Grain-Free Dog Food
Almost since the beginning of commercial dog food in the early late 19th-early 20th centuries, food for our dogs has been synonymous with kibble. And that kibble has been made with flour and other grains. There was a brief period when canned horse meat was a way to feed dogs, but, for the most part, commercial dog food has always used plenty of grains. The idea of grain-free dog foods is a relatively recent concept – one that became popular because of dogs that were allergic to some of the grains in ordinary kibbles. Today this idea has caught on with huge numbers of dog owners and grain-free dog food is very popular. So, what is grain-free dog food?
Are grain-free dog foods healthier for your dog?
Not necessarily. There are many good quality grain-free dog foods with good ingredients. But there are also many good quality dog foods that contain some grains. Dog foods that contain some grains are not, by definition, inferior foods, despite what you may read on some Internet sites.
Dog foods tend to follow human health trends and grain-free dog foods are being marketed as healthy foods for dogs. Smart dog owners will read the ingredient lists for the foods and do some research, as always. When you do your research, it’s also important to be aware of any biases the researchers or web sites may have.
If you have questions about an ingredient, you can always look it up yourself on the NutritionData site.
Is it true that dogs can’t digest grains?
No, it’s not true. In fact, the most recent research shows that, unlike wolves, dogs have evolved with genes that give them the digestive enzymes to be able to digest the starches in grains. This is probably because dogs have spent the last 30,000 years living with humans and eating a diet that included agricultural products, including grains. Dogs and humans have evolved together and can eat similar diets. This doesn’t mean you should feed your dog your leftover pizza! But it does mean that most dogs can eat ingredients that are similar to what humans eat, once they are properly formulated for a dog’s digestive system.
But aren’t dogs allergic to some grains?
The most common food allergen for dogs is beef, followed by dairy products. The most common food allergens for dogs, in order, are beef, dairy products, chicken, lamb, fish, chicken eggs, corn, wheat, and soy. Dogs with food allergies tend to be allergic to a lot of common dog food ingredients other than the grains corn and wheat.
You should also know that only about 10 percent of all the dogs who have allergies have food allergies. Since most dogs don’t have any allergies at all, only a very small number of dogs actually have food allergies overall. (Most dogs with allergies are allergic to flea bites or have atopy/inhalant allergies.)
Obviously, most dogs can eat beef, some cheese, chicken, lamb, fish, and so on. Most dogs have no problems eating any of these foods. But it’s entirely possible that your dog could have an allergy to one of these ingredients, or food intolerance that makes eating something an unpleasant experience for everyone with some diarrhea or noxious emanations throughout the night. Every dog is an individual. But feeding a grain-free diet won’t necessarily be the cure for the problem.
Are grain-free dog foods lower in carbs?
No, not necessarily. Many times dog food companies use potatoes, sweet potatoes, or other vegetables or cereals instead of common grains in their foods. Some of these ingredients, such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, are very high in carbohydrates. Potatoes and sweet potatoes – while nutritious – are over 90 percent carbohydrates. Some grain-free foods are low in carbs but many of them have just as many carbs are foods with grains do. Some grain-free foods have lots of carbs. Don’t assume that just because a food is grain-free that it has no or few carbs. Always check the label.
Do grain-free dog foods have more meat and protein?
Again, not particularly. If you read the percentages of a lot of grain-free dog foods, you’ll find that the protein percentages are similar to foods that do contain grains. As with other foods, there is a wide range. You can find grain-free dog foods that have low percentages of protein and some that have very high percentages of protein. You can find grain-free foods that have lots of meat and some that don’t. The quality of these foods varies just as it does with foods that aren’t grain-free.
Does this mean you should not feed grain-free dog food?
There are lots of excellent grain-free dog foods. If you don’t want to feed your dog a food with corn or wheat, or you have another reason for avoiding grains, you can find some great grain-free dog foods. But you should know what grain-free dog foods are and what they aren’t. Some people have the wrong idea about them or think that foods that contain some grains are bad foods. That’s not the case.
The most important thing is to feed your dog a nutritious diet that will provide him with a long, healthy life. The other things – advertising, gimmicks about diets, food controversies – don’t really matter. Keeping your dog happy and healthy is what it’s all about.
*I’m intentionally leaving soy, soybeans, and the like out of this article because soy is not a grain. It’s a legume. However, many people will consider soy to be in the same category as corn and wheat. They do not want to find it in grain-free dog foods and they consider it a likely cause of dog allergies. Soy would need to be discussed separately in another article. It has its own issues since, unlike corn and wheat, it can interfere with hormonal activity in dogs. While I think you can find good dog foods that contain some grains, I would avoid dog foods that contain soy products, in general, especially if you breed dogs.
Choosing the best grain-free dog food
As always, you need to start by looking at the label. Check the ingredients and the guaranteed analysis. This is old advice for most dog owners, but it’s still the best place to start. If your dog really needs grain-free dog food, you need to make sure that the food is actually grain-free. Some dog food companies will omit corn, wheat, and the well-known grains but they can include some of the lesser-known grains and cereals as carbs in the food. You might find rice, barley, oats, or millet in the food, for example. If you don’t mind these ingredients, that’s fine. But you should know they are in the food. Strictly speaking, it’s not really honest for a dog food company to claim a food is “grain-free” and then include these ingredients, but some do.
You will also need to look at the guaranteed analysis for the food and, in most cases, do a little math to figure out the dry matter basis for the food. Doing this calculation removes the moisture content from the figures and lets you make meaningful comparisons to other foods.
To find the dry matter basis, simply do this:
- Subtract the moisture content listed on the label from 100 to find the % Dry Matter (% DM).
- Divide the individual nutrients by the % DM
Food 1 – 100% – 10% moisture = 90% DM
Food 2 – 100% – 76% moisture = 24% DM
16% protein/90%DM = 17.8% protein DMB for Food 1
15% protein/24% DM = 62.5% protein on DMB for Food 2
Now we can see that when moisture is removed, Food 2 actually contains much more protein.
Most kibbles have 10 or 12 percent moisture (guaranteed analysis) so if you are looking at them in the pet store or online, you can compare them without doing the math. They are very similar and it’s not necessary to reduce them to their dry matter basis. But if you want to compare kibble to canned food or you want to know the true dry matter basis of food, it’s important to figure it correctly.
When you compare the protein for different grain-free dog foods, you will see a wide range of percentages. Grain-free dog foods range from about 22 percent protein all the way up to around 40 percent. You don’t have to feed your dog the food with the highest percentage of protein but grain-free foods with low protein percentages are a little worrying. Most dogs with average energy needs do well with a protein percentage somewhere between 26 and 32 percent. The source of the protein is always very important. (More on protein ingredients below.)
As already mentioned, the carb percentages in grain-free dog foods can be surprising. Even though grain-free dog foods do not (theoretically) contain grains, they do contain carbohydrates. Some grain-free dog foods contain vast amounts of carbs, in fact – more than 50 percent, by dry matter basis. It is often even more important to figure the dry matter basis of the carbohydrates in grain-free dog foods than the protein percentage. You will often be surprised to learn how many carbs are in the foods. Some grain-free dog foods have low to moderate carbs, but you should check the foods to be sure.
Carbohydrates are not a horrible thing for dogs, but no one wants them to make up half of the dog food. If you are feeding your dog a grain-free dog food because you want to feed fewer carbohydrates, you will certainly want to be careful about the carb percentage of the vegetables and other ingredients in the food. It always sounds appealing when companies advertise fresh vegetables and other delicious ingredients in their dog foods, but those are usually things that people like to eat. Very often they add up to carbs that dogs don’t really need.
Which ingredients are best in grain-free dog foods?
Many people prefer grain-free dog foods because they often have better quality ingredients. Grain-free dog foods are usually sold in pet stores or dog food specialty stores. In many cases, you have to buy them online and have them shipped to you. Some of these foods are made by smaller companies that emphasize the uniqueness of their ingredients and the care they take in producing their foods. (Whether that’s always true is up for debate, but that is certainly a point they use in marketing their products.)
However, we have to point out that grain-free dog foods are very common now. They are widely produced by both small and large companies. So, some of the chic, gourmet quality of feeding a grain-free dog food no longer applies. Tractor Supply Company, for example — a place where ranchers and suburban folks alike shop — carries several aisles of dog foods and at least half of them are grain-free.
Still, most grain-free dog foods are better quality foods than the dog foods you find in your local grocery store. And some of them are excellent.
Ingredients to look for in grain-free dog foods include whole chicken (often deboned), chicken meal, and various other kinds of named poultry such as turkey and duck. You will also find grain-free dog foods that feature salmon and other kinds of fish. Menhaden is popular in grain-free dog food, though it’s a very common fish. Some grain-free dog foods have beef, buffalo, and other red meats. And some grain-free dog foods have lamb. You can find grain-free dog foods that have more esoteric proteins such as rabbit and venison, depending on the company. These proteins are generally better for dogs that actually have allergies to some of the more common meat proteins.
As you might expect, the more spectacular the meat protein – and the more of it – the more the food usually costs.
In many cases, grain-free dog foods will start off with several meat proteins listed in the ingredient list and then list some pea protein or other plant or dairy sources of protein. This is a way of boosting the protein percentage for the food. Some dogs can have trouble digesting pea fiber/pea protein and dairy, so your dog could have some digestive upset when eating these foods, even if you are paying a huge amount for the privilege of buying them. You can also check the fiber percentages in your grain-free dog food. If it’s over 5.5 or 6 percent dry matter basis, your dog is probably getting too much fiber which can lead to diarrhea.
Most grain-free dog foods will use named fat such as chicken fat (duck fat, etc.). Some of them also include some salmon oil or other sources of fish oil which is a good source of omega-3 fatty acid. Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acid, such as flaxseed oil may also be present though they are not usually considered to be as good as ocean sources.
Aside from carb sources and the added vitamins and minerals in the food (the “condiments”), these are the ingredients you can count on finding in most grain-free dog foods. Foods can also have prebiotics, probiotics, “botanicals,” fermentation products, and other ingredients, but they vary depending on the manufacturer.
You can usually read more details about what a company puts in their dog food on the company’s web site. It always sounds good. Just remember that these pages are written by the marketing department. They are trying to sell you the food. The only information that they can’t tinker with is the data in the ingredient list, the guaranteed analysis, and the other numbers. That’s where you should really focus when looking at food.
Recommended Grain-free dog foods
There are countless grain-free dog foods for sale today so naming the best ones is difficult. If your dog has a food allergy or intolerance to a certain ingredient, it could mean you can’t feed a certain food. Maybe you like a very high protein percentage. Or maybe you’re very wealthy and you can afford to buy the most expensive food on the market. Other people have to consider cost a little more, especially if they have multiple large dogs.
Nevertheless, here are some of the best grain-free dog foods that we like, based on the last time we looked at their ingredients and guaranteed analyses. Keep in mind that companies change ingredients, so things might have changed with some of these foods in the last six months to a year.
- Canidae Grain Free Pure Sky Dog Food
- Canidae Grain Free Pure Sea Dog Food
- 4Health Whitefish And Potato
- 4Health Beef And Potato
- Nature’s Variety Instinct Grain-Free Rabbit Meal Dog Food
- Blue Buffalo Wilderness Duck Recipe for Adult Dogs
- Orijen Regional Red Dog Food
- Orijen Puppy Food
- Nature’s Variety Instinct Venison Meal & Lamb Meal Dog Food
- Taste of The Wild Wetlands
- Taste of The Wild High Prairie
You can see that there are all kinds of grain-free foods here, from the most expensive to a private label brand (4Health is a private label brand for Tractor Supply). These are foods we like and/or have tried with our own dogs, but there are many other good grain-free dog foods. Many people like Kirkland Signature Nature’s Domain but we haven’t tried it. If you’re looking for one of the best grain-free dog foods, you should be able to find something on this list. If none of these foods work for your dog, keep checking foods using the suggestions offered here about what to look for. You should be able to find some very good grain-free dog foods that will be suitable.
Grain-free dog foods are a very good choice for some dogs. You can also use them to give your dog a break from dog food with grains. Choose a good grain-free food, keeping in mind that not all grain-free foods are the same. As with all dog foods, some are better quality than others.