Everyone wants what’s best for their dog. We consider them to be part of our families, after all. So it makes sense that you want to feed your dog the most nutritious diet possible.
In recent years, tons of grain free dog food products have hit the market as brands seek to capitalize on health-conscious pet owners.
But is a grain free diet really the best choice for your dog? The FDA says it could do more damage than good – but not 100% of the time.
It’s important to educate yourself about the diet your dog really needs so you can keep him healthy for many years to come.
Grain Free Dog Food And Heart Disease
In July of 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put out a warning for all dog owners about grain free dog food and heart disease – or rather heart failure.
According to the FDA, they noticed an uncomfortable link between grain free diets and a somewhat rare condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).
Deputy Director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine’s Office of Surveillance and Compliance, Martine Hartogensis, D.V.M., said that this occurrence was particularly unusual because DCM started appearing in dogs who weren’t genetically prone to the condition.
If the dogs weren’t prone to the condition, that means something in their environment is likely triggering the condition. The FDA dug a little deeper and noticed that these dogs seemed to have something in common: peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes made up the bulk of their diets.
In other words, certain types of grain free dog food are weakening and enlarging heart muscles in dogs leading to congestive heart failure. It’s unclear if consuming lentils and legumes contributes to DCM or if a doggy diet lacking whole grains is the culprit.
The FDA said that the dogs with DCM had particularly low levels of the amino acid taurine which is found in meat and dairy like dark meat chicken, eggs, beef. Ironically enough, the FDA also said that legumes, peas, and lentils constituted a large portion of these dogs’ diets which likely means their grain free food contained more of these ingredients than meat.
What Can You Do To Protect Your Dog From Grain Free Dog Food And Heart Disease?
If your dog has an allergy or you’re dead-set on a grain free diet, there are a few steps you can take to make sure your dog stays safe and healthy.
- Predisposition: Large breeds like Boxers, Great Danes, and Saint Bernards are naturally at risk for DCM. The condition does not often occur in small and medium breeds with the exception of Cocker Spaniels. Avoid a grain-free diet if your dog falls into one of these categories.
- Read Ingredients: Don’t rely on lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans, or potatoes as a protein source for your dog because they don’t contain much taurine. If you want to feed him a grain free diet, look for foods with chicken or beef as the first ingredient so your dog receives adequate levels of taurine. Lamb is a bad source of taurine as well.
- Mind Your Dog’s Macros: A high-fiber diet can negatively affect taurine absorption. Keep this in mind.
Keep in mind that a lot of grain free varieties contain exotic meats like kangaroo, bison, lamb, or venison. Stick with proteins that you know contain good taurine levels like chicken and beef. Exotic meats are okay occasionally, but they shouldn’t make up the bulk of your dog’s diet.
In some cases, DCM occurred in dogs without low taurine levels so we can’t be sure what’s behind the grain free DCM epidemic just yet.
What Does Your Dog Need In His Diet?
We know taurine is important for heart health but what else does he need to ward off aging and illness?
Dogs are mammals and require a lot of the same nutrients people need to stay healthy. Unlike cats, dogs are not strict carnivores: they can (and should) consume a balanced diet of fruits, veggies, grains, and carbohydrates as well as meat.
At the same time, dogs are a little different than humans so his diet shouldn’t be identical to yours. So, what’s the best diet for your dog?
You should take a few things into consideration when choosing a diet for your dog such as his size, breed, and age. Talk to his vet about choosing the right type of food for your dog’s life stage, size, and breed.
You should only seek a grain free diet for your dog if your vet informs you of a food allergy to gains (which is very uncommon). Grain free foods and legumes probably aren’t dangerous in moderation, but treat them as a special meal rather than diet staples.
“Complete And Balanced”
Most standard and grain free dog food brands contain a label that says “complete and balanced.” This isn’t just some hip marketing lingo that doesn't carry weight like “healthy” – it actually means the food you’re about to purchase for your dog is complete and balanced.
This term means that the food contains “complete” nutrition from protein, fat, and carbohydrates in a “balanced” ratio. It’s really that simple. You just need to figure out what “complete and balanced” means for your particular pooch. Your vet can help.
How We Chose Our Rankings
We wanted to make sure your dog will get adequate levels of taurine. Although some dogs with normal levels of taurine in their system still came down with DCM, many of the dogs suffering DCM had very low levels of taurine.
We tried to find grain free dog food products that contained meats with high levels of taurine like chicken and beef. These are the varieties that won a five-star rating.
Four-star rankings might have legumes or peas. Feed these to your dog in moderation to avoid lowering your dog’s taurine count to dangerous levels – and always check with a vet.
Our three-star rankings don’t contain taurine-rich proteins like beef, turkey, or chicken. These rely on other sources of protein like salmon or exotic meats. You should treat these foods as a special occasion food and talk to your vet about proper diet.
The 10 Best Grain Free Dog Food Brands
If your dog has an allergy, grain free dog food might be the only option. These are the best brands we could find.
Not only can Rachael Ray cook for humans but she also makes a fabulous grain free food for dogs with taurine-rich turkey as the first ingredient – and even some natural probiotics.
- Our Turkey Formula Dog Food Is Full Of Turkey From The American Midwest, And Is A Natural Prey For Medium Sized Dogs In...
- This Limited Ingredient Dog Food Is Low In Saturated Fat, Rich In Selenium, Riboflavin, And Phosphorus.
- The Best High Protein Dog Food Is Grain-Free, Making Our Turkey Formula A Naturally Hypoallergenic Dog Food.
As far as taurine sources go, it’s hard to beat turkey. Zignature’s Turkey grain free formula features a well-rounded blend of wholesome ingredients to provide your dog with protein, carbohydrates, antioxidants, and omega-3s from flaxseed.
- Grain-Free Nutrition With No Gluten Ingredients For Easier Digestibility
- #1 Ingredient Is Real Deboned Buffalo
- Contains Industry-Leading Levels Of Omega 6 And Omega 3 Fatty Acids To Aid In A Healthy Skin And Coat
Texas beef is the main ingredient in this nutritious blend from Merrick. Not only does your dog get a healthy blend of meat, fruits, and veggies, but he also gets added help from glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega fatty acids.
- Grain Free: 100% Grain Free, Complete And Balanced Everyday Nutrition For Your Dog
- Protein Focused Nutrition: Naturally Grain Free, Rich With Delicious Premium Proteins Including Turkey And Chicken...
- All Natural: Contains Only Premium, All Natural Ingredients With No Wheat, Corn, Soy, Meat By-Products, Or Artificial...
Turkey and chicken make up the bulk of this grain free selection from Wellness CORE so you know your dog is getting the protein he needs along with other hardy ingredients for his skin and coat.
- Packaging May Vary
- Contains One (1) 24-Lb Bag Of Blue Wilderness High Protein Grain Free Adult Dry Dog Food, Salmon. Dry with water - add...
- Always Features Real Meat As The 1St Ingredient. Made With Deboned Salmon, Chicken Meal And Fish Meal To Supply The...
You can trust Blue Buffalo Wilderness because it’s formulated to mimic the diet of ancestral wolves – and that means lots of protein. Plus, your dog gets added antioxidants and complex carbohydrates for immune health.
- High-Protein, Grain-Free Kibble Plus Freeze Dried Raw Pieces Provides A Nutrient Rich Diet And Pure Nutrition For...
- Natural Ingredients With Added Vitamins And Minerals, No Artificial Colors, Flavors Or Preservatives
- Grain-Free And Gluten-Free Nutrition, No Corn, No Wheat, No Soy, No Fillers
Cage-free chicken is the first ingredient in this blend so you can rest assured knowing that your dog is getting adequate taurine. Plus, your dog will love the freeze-dried raw meat pieces featured throughout the dish.
- Grain Free, All Life Stage Formula Dry Dog Food from WholeHearted
- Real Beef # 1 Ingredient
- Guaranteed canine probiotic strains help maintain healthy digestion
This formula is suitable for dogs of all life stages and includes beef as the first ingredient. For balanced nutrition, WholeHearted Beef and Pea dog food includes plenty of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
- Discontinued size by manufacturer
- A taste of the wild with ROASTED BISON & VENISON; REAL MEAT is #1 ingredient; optimal amino acid profile & protein rich...
- HIGH quality PROTEIN recipe with smaller kibble; tailored for growing puppy; SUPERFOODS for hard-working ANTIOXIDANTS;...
The exotic meats in this blend, bison and venison, make this grain free dog food a perfect treat for your dog every once in a while. Just make sure to avoid giving your dog this blend on a daily basis.
Salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids which makes this CANIDAE formula an excellent addition to any grain free diet. Just make sure to balance your dog’s diet with other taurine-rich protein sources.
- Sweet Potatoes: Single Premium Quality Carbohydrates, Rich In Potassium And Highly Digestible Energy Source.
- Canola Oil: Low In Saturated Fat And High In Monounsaturated Fat. Excellent Omega 3 And Omega 6 Fatty Acid Profile.
- No Artificial Preservatives, Flavors, Colors, Or Bleached Ingredients.
This blend is perfect for dogs with severe allergies because it contains a limited list of ingredients. Just check with your vet to ensure your dog is getting all the nutrients he needs.
Your Guide To Choosing The Best Grain Free Dog Food
You want to feed your dog the most nutritious food possible, right? Well, in order to do that you need to do some research. The truth is, a grain free diet might not be the best choice for your dog, in fact, it could possibly do more harm than good.
Here’s some tips for making the most educated decision possible.
Dog food brands like to use a lot of buzzwords to make their food sound healthier than it really is. Sometimes it seems like a constant game of cat and mouse as consumers try to figure out the tricky terms and companies switch up their tactics.
Look at the product names – they can tell you quite a bit.
In terms of meat, anything listed as “beef” or “chicken” in the product name must contain at least 70% of that meat. If you see the term “chicken platter” or “beef dinner,” this means that the protein constitutes just 25% of that food.
If you find anything that says “with chicken” or the like, this indicates that only 3% of the product contains that meat. Avoid anything that says beef or chicken “flavor” or lists ambiguous “meat” as an ingredient.
Moderation Is Key
It may not be safe to feed your dog an entirely grain free diet unless your vet tells you he has an allergy. In the cases of dogs with DCM, these pups were relying on legumes, peas, potatoes, or lentils for the bulk of their diet.
This certainly doesn’t mean that your dog should avoid grain free dog food at all costs but rather that these ingredients should not be diet staples – especially above animal protein sources.
Consider A Supplement
If a grain free diet is an absolute must for your dog, consider adding a reputable supplement to his diet to ensure he’s getting all of the proper nutrients.
Talk to your vet about the consequences of a grain free diet in dogs and what you can do to minimize the risks with supplements. Your doctor can also give you suggestions on supplement brands.
Remember That Your Dog’s Health Comes First
Boutique foods and diets are certainly tempting – especially if you stick to a certain diet yourself – but they may not give your dogs and cats the nutrition they need.
Cats, for instance, should absolutely never be fed a vegan (or even vegetarian) diet. Their bodies just can’t handle it.
Likewise, dogs’ bodies require a certain diet to function properly. Stick with reputable brands and traditional meat ingredients for the bulk of your dog’s diet. Exotic ingredients and legumes are okay every once in a while, but you should not rely on them as a base for your dog’s nutrition.
The FDA and Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) have guidelines in place for a reason: they work.
As always, go over diet and nutrition with your vet – he or she knows best.