Grain-free dog food is dog food made without grains. They shouldn’t contain wheat, corn, rye, barley, oats, rice, millet, sorghum or other cereal grains. Does grain-free food meet your dog’s nutritional needs, and is it a good thing to switch your dog over? We’ll discuss these issues below, but don’t forget to check in with your vet before you make changes.

Dogs’ Nutritional Needs

Dogs need several macronutrients and micronutrients in their diet. They need fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, and fiber along with a handful of different vitamins and minerals. The Association of American Feed Control Officials offers recommendations for some of these nutrients:

  • Protein: Recommended at 18% for maintenance and 22% for growing dogs.
  • Carbohydrates: Recommend at least 20% carbohydrates in dog food.
  • Fat: The AAFC does not offer a recommendation for fat percentage, but it is still essential for dog needs.

However, specific macronutrient needs for dogs are highly debated. Research has found that dogs self-select food with these nutrient percentages: protein at 30%, fat at 63% and carbohydrates at 7%. This was consistent across five breeds. On the other hand, this might not be the balance that is healthiest for them. This is especially true because dogs of different activity levels may need more or less of these macronutrients.

How Grain-Free Foods Meet Dogs’ Nutritional Needs

Grain-free food needs to substitute grains with another food that can give your dog its carbohydrates. Dogs don’t need too many carbohydrates, as they use protein and fat for their energy primarily. However, they do need some. Grain-free foods will add carbohydrates with these ingredients:

  • Peas
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Lentils
  • Garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
  • Other options

Is Grain-Free Dog Food Good?

Dogs can digest grain, especially when it is prepared for them or cooked. Dogs are different from their wolf counterparts because they evolved with us, and they did pick up the ability to digest many of the foods that we enjoy. This doesn’t mean that grain-free dog food is good or bad.

Grain-free dog food may be very high quality. It can meet all your dog’s energy and nutrient requirements. It also often offers unusual ingredients, like fish, lamb and duck. Grain-free dog food may be perfect if your dog has a grain allergy, although these allergies are rare.

There are some small concerns that grain-free dog food may contribute to canine heart disease. According to the AKC, in 2019, there were about 400 dogs who were diagnosed with heart disease which also ate grain-free diets. Heart disease is common in dogs, so researchers aren’t sure if there is a connection here and, if there is, whether it is the grain-free aspect of the foods that is to blame. One recent study has found that the grain-free food is not to blame. More research is needed.

What About Rice?

You might have noticed a bit of a contradiction in the arguments from grain-free dog food enthusiasts. When dogs have trouble digesting foods or are otherwise ill, vets sometimes recommend that they go on white rice-based diets because dogs can digest rice well even if they have a bit of stomach upset.

Work with Your Vet

If you feel strongly for or against a grain-free food for your dog, your vet can help you find a dog food that will meet your dog’s health needs and your preferences for or against grains.