The Pros and Cons of Grain-Free Dog Food

Can dogs eat it

The Can Dogs Eat It Team

The Pros and Cons of Grain-Free Dog Food
Reading Time: 8 minutes

joana garridoReviewed By Joana Garrido DVM

Grain-free dog food is one of the most widely debated nontraditional diets for canines. Proponents claim that it is a healthier alternative to commercial pet food.

However, some dog owners are hesitant to believe it because grain-free dog food is linked to the development of a cardiovascular disease called dilated cardiomyopathy.

We have put together the positive and negative effects of grain-free dog food to help you determine if it is the ideal diet for your canine companion.

5 Advantages of Grain-Free Dog Food

grain-free dog food infographic

1. Grain-Free Dog Food Reduces Instances of Allergic Reactions.

Food allergies caused by grains are relatively rare compared to animal proteins. However, a handful of unfortunate dogs do develop this condition.

In a study, wheat triggered adverse reactions in 13% of the participating dogs, corn affected 4% of dogs, and rice caused allergies in 2% of dogs.

By eliminating these offending food allergens, the chances of allergic reactions to grains are diminished. This makes grain-free dog food a good alternative diet for canines properly diagnosed with grain allergies.

Keep in mind that not every adverse reaction to food is caused by grains. Hence, getting your dog checked by the vet to trace the root cause is important. If the culprit is indeed grains, it is a good time to consider switching to grain-free dog food.

2. Grain-Free Dog Food Helps Improve Skin and Coat Health.

Grain-free diets for dogs utilize ingredients rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Some of the most common choices are tuna, salmon, chia seeds, and flaxseeds.

They supplement your furry pal’s natural oil production, which is essential for preventing brittle coats and dry skin. Maintaining normal oil levels in his fur keeps him from developing skin issues, excessive shedding, and hair loss.

3. Grain-Free Pet Food Is More Digestible for Certain Dogs.

a dog is looking at his food
Thousand years of domestication slowly led dogs to diverge from their wild ancestors, the wolves. Their diet changed after cohabiting with humans for a long time.

Unlike wolves, our four-legged companions evolved to become omnivorous creatures. A study shows that dogs have more copies of AMY2B, which is the gene coding for pancreatic amylase.

Pancreatic amylase is a digestive enzyme responsible for breaking down starches. This means they can break down starchy food.

However, AMY2B copy numbers tend to vary widely from canine to canine. Some dogs, such as Huskies possess fewer copies of AMY2B. It could make digesting starchy grains such as corn difficult for them.

Feeding them a low-carb grain-free diet promotes better digestion and prevents gastrointestinal upset from occurring.

4. Grain-Free Dog Food Promotes Cleaner Teeth.

dry dog foodGrains in regular dog food create a starchy film on your furry pal’s chompers. Although they are removed by his saliva or when drinking water, ingesting grains frequently will cause this grimy substance to build up in his mouth.

Low-carbohydrate grain-free diet for dogs contains less starch. Thus, starch is less likely to coat his teeth, which minimizes the risk of bad breath and the development of periodontal disease.

However, do not rely solely on your pup’s diet to do all the work. You must also put effort into brushing his teeth daily and sending him to the vet for dental cleaning regularly to prevent excessive plaque and tartar accumulation.

5. Grain-Free Diet Helps Regulate Dogs Bowel Movements.

Certain ingredients in grain-free dog foods provide good amounts of insoluble fiber to dogs such as quinoa, flaxseeds, and sweet potatoes.

Insoluble fiber bulks up dogs’ stools since it does not dissolve in water and is not fermentable by gut bacteria. Moreover, it encourages faster digestive transit time of food through the stomach and intestines.

Feeding your dog grain-free dog food aids in relieving constipation and firming up loose stools.

3 Disadvantages of Grain-Free Dog Food

a person is preparing dog food

1. Grain-Free Dog Food Is Linked to Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM).

Now is a good time to address the elephant in the room. In 2019, FDA initiated an investigation that looked into a possible association between some brands of grain-free dog food to the sudden spike in nonhereditary dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs.

DCM is a type of heart disease that weakens the heart muscle of dogs. If not managed, life-threatening congestive heart failure may take place.

It is speculated that certain ingredients used in grain-free dog food such as lentils and peas cause a deficiency of the amino acid taurine, which contributes to the development of DCM. [source]

However, when further studies were made, experts cannot find a definitive link between grain-free dog food and DCM. According to other reports, DCM also developed in dogs eating non-grain-free diets.

Due to incomplete information and conflicting opinions, a more thorough investigation is needed to definitively find the root cause of the issue.

2. Grain-Free Dog Food Tends to Cost More.

A grain-free diet is one of the alternatives to traditional dog food that took off due to popularity.

The increase in demand and the cost of production to meet this demand makes it a bit more expensive than regular pet food. However, if you are diligent enough, you can find high-quality products for an affordable price.

Do not forget that expensiveness does not instantly correlate with good quality. So always do your research to ensure that your dog’s grain-free food is worth what you paid for. As you continue reading, we will share a few tips related to this discussion.

3. Many Grain-Free Dog Foods Are High in Carbohydrates.

Although many grain-free diets exclude grains in their ingredients, it does not reduce their carbohydrate content. That is because the common substitutes they use as grain replacements are carb-heavy such as:

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Legumes
  • Lentils
  • Peas

They are not the most appropriate choice for sedentary canines or dogs that need to lose weight.

To find a low-carb grain-free dog food, inspect the product’s packaging and look for the information stating its carbohydrate content. They should contain less than 30% carbs to be considered low in carbohydrates.

How to Choose a Good Grain-Free Dog Food

a dog is eating from a bowlWe have listed down some useful tips that will help you find the best grain-free diet for your canine companion:

  • Comb through the ingredient lists of the products and check which contains 1 or more animal or fish protein sources such as chicken, lamb, or tuna.
    They help provide a balance of more bioavailable protein and amino acids to canines aside from plant-based ingredients. These protein sources should be on the first 6 to 7 lines of ingredients of the grain-free dog food.
  • Make sure that the product has gone through the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) feeding trials.

    They are conducted to verify that the grain-free dog food passes the nutrient profiles according to the life stages laid out by AAFCO. It assures you that your furry pal gets the right nutrition from the food he eats.

    To know if a product has undergone a feeding trial, examine its labels. Find one that states something like: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (name of food) proves complete and balanced nutrition for (life stage).”

  • Opt for a grain-free diet dog food brand that manufactures its products in the same facility.
    Avoid the ones that outsource their production since quality control testing might be poor, which increases the risk of cross-contamination of ingredients. It could become a problem for dogs with food allergies or sensitivities.
  • Keep track of grain-free dog food recalls from different companies.

    There are many reasons why this action is taken, such as the presence of contaminants, unlisted food allergens, or abnormal levels of nutrients.

    Recalls are not always a bad thing, especially if dog food brands do it voluntarily. It means that they are actively testing and checking their products for possible issues.

    Trustworthy pet food brands will be transparent to their consumers about the reason behind the recall. Most importantly, they will take responsibility and implement better ways to avoid this issue from occurring.

FAQs About Grain-Free Dog Food

a dog and a bowl of dog food

1. Do Dogs Need Grain in Their Diet?

Dogs do not necessarily need grains in their diet but they can acquire extra nutrients from them.

They are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and selenium. For this reason, eliminating grains in canine diets is not always imperative, especially for healthy dogs.

If you are concerned about the grains’ impact on your dog’s health, seek the vet’s advice. It is also a good idea to get a certified veterinary nutritionist involved.

2. Is Grain-Free Food Good for Dogs?

Grain-free dog food is particularly beneficial for dogs with grain allergies, even though these allergies are rare. While it may be a slightly more expensive choice compared to other dog food options, grain-free diets are often associated with higher-quality ingredients, offering potential advantages.

Although healthy dogs don’t necessarily need a grain-free diet, it can still be a healthy and well-tolerated option. When deciding whether to feed grain-free food, it’s important to consider individual circumstances, such as the presence of grain allergies or specific dietary requirements, to provide the best nutrition for your pet. [source]

3. Does Grain-Free Dog Food Cause Heart Problems?

a bowl of grain free dog food
It is unfounded that grain-free dog food can cause heart problems. Although a correlation was initially observed between the two, researchers failed to identify if there was a definitive link.

As of now, studies are still ongoing to find the true cause of nonhereditary DCM in canines.

4. Is Grain-Free Dog Food Better for Digestion?

Grain-free dog food is better for certain canines such as those with grain sensitivities.

Some dogs potentially have a lower inability to digest starchy grains due to a lack of amylase production. Feeding them a low carbohydrate grain-free dog food makes the digestive process easier for them.

5. Does Grain-Free Dog Food Help with Weight Loss?

a dog is getting fedYes, grain-free dog food can help with weight loss provided that it is low on carbohydrates. So before making your purchase, take time to check the product’s carbohydrate content. Ideally, it should not go above 30%.


grain free dog food and a dog

Weighing the benefits and risks of grain-free dog food provides a clearer picture of its impact on your dog’s health in the long run.

The most important factor to keep in mind is to choose a product that completely satisfies your dog’s nutritional needs.

If you are looking for other alternative options to traditional dog food, our article “The Pros and Cons of Feeding Your Dog a Vegetarian Diet” is also worth reading.