We all know someone who has adopted a grain-free diet, or maybe we’ve even tried it ourselves. As paleo, keto, and low-carb diets rise in popularity among humans, pet foods are following suit.
Online influencers claim grain-free diets can cure pet ailments such as dry skin, itchiness, flatulence, or digestive issues. As we've come to learn, however, a grain-free diet isn't the cure-all people think it will be for their dogs. In fact, the pet community grew alarmed when the FDA released a report last year about a possible link between grain-free diets and heart disease in pets.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with either grain-based or grain-free foods — each has a role in pet health and nutrition. Just like humans, some dogs do require special diets. My dog doesn't have food sensitivities, for instance, but I know a chocolate lab who requires grain-free food. It truly depends on your pup's nutritional needs.
The Good, the Bad, and the Unnecessarily Expensive
Since the melamine pet food recall of 2007, pet owners have questioned where their dogs' food is made, who makes it, and what is in it. It has been a positive change in most cases because it has led to higher-quality food in bowls.
The heightened focus on ingredients can become a problem, however, when humans make unnecessary changes to a pet's diet. Before you switch out your pup’s kibble, make sure you do it for the right reasons. Consider the following potential benefits and drawbacks:
Pros of a Grain-Free Diet
1. Good for pets that have grain allergies/sensitivities.
2. Tends to be higher in protein and fat for energetic dogs.
3. Might contain more eco-friendly ingredients such as legumes.
Cons of a Grain-Free Diet
1. Expensive and unnecessary for the majority of the pet population.
2. Higher fat content might lead to obesity concerns.
3. Adopting this diet in place of genuine vet advice can put a pet at risk.
Questions to Ask Before Feeding Your Dog a Grain-Free Diet
Pet parents who are considering a grain-free diet for their dogs should always do so after first speaking with a veterinarian. A grain-free diet should never be used in the place of medical care or treatment. Keep in mind that even if a dog requires a diet change, the solution might not be cutting out grains.
To know whether a grain-free diet might be beneficial for your dog, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Does my dog have a relevant diagnosis?
Your veterinarian will help you determine whether your dog has allergies to grains or gluten. You might have to keep a food log or implement an elimination diet to identify your pup's allergens. Your vet can diagnose conditions that might or might not indicate whether a grain-free diet is the right choice for your furry friend.
2. Are my dog’s GI issues caused by grains?
There are numerous reasons why a dog might have gastrointestinal issues. Your dog might have eaten garbage, might have a blockage, might have bacterial overgrowth in his intestines, or might have a more serious condition. It's important to rule out underlying conditions before changing the menu because those major diet changes can complicate symptoms.
3. Does my dog need more fat and protein?
Highly active dogs, working dogs, or elderly dogs in surgical recovery might require more fat or protein in their diets. Although grain-free diets provide that, it’s not the only way to get these dogs the special nutrition. Skipping grains might mean your dog misses out on certain nutrients, too. There are now high-protein and high-fat diets that contain grains — just as there are grain-free diets that are low in protein and fat. Carefully read the labels and work with your vet.
4. Do I want to feed my dog GMOs?
Science shows that GMOs are not harmful (and can help with worldwide food insecurity issues). However, many people don’t want to consume them and might want the same for their pets. Avoiding grains can help your household achieve a GMO-free diet more easily, but you'll definitely want to read the label. GMOs also can exist in grain-free ingredients such as beet pulp and tomatoes.
5. How important is sustainability?
Legumes are included in a lot of grain-free foods, and they use less water and require no nitrogen fertilization. So even if your pup doesn’t have a true sensitivity, grain-free foods are more sustainable in some cases. Just be sure to speak with your vet before you make the switch.
6. Can I afford grain-free food?
Grain-free food is typically more expensive than other chow. There’s no reason to buy costly grain-free food if your pet doesn't need it. Your pup will likely benefit from trace nutrients in grains, and it will leave more wiggle room in your budget for dog toys! If you have a limited budget, you can get more bang for your buck without sacrificing your dog's health by sticking with high-quality, grain-based foods.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
If pet parents and their veterinarians determine that a dog needs to stay away from grains, then it's best to gradually transition food over time. The goal is to gradually add the new food into the old food over time. Slowly reduce the proportion of the old food until your dog is completely eating the new kibble. Some dogs might be able to switch cold turkey, but most need about a week — canines with sensitive stomachs might need two or three weeks. If you observe any gastrointestinal distress, slow down the transition.
The Bottom Line
Your pet’s health depends on more than just the presence or absence of grains. When you and your vet take a well-rounded approach that includes a variety of good information and minimal hype, you and your dog will feel more relaxed and healthy. And don't forget to check your pup's treats — the same rules apply.
Dr. Laura Duclos leads research and development at Puppo, a personalized dog food company. Puppo personalizes kibble for each dog based on size, age, activity level, sensitivities, wellness goals, and more. She has more than 16 years of experience in developing nutritional pet food that supports animal health and well-being. Her clinical research has been featured in prominent publications and scientific journals, and she has been an invited speaker at international veterinary conferences on pet nutrition and innovation.