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 can have other derivative species known by different names such as spelt. These other species also contain gluten.
Non-gluten grains include:
- Oats (if they are not cross-contaminated)*
*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.
6 Best Gluten-Free Dog Foods
As already mentioned, if you are feeding your dog a grain free dog food, you are probably already feeding a gluten-free diet, though it’s possible there could be some miscellaneous ingredients in the food that contain glutens. The dog foods listed here state that they are gluten-free. Some dogs do seem to do better eating a gluten-free diet.
There are more and more companies making gluten-free foods all the time so it’s becoming easier to find these foods. Along with the foods listed here, we suggest that you look at the foods named in our article “Six Best Super Premium Dog Foods.” To avoid duplication we haven’t repeated those foods here but they are also gluten-free. Most of them are also GMO-free.
Merrick Grain Free Real Texas Beef & Sweet Potato Dry Dog Food for Adult Dogs and Puppies
The Merrick Grain Free foods feature deboned meat as their first ingredient. They are U.S.-made (the Merrick facilities are located in Texas) using locally-sourced ingredients. And they use no ingredients from China. Their kitchens are organically-certified and foods are cooked one batch at a time. Their recipes contain no corn, wheat, soy, or gluten ingredients. Merrick Grain Free comes in 13 formulas plus 5 Grain Free Lil Plates formulas for small dogs. Popular formulas include their Real Buffalo, Real Chicken, and Real Texas Beef kibbles. Merrick Grain Free also comes in canned/wet recipes. The Merrick Grain Free Real Texas Beef & Sweet Potato recipe features deboned beef, lamb meal, sweet potatoes, peas, and potatoes as the first five ingredients. It has 38 percent crude protein and 15 percent crude fat, with 422 kcal/cup. This is an all life stage formula. The food is 70 percent meat ingredients. It has a 10:1 omega 6 to omega 3 ratio. Enriched with antioxidants, the food also includes glucosamine and chondroitin for joint support. This beef formula is typical of the other Merrick Grain Free formulas. Merrick was purchased by Purina a couple of years ago and some people feared that there would be a decline in the quality of the brand but, as far as we can tell, Merrick continues to make first rate dog foods.
Wellness CORE Original Grain Free
Wellness CORE is just one of the brands made by WellPet. Their other successful Wellness brands include Complete Health, Simple, and Trufood. They also make Holistic Select, Eagle Pack, Old Mother Hubbard, Sojos, and Whimzees. So, this is a petfood juggernaut. Wellness CORE focuses on grain free, protein formulas. Along with kibbles they make canned/wet foods, toppers, freeze-dried foods, and kibble + raw. Wellness CORE Original Grain Free Deboned Turkey, Turkey Meal & Chicken Meal Recipe remains one of their most popular dog foods. This food has no meat by-products, wheat gluten, corn, soy, artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. The first five ingredients are: deboned turkey, turkey meal, chicken meal, peas, and potatoes. It has 34 percent crude protein and 16 percent crude fat, with 421 kcal/cup. Along with good sources of meat protein, this food also has an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of about 6.5 to 1 which is very nice. The food includes small amounts of glucosamine and chondroitin for joint support. This is a maintenance dog food so it’s not appropriate for puppies or pregnant dogs. Wellness CORE has lots of other grain free kibble formulas for small dogs, large dogs, puppies, and recipes in other flavors. These foods are popular with many people who like grain free dog foods.
Earthborn Grain Free Holistic Primitive Natural
Midwestern Pet Foods in Indiana owns and makes Earthborn, along with Pro Pac, Pro Pac Ultimates, and Sportmix pet foods. Earthborn makes several very good product lines: Venture (grain free, limited ingredient with some exotic proteins), Holistic, and Grain Free Holistic. Their Coastal Catch and Primitive Natural formulas are both very popular. Primitive Natural has no grain or gluten and it’s high in protein. It also has blueberries, cranberries and other antioxidants; L-carnitine for lean muscles; a good balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids; and it’s easy for dogs to digest. The first five ingredients are: turkey meal, chicken meal, potatoes, chicken fat (preserved with mixed tocopherols), and whitefish meal. Primitive Natural has 38 percent crude protein, 20 percent crude fat with only 17.5 percent carbs (as fed basis). It has 445 kcal/cup. This is an all life stage food. Earthborn also has several excellent puppy foods and foods for small breeds, large breeds, and weight control foods. We are happy to recommend their foods.
Victor Yukon River Salmon & Sweet Potato Grain-Free Dry Dog Food
Made in Texas, Victor has become nationally know in the last few years and it’s wildly popular with many dog lovers. They currently have grain free, multi-grain, and select protein formulas for dogs. Many of their formulas are high in protein. Their Grain Free Yukon River Canine Formula with Salmon & Sweet Potato has changed a little over the years but it’s still a very good grain free, gluten-free dog food. It has 76 meat protein and 24 percent plant protein. It has no corn, wheat, soy, and gluten. It has a single meat protein (fish). This is the most hypoallergenic formula made by Victor. The first five ingredients in this food are: salmon, menhaden fish meal (source of dha-docosahexaenoic acid), sweet potato, peas, and canola oil. It has 33 percent crude protein and 15 percent crude fat with 398 kcal/cup. It has a calculated 32.3 percent carbohydrates. This is an all life stage formula. Victor has a wide range of foods including foods for puppies and nursing dams, and working and sporting dogs. Recommended.
Wellness Simple Limited Ingredient Salmon & Potato Recipe
Wellness Simple is another line of foods made by Wellpet, along with CORE, Wellness Complete Health, and others. Wellness Simple is formulated especially for dogs with food sensitivities. These formulas are limited ingredient diets. They are easily digestible and made to support a dog’s skin and coat. Along with being grain free they contain no meat by-products, no wheat gluten, no corn, soy, dairy, eggs, artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. Each formula also uses a single protein source. The Salmon & Potato formula uses only fish as protein. The first five ingredients in this food are: salmon, salmon meal, potatoes, peas, and dried ground potatoes. It has 25 percent crude protein and 12 percent crude fat with 446 kcal/cup. This is a maintenance food so it’s not appropriate for puppies or pregnant dogs. We think Wellness Simple is a good gluten-free brand for many dogs with food sensitivities. If potatoes are a problem for your dog they also have several formulas that are potato-free. These formulas use oatmeal as a carbohydrate. Wellness Simple also comes in small breed and healthy weight formulas; and in canned recipes.
Holistic Health Extension Grain Free Chicken & Turkey Recipe Dry Dog Food
Health Extension is a small, privately-owned company but you should definitely know their foods. They make dry dog foods, canned foods, and grain free foods in the United States. Foods are made in small batches. Their grain free chicken and turkey recipe uses organic chicken as the first ingredient. This formula has no by-products, no rendered animal fats, no corn, glutens, soy, wheat, artificial preservatives, BHT, ethoxyquin, added sugar, artificial flavors, colors, or dyes. No ingredients from China. Ingredients are non-GMO. The first five ingredients are: organic deboned chicken, chicken meal, deboned turkey, turkey meal, and potatoes. It has 27 percent crude protein and 18 percent crude fat with 405 kcal/cup. This is an all life stage formula. Health Extension also makes foods for small dogs, reduced calorie foods, and foods with more exotic proteins (buffalo, venison). We really like Health Extension’s foods and highly recommend them.
We think these are some of the best gluten-free foods available right now. As always, if your dog can’t eat one of these foods, the brands mentioned usually have other formulas which are similarly made so you have other options, especially with meat proteins.
It can be hard to find gluten-free dog foods that don’t use potatoes or sweet potatoes or copious amounts of peas and lentils yet many dogs who need a gluten-free diet can be sensitive to potatoes. If that’s a problem for your dog, check some of our “Best Super Premium Dog Foods” for more suggestions. Or, try Instinct by Nature’s Variety. Instinct Original, Instinct Raw Boost, and Instinct Limited Ingredient Diet all come in multiple formulas without grain, potato, corn, wheat, soy, by-product meal, artificial colors or preservatives.
Once again, we ran out of room and couldn’t include all of the gluten-free brands we like. Other brands you might consider would be Holistic Select, Canine Caviar, and Brothers Complete.
We encourage you to take this information and check out these brands, especially if you haven’t tried some of these foods before. And, remember, you can always check our reviews on Pawster.com for more suggestions!