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Grain free dog foods are currently very popular with many dog owners. Indeed, there are many very good grain free dog foods and we are not discouraging anyone from feeding a good food that agrees with your dog. However, we do object to any notion that only grain free dog foods can be healthy for dogs or that foods that contain some grains are bad for dogs. Complete and balanced foods without nutrient excesses or deficiencies are what your dog needs, whether that comes in a grain free dog food or not.

There are a number of popular misconceptions about grains and grain free dog food, some of them being passed along by dog food web sites. We’ll try to address some of them.

Do grain free dog foods contain more meat-based protein than other dog foods?

Not necessarily. While some grain free dog foods have good meat protein, there are a lot of them that add pea protein and other kinds of plant-based protein to boost the protein percentage. These foods may be “grain free” but they are loaded with plant protein, plant material, and carbs. At the same time, there are some very good kibbles that use grains and have some good meat protein without so much plant material. These foods can also have a lower carbohydrate percentage.

Don’t corn and wheat cause a lot of canine allergies?

In a word, not exactly. Dogs can be allergic to corn and wheat but they are more allergic to meat proteins. In order, dogs tend to be allergic to: beef, dairy, wheat, egg, chicken, lamb, soy, pork, rabbit, and fish. Beef, dairy, and wheat are responsible for 68 percent of canine food allergies. Corn isn’t even on the list.

People often make a lot of assumptions when they see that a dog food contains corn without ever having a food trial or elimination diet done to see what their dog is actually allergic to.

It is true that dogs only digest about half of the nutrients in corn and wheat, depending on how they are prepared. Some lower quality dog foods have relied heavily on corn and used it as a substitute for meat protein. However, used in moderation or smaller amounts, there is absolutely no reason why most dogs can’t eat it, as long as the food also contains some good meat protein.

Don’t a lot of dogs have food allergies?

No. Allergies are not nearly as common as dog owners seem to think. If your dog is itching and scratching there could be other causes such as fleas or parasitic mites that result in demodectic mange. Even among allergies, flea bite allergies and atopy (inhalant allergies) are more common than food allergies.

If your dog is itching and scratching, try to find out the cause. See your vet. If you suspect your dog does have a food allergy or a food intolerance, it’s best if you work with your veterinarian to identify your dog’s food triggers instead of guessing.

Aren’t grain free dog foods healthier for your dog?

Again, not necessarily. While a small percentage of the dog population may need to eat a grain free dog food because of allergies to certain grains, most dogs don’t need to do so. If the other ingredients in the foods are equal, then grain free dog foods are not any healthier for your dog than foods with grains.

In fact, many grain free dog foods are likely to contain more legumes or “pulses” which can be hard for dogs to digest. A “pulse” is a grain legume and they include beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, and others. Some grain free dog foods today, in particular, rely on pulses to supply part of the protein in the food, and these ingredients often show up in the first five ingredients in some foods. These pulses are often 20 to 25 percent protein. Some pulses have been used in animal feed on farms for years but they are not easy for all animals to digest. Your dog is not a cow with four stomachs, or able to chew cud. There has been little research on how they are digested by dogs but some dogs have problems digesting them.

Do grain free dog foods contain fewer carbohydrates?

Usually no. Grain free dog foods typically contain potatoes, sweet potatoes or other non-grain carbohydrates. Many of these foods have as many or more carbs as foods that contain corn and other grains. Some grain free dog foods contain fewer carbs, but they are in a minority. Dog owners often seem to assume that dogs need a high protein, low carbohydrate diet and by feeding a grain free diet their dog will be getting fewer carbs. This isn’t true.

A moderate amount of carbohydrates is not harmful to your dog but we have seen some grain free dog foods with 40-50 percent (or more) carbs. Most people who buy a grain free dog food probably don’t expect it to contain that kind of carb percentage.

Which grains are included in “grain free” dog foods?

That’s a good question. There are lots of “grain free” dog foods that include some less common grains among their ingredients, leading us to wonder if “grain free” only means free of corn and wheat. What about oats, rice, millet, sorghum, and barley? What about “pseudo” grains – seeds that are nutritionally similar and used the same way that true grains are used? These pseudo cereal grains would include amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa. Can they be included in “grain free” dog foods? We have seen most of these grains and pseudo grains included in various grain free dog foods.

As you can see, the term “grain free” can be not only confusing, but misleading. There are plenty of good grain free dog foods on the market and if your dog is doing well eating one of these foods, that’s great. As with most products, some grain free dog foods are better quality than others, and it doesn’t always depend on the price of the food. However, we like people to know the facts. Think for yourself and make up your own mind about grain free dog food and other dog foods.

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Carlotta Cooper

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