A happy beagle dog rolling around in a corn field with his tongue out.
A happy beagle dog rolling around in a corn field with his tongue out. Photography ©androsov58 | Thinkstock.

Should You Avoid Grains in Dog Food?

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“Grain” seems to be the five-letter “dirty” word of the dog food world. Mention that you feed your dog some grains, and you may be ostracized from certain forums or Facebook groups. The fact is that every dog is an individual, and no one diet is suitable for an entire species. Are grains in dog food problematic for some dogs? Absolutely. Do others do well on diets that contain some grains? You bet.

Let’s take a closer look at grains and dogs so you can make your own decision regarding what’s best for your canine companion.

First: What are grains?

Grains are the seeds of grasses, called cereal crops, cultivated as food. They are complex carbohydrates made up of starch (long chains of sugar molecules) and fiber. During digestion, the enzyme amylase breaks down starches into simple sugars, such as glucose, for use by the body as energy. Fiber in whole grains is indigestible but provides certain health benefits. Some grains contain gluten, a controversial plant-based protein, while other grains are gluten free.

The most common are:

Gluten-containing grains

Wheat
Wheat. Photography ©rasilja | Thinkstock.
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Spelt
  • Wheat

Gluten-free grains

Rice.
Rice. Photography ©mtphoto19 | Thinkstock.
  • Corn
  • Oats (be sure they are labeled “certified gluten free,” as gluten can creep in during processing)
  • Rice

A separate category called “pseudo-grains” includes the seeds of broad-leaf, bushy shrubs or plants rather than grasses.

These include:

Quinoa.
Quinoa. Photography ©mayakova | Thinkstock.
  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Teff

Wild rice is not really rice but actually an aquatic grass. Grains can be either “whole” or “refined.”

Whole grains have the entire seed left intact, including:

  • Bran. The seed’s hard fiber-rich outer layer, or shell. Rich in B vitamins and trace minerals.
  • Germ. The seed’s core, or embryo. Contains vitamin E, B vitamins, antioxidants, plant-based fats.
  • Endosperm. The biggest part of the seed. Contains starchy carbohydrates and some protein.

Refined grains have had the seed’s bran and germ removed, leaving behind only the starchy endosperm. Refined grains are less nutritious than whole grains and raise blood sugar faster. Brown rice is a whole grain, while white rice is refined.

Can dogs digest grains?

Yes, dogs can digest grains. Although dogs do not produce salivary amylase, they do produce pancreatic amylase, enabling them to digest starches. The latest DNA research shows that most modern dog breeds are traced back to European dogs of about 7,000 years ago. This is the same time that agricultural societies arose, and dogs would have eaten scraps from the farmers’ crops, including corn, sweet potato, white potato, wheat and rice. This agrarian history may explain why modern dogs have more copies than wolves of the AMY2B gene necessary to produce pancreatic amylase. This gene is also 28 times more active in the pancreas of dogs than in wolves.

Why feed grains to dogs?

Dogs can synthesize glucose for energy from fat and protein in the diet; however, this does not mean that grains serve no purpose. Here are some benefits of dietary grains:

  • Fiber from whole grains can help regulate the digestive system, serve as food for the gut’s good bacteria and eliminate toxins from the body.
  • Soluble fiber, such as that found in oats, helps stabilize blood glucose levels, control cholesterol and enhance absorption of nutrients.
  • Whole grains provide a myriad of vitamins and minerals.
  • Grains can reduce a diet’s calorie content while providing satiating fiber, serving a useful purpose in weight reduction.
  • Carbohydrate-based energy from grains benefits dogs with certain medical conditions, such as those with kidney or liver disease who require a protein-reduced diet or those with pancreatitis and intestinal bowel disease that require a low-fat diet.
  • According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, whole grains strengthen the body’s energy, or qi, and blood.
  • Grains provide an economical energy source in home-prepared diets.

How to get the most out of grains in dog food:

Soaking grains in water prior to cooking helps reduce anti-nutrients.
Soaking grains in water prior to cooking helps reduce anti-nutrients. Photography ©aetb | Thinkstock.
  • Soak grains for at least 12 hours prior to cooking to reduce anti-nutrients such as phytic acid, which binds to certain minerals and can reduce their availability.
  • Cook grains well to further reduce anti-nutrients and increase digestibility.
  • Select the type of grain to fit your dog’s needs. Whole grains are more nutritious and won’t spike blood sugar like refined grains; however, they are not appropriate for all dogs. Dogs with gastrointestinal issues typically digest white rice better than brown, while dogs with kidney disease should avoid brown rice due to high phosphorus levels.
  • Avoid corn, wheat and all gluten-containing grains.
  • Never feed genetically modified (GMO) grains.
  • Opt for more nutritious “pseudo-grains,” such as buckwheat or quinoa.
  • Avoid foods that rely on grains as substitutions for high-quality animal protein.
  • Let your dog’s individual needs determine if, and how much, grain to include in the diet.

Problems with grains in dog food

Problems arise when grains substitute for high-quality animal protein. Corn and wheat — two of the top five ingredients known to cause food sensitivities in dogs — are sometimes used in place of more bioavailable animal protein in dog food. Gluten has been implicated in contributing to a variety of inflammatory health issues. For example, Irish Setters from the United Kingdom are predisposed to gluten-sensitive enteropathy, a condition similar to celiac disease in humans.

To avoid problems, grains should be considered in their proper context — as carbohydrates — and used appropriately.

The bottom line about grains in dog food

Unless a dog suffers from intolerances to grains or carbohydrate malabsorption, a small amount of gluten-free grain can serve as part of a healthy diet.

Tell us: Do you feed your dog grains or do you avoid them? What do you think about grains in dog food?

This piece was originally published in 2017.

Thumbnail: Photography ©androsov58 | Thinkstock.

Diana Laverdure- Dunetz, MS, is a canine nutritionist and co-author, with W. Jean Dodds, D.V.M., of two books, including Canine Nutrigenomics: The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health. Their online course, Complete Canine Nutrition, can be found at myhealthydog.dog.

Editor’s note: This article appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you

Read more about dog food on Dogster.com:

Still have questions about what to feed your dog? Check out Whole Dog Journal’s 2017 list of approved food for dogs >>

33 thoughts on “Should You Avoid Grains in Dog Food?”

  1. My Shih Tzu has been on Royal Can in. I follow her cue when she’s tired of it & feed her what she loves, brown rice and recently freekeh.

  2. There are some interesting cut-off dates on this article but I don’t know if I see all of them middle to heart. There is some validity but I will take maintain opinion till I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as properly

  3. My mother often fed gravy beef boiled up with rice to our dogs and they were healthy and lived good long lives.

  4. Orijen is my dogs favortite food…..will not change it but want to add my own grains …first…which one and how much?

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  8. Yes I do…. Especially now since they have found a link to grain free and heart problems. People need to switch their mind set from ingredients to nutrients, which is totally different. Going with a company that has Veterinary Nutritionists on board will guarantee this. These companies do research and feeding trials to ensure that not only will the pet eat it, that it is healthy doing so. Hills, Eukanuba/Iams, Purina, and Royal Canin all do this.

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  11. I have fed grain free kibble to my 5 dogs, different breeds, all their life. I am now thinking about switching them to kibble with grai due to the potential link between grain free diets and dilated cardiomyopathy. Thoughts??

    1. My 5 year old lab was just diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy and CHF due to a grain free diet .. the vets made us switch food immediately!!

      1. It’s happening over and over again. The numbers of dogs getting diagnosed with DCM because of grain free diets or boutique diets is increasing. Feed your dog a food that follows WASVA guidelines.

  12. My dog is 4 or 5 now we got him when he was 1 or 2 not sure. He came with all sorts of issues from permanent scratching, cracked skin and hair loss. Lots of allergy problems. Dont know what he was fed but from his taste to judge he liked chips and all sort of human unhealthy food. I tried everything from only raw food to strictly no grain to wet dry and mixed. Every combination you can imagine.
    Turns out he does best on a little bit of grain like brown/ white rice, Buckwheat, or Quinoa with his meat usually chicken, beef or lamb also carrots and potatos not to forget. Then I add his salad, he loves cucumber, lettuce (just a bit) and off course he gets dry food specially grain free prepared and ordered and at least twice a week we feed raw food. He eats dog food but he does not really like it. He was definitely reared on human food.

  13. Wellness CORE Natural High Protein Adult Dry Dog Food is a natural dry dog food. It’s a natural grain free and protein rich diet for dogs. Because core natural grain free rich with delicious premium proteins including turkey and chicken combined with real vegetables and essential vitamins and minerals.

    So it’s packed with premium protein along with nutrient-rich super foods and nutritional supplements to ensure that, your dog gets everything they need to have from the CORE

    1. Not true. Dogs need a balanced diet just like we do. Adding whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice is good for their digestive and gastrointestinal health.

    2. that’s not true. Dogs need a balanced diet just like we do. And adding whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice is good for their digestive and gastrointestinal system.

  14. Grains are excellent for dogs, it’s another lie that they are not . Google” are grains good for dogs”. Dogs do not need fruits / veg because they produce their own vitamin C which is what that food group mostly is . Dog food is horrific full of chemicals ,refined grains, by- products and devoid of calcium which is very important .
    The bible is the secret to eating right and even feeding a dog in the book of Matt 15 : 27 [Niv] it shows bread [ grains] are fine.

    1. I agree. I just read a study today they tested 248 dogs and the main allergens were beef, dairy, chicken, egg, lamb, soy, pork and fish. I think whole grains are beneficial for a dogs diet like oatmeal and brown rice. Its funny because I go on the website dog food advisor and read the comments of people that are feeding high end grain free foods and their dogs have gastrointestinal issues like vomiting and diarrhea. Dogs need a balanced diet just like we do.

  15. I only feed my husky baby grain free food. He’s super picky, but he loves Taste of the Wild. It’s grain free, with roasted meat, sweet potatoes, and fruits and vegetables.

  16. Diet is everything, healthy immune, healthy dog. If you’re dealing with allergies, you need to deal with them b4 they turn into something worse

  17. You know in many cases, and lets face it , would be a good % of dogs, they’ve been fed grains for years, day in and day out, some have kibble left out for them ALL the time. THIS is when things become scary and dangerous!!!
    Our dogs a re fed 100% raw, no processed rubbish. They also benefit from rolled outs certain times of the year

  18. My girl tends to eat grain free dry food mixed with wet food that tends to be grain free as well. I like to give her Blue products and sometimes she will eat Nutro. She is a Jackabee and has a decent amount of allergies but she is a healthy and happy doggy!

  19. I use a no wheat, corn, soy dry dog food. I supplement it with fresh cook vegetables such as green beans, peas, carrot, celery and both white and sweet potatoes. I will occasionally add meat such as beef, fish or ham and hard boiled eggs
    . My dogs live to generally 16 or 17 years are quite healthy and rarely require vets visits other then their required shots.

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