Nutritional trends are as ever changing for pets as they are for people—fresh raw, freeze dried raw, dehydrated, corn free, and grain free are all options as you walk down a pet food aisle. Grain free may have gained the most traction. While it is true that some pets do well on a grain-free diet—maybe their allergies cleared up or their coats seemed silkier—do all pets benefit from a grain-free diet? 

Not necessarily.

Compared to the average pet food found in the average pet store, grain free foods tend to be higher quality, contain more meat protein, and fewer carbohydrates. So far, so good. But why does that make a better dog food?

Some dogs, just like people, are truly allergic to grains. Wheat and soy are common culprits, but so are eggs, milk, beef, and chicken—which can all be found in top tier dog foods. If you think your dog might truly have a food intolerance or allergy, which generally show up as itchy ears, face, or paws and loose stools, talk to you veterinarian. Your vet will be able to help you plan an elimination diet to determine the likeliest culprit, which isn’t necessarily grain. If a food allergy—grain or not—is the cause of your pup’s trouble, be sure to eliminate it in everything your pup has access to—treats and table scraps—as well as let your kennel and pet sitter know. 

Even some pets without a grain allergy or intolerance seem to benefit from the transition to grain-free food. Why? Well, many low quality brands don’t offer grain free, so the brand switch alone may be providing your pup with a higher quality kibble. Changing food also means changing the formulation of the food—the amount of grains has changed, but maybe so has the protein source and amount; amount of fiber; as well as other ingredient sources, quality, and quantities. 

Keep in mind, when considering switching your dog to a grain-free diet that grain free does not mean carb-free. Kibble can’t be made with just meat (in comparison to canned foods). Carbohydrates are a necessary part of the kibble-making process, and act as a binder to hold everything together. In typical kibbles, cereal grains are often the first choice. Grain-free kibbles turn to potatoes or legumes. 

Carbohydrate-containing kibbles are perfectly digestible by today’s dogs. While their ancestor, the wolf may not be able to digest grain well, today’s dogs have evolved and developed key genes just to allow them to digest carbs, which are a key source of energy after protein. And in grain-containing foods, as long as cereal grains are adequately cooked (which they should be in any commercially-available pet food), our dogs have no problem digesting those either. 

So, as long as no allergies in your dog’s medical history, he’s likely to do just as well on a high quality grain-containing food as he is a high quality grain-free food. Discuss the options with your vet. If you switch food, switch the foods gradually, mixing the old and new foods as you get closer to feeding the new food 100%. You know your pet best and will notice any difference in his activity, coat, and digestive system. 

By Rachel Leisemann Immel