A lot of folks consider a grain-free dog food to be simply the best for their pets. And why not? You simply cannot expect the ancestors of our pooches to exhibit natural cravings for grains, can you? The belief is that dogs in the wild are carnivorous. Additionally there are a growing number of products in the shelves of pet supplies stores that feature grain free dog food. This is further strengthened by the growing popularity of human specialty diets, namely Paleo and gluten-free. The thinking is that, if eliminating grains from the human diet is beneficial for us, then it should also be beneficial for our pets. However, as we will explore later on, it is not all about being grain free that makes an exceptional diet for canines. As you will also see from our list of best grain free dog food, pooches will still rely on an amazing proportion of proteins, fats, and healthy carbs.

Grain Free Dog Food Buyer’s Guide

With so many doggie foodstuffs that are labeled as ‘grain-free’, it’s not difficult to see people getting frustrated at which brand to choose. We have prepared a comprehensive guide for you to understand some aspects of choosing and buying a grain free dog food. We’ve included a discussion on whether there really is a need for such kinds of dog food and whether or not dogs are really allergic to grains. We will also be presenting to you some of the more important characteristics of a good grain free dog food as well as some tips on how to feed your mutt that has allergies.

grain free food for dogs

Does My Dog Really Need a Grain-Free Dog Food?

It is but natural to ask this question especially if you hear and see a lot of commercials and advertisements creating a loud buzz about the many health benefits of going for a grain free dog food. A lot of pet parents are made to believe that because a gluten free diet is good for us then it should also be good for our dogs. This is a very common observation shared by many in the scientific community who frown at these rather ‘creative’ marketing practices.

Let us try to look at the reasons why people consider grain free diets to be superior to other types of doggie chow and what science has to say about it. Hopefully this will help you arrive at the answer to the question of whether your dog really needs a grain free diet or not.

  • Dogs are naturally carnivorous so eating grains is definitely not in their genes. 

The ancestral diet of dogs is not strictly carnivorous. In fact, cats are more carnivorous than dogs. Studies have shown that members of the canid family are actually omnivores that they can thrive on other animals or even plant species. Of course, the preference is for animal sources. However, given the fact that they will have to go out on a hunt, prey animals have also learned to adapt, making them especially difficult to prey on. As such, ancestral dogs have learned to consume fruits and vegetables as well as grains in order to survive in the wild. As such, thinking that dogs are inherently carnivorous is a grave mistake.

Given that the scarcity of prey animals have led ancestral canids to look for other means of sustenance, it can thus, be considered that they have learned to adapt. This also means that, if given an animal-based diet and a plant-based food, they will almost always instantly choose the former over the latter. However, if the animal-based diet is removed, dogs can still survive as they can still consume the plant-based diet.

  • Cereal grains are considered to be the most common cause of food allergies in dogs. 

Despite numerous studies proving the contrary, a lot of folks still insist that cereal grains are the most common cause of canine food allergies. Unfortunately, like the notion that dogs are carnivorous, this is erroneous. We will have a separate and more detailed discussion about this in the succeeding sections. Suffice it to say, there are other non-grain foods that are equally allergenic yet are the principal ingredients in many wheat free dog food.

  • Dogs don’t have amylase in their saliva to effectively break down the carbs in grains. 

The enzyme amylase is needed to break down carbohydrate molecules into starch to prepare these molecules for further digestion in the stomach. Amylase is present in the saliva of humans but not in dogs. It is for this reason that many people believe dogs should not eat cereal grains because it doesn’t have the capability to break these down safely enough. What they fail to realize is that this line of reasoning is also faulty. Given that amylase is an enzyme that is needed for the more efficient breakdown of carbohydrates then all other types of carbohydrates, not only cereal grains, should not be consumed by our canine friends. But the fact is that dogs eat vegetables and fruits, too.

There is another point that people miss about amylase in dogs. While it’s true they don’t have amylase in their saliva, this enzyme is nevertheless present in the small intestines, typically supplied by the pancreas in the form of pancreatic amylase. Technically, what this means is that the carbs – including cereal grains – are still digested and absorbed for cellular utilization.

Trying to sum up what we have just presented, the main reason why a lot of people consider grain free diet to be superior to other types of doggie food is that these possess lower allergenic potential. If you believe that your dog is allergic to certain types of food, then it is best not to give it. However, it should be understood that, as we have already explained in point number 2 and which we will be discussing a bit further in the next section, cereal grains like what, corn, and soy are not the only foods that have allergenic potential. This simply means that if you really want your dog not to suffer from any food allergies, then it is crucial that you perform an allergy test on them. Otherwise, your dog might already be missing a variety of nutrients that only these cereal grains can provide.

So, does your dog need a grain free diet? It actually depends. If your veterinarian can establish with absolute certainty that the allergies your dog is experiencing is directly caused by these grains, then, by all means, go for a grain free diet. However, if the allergy does not point to a very specific food primarily because you are giving it mixed ingredients, then you will have to start with an allergy test. 

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Is it True that Dogs are Allergic to Grains?

Since the main issue in going for a grain free diet is that it can cause food allergies to dogs, we should take a closer look at how allergies develop in the first place.

Allergies are an organism’s way of protecting itself from invasion by foreign materials like bacteria, viruses, and other non-self components. The immune system releases its immunoglobulin E in response to the presence of an allergen. The first time the immune system is exposed to such a substance, some of its cells effectively disable the threat while other cells make a copy of the threat so that it can produce defensive cells in the event that the same substance resurfaces. As such, the second time the organism is exposed to such a substance its immune system will already be able to mount an effective reaction against this threat. This reaction is what we call an allergic reaction.

Now here’s the thing about food allergies. Science has shown that proteins are almost always considered as food allergens. However, science has also shown that not all food proteins have the allergenic potential. This is primarily related to the complex biochemical characteristics of these food proteins. While they all contain proteins, some are more allergenic than others.

According to studies, the most common food allergens include the following.

  • Beef
  • Dairy
  • Egg
  • Chicken
  • Wheat
  • Corn
  • Soy

So, is it true that dogs are allergic to grains? Yes, some dogs may be allergic to certain types of grains but they are equally allergic to animal-based proteins like chicken and beef. So, if you are really concerned about food allergies in dogs then you should also remove from their diet the other food items that have been listed above such as beef, chicken, dairy, and egg.

It should be understood that not all grains have allergenic potential. In fact, there are other grains that are considered as wholesome. Examples of this include the following.

  • Brown and white rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Buckwheat
  • Amaranth
  • Millet
  • Quinoa

That said, the label ‘grain-free’ is grossly misleading as it generalizes this particular food group as especially allergenic. A more appropriate labeling should be ‘gluten-‘ or ‘wheat- free’, ‘corn-free’, and/or ‘soy-free’. It really makes no sense labeling all types of grains as inherently allergenic.

It is for this reason that you need to carefully read the label of the product you’re buying. If it says it is ‘grain-free’, then it should specifically state what kinds of grain are excluded in its formulation. Hopefully, you will also find some healthier ones.

what makes a good grain free dog food

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What Makes a Good Grain-Free Dog Food?

We now know that grain free dog food is not really about the absence of these ‘allergenic’ grains but rather about the wholesomeness of the ingredients used in the formulation of these canine nutritional products. We shall now try to understand what makes a good grain free dog food.

  • Its principal ingredient should be whole animal protein. 

A good grain free dog food should have a whole animal protein as its principal ingredient. Animal proteins are easily digested and used by the cells of our canine friends. While plant proteins are digested and used, too, most will require extensive processing before these are effectively utilized by the different tissues. What we would like to add, on the basis of what science has shown, is to look for whole animal proteins that are considered novel or those that have low allergenic potential.

Since chicken and beef are considered to be highly allergenic other animal proteins should be considered. The more novel the protein the better it is. You can try the proteins from bison, venison, boar, waterfowls, rabbit, and other ‘unusual’ or uncommon animal protein sources. This is your best chance of making sure your pooch will derive all the hypoallergenic benefits of not including cereal grains into their diet.

While meat meals are acceptable, these should only be considered as secondary ingredients. For example, if the product you are considering on buying contains lamb meal, then there should be another whole meat protein, say venison, as its primary ingredient. The lamb meal should only come in second.

  • It should include healthier and more wholesome carbs, including grains. 

Remember what we said about not all grains are allergenic? Technically, what we are saying is that you should also consider wholesome grains in the diet of your pet as many of these come complete with essential amino acids as well as other beneficial nutrients. Quinoa, brown rice, and oats are just examples of these wholesome grains.

Additionally, you will have to look for products that contain healthy fruits and vegetables as these are packed with antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins that can help promote better health for your pooch. For example, vitamin C is always an exceptional micronutrient for its antioxidant properties as well as its role in collagen synthesis. Vitamins A and E are also important for additional antioxidant action. The family of B vitamins can help in a variety of process particularly those that involve macronutrient metabolism. Minerals like calcium, iron, and phosphorus are also important.

  • It should not contain any artificial or harmful ingredients. 

Some dog food manufacturers incorporate a variety of flavor enhancers in their preparations to increase the palatability of the kibbles or even the wet dog food. It is technically all right to have flavor enhancers as long as these are certified to be made of natural ingredients. Unfortunately, this can be quite costly. As such, companies may have to resort to using artificial ingredients, additives, sweeteners, or even coloring into their formulation to help improve the overall ‘quality’ of their products. Under no circumstances should you pick any product that contains any of these artificially synthesized ingredients. 

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Some Tips to Feeding a Dog with Food Allergies

We do recognize the fact that you may be concerned about your dog having food allergies. While giving a grain free diet can help reduce the anxiety of provoking an allergic reaction in your dog, there are other things you can do to help feed your pooch with food allergies. Here are some tips.

  • Perform a food allergy test – If you’re not sure what specific food protein your pooch is allergic to, you will need to perform an allergy test which typically runs from a few weeks to several months. What you will be doing is to stop what you’re feeding your doggie and give it a novel protein. You should see improvements in its condition. Once your mutt has fully improved, you can then slowly start introducing one ingredient at a time from its previous diet. Make sure to give a single ingredient for at least a few weeks to check for any reaction. If there’s no reaction, you can then move to the next ingredient and so on. The key is to eliminate the possible food allergen.
  • Consider giving novel or hydrolyzed proteins – Novel proteins are completely new to your dog. This can greatly reduce the immune response. Sometimes you may also want to give proteins in their simplest form – amino acids – to help trick the immune system into recognizing these molecules as non-allergenic. These are available as hydrolyzed proteins.
  • Always give high quality dog food– Everything starts with good nutrition. Aside from going for a product that has a good proportion of high-quality proteins, fats, and carbs, you may also want to provide them with probiotics as these can help improve the overall functioning of the canine digestive system which also functions in its immunity. 
  • Seek the advice of your vet – Your veterinarian is still the best person to go to if there is any concern about your pet, whether it is food allergy or some other condition. Unfortunately, many pet owners would rather listen to what celebrity endorsers say about a particular product. Most also listen to what other people say. The point is that, while some of these food allergy management practices may work on the pooches of other people, it doesn’t automatically mean that it works with your pooch as well. Each dog is inherently different. That’s why it’s best to have a veterinarian take a closer look at your pooch’s food allergies.

It is perfectly all right to give our dogs grain free diets if this can give us the peace of mind over their welfare. However, we should also make it a point that the products we choose are not only grain free but are also made of high quality animal proteins, wholesome and healthy carbs, and doesn’t contain harmful or unnecessary ingredients.

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Olivia Williams
Olivia is our head of content for MyPetNeedsThat.com, mum of one and a true animal lover. With 12 different types of animal in her family, it's never a dull moment. When she isn't walking the dogs, feeding the cats or playing with her pet Parrot Charlie, you will find her product researching and keeping the site freshly updated with the latest products for your pets!

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