Grain Free Dog Food: Cut Down on Carbs

Grain Free Dog Food: Cut Down on Carbs
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Adjusting carbohydrates and grains is one way to help your dog shed some pounds. Learn about grain free diet options for your dog here.

If your dog has skin irritation, fur loss, goopy eyes or ears, or if you find yourself saying Fluffy isn't herself, but you can't put your finger on it, you may be dealing with an allergy. Eliminating grains is one course of action some nutritionists and veterinarians will take to identify and treat allergies. Although we don't traditionally think of carbohydrates as having proteins that can cause allergy, in some cases, they do.

Some argue that while ancestral wild dogs would have consumed some small amounts of non-meat foods - fruits and vegetables found in the bellies of their prey, for example - they would rarely if ever, have consumed grains or carbohydrates of any kind. They believe that dogs' diets should remain grain and carb-free, period.

Types of Carb Conscious Dog Food Diets:

Low Carb

Your average store-bought kibble and bits are likely to be 40%-60% carbohydrate. Foods with less than 30% carbohydrate content will often call themselves "low carb" when they mean "lower" carb. However, low-carb dog food does not necessarily mean grainless dog food, just as grain-free doesn't necessarily mean carb-free dog food.

No Grain or Grain-Free

Dog foods free from grain might still contain other carbohydrates. When a dog is dealing with digestive problems, a nutritionist might suggest cutting out grains like corn and oats while leaving in other carbs like potatoes, rice, or peas, which are less likely to cause allergy and stomach problems. Almost all dry dog food requires at least some carbs to hold the kibble together. Many wet dog food will be grain-free and low-carb dog foods, like the Beneful dog food having chicken stew.

No Carb or Zero Carb

There are few commercially prepared dog foods with zero carbohydrates. So if getting your dog off carbs is a goal, you might be relegated to a specialized wet zero carb diet, a do-it-yourself home-cooked food regimen, or possibly even a raw food diet.

Other Carb Considerations

Processed cereal grains are inexpensive, both to produce and store. It is the primary reason they're included as a main ingredient in so many popular dog food brands, not because they're healthy for your dog. Unfortunately, when seeking alternatives, some pet owners will end up with a food that's still high in carbs, just different carbs, like tapioca and potatoes.

Dr. Janet Tobiassen Crosby, DVM, says, "Unless a dog has a sensitivity to grains, replacing small amounts of nutrient-rich whole grains with starchy vegetables has no real advantage." The best action for a dog not dealing with specific allergies or sensitivities is to find a high-protein food with highly digestible carbs. When looking at ingredient labels for high protein foods, dry food should have over 28%, and wet food should have above 6% protein.

Benefits of Experimenting with Different or Lower Carbohydrate Diets for Dogs

Some pet owners find that their dogs aren't well. For example, their stool may be too firm or soft, or they may suffer from any other previously mentioned ailments related to diet. In this case, experimenting with lower carbs or different grains, like the Taste of the Wild ancient grains, is an obvious next step.

Dr. Crosby says potato, sweet potato, peas, oats, rice, and barley are a few common carbohydrate alternatives pet owners may wish to try out when attempting to diagnose gastrointestinal disorders. Foods like Nature's Recipe dog food are good for stomach disorders and have active ingredients like sweet potato, pumpkin, and salmon. But, she adds, carbohydrates aren't the only ingredient to consider when diagnosing allergies: "Allergies tend to be adverse immune reactions to proteins, not to carbs." In that case, "pet owners may also wish to experiment with alternative proteins like salmon, lamb, duck, and egg."

Other pet owners wish to pursue a diet for their pets that most closely hits their dog's biological needs on the head, even when that pet already seems healthy and well. The facts about canine anatomy suggest that dogs are primarily meat-eaters and that protein is essential to a dog's diet. The levels of carbohydrates in traditional grocery brand dog foods don't square with what a dog would be eating in the wild.

Regulations on Low Grain and No Grain Dog Foods

There are no AAFCO limits on how much given dog food may be comprised of grains or carbohydrates. However, ingredients will always be listed from highest to lowest in quantity. It will help you determine what your dog's food consists of. 

Dog food manufacturers are only required to report protein, fat, fiber, and water levels. Ash comprises about 7% of dry and 2% of wet food, so you can use simple arithmetic to figure out how much of your dog's food comes from carbs.


Some practitioners feel that the higher carbohydrate content in pet foods may be part of the obesity epidemic in pets today. However, overweight dogs need to balance caloric intake with proper exercise. Very simply, if a dog is overweight or lazy, it may be overeating or exercising too little. It's rarely the grains alone causing your dog's spare tire.

What's So Great About Grain-Free Dog Food?

Grain-free dog food has become a fad, but is it suitable for your dog? Many commercial grain-free foods utilize tubers (like potato or tapioca) or legumes (like peas, lentils, or beans) as the primary carbohydrate source. And guess what? These are not all that different from the grains they've replaced.

So what is the problem with grains that's sparked a demand for no-grain dog food? And how can cereal-free dog food benefit your dog? We'll answer both of those questions here.

Grains Versus Other Sources of Carbohydrates

Some evolutionary experts believe dogs weren't designed to consume large amounts of grain. One of the arguments is that a dog's saliva does not produce as much amylase as humans, which is found in the saliva of most herbivores and omnivores. Amylase works to break down carbohydrates into simple sugars before they enter the stomach, and since amylase only shows up in the lower digestive tract of dogs, it doesn't serve that purpose. Instead, it makes digestion of all carbs difficult and can lead to stomach upset and other problems.

Dogs can also develop sensitivities to ingredients like corn and wheat, and wheat makes the "top ten" list of common food allergens in dogs. So for these dogs, wheat-free pet food made with potato, tapioca, lentils, or beans may be just what the doctor ordered. But be aware — there is also the potential for these carb sources to incite an allergy.

The Right Amount of Carbs

We cannot say that carbohydrates do not have their benefits. Carbohydrates provide useful energy to your dog, but many experts think less is more. Don't be fooled that grain-free means fewer carbohydrates. On the contrary, many grain-free formulas have as many carbs as grain-containing foods.

Check the label of your dog's food — if corn, wheat, rice, potato, sweet potato, lentils, or peas are among the first listed, they make up a considerable amount of the recipe.

The Benefits of a Grain-Free Diet

Since some dogs can develop allergies to the proteins in grains, you can use a grain-free dog kibble diet to eliminate these allergens.

If you pick the higher protein grain-free foods, such as Beneful Chicken and Carrot wet dog food, they will typically be higher in fat. It makes these foods an excellent choice for active or working dogs. However, feed your dog the appropriate portion, or they could put on weight.

Shopping for Grain-Free Food

When shopping for grain-free foods, don't be fooled by flashy labels and the promises of a healthier dog. Just because a food is grain-free doesn't mean it will meet all of your dog's nutritional needs. Check the ingredients and the nutrient analysis, and talk to your veterinarian. The best food for your dog can be grain-free or with grains.

More on Dog Food and Nutrition

Diets for Dogs: Here’s What You Need to Know
Raw Food Dog Diet
Natural Dog Food: Holistic and Organic Dog Food Diets
What is in My Dog Food?
Homemade Dog Food for Your Pet

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis, or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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