It has been called “the mother of all pet food trends.” The surge of grain-free dog foods on the market today has pet owners wondering, “Is grain-free really beneficial, or is it just another marketing gimmick?”
Most grain-free dog food makers claim they are recreating the “ancestral diet” and sometimes include flashy pictures of wolves on the bag or even name their food something that relates to the wild and wolves — like Taste of the Wild.
The idea behind grain-free dog food is that modern pet dogs haven’t undergone a massive change in their digestive system since they were wolves centuries ago. In other words, they say, our dogs have similar nutritional needs as their ancestors.
Because wolves eat animals that have eaten grains, the wolves thus get a small amount of carbohydrates in the form of grains when they eat their prey.
Modern dogs are able to process starches better than their wolf counterparts from long ago, but grains such as corn and rice are often the first and second ingredients in commercial dog food — meaning they are the primary ingredients in the food, rather than protein.
Many companies cram a high amount of grains in their food because it is less expensive to produce.
But Are Grains BAD?
It’s important to point out that none of this is to say that carbohydrates or grains — even corn — are necessarily bad for your dog. Veterinarian Cailin Heinze, VMD, says there are actually excellent commercial foods with grains. She says, “I honestly don’t know where [criticism of grains in dog food] got started.”
Clinical nutritionist Lisa Weeth, DVM, agrees, saying, “Corn is not an inherently good or bad food for dogs and cats, and there have been very few corn allergies in dogs and cats.”
Switching to Grain-Free Dog Food
Interested in making the switch? By eliminating grain in your dog’s diet, you typically increase the amount of protein and fats. (Carbohydrates can be given in the form of fruit and vegetables so they aren’t missing out on important nutritional needs.)
Bonus: Pet owners feeding a grain-free food usually notice thicker, harder and less frequent stools. That fact alone was enough to switch me over. With the increase in protein, you often get an increase in omega-3 fatty acids, which make your dog’s coat thick, shiny and healthy.
You’ll want to keep an eye on the fat and protein percentages. Because there is typically more meat in grain-free foods, fat and protein tend to run a little high. These are both energy sources and if you already have a high-energy dog, you may not want to increase her energy level.
If you still want to go grain-free, look for foods that have lower protein (in the 20% range) and lower fat (in the 10% range) on the label (guaranteed analysis).
5 Great Grain-Free Dog Foods
Brands such as Natural Balance Alfa and Natural Balance LID use potato to dull down the amount of energy in their diet. The next level of energy, a moderate level, would come in a food like Taste of the Wild, which is available at a reasonable price. If you have a working dog like I do, or a dog that requires food that keeps him moving throughout the day, you should increase the amount of protein and fat.
My personal all-time favorite dog foods are Nature’s Variety Instinct and Orijen. Both have fresh, named-meat ingredients and are high in protein and fat as well as omega-3’s. Orijen offers a natural source of common joint supplements: glucosamine and chondroitin. Nature’s Variety Instinct offers limited-ingredient diets that are very helpful for dogs with allergies.
Looking for even more choices? Mike Sagman from Dog Food Advisor keeps a running list of dozens of excellent grain-free dog foods.
More Dog Food Tips
- Consult your veterinarian when considering a major change to your pet’s diet.
- No matter what you feed your dog, make sure it’s AAFCO-approved.
- Choose a food that suits your dog’s age, breed and size.
- Remember that no one food works for every single dog, no matter what your friends (or all those advertisements) say.
- Switch your pet’s food gradually — any sudden changes can cause stomach upset.