You may have heard a lot of controversy in recent years about grain-free dog food. We all want what is best for our dogs, and that includes providing them with the proper nutrients so they can live as many long, healthy years with us as possible. You may have heard that grains are bad for dogs, so grain-free dog food is the way to go. Alternatively, you may have heard about recent studies that show that grain-free dog food can be bad for your dog’s heart.

With so much conflicting (and troubling!) information, we can feel lost. Do we feed our dogs potentially harmful grains, or do we risk them developing heart issues from grain-free food? What is a well-intentioned dog owner to do? Today, we will discuss what grain-free dog food is and try to dispel some of the confusion around whether or not to feed it to your dog.

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What Is Grain-Free Dog Food?

Before we talk about grain-free dog food, let’s discuss grains in dog food. Grains commonly included as ingredients in dog food include:

  • Corn
  • Wheat
  • Rice
  • Soy
  • Rye
  • Oats
  • Barley

While grain-free dog foods are, unsurprisingly, free of grain ingredients, this does not mean that they are free of carbohydrates. Commercial dog food companies substitute other sources of carbohydrates such as:

  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Quinoa
  • Peas
  • Lentils

Grain-free dog foods can sometimes have even more carbs than dog foods with grain ingredients.

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Is Grain-Free Dog Food Gluten-Free?

Grain-free and gluten-free are not the same thing. Just because dog food is gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean it’s grain-free. Dog food may not contain gluten ingredients like wheat, barley, or rye, but they may contain other grains. Other dog food may not contain any grains but could have hidden gluten sources in their ingredient list. Because many dog food manufacturers make more than one kind of dog food, there could even be accidental grains or gluten in dog food due to cross-contamination in the manufacturing process.

Grains In Dog Food

While dogs need protein in their diet to thrive, it might surprise you that whole grains provide nutritional value too. Whole grains are a source of B vitamins, selenium, magnesium, iron, fiber to aid in digestion, and carbohydrates for energy. You might think that grain-free dog food has more protein, but that isn’t always true. Some grain-free dog foods contain higher meat proportions, but some don’t, usually due to the substitution of grains for other carbohydrates. Labeling a dog food grain-free also doesn’t automatically mean that specific food has higher-quality ingredients.  

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Is Grain-Free Dog Food Bad For Your Dog?

You may have heard, in recent years, about scientific studies on the possible link between grain-free dog food and heart disease. The Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, began an investigation into dogs who ate grain-free diets developing dilated cardiomyopathy.

What Is Dilated Cardiomyopathy?

That’s a big word! Dogs suffering from Dilated Cardiomyopathy, or DCM, have a heart condition where their heart is enlarged, and their heart muscle is thinner than it should be. This causes an overall weakening of the heart that eventually leads to heart failure. Certain large dog breeds are more susceptible to DCM. These include Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds, and Dobermans. Seeing higher rates of DCM in certain breeds suggests there is a genetic component to the disease. 

DCM and Grain-Free Dog Food

In the past several years, an alarming trend emerged of higher DCM cases in dogs that eat grain-free dog foods, so the FDA began to study it. These newer cases weren’t just in large or giant dog breeds, but in dogs of all breeds and ages, suggesting that diet also affects a dog’s likelihood to develop DCM.

Of the 560 dogs reported with DCM, 90% were fed a grain-free diet. The FDA studied other factors that could contribute to the issue, but grain-free foods are the only common component for most cases. These dogs’ diets contained large amounts of carbohydrates such as chickpeas, peas, lentils, or potatoes. While the FDA study is ongoing, there is a strong suggestion of a link between grain-free diets and dilated cardiomyopathy. It is important to remember, however, that grain-free food does not mean high-quality food. There are grain-free foods available that do not substitute in large amounts of carbohydrates to make up for the lack of grains.

Why Feed Your Dog Grain-Free Dog Food?

If grain-free dog foods aren’t necessarily better for your dog, why would you feed them? One reason you might feed your dog grain-free foods is due to allergies. If you or your veterinarian suspect your dog may be allergic to grains, your veterinarian may recommend feeding grain-free dog food. However, it’s worth noting that allergies to grains aren’t common in dogs; they are more often allergic to certain kinds of proteins.

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To Feed or Not To Feed: The Grain-Free Dilemma

The FDA has found a strongly suggestive link between grain-free diets and dilated cardiomyopathy. Their findings have not been such that they would trigger food recalls or withdrawals of certain foods from the market. More studies need to be done on specific ingredients and ingredient proportions to determine the precise link between DCM and diet. If you aren’t sure whether to switch your dog to or from a grain-free diet, consult with your veterinarian. They can monitor your dog’s health and make the best recommendations for your dog. When it comes to your dog’s diet, the goal is to provide complete and balanced nutrition that ensures your dog lives a long, healthy life.

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