Grain-Free Dog Food vs Grain-Inclusive Dog Food: What's Best for Your Pup?

Grain-free dog food has become increasingly popular in recent years, as pet owners seek to provide their dogs with a more natural and biologically appropriate diet. However, there are some important considerations to keep in mind before switching your dog to a grain-free diet.

What are grain-free diets for dogs?

Wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, and cornmeal are all examples of grains. Grain-free diets are formulated to exclude common grains like wheat, corn, and rice, and instead use alternatives such as potatoes, peas, lentils, and chickpeas.

The idea behind these diets was that dogs may have difficulty digesting grains, leading to health problems such as allergies or digestive issues. However, there is not enough scientific evidence to back up these claims. In fact, research suggests that dogs can easily digest and utilize nutrients from grains.

dog in wheat field                                                                             Photo by YBag Media

It is important to note that just because a diet is grain-free does not mean it is inherently better or healthier for your dog. Each individual dog has unique nutritional requirements based on factors such as age, breed, activity level, and health status. 

Considerations for Grain-Free Diets for Dogs

Consideration #1: Food allergies or intolerances

Grain-free diets are often marketed as a solution for dogs with food allergies or sensitivities. However, it is important to note that grains are not a common allergen in dogs and switching to a grain-free diet may not necessarily solve the problem.

Not only that, but some dogs may be allergic to the alternative carbohydrate sources used in grain-free diets, such as peas or lentils. If your dog is experiencing symptoms of food allergies, such as itching, ear infections, or gastrointestinal upset, it is important to work with your veterinarian to identify the specific allergen and develop an appropriate dietary plan.

Frenchie at the Vet                                                                         Photo by Karsten Winegeart

To learn more about allergies, you can read our blog post on Understanding Allergies in Dogs and How to Help.

Consideration #2: Grain-free does not mean carbohydrate-free

A common myth for grain-free diets is that they are also low carbohydrate. Grains are an excellent source for carbohydrates, so it is thought that by removing them, you also remove the carbohydrate content. However, grains are not the only source of carbohydrates for dogs, and ingredients, such as peas, potatoes, and lentils, which are used to replace grains are often high in carbohydrates. 

It's worth noting that dogs should have some level of carbohydrates in their diet to meet their energy needs – unless there is a health condition that requires low carbohydrate intakes.

Carbohydrates are a key source of glucose, which is essential for brain function and energy production. You can learn more about carbohydrates for dogs in our previous blog post.

Consideration #3: Nutritional Balance

One of the biggest considerations when it comes to grain-free diets is nutritional balance. Grains are a source of carbohydrates, fibre, and other important nutrients, such as B vitamins and minerals. Many grains can also provide protein and, thus, many of the essential amino acids that your pets need.

When grains are removed from a dog's diet, it is important to ensure that the food is still nutritionally balanced and meets all the dietary needs for dogs. This may require the addition of alternative sources of fibre, such as vegetables or fruits, and careful attention to the amounts of protein, fat, and other nutrients in the food.

Balanced Meals

Consideration #4: Canine health

Oftentimes, people will think that grain-free diets are better for their pup’s overall health. However, these concepts do not have scientific evidence to back them up. Looking for complete and balanced meals, such that all essential nutrients are included at quantities sufficient for their life stage, activity level, or breed, should be the priority when assessing healthy meals for dogs.

In 2018, reports suggested a potential link between grain-free diets and an increased risk of heart disease in dogs, specifically dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

However, the FDA has since stated that there is insufficient data to suggest any causality between the DCM case reports and the type of pet food products that were consumed by the afflicted dogs.

Overall, there is no evidence as of yet to suggest that grain-free is better than grain-inclusive or vice-versa.

Consideration #5: Sustainability

A potential reason that some pet owners opt for grain-free diets is due to concerns about the environmental impact of grain farming. Grains such as corn and wheat are often grown using large amounts of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, which can contribute to soil and water pollution, as well as harm non-target species such as pollinators and wildlife. Additionally, the transportation and processing of grains can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

Cooked white rice                                                               Photo by Faris Mohammed

However, it's worth noting that not all grains are created equal when it comes to sustainability. Some grains, such as rice and oats, can be grown using more environmentally friendly practices such as crop rotation and reduced tillage. Looking for non-GMO and certified organic ingredients may be an indicator of sustainability. In addition, sourcing grains from local, sustainable farms, can help reduce the environmental impact of transportation.

It's also important to consider the sustainability of alternative ingredients used in grain-free pet foods. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, etc., all have their own environmental consequences. 

When evaluating the sustainability of pet food, it's important to look for companies that prioritize sustainable sourcing practices, use minimal packaging, and prioritize waste reduction. It's important to consider the overall environmental impact of your pet's diet.

Benefits of Grains for Dogs

Grains are a good source of carbohydrates, which provide energy for dogs. They also contain fibre, which promotes healthy digestion and helps regulate blood sugar levels. Additionally, grains contain important vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins, iron, and zinc, which are essential for a dog's overall health.

dog playing fetch                                                                                     Photo by Afra Ramió

Some grains, such as brown rice and oats, are also considered to be hypoallergenic, which means they are less likely to cause an allergic reaction in dogs than other ingredients. In fact, many commercial dog foods formulated for dogs with food allergies or sensitivities contain grains as a source of carbohydrates.

Options for Grain-Free and Grain-Inclusive Meals

At Tom&Sawyer, we believe in having options for pets with all kinds of needs, including those who need grain-free and those who would like grain-inclusive.

Our Grain-Inclusive meals include:

1) Italian Beef Pasta: Our #1 Best Seller!

2) Buddha Bowl: Uses amaranth, an ancient grain that is also gluten-free!

3) Coconut Chicken: Contains white rice which is easily digestible and can be a good option for pups with sensitive tummies!

Our Grain-Free meal include:

1) Classic Pork Stew: Uses hearty vegetables for a nutrient dense, low-carb option

2) Kangaroo: Not only grain-free, but also uses a novel protein so it’s great for pups who need an allergy-friendly meal

3) Rosemary Venison: Sweet potatoes and lentils provide a nutrient dense alternative to grains and is even low-fat for pups with pancreatitis.

Learn about all our gently cooked recipes for dogs here.

In conclusion, grain-free diets can be a good option for some dogs. It often comes down to pet owner preferences. The most important thing is to ensure proper nutrition. Pet owners can also work with their veterinarians to develop a dietary plan that meets their dog's individual needs and health concerns, whether that includes grains or not.

Other articles you might like:
Understanding Allergies in Dogs and How to Help
Pancreatitis in Dogs
Do Dogs Need Carbs?

Written by: Hannah Godfrey
Animal Nutritionist
BSc.H. | MSc. Animal Nutrition