It seems like every dog owner is thinking about grain-free options these days. When it comes to grain-in vs grain-free dog food and treats, strong opinions are the norm. While many pet owners believe it’s a healthier alternative to traditional dog food, many others are concerned about potential health risks for their dog.
In the end though, there is only one question that really matters when it comes to the grain-in vs grain-free debate: what is the best option for your dog?
In this article, we will explore the potential benefits and drawbacks of grain-free dog food and provide tips on how to choose a high-quality grain-free option for your dog. By understanding the pros and cons of grain-free dog food, you can make an informed decision about whether it is the right choice for your four-legged companion.
Potential Benefits of Grain-Free Dog Food
There are plenty of myths about the benefits and risks of grain-free dog food. The most important thing to remember is that the higher quality of ingredients in the food, whether grain-in or grain-free, the more benefits your dog will get from eating that food. The inverse is also true. Low-quality ingredients like any sort of by-product, protein isolates used to artificially boost protein percentage, or an over-reliance on corn can lead to health challenges.
That being said, for many dogs, grain-free food can have the following benefits over grain-in:
1 - Improved digestive health: Does your dog suffer from gas, loose stool, or constipation? Some dogs have difficulty digesting grain, leading to these discomforts. Grain-free foods do not contain the glutens that are often behind these common digestive issues. This is why some pet owners believe that grain-free dog food may be easier for dogs to digest compared to traditional dog food formulas that contain grains.
2 - Weight management: Some grain-free dog foods may contain fewer calories than traditional dog food, which could potentially be beneficial for dogs that are overweight or prone to weight gain. Choosing a grain-free food high in meat protein and low in carbohydrates can help reduce the insulin surges that turn dietary fat into flab while offering plenty of energy to encourage activity.
3 - Potential for fewer allergies or digestive intolerance: Some dogs may have allergies or intolerances to grains, and a grain-free diet may help to reduce or eliminate these issues.
4 - Improved coat and skin health: Many pet owners find a switch to grain-free food improves their dog's skin and coat condition, reducing itching, shedding, and even the occurrence of hot spots.
Does grain-free dog food give my dog more energy?
Some pet owners believe that grain-free dog food can provide a boost in energy for their dogs, but there is limited scientific evidence to support this claim. While it is true that the quality and balance of nutrients in a dog's diet can affect their energy levels, this is not necessarily limited to grain-free diets.
You also won’t find much scientific evidence to suggest that grain-free dog food is inherently better for high-energy dogs. It is worth noting that some grain-free dog foods may contain higher levels of protein and fat, which could potentially be beneficial for high-energy dogs. However, because the energy needs of dogs can vary depending on factors such as their age, size, breed, and activity level, it is important to choose a nutritionally balanced diet that meets the specific needs of your individual dog.
What are Some of the Drawbacks of Grain-Free Dog Food?
While grain-free dog food may have some potential benefits, there are also some potential drawbacks to consider. The primary thing that affects most folks? Cost. Grain-free dog food usually contains greater amounts of high-quality protein sources than grain-in formulas. Grain-free foods are also more likely to have ingredients that are less commonly used. As a result, they tend to be more expensive than typical dog food formulas or they tend to be packaged in lower quantities.
What does the Science say About Grain-in vs Grain-free Dog Food?
Grains, such as wheat and rice, can be included in dog food as carbohydrates and fiber sources. In this sense, when included in appropriate amounts and as part of a nutritionally balanced diet, they can be nutritionally beneficial for dogs. However, some dogs may have sensitivities to grains, and a grain-free diet may be necessary to alleviate these issues. Additionally, some dogs do better on the higher protein, lower carbohydrate formulations of grain-free food.
But what does the scientific literature have to say about the nutritional value of these two foods?
Over the past five years, a body of research has developed, focusing on grain-free foods and their effects on our pet's long-term health. Three studies—one published in the Journal of Animal Science, another published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the last one published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science—found that grain-free dog food had higher levels of protein and fat, relative to formulation, compared to grain-in dog food. They did not, however, find any significant differences in digestibility or nutrient absorption between the two types of diets.
While these studies highlight the importance of selecting a food that provides the right amount of energy for your dog's individual needs, they do not provide evidence to support the claim that one type of diet is inherently healthier than the other.
Does Grain-Free Dog Food Contribute to DCM?
We follow the research on DCM closely and strive to be as educated on this topic as possible. Here’s what we know so far about the reports of a link between grain-free diets and DCM.
An independent investigative review of over 150 research studies on DCM in dogs has found no definitive evidence of a link between the heart condition and B.E.G. (Boutique brand, Exotic ingredient, or Grain-free) diets. The research group included veterinarians, veterinary cardiologists, and animal nutritionists from BSM Partners (a pet care research and consulting firm), who analyzed more than 150 studies for the peer-reviewed article.
What Should You Consider When Deciding Whether or Not To Go Grain Free?
There are several factors that pet owners should consider when deciding whether to switch to a grain-free diet for their dog, including the age and health of their dog and any specific medical conditions they may have.
1 - Age: It’s important to choose a diet that meets the specific needs of your dog's age and stage of life. For example, puppies may need more nutrition density to support their rapid growth and development, while senior dogs may benefit from more protein and fiber to maintain muscle mass and support healthy digestion. The AAFCO nutritional statement on pet food labels tells you whether the food is formulated for 'Maintenance' adults and seniors, 'Growth' or 'Large Breed Growth' puppies. Or if you want to make your life simple, 'All Life Stages' foods are formulated to meet the needs of dogs of any age.
2 - Health and medical conditions: If your dog has a specific medical condition, such as allergies or intolerances, a grain-free diet may be necessary to alleviate these issues. It is important to consult with a veterinarian or an animal nutrition expert for guidance on the best diet for your dog's specific needs.
3 - Nutritional needs: It is important to choose a nutritionally balanced diet that meets the specific needs of your individual dog. This includes considering factors such as their age, size, breed, and activity level, and choosing a diet that provides the right balance of nutrients, including protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.
Still not sure what diet is right for your dog? We're here to help! We proudly consider ourselves dog food formula nerds. We can help you find the perfect food for your particular dog.
How do you Choose High-Quality Grain-Free Dog Food?
Hopefully, you’ve noticed that the through-line for this entire topic is simple: feed a high-quality dog food made from high-quality ingredients that has the appropriate nutritional levels for your dog. The debate between grain-in vs grain-free dog food comes down to that. One isn’t better than the other. Both can be bad if they are low quality—both can be good if they’re high quality.
So if your goal is to find a high-quality grain-free dog food formula, how do you go about it?
1- Ask: The simplest way to find the right food for your dog is to know what to ask for, and then simply ask! If you know you want a high-protein dog food with most carbs coming from fiber instead of grains, then a knowledgeable associate at your local Kahoots can show you some appropriate options to choose from.
2 - Check the ingredient list: The first ingredient should be a high-quality source of protein, such as fresh meats or fish, or named meat meals like beef meal or salmon meal. Avoid by-products, or any mystery ingredients labeled 'animal', or 'meat’. The formula also shouldn’t contain any artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.
3 - Choose a formula that meets your dog's needs: Check the label for the AAFCO statement that most appropriately meets your pet's life stage. Also, consider the calorie content and feeding guidelines as these can change dramatically from brand to brand. Many offer suggestions for average or active dogs, as well as weight loss, but are just that—suggestions. Your dog's individual needs may vary.
4 - Choose a reputable brand: Choose a reputable brand that has a proven track record of producing top-notch dog food. Look for brands that use high-quality ingredients and have a reputation for producing nutritionally balanced and safe products.
We understand that this is a lot of information. So let’s wrap it up nicely for you.
Grain-free dog food can be a suitable option for some dogs, particularly those with allergies or sensitivities to grains. However, it is important to choose a nutritionally balanced diet that meets the specific needs of your individual dog. It’s also not a bad idea to consult with a veterinarian or an animal nutrition expert for guidance on the best diet for your dog.
If you decide that a grain-free diet is something you want to try with your pet, there are some things you should consider. When choosing a grain-free dog food, look for a product that has a high-quality source of protein as the first ingredient, contains whole ingredients rather than by-products, and meets AAFCO standards. By following these tips, you can choose a high-quality grain-free dog food formula that will help keep your dog happy and healthy.