grain free dog food

If you’ve Googled this question and arrived upon this article, I want to start out by giving you the simple answer…

NO, despite what you may have heard over the past few years, not all grain-free foods are bad for dogs.

If you want a more detailed answer as to why they MAY be bad, read on…

How Grain-Free Diets Got a Bad Rap

A few years ago the FDA irresponsibly released an article on how they were investigating a potential link between grain-free diets containing high amounts of pulses like peas, chickpeas and lentils (common in both grain-in and grain-free diets) and DCM (degenerative cardiomyopathy).

They postulated that these ingredients MAY be affecting the synthesizing of methionine and cysteine (amino acids) into taurine, or the absorption of taurine (an amino acid) in dogs.

The FDA essentially did a VERY unstructured and unscientific “survey” (that was incredibly biased and lacked transparency) which ultimately led them to concluding that if you were feeding a grain-free diet to not change it or worry just yet as nothing concrete had been determined in terms of a link to DCM.

Sadly, as attention spans are short, not many people read to the bottom of the article, and what ensued next was a full on attack on “boutique” pet foods, novel proteins and grain-free diets from the media, bloggers, pet food companies and the veterinary community.

I spent a few days going through all of the unbiased “proof” I could find and it was obvious to me there was nothing yet to worry about (but I always keep my eyes and ears open). I would have expected that any professional in my industry concerned about their reputation would have done the same before sharing the information, but that wasn’t the case for everyone.

My biggest dismay was how the majority of the veterinary community latched onto the viral press and used it to their advantage – vilifying all but the diets they sold which coincidentally contain loads of ingredients like corn and GRAIN which was now falsely being hailed as the super food for the heart.

NOTE: While writing this article, I searched everywhere for the original post from the FDA and I could not find it. For an article that went viral like this one did, that can only mean it’s since been deleted. Don’t fret though – I’m positive we have screen shots of it saved somewhere for this very reason!

Even though the FDA has since issued a weak apology AND clarified their original statements (and the original article has vanished), we continue to speak to customers on a daily basis who are still being told by their veterinarians they have to switch to a “grain-friendly” (a new, happy little marketing term) diet for their dog’s heart health.

In case you’re wondering what a weak apology for ruining the reputation and livelihoods of many small, family-owned, reputable pet food manufactures and local pet food shops looks like, here’s an example from Steven M. Solomon, DVM, MPH, director of CVM (FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine):

“This is one of our ongoing struggles: choosing terminology that is scientifically accurate, understandable to pet owners and that does not cast a shadow over products that are otherwise known to be healthful and safe. I appreciate the fact that FDA’s voice is the voice veterinarians and pet owners listen to, yet too often our messages have been repeated inaccurately by third parties. The result is that in the internet age of phenomenally fast sound bites, complex scientific messaging is often lost in translation. We have tried to be careful in our messaging, and we recognize going forward not to speak on this topic publicly unless we are clarifying information or have something substantive to share.”

Too bad the damage has already been done…

The Elephant in the Room

The irony of all of this nonsense is that people are now being told that grains are heart healthy. GRAINS DO NOT CONTAIN TAURINE. (repeat for those in the back) GRAINS DO NOT CONTAIN TAURINE. They never have, and they never will. 

Taurine is naturally present and in abundance in high-quality MUSCLE MEAT and seafood. It can also be found in dairy and eggs. It CANNOT be found in grains, “ancient” grains or pulses. This is basic nutritional information that is NOT up for debate, and it concerns me greatly that dog owners are being told this by trusted professionals – even now that the original FDA article has been debunked by the FDA themselves.

And the biggest tragedy is that many dogs have had their diets significantly downgraded as a result of this fear mongering. THAT makes me livid.

Pet food companies also jumped on the bandwagon and started promoting their grain-in diets as being “good for the heart”. (I’ve asked them to explain this to me, and never once gotten a response.) Some companies quickly created grain-in diets to meet consumer demand (even though their original grain-free lines were much better quality.)

Why We’re Asking the WRONG Questions

Okay, now I’d like to discuss why some grain-free diets ARE bad for your dog. Confused yet?

When it comes to dry dog foods, there are massive differences in the quality of the diets on the market. There are a lot of really bad diets with grains and a lot of really bad diets without them.

On the contrary, there are good diets that contain grains, and good diets that don’t.

What we really need to be talking about is not grain-friendly vs grain-free (that’s the shiny object), but instead be discussing how much FILLER is in your dog’s food. And make no mistake; if it’s not required nutritionally by your dog, it’s filler.

That’s right:

  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Oats
  • Rice
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Tapioca
  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Etc…

I like to call ALL of these ingredients fillers, binders, carbs – you pick your favourite term.

Your dog has NO dietary requirement for ANY of it. In fact, too much of any of these ingredients are going to lead to health problems in your dog. I know, because I see it every single day in my store.

The sugars present in these carbs feed cancer, they create inflammation in the body, they wreak havoc on digestion, and they allow yeast to flourish – ESPECIALLY in the volumes we see in most dry diets. They cause dental disease and spikes in blood sugar that over time can lead to type 2 diabetes (a 100% diet-related disease).

You may be shocked to learn that most dry diets (even the good ones) are over 30% carbs! In fact, most are higher than 40%.

If your dog has no nutritional requirement for these fillers, why are they found in their dry food in such abundance?

Simply put, they’re cheap AND baked and extruded dry diets need a binder to hold them together in those uniform, delightfully convenient little kibbles… Try baking bread without flour or eggs.

Is One Filler Better Than Another?

Yes and no.

This is not an article on the fine art of label reading, but it’s best if the grains in your dog’s food are human-grade (not “feed” grade), whole grains, not fractions (like hulls) and it’s best to avoid corn, wheat, soy and other very low quality ingredients.

Feed-grade grains may contain a deadly mycotoxin called aflatoxin if the quality and handling of the grain is sloppy. Aflatoxin is a poison produced by mold typically found on grains and it cannot be killed. Fun fact: AAFCO actually allows for small amounts of aflatoxin to be present in pet food.

Choose ingredients that are non-GMO (soy and corn are almost always GMO in North America).

The best choice is the one YOUR dog does best on. I’ve had dogs that don’t digest millet-based diets very well for example. I’ve had dogs that get very itchy on some grains. All dogs are unique.

Ultimately the best fillers are the ones that don’t exist or exist in the smallest possible amounts.

Is the Main Source of Protein in Your Dog’s Food Animal or Plant-Based?

Pet food manufacturers know that in order to be AAFCO approved, their food needs to contain a certain amount of protein. Unfortunately, AAFCO doesn’t specify if that protein needs to be digestible, bioavailable or species-appropriate.

That means that protein levels can be influenced by ingredients like “pea protein” and “corn” and low-quality ingredients like “By-Product Meal”. Comparing protein in these low-quality sources to high-quality animal sources is like comparing apples to oranges.

If your dog’s main source of protein is plant-based, and your dog cannot synthesize methionine and cysteine into taurine due to a medical or genetic condition (think Golden Retrievers), then taurine needs to be added in a synthetic form. If it’s not, you DO need to be concerned about your dog’s heart. This is why a species-appropriate diet is of the utmost importance. If your dog’s diet is high in high-quality meat ingredients, taurine is already naturally abundant.

Again, this is not a label reading article, but simply remember that the first 5 ingredients make up the bulk of your dog’s food. Ideally, those ingredients would mainly be NAMED animal ingredients (ie. “Beef” meal, deboned “chicken” NOT “meat” or “poultry” by-product meal) not plants, grains or lentils.

How to Calculate Carbs in Dry Dog Food

You will notice that you won’t likely find carb percentages on your dog food label.

The pet food company probably doesn’t want you to know that you’re feeding your adorable carnivore over 30% carbs.

And, as mentioned above, your dog doesn’t require carbs in his diet, so there is no legal obligation for a pet food manufacturer to list them on the label.

Here is a simple formula to calculate the carbs in your dog’s DRY food:

100 – (Protein + Fat + Moisture + Ash*) = %Carbs

*If Ash isn’t listed on your label, use the number 7. Without the Ash listed on the panel, we have to take an educated guess for comparison based on industry averages so the formula is not 100% accurate. Also, this formula doesn’t work for wet or raw diets.

Ideally that percentage is under 15% of your dog’s diet. If you feed kibble, this is not going to be easy. In fact, I only know of one dry food that meets this criteria and it’s a keto diet developed for dogs with cancer.

I’ll share that food with you below.

Carb Percentages in Popular Commercial Dry Dog Diets

Just for shits and giggles, I’d like to give you an idea of the percentages of carbs in some popular dry dog diets.

When you’re reading through this information, keep in mind that carb percentage is one of the tools we use to determine a quality dog food diet, but it’s not the only one.

The species-appropriateness and quality of the ingredients are just as important. You should even consider how often a company has issued a recall, what it was for, and how it was handled.

After screening based on a number of pre-qualifiers, analyzing carb levels is usually my last step in differentiating the premium diets from one another in order to determine which foods to carry in my stores.

You will see some ingredients in the foods below highlighted in red. Those ingredients should be avoided and if you’d like to know WHY, check out the Tail Blazers Ingredient Dictionary. 

Visionary Pet Food

Photo: Visionary Pet Food

Premium Dry (kibble) Foods

Visionary Keto Pet Food Dog Beef Recipe (Grain-Free)

  • Carbs: 7%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Beef, pork fat, pork meal, chicken meal, whole egg
  • Main Protein Source: Beef (Animal)

HOT TIP: Visionary Keto is by far the lowest carb dry diet I’ve been able to find and if you have a dog with cancer and you can’t do raw, this is the food for you. The downside of it is that some people have reported that dogs can find the texture a bit strange, and there are no varieties available without chicken.

Orijen Tundra Dog Food (Grain-Free)

  • Carbs: 21%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Fresh goat meat, fresh wild boar meat, fresh arctic char, fresh venison meat, fresh steelhead trout
  • Main Protein Source: Goat (Animal)
  • We highly recommend this food in our stores

HOT TIP: Orijen Tundra is the lowest carb kibble diet that a wide range of dogs enjoy and do well on. Coupled with the fact that the first 5 ingredients (the first 17 ingredients actually) are all named, animal sources, this is currently my top pick for kibble feeders.

Valen’s Pasture for Dogs (Grain-Free)

  • Carbs: 33%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Fresh deboned lamb, fresh deboned beef, fresh deboned boar, fresh deboned bison, lamb meal
  • Main Protein Source: Lamb (Animal)
  • We highly recommend this food in our stores

Nature’s Logic Distinction Canine Chicken (Grain-In)

  • Carbs: 34%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Chicken, chicken meal, millet, chicken fat, spray dried chicken liver
  • Main Protein Source: Chicken Meal (Animal)
  • We recommend this food in our stores

Carna4 Easy-Chew Lamb Dog Food (Grain-In)

  • Carbs: 39%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Lamb, lamb liver, eggs, ground organic sprouted barley seed, herring
  • Main Protein Source: Lamb, Lamb Liver (Animal)

Canadian Naturals Turkey and Salmon Dog Food (Grain-In)

  • Carbs: 43%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Fresh turkey, turkey meal, brown rice, de-hulled barley, oatmeal
  • Main Protein Sources: Turkey Meal (Animal)

HOT TIP: Although the main source of protein in the Canadian Naturals is likely Turkey Meal, I’m not a fan that the 3rd, 4th and 5th ingredients are grains. When combined, the grain content in this food may surpass the turkey meal making it the second ingredient. It’s impossible to know for sure, but even fresh turkey, once the water is removed, would move further down the list and grains could possibly make up the bulk of this food.

Go! Skin and Coat Salmon Recipe with Grains (Grain-In)

  • Carbs: 49%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Salmon meal, oatmeal, potatoes, whole oats, de-boned salmon
  • Main Protein Source: Salmon Meal (Animal)
K9 Natural Freeze Dried

Photo: K9 Natural

Premium Freeze-Dried Foods

K9 Naturals Beef Feast Freeze-Dried Dog Food (Grain-Free)

  • Carbs: 13%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Beef, beef liver, beef tripe, beef kidney, beef heart
  • Main Protein Source: Beef Organs and Beef (Animal)
  • We highly recommend this food in our stores

HOT TIP: Pebbles eats mostly K9 Natural as it’s worked best for her GERD.

Open Farm Beef Freeze-Dried Dog Food (Grain-Free)

  • Carbs: 15%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Humanely raised beef, beef hearts, beef livers, ground beef bone, beef kidneys
  • Main Protein Source: Beef and Beef Organs (Animal)
  • We highly recommend this food in our stores

Acana Freeze-Dried Duck Recipe Morsels (Grain-Free)

  • Carbs: 16%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Raw duck with ground bone, fresh turkey with ground bone, fresh chicken liver, raw whole herring, dehydrated pumpkin
  • Main Protein Source: Duck (Animal)
  • We highly recommend this food in our stores
Ziwi Peak Pet Food

Photo: ZIWI Peak

Premium Air-Dried/Dehydrated Foods

ZIWI Peak Lamb Dog Recipe (Grain-Free)

  • Carbs: 6%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Lamb, lamb heart, lamb tripe, lamb Liver, lamb kidney,
  • Main Protein Source: Lamb Organs and Lamb (Animal)
  • We highly recommend this food in our stores

Zeal Gently Air-Dried Turkey for Dogs (Grain-Free)

  • Carbs: 20%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Turkey, turkey heart, turkey liver, bamboo fiber, sunflower lecithin
  • Main Protein Source: Turkey and Turkey Heart (Animal)

Honest Kitchen Whole Grain Turkey Recipe (Grain-In)

  • Carbs: 47.4%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Dehydrated turkey, organic oats, dehydrated potatoes, organic flaxseed, dehydrated carrots
  • Main Protein Source: Turkey (Animal)

Veterinary Dry Diets

Royal Canin Canine Weight Control Dry Dog Food (Grain-In)

  • Carbs: 48%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Corn, chicken by-product meal, corn gluten meal, barley, wheat gluten
  • Main Protein Source: Corn (Plant)

HOT TIP: I’ve scoured the entire ingredient panel for the Royal Canin food and it actually contains NO muscle meat at all. So although the carb levels are similar to the Honest Kitchen diet above, the fact that HK’s first ingredient is a named, animal source of meat makes it a much better choice. Not to mention, HK is made in a human-grade facility which would not be possible for a diet containing by-products like the Royal Canin diet. So as mentioned, carbs levels are important to look at, but it’s not the ONLY thing we look at when choosing a food.

Hill’s Prescription Diet Metabolic Canine (Grain-In)

  • Carbs: 42%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Chicken Meal, whole grain wheat, whole grain corn, soybean mill run, corn gluten meal
  • Main Protein Source: Chicken Meal (Animal)

Grocery Dry Diets

Purina Pro Plan Adult Complete Essentials Shredded Blend Lamb and Rice Dog Food (Grain-In)

  • Carbs: 39%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Lamb, Rice, Poultry by-product meal, whole grain wheat, soybean meal
  • Main Protein Source: Poultry By-Product Meal (Animal, although by-product meal doesn’t contain any actual meat)

HOT TIP: Again, if you combined the rice, wheat and soybean meal as “filler” – removed the water from the lamb, odds are pretty good this panel would look very different in the Pro Plan diet. The fillers would likely be first, then the by-product, then the lamb.

Blue Freedom Grain-Free Adult Chicken Recipe (Grain-Free)

  • Carbs: 45%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Deboned chicken, chicken meal, potatoes, peas, tapioca starch
  • Main Protein Source: Chicken Meal (Animal)

HOT TIP: Although there are various reasons I wouldn’t recommend Blue Buffalo brand foods, the ingredient panel is cleaner than other grocery brands. The main reason I steer far from this brand is their history of recalls.

Kirkland Adult Dog Chicken, Rice and Vegetable Formula (Grain-In)

  • Carbs: 41%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Chicken, chicken meal, whole grain brown rice, cracked pearled barley, chicken fat
  • Main Protein Source: Chicken Meal (Animal)

Beneful Healthy Weight Dog Food (Grain-In)

  • Carbs: 48%
  • First 5 Ingredients: Chicken, whole grain corn, chicken by-product meal, barley, whole grain wheat
  • Main Protein Source: Corn (Plant)

HOT TIP: The reason why the second ingredient in the Beneful is more than likely the primary source of protein rather than the first ingredient is because “chicken” is mostly water, and when weighed as “chicken” vs “chicken meal” (water removed) it can weigh more than the second ingredient. However, the water accounts for most of that weight, meaning the second ingredient is likely the predominant source of protein in this food. I also encourage you to compare the Royal Canin Vet diet to this one and you’ll see that the main difference between these two diets is a SIGNIFICANT difference in price.

Shepherd Running BrindleBerry Acres

Photo: BrindleBerry Acres/Holly Montgomery

What About Digestibility?

One of the only people I trust when it comes to dog food nutrition is Ryan Yamka, PHD.

He’s board certified in companion animal nutrition by the American College of Animal Sciences and a fellow with the American College of Nutrition and he’s not shy about giving his opinion on the pet food industry since he’s been immersed in it for many years.

He brings up an amazing point that we should all be requesting digestibility information from the pet food manufacturers we support. This makes a lot of sense because if the food going in and the poop coming out are pretty equal in nutrient value, that means your dog hasn’t digested or utilized any of it.

If your dog isn’t digesting the nutrients in their food, YOU BET that you’ll start to see diseases that are resulting from nutritional deficiencies. (Reason number 547,657 why you shouldn’t feed exclusively processed diets and should be adding fresh foods to your dog’s diet)

Digestibility is really easy to measure!

  1. Put the food in the dog
  2. Measure what comes out the other end of the dog
  3. Determine how digestible the food is

It’s cruelty free, cheap, and would help us determine how well a certain food is being digested by our canine companions.

You can read Ryan Yamka’s article on the FDA’s investigation into diet related DCM here. It goes into detail about the many, MANY flaws in the original FDA “study” and is definitely worth a read if you’re on the fence about grain-free diets.

Conclusion

Determining the best diet for your dog can be overwhelming. Especially when no one really seems to agree and so much of the nutritional education out there is biased.

The vilification of grain-free diets in general has been misguided and is based largely on, well, nothing really. There are SO MANY things we need to look at when determining a quality diet for our canine friends. It’s not as simple as finding a grain-based diet and calling it a day.

Dogs don’t thrive on oats, rice, lentils or peas and these ingredients should never make up a significant percentage of their diet.

I’ve been in this business long enough (over 15 years) to remember why grain-free diets were created in the first place! We had a lot of dogs struggling with allergies and weight issues and high-quality grain-free diets really helped those dogs. They were a dog-send!

If you’re interested in finding a species-appropriate, digestible, extremely low-carb diet, finding a balanced, quality raw diet is the way to go! If this is not an option, consider a quality freeze-dried or air-dried diet.

I DO believe that we should ALWAYS be researching the best ways to make pet foods with good, sound, scientific research and any concerns that come up in the industry should be examined in an unbiased manner. But we need to ensure this is done ethically and using proper scientific procedure before we unjustifiably destroy good companies and quality pet foods.

You can find many of the recommended products discussed in this article at my stores in Calgary, the Copperfield Tail Blazers and Legacy Tail Blazers. Please join me on Instagram and Facebook for more valuable nutritional information, and for some pretty adorable animal photos!