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Is a Grain-Free Diet for Dogs Healthier?

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Grain-free options are all the rage at natural pet food stores. Is a grain-free diet for dogs healthier than something with rice, corn, oats, or wheat? Is a grain-free diet also free of carbohydrates?

Let’s dig into the grain-free pet food debate! Whether you are feeding a diet like this or considering it to avoid grain allergies, we’ve got you covered.

Grain-Free Diet for Dogs 101

Grain-free dog food can come in many forms. Not just kibble, but freeze-dried raw, canned, raw-coated kibble, air-dried, “fresh”, home-cooked, gently baked, and prey-model raw.

Grain-free kibble dog food diets became popular in the early 2000s. At that time, there was a lot of debate surrounding the benefits and drawbacks of grains for animals and for people.

Canine health and dog food trends tend to closely follow human diet trends! For example, in 2022 we are seeing a huge rise in the popularity of “fresh”, “keto”, “paleo”, “vegan”, “cricket-based”, and “whole foods” dog food diets.

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What are common grains in dog food?

Common grains include:

  • Rice, brewers rice, brown rice
  • Corn
  • Wheat
  • Oats
  • Barley
  • Sorghum
  • Quinoa
  • Other “ancient grains” such as amaranth, millet, and rye

To respond to the trends against grains, pet food manufacturers figured out how to replace common grains with grain-free carbohydrates such as lentils, garbanzo beans, peas, and potatoes.

Do dogs need grain in their diet?

There is a lot of conflicting information about whether or not dogs need grain in their diet at all.

If a dog is offered a whole prey animal to eat, it will rip into the meat and organs and consume everything, including the contents of the stomach.

Dogs by nature are scavengers and opportunists: they can and will eat just about anything offered to them.

Grains provide energy in the form of carbohydrates, not to mention they fulfill important dietary needs such as omegas, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.

Because kibble MUST contain some kind of starch or carbohydrate for binding, grains are a solid and nutritious choice.

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Grains and dog food allergies

Some people believe that their dog has grain allergies, however, this is rarely true.

Most of the time there are other factors at play and veterinary advice is recommend.

Only a veterinarian-monitored food elimination diet can definitively diagnose food allergies in dogs.

It’s important to note that scientific study shows that blood and saliva allergy tests are wildly inconsistent and inaccurate. Save your money.

For pets that have been scientifically diagnosed with a legitimate grain allergy, choosing a well-researched food or working with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist will be key.

FACT: Less than 1% of dogs have a true sensitivity to grains, according to scientists.

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Is grain an inflammatory?

A quick google search using two different terms produced wildly different results.

Is grain-free dog food bad for dogs” produced a slew of scientific articles and information from reliable sources, including articles and studies written by highly educated people in veterinary medicine.

Every single one stated that grain-free kibbles can be dangerous for dogs to eat, and that dogs can digest grains without any problems at all.

Read THIS excellent article from TUFTS University

So, because I like to look at science and evaluate both sides of the coin, I searched again.

Is grain an inflammatory ingredient in dog food” produced a bunch of inflammatory (catch my drift here?) and alarmist blog posts written by bloggers with no credentials and ‘nutritionists’ who obtained their certification from often biased and rarely scientific online correspondence courses.

They all said grains are bad, of course. But does their unscientific opinion have merit?

I think not.

As above, grain allergies are exceptionally rare. It’s been scientifically proven that dogs are easily able to digest and obtain nutrients from grains.

My Great Dane is not eating, now what?

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Is grain-free food carb free?

This is one that confuses a LOT of dog owners! I’ve even seen self-proclaimed nutrition experts have absolutely no understanding regarding this topic.

So here it is: just because a food is labeled as ‘grain-free’ does NOT mean that it is low in carbohydrates.

Grain-free dog foods are, in theory gluten free, but they are not carb free! Gluten contamination is possible unless you choose a veterinary prescription diet.

Fact: many dog foods manufactured without grains are high in legumes, peas, beans, and potatoes; all of these things are high in carbs!

Dog food manufacturers want you to believe that grains are bad, because it allows them to produce cheap, pea-filled food and sell it at a premium ‘health food nut’ price.

If a “nutritionist” or other “expert” is telling you that “dogs don’t need carbs, choose a holistic grain-free dog food”, RUN far away.

I said what I said.

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How Grain-Free Dog Food is Made

As you may have noticed above, I mentioned how kibbles must be manufactured with some kind of carbohydrate. This is how the the final kibbles are held together. Without it, the food would just turn to dust.

Certain diets such as air-dried and ‘fresh’ foods can be made without grain or carbohydrate sources, but these diets may lack the full spectrum of nutrients and amino acids that pets need.

How to Choose a Puppy Food for your Great Dane

Ingredients in grain-free dog food

In grain-free foods, rice, oats, wheat, or corn is replaced by peas, potatoes, garbanzo beans, lentils, and other similar plant-based protein and carbohydrates.

Because many grain-free foods are created to produce sales from dog owners worried about the health of their pets, they tend to also contain ingredients that appear healthy and nutritious, but may not be! These ingredients are included purely for marketing purposes.

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Here are some examples of common inclusions in ‘fancy’, ’boutique’, grain-free or grain-inclusive dog foods:

Deboned meat. This can include things such as ‘fresh deboned chicken’, ‘roasted deboned lamb’, or ‘deboned fish’, which appeal to American dietary tastes. While these ingredients are not harmful and sound healthy, it’s important to keep in mind that dogs need bone, organ and cartilage in their diet.

Not just muscle meat, which contains only a small percentage of the actual nutrition dogs get from other parts of the animal (the ‘by-products’).

But wait, there is more!

Deboned fresh meats are 70% water. By law, companies must list ingredients by weight before extrusion.

So if you see that “fresh chicken is the first ingredient” on the label, you are likely being fooled. Especially when it comes to grain-free diets that use a lot of starchy carbs!

After extrusion, how much fresh deboned meat is really there? Around 70% less than you think.

PRO TIP: You want to see meat meals and meat by-product meals in the first ingredients. This dry, rendered product is heavy before and after extrusion, not to mention chock full of protein, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.

What are By Products in Pet food 2

Pumpkin, Squash, Blueberries, etc. Ingredients like this are often considered to be nothing more than ‘fairy dust’ by board-certified veterinary nutritionists.

Like fresh meat, these ingredients are mostly water. By the time they are extruded there isn’t much left. Plus, they may displace room in the composition of the kibble for vitamins, minerals, and amino acids from better sources.

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Why grain-free dog foods are not healthy

Because so many grain-free dog diets have replaced a significant amount of meat with peas, potatoes, lentils, and other pulses, the diet may be lacking in the correct balance of trace nutrients and amino acids.

These starchy ingredients contain protein and as a result can, in some ways, replace meat. The final kibble will still meet AAFCO nutrient profile minimums on paper.

Unfortunately, the pet food industry is a sketchy place, and not for the reasons that you think.

What is ingredient splitting?

Ingredient splitting is a common practice, for example!

This is when companies will take an ingredient such as peas and split it up on the ingredients list.

Peas, pea protein, pea fiber, pea flour, and pea starch are things you may notice. Or green lentils, red lentils, yellow peas, green peas.

This splitting allows manufacturers to trick you into believing the food has more meat in it than it actually does, and is a COMMON practice of boutique and grain-free dog food brands.

Read more about ingredient splitting HERE.

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The dirty truth about grain-free dog food

Some people believe that grain-free dog diets contain more meat than what is seen in grain-inclusive diets.

They believe this because of marketing, and because of the assumption that the grains taken out of the food are replaced with meat.

Oops! Grain free diets are actually quite often loaded with pulses and legumes to replace the grains, not meat.

Dogs need meat, bone, organ, tissue, fat, skin, and cartilage in their diet. Many of these things are considered ‘by-products’. By-products are great in a dog’s diet, but marketing has made them into a dirty word.

Grain-free dog foods are not, in fact, higher in meat nor are they necessarily healthier for your dog.

We believe that correctly balanced kibbles will have meat meal and meat by-product meal as a primary protein source, paired with well-researched healthy grains such as rice, corn, and oats for energy and nutrients.

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See what brands we recommend ↗

Is it good for dogs to have grain-free dog food?

We believe that many grain-free dry dog foods and marketing-based food brands are harming pets.

This belief is backed by science coming from board-certified veterinary nutritionists and the top veterinary institutes and organizations in the Country.

Heart disease is just one proven complication of feeding a poorly formulated diet. You may have heard this from people and veterinarians who tell you to stay away from grain-free foods because of the risk of DCM!

DCM (or dilated cardiomyopathy DCM in dogs) has a genetic component, but also a nutritional one. The two are unrelated.

The nutritional relationship to DCM is well documented. Many pet food manufacturers have had to adjust their formulas in the past.

For example, once veterinary nutritionists learned that cats couldn’t reliably synthesize their own taurine, an essential amino acid, it was added to food and the problem was solved.

Taurine deficiency causes heart disease in dogs and cats. However, the veterinary community does not currently see taurine deficiency as the primary cause of the current nutrition-DCM speculations.

Read on!

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DCM in Dogs Eating Grain Free Dog Food

Dilated cardiomyopathy is when the heart muscle becomes enlarged. DCM is primarily a genetic condition, passed on from parents to puppies.

Dog breeds genetically prone to canine dilated cardiomyopathy include Great Danes, Doberman Pinschers, Boxers, and Cocker Spaniels.

Secondary DCM can be caused by unbalanced nutrition, and as above, it is well documented.

Several board-certified veterinary cardiologists have reported an alarming increase in dogs with no known genetic predisposition to DCM showing up with the disease.

Many of these dogs diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy dcm presented with very few symptoms!

Dilated cardiomyopathy is often a silent killer and will take the lives of dogs who had been playing, eating and enjoying life normally just minutes before.

Adding grains or taurine does not fix this problem; as they say, you cannot supplement your way out of a bad diet!

It is believed that the consequences of feeding poorly balanced diets are grossly under-represented, and that many more dogs would have been diagnosed with heart disease had they lived long enough or had a post-mortem autopsy completed.

90% of the dogs reported with DCM, following scientific observation and diagnosis by a board certified veterinary cardiologist, were eating grain-free dog food, indicating a strong potential dietary link.

It doesn’t matter what you hear and from whom, there absolutely is a problem here. Heart disease is terrifying, and we believe that dog owners should be cautious and base their opinions here on the most up to date science.

An FDA investigation was launched, and since then the discussion has become hotbed of misinformation.

The FDA actually released a statement citing that grain-free diets may not specifically be the issue. People misinterpreted this statement as a resolution of what they believed to have been financially biased, corporate-driven data and ran with it.

This happened despite the fact that 1000’s of reports submitted by veterinarians and dog owners around the Country indicate that BEG diets (boutique, exotic, grain free) foods are causing health problems and heart failure.

Naysayers often cite that the “original studies were bonk” and that “grain free and BEG diets are safe and healthy” as a result, furthering the divide with statements that are not backed by facts or science.

That doesn’t mean there is no problem, however.

The correlation is now believed to be within dog foods where no on-staff board-certified veterinary nutritionists formulate the diet, and/or where a significant nutrient source includes peas, legumes, potatoes, beans, or pulses.

Both grain-free AND grain-inclusive diets are to blame, in other words!

Commonly implicated brands include:

  • Fromm
  • Victor
  • Orijen/Acana
  • Diamond (including Costco and Nutra-Nuggets)
  • Earthborn and Unrefined
  • 4 Health
  • Taste of the Wild
  • Solid Gold
  • Rachel Ray
  • Nutrisource
  • Nutro
  • and many others

FACT: None of those brands have a qualified individual formulating, testing, and researching their diets.

Fromm, for example, has a chemical engineer creating recipes. Victor uses a guy with an online certification in dairy cattle nutrition. Diamond uses proprietary software to spit out a formula, and has the results checked off by a team of consultants.

That is where the problem ultimately lies.

Nutritional DCM is the direct result of ‘health’ food marketing and pet food shaming, which was designed to turn people away from the big-5 science-backed brands and promote the sales of poorly balanced, untested, and grossly under-researched boutique diets.

Think about this for a moment. We’ve all be scammed by the dog food industry.

https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/outbreaks-and-advisories/fda-investigation-potential-link-between-certain-diets-and-canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy

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What food do dog nutritionist recommend?

Keep in mind that there is a difference between a ‘nutritionist’ and a ‘board certified veterinary nutritionist’.

The former are generally people who obtained certifications from online nutrition courses and smaller pet food manufacturers.

The later are veterinarians who obtained several years of additional study and then a board certification in small animal nutrition. Personally, I trust science and people who are highly educated.

Veterinary nutritionists recommend a grain-inclusive diet from a company that has a full-time veterinary nutritionist on staff to formulate, test, and research the diets, participate in peer-reviewed research, and prove their formulas in feeding trials.

As of this writing, only five manufacturers meet this standard.

  • Purina
  • Royal Canin
  • Hill’s Science Diet
  • Eukanuba
  • Iam’s

Here is a great scientific source of information on diets and health issues related to diet, including canine dilated cardiomyopathy.

https://avmajournals.avma.org/view/journals/javma/253/11/javma.253.11.1390.xml

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What is the best food to prevent DCM?

We believe that the best food to prevent nutritional DCM based congestive heart failure is a grain-inclusive diet from an established, science-backed company. These foods have been proven to reduce and at times eliminate heart disease in dogs that had been diagnosed with nutritional DCM!

Here is our list of the best foods for giant breeds, including Great Danes.

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Hello Danes

Dane lover and believer in ethical breeding, training and rescue practices. Positive + Balanced trainer, owner of rescue dogs and dogs from breeders. Love the dog in front of you.

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