- Grain-free dog food does not contain wheat, rice, or other types of grains.
- Grains are usually substituted for legumes, which could cause dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).
- When you cut out grains, dogs can miss out on fiber, fatty acids, and protein.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Dog parents often treat their dogs as a member of the family, which means providing them with the utmost care and a nutritious diet. As a result, fad diets that are popular for humans can sometimes lead to fad diets for dogs.
For example, gluten-free
became popular around the same time that gluten-free diets (for humans) were all the rage, says Rebecca Greenstein, DVM, a Veterinary Medical Advisor for Rover.
However, these fad diets aren’t always good for humans, and the same goes for your pooch — especially if your vet didn’t recommend it.
Here we take a closer look at grain-free dog food and offer some advice from veterinarians on the benefits and risks.
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What is grain-free dog food?
Grain-free dog food typically does not contain ingredients such as:
Instead, it typically contains potatoes or legumes such as peas or lentils as an alternative carb source, says Greenstein.
The health risks of grain-free dog food
Although dog parents have good intentions when feeding their dogs a grain-free diet, it may actually be harmful. The FDA has alerted pet owners that there may be a link between grain-free diets and a diagnosis of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), says Emily Wilson, DVM, a veterinarian with Fuzzy, a pet
DCM is a disease of the heart muscle, which can cause the heart to become enlarged, which hinders its ability to pump blood properly.
It’s believed that the high amount of legumes in grain-free diets is to blame for this problem.
“Legumes have been used in dog food diets previously, as they are a source of plant-based protein. More recently, though, they have been used in a much higher proportion in certain diets, which are often labeled as grain-free diets,” says Wilson.
When the FDA looked into the diets of dogs with DCM, 93% of products that the dogs ate contained peas or lentils.
However, the FDA is still investigating exactly why a grain-free diet puts dogs at higher risk for DCM, says Rebecca Ruch-Gallie, DVM, an associate professor in clinical sciences at Colorado State University. But Greenstein says that the absence of grains in the diet appears to affect the bioavailability of key nutrients like taurine, which is important for heart muscle health.
The good news, Ruch-Gallie says, is that researchers found that DCM reversed when the grain-free diet was discontinued, and grains were reintroduced into the diet.
Aside from the DCM risk, there are other health drawbacks associated with going grain-free. When you cut out grains from the diet, Ruch-Gallie says your dog is missing out on:
- Essential amino acids
- Fatty acids
The health benefits of grain-free dog food
Wilson says that there isn’t substantial scientific evidence regarding the benefits of feeding your dog a grain-free diet.
The main benefit of grain-free dog food would be if your dog has a direct allergy related to grains. Then, your vet may recommend a grain-free diet.
However, Wilson says grain allergies are very rare, and it’s more common for food allergies in dogs to be linked to the protein source rather than the grain source.
“Very few pet owners ever really needed to avoid grain-containing diets for medical reasons, but there was a perception that grain was somehow a nutritional ‘villain’ and eliminating it completely was the next big thing,” says Greenstein.
Grain-free food may be appropriate if a dog has a grain allergy and if a vet recommends it, however, the diet does come with serious health risks.
All three vets are not proponents of grain-free diets for dogs, and they advise discussing any special diet plans with your vet.
“Pet owners should avoid choosing diets arbitrarily or based on human food fads. Your veterinarian is your best, and most overlooked, resource to help you find the safest and most appropriate diet for your fur baby,” says Greenstein.