Dog owners only want the best nutrition for their pets, but the amount of choice when it comes to dog food can make it difficult to know which ingredients are best. The recent trend of grain-free dog foods in particular has sparked confusion among owners as to whether this is a healthy or harmful diet for their pooch.
The carbohydrates in grains provide dogs with much-needed energy but an excess amount can contribute to heart problems. Confusingly though, many grain-free dog foods simply replace grains with high-carb filler ingredients such as sweet potato, and as a result, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has warned that grain-free foods could be contributing to a life-threatening heart condition in dogs.
As grain-free dog food has risen in popularity so have cases of this heart condition known as Dilated Cardiomyopathy or DCM, leading many experts – including animal nutritionist Dr. Richard Patton – to be wary of a possible link: “An enlarged heart (DCM) is uncommon in dogs, so we should keep an open mind and keep investigating.” Since it’s hard to provide a definitive answer at this stage, let’s explore some of the queries relating to grain-free food to see whether it’s right for your dog.
3 Grain-free Dog Food Benefits
If properly formulated, a balanced grain-free diet can be beneficial to dogs with food intolerances or certain health needs as diagnosed by a vet or pet nutritionist. These benefits can include:
Lower Risk of Developing Food Allergies
Common dog food brands include grains such as wheat, soy and corn in their ingredients, and these are known to cause food intolerance in dogs. If you think your dog is showing signs of food allergies, eliminating grains from their diet may help to avoid discomfort and digestive issues.
Healthier Skin and Coat
High-quality grain-free brands prioritize healthy fats in their ingredients, such as fish, seeds and plant oils containing omega-3, which all help to keep a dog’s skin supple and their coat stronger and shinier – which means less shedding.
Immune System Support
Premium grain-free dog foods are often made with a specially blended formula that benefits gut health. These formulas are often a blend of fiber sources that have been shown to encourage an optimal environment in a dog’s digestive tract.
Can Grain-free Dog Food Cause Diarrhea?
Some dogs have a more sensitive digestive system than others, and so a switch to grain-free food may affect their bowel movements. Diarrhea can be down to the lack of a binding agent in some grain-free brands like meat and protein. The grain substitutes (peas, sweet potato, beans etc) can therefore cause runny stools.
Does Grain-free Dog Food Cause Loose Stools?
The softer ingredients in grain-free foods of peas and potato can lead to loose stools in dogs with sensitive digestive tracts. Switching them over to a grain-free diet too quickly can also prompt a change in their bowel movements. If your dog is suffering from loose stools or diarrhea, try these foods to ease him into eating normally again.
Does Grain-free Dog Food Cause Heart Disease?
Between 2014 and 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) looked into reports of dogs on a grain-free diet with the heart condition DCM and found that out of 560 cases, 115 dogs had died with the disease. Because of these findings, the FDA put out a warning to owners about the potential health risks of grain-free dog foods, but have yet to suggest taking dogs off grain-free food altogether.
Lead New York veterinarian Liza Lippman suggests that while the link between grain-free and heart disease is inconclusive, it is “better to be safe” and that the substitutions of peas and sweet potato in grain-free foods may not be benefiting your dog’s heart health, so work closely with your vet to determine your dog’s dietary needs instead of “projecting human diet trends onto them.”
Does Grain-free Dog Food Cause Bad Breath?
There may be specific ingredients in some grain-free brands that cause foul-smelling breath like excess fish and bean content, but grain-free foods alone shouldn’t be the main source of bad breath in your dog. You can always give your dogs dental chews to help keep bad breath at bay and consult your vet if the problem worsens.
Does Grain-free Dog Food Help with Allergies?
For dogs with itchy skin and sensitive digestive tracts, grain-free or ‘hypoallergenic’ diets can potentially improve their symptoms, but the root of their allergies should be discussed with your vet before making any sudden dietary changes.
Many skin allergies in dogs are brought on by high-inflammation food sources commonly found in traditional grain-rich dog food (wheat, soy, corn etc), so switching to a grain-free diet may help to bring this inflammation down in your dog’s skin and coat.
Grain-free Dog Food Ingredients
The ingredients in grain-free dog food brands can include, but is not limited to:
- Legumes (peas, lentils, chickpeas)
- Nuts and seeds (quinoa, flaxseed)
- Sweet potatoes
- Fish oil
- Dried eggs
How Much Grain-free Dog Food Should You Feed Them?
This can depend on your dog’s breed, age, weight, and many other factors, so the safest way to determine the daily amount of grain-free food you feed them is to consult your vet about the best diet plan. Some grain-free dog food brands have a higher carb content than others, so you may wish to give them a ¼ cup less compared with a healthier low-carb brand.
Can You Mix Grain-free Dog Food with Regular Dog Food?
It is not recommended to mix regular and grain-free dog foods together. Creating your own blend of dog food can be risky without consulting your vet, since the formula hasn’t been tested and isn’t likely to offer them the appropriate balance of nutrients for their age and health conditions.
When to Switch to Grain-free Dog Food?
If you have decided – with the guidance of your vet – that switching to a grain-free diet could benefit your dog, be sure to make the change gradually to avoid causing an upset stomach. Slowly increase the amount of high-protein and grain-free dog food varieties in their daily feed and continue this for at least 2-3 weeks.
While helping your dog to adjust, you should pay attention to any changes in their stool and if any symptoms such as itching or loss of appetite occur, be sure to consult your vet along the way.
Best Grain-free Dog Food Brands
The following grain-free dog food brands have made the January 2021 ‘Editor’s Choice’ at Dog Food Advisor for their nutrient balanced, protein-rich formulas:
Nulo Freestyle is a pricey but award-winning grain-free brand of kibble, earning high praise from owners for its wholesome ingredients and high-protein formula. The main ingredients in their Adult Salmon and Peas formula are de-boned Salmon, Turkey, Menhaden fish meal, whole peas and sweet potato.
Price range: High
‘Taste of the Wild’
Taste of the Wild is a budget option grain-free kibble with 9 varieties of a high-protein and meat-filled formula for your dog. The main ingredients in the Taste of the Wild range are Buffalo, Lamb, Chicken, sweet potatoes and peas.
Price range: Budget choice
The Wellness Core brand of grain-free dog food has 12 varieties of dry food and is well-loved for its emphasis on protein as part of its Core Ocean Formula. Their main ingredients are Whitefish, Herring, Salmon, Menhaden fish meal and peas.
‘Orijen Dry Food’
The Orijen six-fish formula of premium kibble comes in 8 varieties and its main ingredients include Whole Atlantic Mackerel, Monkfish, Acadian Redfish, whole Atlantic Herring and Flounder. Owners have praised the high-protein content for its coat, teeth and shedding benefits.
Price range: High
Do Dogs Need Grains?
Grains can be harmful in large quantities and to dogs with grain allergies, but a moderate amount can have fantastic dietary benefits for many dogs. So while they are not entirely necessary, grains have their place in a well-balanced dog food formula.
Veterinarian Dr. Kurt Venator explains that grains are “actually an excellent nutrient source” that provides antioxidants, essential fatty acids and vitamins to help a dog’s immune function and promote healthy skin and hair.
What are Good Grains for Dogs?
The wheat, corn and other gluten-containing grains found in traditional cheap dog food is highly-processed and not the best type of grains to be feeding your dog, so try introducing some of the following ‘good grains’ into their feeding bowl instead:
Properly prepared buckwheat seeds have anti-inflammatory properties that may help bring skin and digestive flare-ups in your pooch. Buckwheat is also packed with zinc, vitamin B, potassium and much more, promoting a healthy heart, bones and teeth.
Cooked quinoa is a healthy and nutrient-rich alternative to the starchy grains in traditional dog kibble. It contains iron, magnesium and essential amino acids which can aid in weight loss and lower cholesterol.
Oats are a low-calorie treat for your dog, as well as being packed with fiber and grain protein. A regular cup of cooked oatmeal can help reduce the risks of clogged arteries and high blood pressure too.
Cooked brown and wholegrain rice is not only high in fiber and antioxidants, but it can also aid in weight loss for pups struggling to shift the pounds and can even help stabilize blood sugar levels too!
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