Grain-free dog food – benefits and drawbacks

The topic of dog food is hotly debated. The argument that grain is not species-appropriate and harmful, one hears and reads again and again. But is it true? In this article you will learn what this statement means, whether grain is really “bad” and why you might use grain-free dog food.

Reasons for and against grain-free dog food

Every dog, like us humans, needs its daily dose of energy, strength and endurance. To do this, he must eat food that he can digest well. This is possible through meat, but also through fruits, vegetables and grains such as oats or rice.

Carbohydrates such as cereals provide quick and easily digestible energy as well as fiber.

Why is there such a disagreement about feed with a lot of grain?

Many dog owners say that it is not natural that the carnivore dog eats cereals. The fact is that some dogs are happy when fed with grain-free dog food. Other dogs, however, show behavioral abnormalities and discomfort with a grain-free, thus protein-rich, diet.

So it’s worth taking a closer look here.

Dogs are omnivores!

That dogs are pure carnivores is a common misconception. Because unlike their ancestors, the wolves, our domesticated dogs are omnivores. They have an extremely adaptable digestive system and accordingly can eat just about anything that is not toxic to them. Over thousands of years of coexistence with humans, the digestive system of dogs has adapted to human food. These were usually food scraps and thus, in addition to meat, a lot of grain.

Grains can therefore be digested by dogs and for many dogs there are no problems.

However, in some dogs, a grain-free diet, which is very high in protein due to the meat content, can have a detrimental effect. In our editorial dog Chief, for example, a grain-free diet causes stomach problems and diarrhea, and he becomes very restless and unresponsive. Like him, many guard dogs or former street dogs need the fiber from grains for their digestio

There are also nutritionally sensitive dogs who find grains hard on their stomachs. As well as dogs who a proven grain allergy.

“The myth ‘all dogs can’t tolerate grain’ is not true! In fact, if the starch contained in the grain is broken down, which is done by heat treatment such as cooking or when extracting dry food, starch can be digested very well by most dogs. But, as always, there are exceptions and individual dogs who actually can’t tolerate starch, or only a little.”

– Dr. Susan Kröger, Specialist Veterinarian for Animal Nutrition

How to recognize a grain allergy in dogs?

Allergies can develop in any dog. A classic allergy develops over time, from the increased exposure with the allergy-causing substance. This allergenic substance can be a certain type of grain. However, food allergies to animal proteins such as those found in beef, cow’s milk or eggs are much more common.

An allergy in a dog is usually manifested by constant itching or excessive licking and nibbling of the paws. Gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea or vomiting after feeding may also occur. Most often, the coat is dull and the dog is correspondingly limp.

Since the symptoms do not occur immediately after feeding, but may be delayed for days or weeks, it is not easy to establish a connection to feeding.

A dog scratches its head with its hind paw.
Constant itching in your dog may indicate an allergy.

If you notice such symptoms, then you should contact a veterinarian. The physician can investigate the indication of an allergy by means of blood tests. However, the confirmed diagnosis can only be given via an exclusion diet. The allergens to be suspected are consistently avoided for 6 to 10 weeks. If your dog’s condition then improves, an allergen (e.g. wheat) is fed again. If the symptoms then occur again, it can be assumed that an allergy to this allergen is present.

Your veterinarian can also help you with regard to a change of food, if he has experience with dog nutrition. In case of a real allergy, the allergen (e.g. wheat) must no longer be fed. Alternatively, other cereals, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes or pumpkin and special vegetables may be on the table.

Is grain-free dog food better?

No, not necessarily. However, it is often the case that the manufacturers of grain-free dog food have more experience with the nutritional physiology of dogs. Therefore, they usually include a more detailed declaration of ingredients and higher quality ingredients. Good dog food does not contain any hidden or veiled information about it’s contents in addition to all the important nutrients and vitamins. You can find an overview of good dog foods here.

If your dog suffers from an allergy to a grain protein, then logically grain-free dog food is better for him. However, allergies to grains such as spelt, oats, barley and rye are rare. Cereals such as millet and rice, as well as pseudocereals such as quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat, can also usually be used without problems. Allergies to beef, milk, eggs or wheat are much more common, as are allergies to chicken, lamb, soy and corn.

Of course, this does not mean that such allergies are impossible or cannot develop during your dog’s life. It is important to stay alert if your dog shows the above symptoms of allergy.

What about grain-free puppy food?

Puppy food contains a higher energy content than dog food for adult dogs. Logically, because the puppies still have to grow. After all, young dogs romp much more and consume more energy accordingly. This must be compensated by high-quality dog food. Raising puppies without grain in their food from the beginning can make sense, but it doesn’t have to.

It is much more important that you find out what food your puppy has been fed up to now and only slowly approach a change of food after he has become accustomed to it. Otherwise there is a risk of digestive problems even without allergies.

Conclusion: Grain-free dog food – yes or no?

There is no clear answer to this question. It can make sense to feed grain, but it can also be good to use grain-free dog food.

The important thing is that your dog is comfortable with his diet and has no problems. If your dog has a shiny coat, is lively, shows no noticeable (or otherwise explainable) itching, and tolerates the food well, then there is nothing at all wrong with grain in dog food.

If, on the other hand, he does not digest his food well, i.e. poops very often and/or very large piles that are rather soft and unformed, then you should think about a change in diet.

As always, you know your dog best! Therefore, you also know what is best for him.

What do you feed your dog?
Grain free feed or some with grain?
As always, we appreciate every comment!

Dr. Susan Kroeger

Dr. Susan Kröger is a specialist veterinarian for animal nutrition and dietetics. For more than 10 years she was employed at the Institute of Animal Nutrition at the Free University of Berlin, among other things as head of the institute’s own nutritional counseling service. Today, she is not only an expert in this field, but also develops recipes for premium dog and cat food together with the FRED & FELIA brand since 2019.


(c) Stefanie Vogt
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