Several dog food companies now offer gluten free dog food (Nutro Ultra, several formulas from Honest Kitchen, several varieties of Hill’s Ideal Balance, and a few others) so you will probably be seeing these foods for sale in pet stores and online. Most dog owners have questions about gluten free dog food. In fact, opinions vary about whether gluten free is really helpful for dogs.

What is gluten free dog food?

Gluten is the protein part of carbohydrates. It is found in grains – but not all grains. Only cereal grains. You can think of gluten as the gluey stuff that holds a dough or batter together when you mix flour or make a cake. Even if you just mix some wheat flour and water together, you will get a paste like glue. That’s because of the gluten in the flour. If you try to mix a non-gluten flour with water (such as rice flour), it won’t make the same kind of paste or stick together the same way.

These grains contain gluten:

  • Wheat*
  • Barley
  • Rye

*Wheat can have other derivative species known by different names such as spelt. These other species also contain gluten.

Non-gluten grains include:

  • Corn
  • Rice
  • Amaranth
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Sorghum
  • Teff
  • Oats (if they are not cross-contaminated)*
  • Buckwheat

*People with celiac disease are often advised to avoid eating oats because they can be cross-contaminated with wheat or other cereal grains. You probably don’t need to be this picky with oats in dog food.

You may see the term “corn gluten meal” or “rice gluten” on a dog food label, but this is food industry jargon. These foods do not contain gluten the way that wheat or barley do.

Note that although corn is often blamed for many food-related problems with dogs, it does not contain gluten. In fact, dogs are more likely to be allergic or food-sensitive to many other things than corn: beef, dairy, wheat, egg, chicken, lamb, soy, pork, rabbit, and fish can all be food allergens for dogs before corn.

Yet corn gets a lot of blame, presumably because it is so often used in dog foods that have less meat protein or lower quality protein. Depending on how it is prepared, dogs only digest about 50 percent of the corn in dog food, meaning that they pass a lot of the corn on as waste and aren’t able to use its nutrients efficiently. But, again, corn is not a gluten or a particular dog food allergen for most dogs. If your dog is having problems with a corn-based dog food, it could be for some other reason, or simply because it is a lower quality dog food. There are some good dog foods that contain corn but the corn is used in moderation and not as a substitute for good meat protein.

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Why eat gluten free?

Gluten free diets were originally designed for people with celiac disease – a genetic deficiency that can lead to damage of the small intestine and prevents the body from properly absorbing nutrients.   You can read more about celiac disease here.

There has only been one recorded case of suspected celiac disease in dogs – in a family of Irish Setters in 1991.  This is the only scientifically documented case of dogs with suspected celiac.

However, there are a number of owners today who claim that their dogs have a sensitivity to foods with gluten. One case was reported in Whole Dog Journal.  The vet in the article is convinced that dogs can get celiac disease and that putting them on a gluten free diet will stop their problems.

Other vets are not convinced. Jennifer Coates, DVM, writes on PetMD.com:

Like almost all ingredients, gluten is neither inherently good nor bad. Gluten is an excellent source of protein, unless an individual (human or canine) is allergic or has some other type of adverse food reaction to it. I have not found gluten sensitivity to be all that common, despite what many pet food manufacturers would have you believe, and research backs me up on that.

In a study of 278 cases of food allergy in dogs where the problem ingredient was clearly identified, beef, dairy, chicken, egg, lamb, soy, pork, and fish (none of which contain gluten) were responsible for 231 combined cases. Wheat, which contains a lot of gluten, was only involved in 42 cases.

What’s the verdict?

Are dogs really gluten-sensitive or gluten-intolerant? In light of the evidence, we are not willing to say that it’s impossible. There could be some dogs who are sensitive to or intolerant of gluten. However, we don’t think that the condition is very common in dogs, if it exists. Dogs can have food allergies, food sensitivities, and all kinds of gastrointestinal problems that don’t involve gluten. Some dogs are allergic to wheat or have a food sensitivity to it – without having celiac disease. These dogs could benefit from eating a gluten free diet.

The good news is that if you are feeding your dog a grain free dog food then you are almost certainly already feeding your dog a gluten free diet. A grain free dog food that does not contain any wheat, barley, or rye is, by definition, a gluten free diet, even if it doesn’t say so on the dog food label.

We tend to think that the “gluten free” label on pet foods is mostly a marketing gimmick but, if you have reason to believe that your dog is sensitive to wheat, barley, or rye, and the food seems to help your dog, then by all means feed your dog what you think is best.

If your dog can eat a regular dog food and he has no particular gastrointestinal problems, then there is no reason to spend a lot of extra money to buy gluten free food. However, if your dog won’t eat, or if he doesn’t keep good weight, he is gassy, vomits, has diarrhea, loses weight, itches and has chronic skin problems, then he might benefit from trying the gluten free food. Try it and see if he improves.

Carlotta Cooper

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