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Grain-free Diets for Dogs: What You Need to Know

If you examine the label on your dog's food, you'll likely see a long list of ingredients that includes an assortment of meats, grains, fruits, vegetables, vitamins and minerals. With so much attention on gluten-free diets for humans (even for those who don't suffer from Celiac disease or gluten intolerance), it's natural to question whether a similar diet might benefit our pets. After all, if it's good for us, could it be good for them? Perhaps you've heard of pet parents who have switched their dogs to grain-free diets and you're wondering whether you should do the same. Is grain-free dog food a good option for your pet?

Defining Grain-free

A grain-free diet is exactly as its name implies: a diet in which grains—including rice, corn, wheat and barley—are excluded. At first glance, it might seem like a grain-free diet would be a good match for your dog, considering his carnivorous nature and the importance of protein in a dog's diet. But focusing exclusively on meat and excluding grain isn't a sure-fire way to establish effective and balanced nutrition for your dog. Instead, focus on the bigger picture, which involves selecting food that contains ingredients of the highest quality and ingredients in the right proportion. It is also important to note that food allergies in dogs are most commonly protein sources such as beef, fish and poultry.

Although you might assume that the top grain-free dog foods consists entirely of meat or fish, you might be surprised to discover that non-meat ingredients are often added in place of grains. Vegetables are a frequent addition, and you might find potatoes, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes or many other vegetables in the ingredients list of a grain-free dog food.

And while some types of dog and puppy food are entirely grain-free, other types contain only one type of grain, or they eliminate a specific ingredient. That's why you'll see gluten-free dog food (free of wheat) or single-grain formulas that contain only one grain—oats, for example—along with the meat, vegetables and other ingredients.

If you choose a grain-free diet, be sure to read the labels carefully. Many formulas are naturally lower in carbohydrates. However, some grain-free formulas contain carbohydrate levels that are similar to or even higher than formulas with grains. In some cases, ingredients like potatoes replace the grains and often have more carbohydrates than the common grains used in dog food. As a result, grain-free and low carbohydrate dog foods are not always synonymous with one another.

Whether your dog's diet includes grain or not, your main concern must always be centered on providing a complete and balanced diet that meets all of the nutritional needs of your pet.

Why Some Dogs Might Benefit from a Grain-Free Diet

For dogs that are sensitive or allergic to a specific grain, a diet that is devoid of that particular grain can be a positive step toward improving their overall health and well-being. But in order to determine an allergy or sensitivity, you'll need to work closely with your veterinarian to diagnose the troublesome ingredient. Simply removing ingredients from your dog's diet without veterinary supervision could result in an unbalanced diet that doesn't provide your dog with everything he needs to thrive.

Most importantly, you'll want to talk to your veterinarian about your dog's diet and discuss the options that will provide the most benefits for your dog's individual needs and circumstances. Due to the innumerable variables in age, activity level, breed characteristics and special needs that exist among dogs, a one-size-fits-all diet isn't feasible. So while a grain-free diet might be the perfect choice for a dog that suffers from food-related allergies or sensitivities, a grain-free diet might not suit a dog in different circumstances—such as a dog that needs to gain weight quickly. Again, your veterinarian will be able to help you make the appropriate determinations and select a diet that will provide balanced nutrition for your dog's specific needs.