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Grain Free Dog Food: Should Your Dog Eat it?

Grain Free Dog Food: Should Your Dog Eat it?

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There are so many dog foods on the market that pet owners commonly question, “What is the best food to feed my dog?” A quick walk down the pet food aisle provides a glimpse of adult, puppy, senior foods, prescription foods created to treat various medical conditions of dogs, foods for specific breeds or sizes of dog, gluten free, grain free, limited ingredient, organic, preservative free, vegan, and vegetarian… just to name a few. On top of that, the dog owner needs to consider various formulations such as dry kibble, canned, semi-moist, raw, frozen, and freeze-dried. So many choices can be overwhelming.

One of the recent trends in dog foods has been grain free foods and gluten free foods. As this category of foods has grown in popularity for people, pet owners apply their own food choices to their dogs making it also a popular craze in dog foods. Pet food manufacturers have identified these desired qualities and now produce hundreds of grain free dog foods.

This brings up a few points about grain free foods. Such as… do dogs need grains in their diet? Which dogs may benefit from eating a grain free food? And… how do you pick the best grain free dog food. We will cover these topics below.

What is Grain Free Dog Food?

A grain free dog food is a dog food made free of all grains. The most common grains in dog food are rice, barley, buckwheat, corn, oats, and quinoa. Many pet food manufacturers list grain as the first and thus most common ingredient in their foods that may not be ideal for many dogs.

Do Dogs Need Grains?

A question pet owners commonly ask veterinarians is “do dogs need to eat grains?”

To answer this question, let us consider how a dog has been programmed to eat in nature. In the wild, dogs would run in packs, and scavenge or hunt for a meal. Dogs are carnivores. A wild dog thrives with meat as the main food but also may ingest some berries and wild grasses. There is very little grain in their natural diets.

Some dogs can enjoy and even benefit from eating some grains in their diet. Every dog is a little different. Even dogs within different breeds and or within the same litter may have slightly different dietary needs, allergies, or intolerances.

To answer the question do dogs NEED grain… the answer is no. Their bodies don't require grains but grains don't cause a problem in most dogs.

Why Would A Dog Need a Grain Free Dog Food?

Some experts believe that dogs do well and can benefit from eating grains and others do not. Learn more about Do Dogs Need Grain Free Dog Food?

One reason a dog would benefit from a grain free food is because he is allergic to grains. Allergies are very common in dogs. Allergies can develop from various foods as well as to environmental things including dust mites, tree and plant pollens, insects such as fleas, and even other animals such as cats. Experts believe that only a small percentage of allergies in dogs are caused by food. The most common food allergens in dogs are beef, chicken, and dairy. Grains are not high on the list but can cause allergies in some dogs. It is also possible for dogs to have allergies to more than one food.

Symptoms of allergies in dogs can include skin infections, ear infections, scaly dry skin, and persistent itching.

Veterinarians may recommend grain free foods for dogs with signs of allergies. There are additional benefits to feeding a grain free food. For example, you generally can feed less food and dogs on grain free foods produce fewer and smaller bowel movements. Learn more about What Are the Benefits of Grain Free Dog Food?

What Is the Difference Between Gluten Free and Grain Free?

Dog owners have questions about gluten free diets due to the substantial press coverage for humans about the issues about glutens and gluten free foods.

First, let's look at what is a gluten? Gluten is a protein that functions as glue that holds food particles together. It is common in cereal grains but also present in many other foods. It is estimated that approximately 1% of people have allergies, sensitivities or intolerance to glutens.

Gluten allergies in people is called Celiac Disease. Common symptoms of gluten intolerance or allergies in people include abdominal cramping, bloating, intestinal gas, diarrhea, and/or constipation. The three grains that cause the most gluten problems in people are wheat, barley, and rye. Learn more about Gluten-Sensitive Enteropathy in Dogs and Cats.

In humans with Celiac Disease, an immune response occurs in response to ingestion of gluten which causes damage to microscopic hair-like villa that normally function to absorb nutrients in the small intestine. When the villi do not function normally, signs of gastrointestinal disease occur.

Glutens are everywhere and can be difficult to avoid. The glutens present in wheat, barley and rye are commonly found in breads and other baked goods, pasta, soups, cereals, salad dressing, sauces, malt, food coloring, beer, and Brewers yeast. Many restaurants now have “gluten free” options on menus such as bread or pasta.

If you believe your dog has a gluten or grain allergy, it is important to understand that a gluten free diet is not the same as a grain free diet. Gluten is not a grain and a grain is not gluten. Not every grain has glutens or the same quantities of glutens. There are grains that are free of gluten such as sorghum, quinoa, millet, oats, buckwheat, amaranth, teff, and corn.

What does this mean when looking at gluten or grain free dog foods? A gluten free dog food may or may not have grains. A grain free dog food will be gluten free.

Do Dogs Get Celiac Disease or Gluten Allergies?

Celiac Disease is uncommon in dogs with the primary exception of the Irish Setter. A very small percentage of Irish Setters in the United Kingdom (UK) suffer from intolerance to gluten due to a genetic defect. Most nutritionists believe that feeding gluten free diets to every dog is a waste of your time and money due to the very low prevalence of gluten intolerance in dogs.

For those rare dogs with sensitivity to gluten, signs of gluten sensitivity can include those signs of a food allergy such as those as listed above. The most common signs are gastrointestinal symptoms such as excessive gas, weight loss or failure to gain weight, and/or diarrhea.

How Can You Tell if Your Dog Has a Gluten Allergy?

How can you tell if your dog has a gluten allergy? If your dog eats grains, and has normal digestive function such as no vomiting, normal bowel movements and isn't itching or having skin infections, then he doesn't have a gluten allergy. If your dog has any of the signs above, your dog may have an allergy but would be uncommon to have a gluten allergy. Grain allergies in dogs are more common than gluten allergies.

In this case, you could try a careful diet trial of feeding a grain free diet for a couple months.

Is a Grain Free Dog Food Also Low in Carbs?

A grain free food is not a low-carbohydrate food. Many “grain-free” foods contain other carbohydrates such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, tapioca, apples, or green peas.

What Not to Feed Dogs with Grain Food Allergies

Just as it is important to know what to feed dogs with grain allergies; it is critical to know what NOT to feed. The most common grains used in dog foods are barely, buckwheat, corn, rice, oats, and quinoa.

The grains that you should avoid in dogs with grain allergies are the following: maize (corn), various types of millet, sorghum, fonio, barley, oats, rice, rye, spelt, wheat, wild rice, triticale, and teff.

Other types of grains you may see on food labels include buckwheat, chia, quinoa, kiwicha, lentils, chickpeas, common beans, lentils, lima beans, fava beans, soybeans, runner beans, pigeon beans, peanuts, mustards, rapeseal, sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, flax seed, hemp, poppy seed, and lupins.

How to Pick The Best Grain Free Dog Food

Good quality grain free dog food should be selected for your dog's life stage, size, and body condition. If your dog has grain allergies, the best thing to do is to feed a good quality grain free food that is formulated to meet your dog's unique needs based on age, body condition, and any other medical needs.

Consider the following as you choose a grain free dog food and feeding your dog:

  1. Find a Reputable Company. Find a company that you can trust to provide a consistent high-quality food. Quality locally sourced ingredients and quality control measures are critical to the production of a safe and quality product. It is important for manufacturers to have quality control measures in place that ensures cleanliness, correct formulations, absolutely safety, and no contaminants. Quality control also includes producing grain free dog foods without cross contamination. Many dog food plants produce both dog foods with grains and others without grains. This can lead to cross-contamination and a product labeled as grain free but is contaminated with grain. Consider companies that produce dog food in the United States or your country.
  2. Another factor to consider when looking for a good company is one that ideally has no history of recalls. There have been recalls for various dog foods including grain free foods. Learn more about Grain Free Dog Food Warning: What You Should Know. Find a company that makes you feel good about what you are feeding your dog.
    AAFCO Approved. Whatever dog food you feed should conform to AAFCO standards. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is an organization that publishes regulations for nutritional adequacy of “complete and balanced” dog foods. Diets that fulfill the AAFCO regulations will state on the label: “formulated to meet the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profile for… (a given life stage). This indicates the manufacturer is following the national consensus recommendations for dog foods.
  3. Choose Based on Life Stage. Nutrition requirements will vary depending on your dog's life stage. Select your dog's food for the correct life stage such as if your dog is a puppy, adult, working dog, senior, or a breeding dog.
    Feed Based on Body Condition. It is important to feed your dog to maintain an ideal weight and avoid obesity. Do not over or underfeed. If your dog is overweight, a weight-reducing diet plan is recommended. You can use the guidelines on the bag as a baseline to determine how much to feed your dog but monitor your dog's weight and adjust accordingly to maintain an ideal weight. Just like people, some dogs can gain or lose weight with similar quantities of food. Some dogs need more calories and others less.
  4. Water. As part of a healthy diet, it is important to provide fresh clean water at all times. Carefully clean and wash out the water dishes every other day. A good recommendation is to wash the water and food dishes in the dishwasher at least weekly.

The Right Grain-Free Food for Your Dog

There are hundreds of “grain free” dog foods on the market now. Pet owners commonly question which foods are the best grain free foods for dogs?

When choosing a grain free food for your dog it is critical to pick a company that will provide high quality ingredients, consistency in the formulation, free of artificial colors and preservatives, and formulated to meet the nutritional requirements of your dog's individual needs.

Ensure the bag indicates that the manufacturer is compliant to meet the guidelines of the AAFCO who is the Association of American Feed Control Officials.

Companies that produce high-quality grain free dog food include:

  • Acana Heritage Grain-Free Dog Food
  • Best Breed
  • Fromm
  • Grandma Lucy's
  • Halo
  • Merrick Grain-Free Dry Dog Food
  • Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Foods
  • Natures Recipe
  • Nutro Ultra Grain-Free Dog Food
  • Orijen
  • Primal Pet Foods
  • Stella and Chewy's
  • Taste of the Wild
  • Wellness Core Grain-Free Dog Food
  • Zignature Grain-Free Dog Food

Please review the articles below or discuss your additional questions about grain free dog food with your veterinarian at your next appointment.

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