Are Grain-Free Diets Safe for Dogs?

Written by Small Door's medical experts

As a pet parent, it can be incredibly difficult to know what type of diet is best for your dog. One trend that has become popular in recent years is grain-free dog food, however, it’s important to understand the science and implications of this diet, to make an informed decision about your pet’s nutrition.

Why Have Grain-Free Diets Become Popular?

Over the past couple of decades, we have become more aware of celiac disease (gluten allergy), intolerances and sensitivities to gluten and grains in humans. Experts estimate that up to 10% of the human population could suffer from some form of sensitivity. Consequently, many people have chosen to pursue gluten or grain-free diets.

As this human trend grew more popular, certain pet food companies began offering grain-free dog foods, suggesting that our pups might benefit from such diets too.

However, whilst there is a great deal of scientific evidence that supports gluten-free diets in humans who suffer from allergies or sensitivities, the same is not true for dogs.

Can Dogs Be Allergic to Grains?

While it is theoretically possible, the vast majority of dogs do not have any grain sensitivities (fewer than 1%). In fact, very few dogs suffer from a food allergy, and for those that do, they are usually allergic to the protein source in their food.

If your dog is displaying any signs of an allergy, such as skin problems, we strongly recommend getting them tested to identify the trigger, before trying out alternative foods.

What are the Risks of a Grain-Free Diet in Dogs?

In 2018, the FDA began an inquiry into grain-free dog foods, as they had been linked with an increased risk of heart disease, called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

DCM is a heart condition that results in an enlarged heart, and weakens its ability to pump blood around the body. It worsens over time, and is the most common cause of congestive heart failure, which can be fatal in months.

While more data is required to determine the exact reason why grain-free diets are causing DCM, we know enough to strongly recommend that dogs should not be eating grain-free diets.

In addition to minimizing the DCM risk, grains add beneficial fiber, vitamins and minerals that are useful for your dog’s overall health.

Grain-free food has been linked with an increased risk of heart disease, so we strongly recommend that dogs are not fed grain-free diets.

Are There Any Benefits of a Grain-Free Diet in Dogs?

For those few dogs with a true grain allergy, there are certainly benefits of following a grain-free diet. However, for all other dogs, there have been no proven health benefits.

If your dog does need to follow a grain-free diet for medical reasons, your veterinarian will be able to advise on the most appropriate food for them. Your dog should also be closely monitored by a veterinary cardiologist for any signs of DCM or other heart problems.

Ask Your Veterinarian for Advice

If you have any concerns about your dog’s diet, don’t hesitate to ask your veterinarian for advice. At Small Door, we offer nutrition consultations and allergy testing to help make sure your pet is on the best diet for them. Check out our article on dog nutrition for further advice about dog foods and specific brands we recommend.

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