Is Grain-Free Dog Food Really Better for Your Pup?

Our dog's ancestors hunted for meat and dog's today still crave meat, so are grains even necessary for dogs? Is a grain-free dog food really healthier? Here's what two vets have to say.

Grain-free dog food has become trendy in recent years, but that doesn’t mean its necessarily better for your pet. First off, dogs aren’t vegetarians. Andrea Antonelli, a veterinarian who specializes in animal nutrition at Hodes Veterinary Group, tells Reader’s Digest, “Dogs are omnivores—they need to eat everything, including grains and meats.” Just be sure your pup doesn’t sink his teeth into any of these foods that are toxic for dogs.

Secondly, not all grain-free dog foods are created equal. Some replace grains with animal proteins, while others use legumes, lentils, potatoes, and peas as the main ingredient—and these varieties may even have more carbs than traditional dog food, reports PetMD. (Note that carbs aren’t harmful for a healthy dog.) Is your dog not eating? Here’s what to do. 

An on-going FDA investigation may shed some light on grain-free dog good: An uptick in reports of a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)— a disease that causes loss of heart muscle strength, enlargement of the heart, and heart failure prompted the FDA to begin the investigation in 2018. DCM was found in dogs that ate commercial grain-free dog food varieties containing legumes, lentils, potatoes, and peas as the main ingredient. “There was an increase in reported cases of DCM in dog breeds who are not predisposed to this condition,” says Brian Greenfield, DVM and Good Dog advisor at Animal Clinic Northview, Inc. DCM is common in larger breeds like the Newfoundland and Great Dane and sometimes in smaller breeds like the American and English Cocker spaniel, but the reports of DCM were showing up in breeds not predisposed to the condition, including golden and Labrador retrievers, Whippets, Shih Tzus, bulldogs, miniature Schnauzers, and even some mixed breeds.

“This investigation has not yet yielded any conclusive results on the effects of feeding your dog a grain-free diet,” says Dr. Greenfield. “Other factors could also be contributing to the elevated cases of DCM, such as taurine deficiency (Taurine is an essential amino acid that acts as a protein builder necessary for healthy organs, with higher concentrations in the heart), the sourcing of the main ingredients, or how the dogs are processing the ingredients—regardless of whether or not the food they’re eating is grain-free.” Regardless, these human foods are actually good for your dogs.

While there is no definitive scientific proof that grain-free dog food is better or worse for your dog, pet parents should consider their own dog’s dietary needs. “Each breed and individual dog has different nutritional needs,” says Dr. Greenfield. “A golden retrievers’ dietary needs can be colossally different from that of a Chinese Shar-Pei, so the best option is to work closely with a vet who is experienced with your breed.” In addition to breed, age and health issues like diabetes and arthritis, obesity, and genetics dictate what kind of food you should be feeding your dog. In some rare cases, grain-free dog food could have some benefits if a dog has a grain allergy or sensitivity, but Dr. Greenfield says that amounts to less than 1 percent of dogs. For more guidance, read what dog foods vets feed their own pups and what the best large breed dog food is.

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Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and, among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center. Follow her on Instagram @lisamariewrites4food and Twitter @cornish_conklin.