companies, exotic ingredients, or grain-free diets) and DCM. Recently, the US FDA alerted pet owners and veterinarians about reports of DCM in dogs eating pet foods containing peas, lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes as main ingredients. These ingredients are used to replace the grains in grain-free pet food diets.

Although the studies are unconfirmed and in the early stages, there is a possibility that these BEG diets are low in taurine, an amino acid important in the metabolism of fats. Low blood taurine levels are a confirmed factor in causing DCM in pets. The full extent of these findings is not yet clear, and not all cases of dogs diagnosed with DCM are linked to diet.

In the end, these studies are in the early stages, and nothing has been confirmed with a link between BEG diets, low taurine levels, and DCM in pets. Other factors with BEG diets, such as deficiencies in other nutrients, or even toxicity, may also be contributing factors to the diagnosis of DCM. The condition with nutrition and links to DCM are complex, and we are in the rudimentary stages of confirmed answers.

What is my perspective as a veterinarian?

As a small animal veterinarian, I encourage my pet parents to follow AAFCO approved diets, ensuring the diets they feed their pets are balanced and safe. I will occasionally recommend a grain-free dog food diet for dogs with allergies. Dogs should be thoroughly examined and assessed by a board-certified veterinarian or veterinary nutritionist and prescribed a grain-free dog diet when deemed medically necessary.

Final Thoughts

With the increasing knowledge and awareness of nutrition and its impact on our overall health, it is only natural that we want to feed our dogs the healthiest and best foods, too. The dog food market is growing rapidly, and higher quality foods are becoming more readily available for our dogs. It is more convenient and easier than ever to ensure your dog is getting the best nutrition.

I love that pet parents are becoming more actively involved in the health and wellness of their dogs, and nothing is more important than nutrition. Our dogs rely on us to make the right choices for them. Providing them with high-quality, whole natural ingredients is one of the most important choices we can make for them. That is one of the many reasons I am honored to partner with Side by Side Pet to provide the healthiest, longest life possible for our pets. Your dog will thank you for providing them with a nutritious AND delicious diet with many years of unfaltering devotion, love, and health.

Dr. Alison Birken

Dr. Alison Birken is a small animal veterinarian in Ft. Lauderdale Florida. She owns Victoria Animal Hospital, is the co-founder of Forever Freckled, wife to her amazing husband Rob, mom to her 3 greatest accomplishments Luke, Leah & Hayden and dog mom to her Saint Bernard Dory

By Libby Sinden


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