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Corgi next to a bowl of dog food

The essentials

  • Grain-free diets are not low-carb — “Grain-free” simply means food without grain. It may contain other starchy and sometimes high-fat carbohydrates as fillers.
  • There is no evidence that a grain-free diet is healthier — These replacement ingredients, like potatoes and legumes, could actually deprive your dog of much-needed nutrients, causing low taurine levels and heart conditions later on.
  • Grain-free diets are actually linked to heart problems — There is evidence from the FDA to suggest a connection or common factor between dogs that eat a grain-free diet and dilated cardiomyopathy, which can lead to heart failure.

Feeding our dogs wholesome, tasty food to keep them healthy and happy is a top concern for pet parents. However, healthy dog food brands have become as varied and confusing as health food choices for humans. Grain-free diets and raw-meat diets are all the rage right now, claiming to be more historically accurate and similar to what dogs would eat in the wild — but this trend is not without controversy.

The FDA is investigating reports of over 500 pet dogs diagnosed with heart issues linking a majority of the cases to a grain-free or “gluten-free diet.” Additionally, there is no evidence that grain-free diets are better for your dog.

While picking the right dog food for your pet may seem overwhelming, it all comes down to your dog’s breed, age, and health needs. It’s generally best to talk with your veterinarian or breeder about the different types of dog food they recommend for your four-legged best friend.

Looking for more info? Read on to learn more about grain-free diets, FDA findings, and how pet parents should react based on their dog’s unique needs and possible genetic predisposition.

What is a grain-free diet? 

Grain-free dog foods have no wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, rye, or soy. However, starch and carbohydrates are often still present in “grain-free” dog food by substituting legumes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, or quinoa. While this might lead pet owners to believe they’re helping a dog with food allergies, that typically isn’t the case. For every 9 in 10 dogs that do suffer from allergies, the allergy is environmental rather than food-related.

Are grain-free diets bad for dogs?

Despite good intentions, dog owners who choose grain-free diets might inadvertently cause more harm than good. Our furry friends need carbohydrates as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Whole grains provide the body with iron, magnesium, fiber, selenium, B vitamins, and carbohydrates for energy. Grain-free diets lack many of these much-needed vitamins and minerals.

The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network (Vet-LIRN) are exploring possible links between dogs eating grain-free foods (with main ingredients like peas, lentils, potatoes, and others) and canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a heart disease.

In 2018, the FDA received a surge of case reports (320) of pets with DCM, with more in the first quarter of 2019. A majority of the dogs were on grain-free diets, though a few were on raw food and other diets. Interestingly enough, online searches for grain-free and grain-free dog food were steadily increasing around that same time.

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a potentially fatal type of heart disease in dogs. DCM specifically attacks a dog’s heart muscle, making it harder for a dog to pump blood. This condition can result in congestive heart failure and canine heart disease.

Large breeds like the Great Dane or Irish wolfhound are predisposed to DCM, but smaller dogs like English and American cocker spaniels have also been known to develop the condition. While some dogs may be able to recover by switching back to food that contains grains, others may experience complications — thus requiring the care of veterinary cardiologists.

Taurine deficiency

Taurine deficiency could be an additional cause for concern in dogs, particularly breeds of medium to large sizes. An essential amino acid for dogs, taurine helps regulate cholesterol and contributes to healthy heart functioning. Dogs eating diets with a lack of grains seem to be at greater risk for developing taurine deficiencies.

Why are pet owners still feeding their pets grain-free food?

When the grain-free food movement took hold, it wasn’t just humans cutting grain out of their diets. Since 2004, people have been following grain-free diets and feeding grain-free food to their pets — this trend rose in popularity around 2019.

A 2015 article from the Washington Post stated that “About a third of Americans are cutting back on gluten, and many are eliminating carbs, good or bad, altogether.” It seems like, despite the information available, Americans still see feeding their dogs grain-free food as healthy a choice as they do in their own diets.

However, the cultural preference extended out of the search bar and into local pet stores. Dr. Irish, DVM, told betterpet that food representatives in pet stores can often lead to owners making decisions about dog food that could negatively affect their pets.

She noted that commercials and packaging are very appealing to owners, as companies actively work to make sure their product is something that consumers will buy. “The notion that a diet is ‘grain-free’ may make someone have second thoughts about grains and think that grains are bad for dogs,” Dr. Irish added.

⚠️ TL;DR: Dog owners should research both the brand and the type of food they are planning to buy — and they should always buy from a company that formulates with veterinary nutritionists’ approval. You can find out if this requirement applies to your brand of choice using a simple Google search.

Potential health benefits of a grain-free diet

None of the veterinary experts interviewed at betterpet felt that grain-free food was a safe choice for most dogs. Dr. Irish said, “To date, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that grain-free diets have major health benefits. Dogs with food allergies could potentially have a grain allergy, but it’s more likely that the protein source would be the inciting factor for food-allergic dogs.”

Dr. Leslie Brooks, DVM, agreed, recommending owners should only feed their dogs grain-free food if their pet has a confirmed grain allergy.

“The only benefit to grain-free dog food would be for that very tiny percentage of dogs that actually has a grain allergy. Working with a veterinary dermatologist or other specialist and doing extensive food trials and testing would be the way to confirm whether grain-free food will help with this or not,” Dr. Brooks said.

👉 TL;DR: If your pet is healthy, energetic, and regular on the food they’re eating now, there’s no reason to switch things up.

Alternatives to a grain-free diet

If you’re concerned your dog may need an extra boost to their immune system or help to get some pep in its step, some alternatives don’t include going grain-free. Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for a dog’s well-being and vitality, especially as they age. Fatty acids can also help with allergies and give your dog a silky, shinier coat.

Looking for additional resources to choose a food or diet style you can trust? Here’s some helpful advice from our expert veterinary team:

The essentials: what to feed your dog

👉 Before we dig in—we want to give a quick reminder to always speak with your vet about your pet’s diet, especially if you plan to deviate from traditional dog food or your dog has any health issues or allergies. They can give you the best advice for your pet! 

Here’s what you should know about different available dog diets and health effects:

  • Dry dog food. This is easier to feed in many cases and can help reduce plaque on teeth.
  • Wet dog food. This is better for pets with no teeth, with kidney issues, and may be more enticing as its odor is stronger. However, it can cause buildup on teeth since there’s no crunching to clean them.
  • Age-specific food. Adult and senior dog food may have fewer calories to maintain your senior dog’s weight. Senior foods can also have extra ingredients to help with joint health. As a result, younger or adolescent dogs with arthritis might benefit from senior food as well.
  • Grain-free food. Avoid it. It’s linked to heart issues — you can talk to your vet about alternatives if your dog has a grain allergy.
  • Table food. Avoid it. It can be toxic, caloric, and deficient in vitamins (unless your table food diet is formulated with the help of your vet).
  • Organic food. Assuming it’s not grain-free, you can feed your dog organic food — though, there are no universally noted added nutritional benefits related to organic food for dogs.
  • Low calorie/light food. Check with your vet first to ensure that your pet is still getting caloric and nutrient needs met with this food type.
  • Raw food diets. Avoid these. There’s no scientific evidence to support them, but dogs and humans have a much higher risk of contracting bacteria like salmonella or Campylobacter.

⚠️ Avoid feeding your dog these items. ALWAYS avoid chocolate, caffeine, grapes, marijuana, sugar-free ingredients like xylitol, garlic, onions, raisins, macadamia nuts, and greasy food with bones.

Frequently asked questions

Is there any medical reason my dog should eat a grain-free diet?

While food allergies (and especially grain allergies) are rare in dogs, they can happen. If you suspect your dog has an allergy, they may benefit from an alternative diet. You can work closely with your vet to determine the cause of any allergies and the best dietary plan for your pet.

Have other health problems aside from DCM been linked to grain-free diets?

Aside from a potential risk of dilated cardiomyopathy, there is some evidence to suggest that dogs on a grain-free diet are at an increased risk for taurine deficiency .

What are some dietary changes that would benefit my dog’s health?

If your pet has no specific allergies, the best thing you can feed them is a diet compatible with their age, breed, size, and individual health needs. Talk to your veterinarian about the best diet plan for your dog.