Grain or no grain, that is the question. Indeed, it is a question that often consumes dog lovers. Fights have broken out and friends have parted ways over the issue of feeding dogs grains. It really doesn’t have to be this way. As with many foods, there are grains that can be beneficial for your dog and other grains that are best avoided for various reasons. So, for the question, “Can dogs eat grains?” the answer is it depends on the grain – and the dog.
What’s the Difference Between Grain-inclusive and Grain Free?
Grains are seeds, like wheat, rice, oats, corn, barley, millet, oatmeal, and quinoa. Grain-free diets use other plant sources such as peas, legumes, lentils, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. These ingredients can do double duty as sources of protein and carbohydrates, as well as provide some vitamins and minerals in your dog’s food.
Today you can find dog foods that are grain-inclusive, grain free, and some foods that combine the two.
Are Grains Bad for Dogs?
No, grains are not “bad” for dogs, in general. However, many people have been led to believe that grains are bad and even harmful to dogs. There are several reasons why this is so.
- In 2007 there was a massive pet food recall that centered around wheat gluten imported to North America from China. The wheat gluten was laced with a substance called melamine. Most people are aware of melamine because it’s used to make hard plastic dishes and other products. However, melamine also contains high percentages of protein. It had been slipped into the wheat gluten in China to make the wheat gluten – a common additive to many wet pet foods – appear to have a higher protein percentage. It was a way of cheating the pet food companies. Unfortunately, it also poisoned many of the cats and dogs that ate the pet food that was made using the imported wheat gluten. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration, which investigated the event, officially report a small number of pet deaths. However, it’s estimated that thousands of other pets died as a result of eating the contaminated food.
As you might guess, wheat gluten and subsequently wheat gained a terrible reputation after the 2007 pet food recalls. Many people today still associate all wheat and wheat gluten with the deaths that occurred at that time even though major pet food manufacturers now test for the presence of melamine in their raw materials. By association, many pet lovers have assumed that all grains are low quality and bad for pets. This is despite the fact that wheat and other grains have been used in pet foods without major incident for decades.
- Some pet food companies have relied on marketing to foster the belief that modern dogs have the same dietary requirements as wolves. Nutritional research has shown that dogs today are significantly different than their wolf ancestors. They also have a different digestive system than their current wolf cousins. They are related, yes, but there are differences. Dogs today have evolved for 10,000-30,000 (or longer) to live with humans. They have adapted to eating many of the same foods that humans eat. That includes some grains and starches that wolves are not able to digest. Your dog can digest and obtain nutrients from carbohydrates in a way that wolves cannot. Your dog has genes that are specifically associated with breaking down starches. Wolves do not have these adaptations.
There are 36 regions of the canine genome that set dogs apart from wolves. In addition, dogs have differences in 10 key genes compared to wolves that enable them to better utilize grains than wolves can. Those genes are involved in starch or fat metabolism. Three of the genes carry instruction for making a protein that is necessary for the digestion of starch. One gene makes alpha amylase, an enzyme that breaks starch into the sugar maltose and shorter carb strands. Another gene makes an enzyme for the next step in carbohydrate digestion – turning maltose into glucose. And, the third gene makes a protein that moves glucose from the dog’s gut into the bloodstream. Dogs have evolved to digest carbs and starches that wolves can’t digest.
- Grain free dog foods were originally developed for dogs that had specific health issues and/or food allergies. These food allergies and sensitivities are NOT common, despite what some people believe. The most common allergies for dogs are flea allergies, inhalant allergies (atopy), food allergies, and contact allergies. Even among allergies, food allergies are not the most common problem for dogs. Only about 10 percent of allergy cases are estimated to be the result of food allergies.
Among food allergens, the most common triggers for dogs include (in order): beef, dairy, wheat, chicken, and egg. (Notice that corn isn’t even in the top five.) And yet, grain free dog foods have grown in dominance since the 1990s because of the belief that they were better for dogs. Owners seemed to believe that grain-inclusive dog foods were inferior. Perhaps it was the high protein percentages that appeared on the labels of grain free dog foods. But those high protein percentages were mostly coming from plant-based protein sources such as peas, lentils, and legumes instead of from animal protein. Most dogs don’t require a grain free dog food because of allergies or food sensitivities. If you think that your dog has any kind of allergy, including a food allergy, visit your veterinarian instead of guessing and trying different dog foods.
- Perhaps GMO fears led some people to seek to avoid grains. Some people are concerned about the use of genetically modified grains. They believe their use can lead to “leaky gut syndrome” in which small fissures develop in the gut lining, allowing bacteria, toxins, incompletely digested proteins, and fats to leak into the bloodstream, triggering an autoimmune response resulting in food sensitivities, fatigue, skin rashes, gas, and bloating. But there is no actual evidence of this occurring—at this point, just speculation. Nonetheless, if GMOs concern you, look for foods with less popular grains, which are less likely to be genetically modified. These include barley, oats, millet, quinoa, teff, buckwheat, and amaranth.
- Many people will claim that the carbohydrates in grains are “empty” calories and that dogs don’t need them. Technically you might be able to make this argument but you could say the same thing for humans and carbs. In reality, carbohydrates are more than simple sugars. Carbohydrates also include dietary fibers which are important for your dog’s digestion, for example. Prebiotics are also carbohydrates and they are important to encourage beneficial organisms in your dog’s gut. Quality carbohydrates, such as those found in many grains, also help your dog’s blood sugar levels remain steady and avoid spiking. Your dog feels full longer after eating.
You should remember that grain free dog foods are not carbohydrate-free. Most grain free foods contain about the same amount of carbs as grain-inclusive foods. The difference often lies in the higher protein percentages found in grain free foods. However, the higher protein percentage comes from plant-based sources. Plant-based sources of protein are not as readily digested and absorbed by dogs as meat-based protein.
Are Grains Good for Dogs?
Some grains can be good for dogs if they are prepared well and used in proportion with good quality ingredients.
That doesn’t mean that grains should make up the majority of your dog’s diet. Even in grain-inclusive dog foods, it’s important for your dog to eat good quality animal protein.
Most dogs will thrive on grain-inclusive diets but only if quality ingredients are used and companies work with animal nutritionists to make sure the foods are properly balanced.
Some dogs do genuinely have allergies and sensitivities to grains. In these cases it’s important for you to work with your veterinarian to identify the specific food item causing your dog’s problem. Many times grain is not the culprit. Grains are easy to blame for itching, redness, and hair loss but dogs can be allergic to many different proteins.
Should My Dog Avoid Glutens?
Glutens are often misunderstood by dog lovers. If you have ever made homemade wheat bread, gluten is the stretchy, sinewy bond that develops as you work the bread. Not all grains have glutens.
The following grains contain glutens (according to the Mayo Clinic): wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye).
The Celiac Disease Foundation has a more extensive list but it’s similar:
- Varieties and derivatives of wheat such as:
- KAMUT® khorasan wheat
- einkorn wheat
- Malt in various forms including: malted barley flour, malted milk or milkshakes, malt extract, malt syrup, malt flavoring, malt vinegar
- Brewer’s Yeast
- Wheat Starch that has not been processed to remove the presence of gluten to below 20ppm and adhere to the FDA Labeling Law
Oats can sometimes trigger the same reaction as a wheat gluten sensitivity but this appears to be due to cross-contamination.
It is RARE for dogs to be gluten-sensitive or gluten-intolerant. And, it is almost unheard of for dogs to have Celiac disease, if it happens at all. Yes, there is a documented case of a family of Irish Setters that was followed by researchers over the years but that appears to be the only case in the breed – or in dogs at all.
If you believe that your dog is sensitive to gluten, avoid dog foods that contain wheat, barley, rye, triticale, possibly oats, and malt extract (sometimes added to dog foods), and brewer’s yeast.
Other grains do not contain actual gluten. The pet food industry uses the term “gluten” for things like corn gluten and other ingredients but this is only terminology or jargon. These other grains don’t have gluten in the way that wheat, barley, rye, and the other grains mentioned have. Try to make a bread recipe using corn or quinoa and you will never see the chewy bonds that you see when making wheat bread. Your bread will fall apart.
So, unless your dog actually has a bad reaction to eating foods with these specific grains and their cousins, there really is no need to try to avoid glutens.
Are Ancient Grains Better for Your Dog?
So-called “ancient grains” have become popular in recent years as a way of trying to distinguish these non-traditional grains from some of the more common grains found in dog foods. Some of them actually are rather old though the grains/seeds used today have been developed from the their ancient form.
Many of these grains/seeds are nutrient-dense and they can be a good choice for some dogs. However, just because an ingredient is uncommon doesn’t mean that it is always good for your dog. For example, one “ancient grain” used by some pet food companies is spelt. If you check the varieties of wheat (above), you will see that spelt is a version of wheat. So, if your dog is sensitive to gluten or wheat, feeding a dog food that contains spelt, even if it is an ancient grain, could be a disaster. This is why you need to know your ingredients. Spelt is a perfectly good ingredient and most dogs should be able to eat this grain without any problem. But you do need to be aware of what you are feeding your dog.
9 Best Grains For Dogs
A number of grains have become popular with dog food companies. Most of them offer some nutritional benefits for dogs when used in moderation. All of them are safe for dogs to eat unless your dog has a specific allergy or sensitivity to a grain.
If you are making a change to a food that contains ingredients your dog has not eaten before, check with your veterinarian to make sure there won’t be any problems.
Wheat is one of the most common grains used in dog foods. It was used in the first dog food/dog biscuit made for dogs in the 19th century. Most dogs can safely eat and digest wheat in dog foods and dog treats. It’s easily digestible and a good source of energy. However, it’s always a good idea to check the ingredient list to see approximately how much wheat the food contains. Wheat is fine as a carb source but it shouldn’t be one of the first five (or so) ingredients in a food.
Whole wheat grains are better than wheat middings (also called shorts). Middlings or midds are leftovers from mill runs. The outer layers of the wheat grain have already been removed so they lack much of the wheat’s nutrition.
The fiber in wheat is a healthy prebiotic for your dog, providing nourishment for the good bacteria in your dog’s gut.
Perhaps no grain has been more maligned than corn. Yet, it turns out that corn is an excellent source of the amino acid complexes methionine and cysteine which help dogs produce their own taurine. And taurine is important for your dog’s heart health.
Corn is also much more than a filler ingredient. It’s a good source of essential fatty acids, fiber, vitamin C, thiamin, folate, magnesium, and potassium.
It is starchy and it can raise blood sugar levels quickly. Fortunately, the fiber in corn can help slow its digestion.
As with wheat, since corn is such a common ingredient it’s important to read the ingredients to make sure it doesn’t make up an overwhelming amount of the dog food. It’s best if it doesn’t appear in the first several ingredients. You should also be aware that some companies will “split” corn, using several different versions such as ground corn, corn gluten meal, and whole corn. Added together, the corn can make up an enormous amount of the food.
Whole grain corn can be more difficult for dogs (and people) to digest. Ground corn is perfectly acceptable for your dog.
You can learn more about the issues with diet-related dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and the reasons why corn has been more appreciated recently by visiting the U.S. Food & Drug Administration web site.
Rice is technically a grass seed. Both white rice and brown rice are widely used in dog foods though brown rice is considered to be more nutritious. Brown rice is a whole grain while white rice has had most of the outer layers removed. The outer hull of brown rice contains most of the fiber and nutrient content.
Brown rice is a good source of the B vitamins thiamin, niacin and B6. It’s also a good source of minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, copper, manganese, and selenium. Rice is also naturally gluten-free.
For a dog with an upset stomach, rice is often recommended along with some broth or shredded chicken to help soothe your dog’s tummy.
Barley is used in some dog foods. It is one of the grains with gluten, like wheat. It can be an alternative to wheat and corn for some dogs. It’s a cereal grain – a member of the grass family – and was one of the earliest crops grown by humans.
Hulled barley (also called barley groats) is considered to be a whole grain. However, pearled barley, which is seen more often, is not considered to be a whole grain. That’s because the fiber-containing bran has been removed. Pearled barley is still considered to be a good source of nutrients though hulled barley would be a healthier choice. You may not find hulled barley in dog foods. If you are cooking with barley, the hulled version takes longer to cook.
Barley is high in fiber and nutrients. It’s rich in B vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and B6. It’s also a good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium. The fiber in barley can help improve digestion and its dietary fiber is good for relieving constipation. Barley bulks up in size when its cooked. It contains the soluble fiber beta-glucan that forms a gel when it’s combined with liquid. This helps barley move through the digestive tract.
Oats are another popular cereal grain sometimes used in dog foods. Some dogs that are allergic or sensitive to wheat can also react to oats. This may be due to cross-contamination.
Oats are a gluten-free whole grain but they can come in several forms. Oat groats are the most intact or whole form of oats. They can take a long time to cook. Rolled, crushed, and steel-cut oats are seen more often because they cook faster. Instant (quick) oats are the most highly processed oats. They cook fast but the texture tends to be like mush.
Oats are a good source of carbohydrates and fiber. They also contain the soluble fiber beta-glucan which produces a gel when it is combined with liquid. This fiber makes oats beneficial for the digestive tract.
Oats are relatively low in calories but high in nutrients. They contain massive amounts of manganese. They are also a good source of phosphorus, magnesium, copper, iron, zinc, and folate, plus several B vitamins.
Rye is rarely used in dog foods today. It’s a grass grain that’s closely related to both wheat and barley. There are no substantial technical, nutritional, or performance issues associated with rye that would limit its use for pets. Perhaps it’s not used more because rye has never been as popular as wheat.
Rye is a high quality grain but since it’s closely related to wheat and barley it does contain glutens. If your dog is sensitive to glutens or if he has an allergen or sensitivity to wheat or barley, he could also have a reaction to rye.
There has been some suggestion that rye could become more popular in the future. The crop uses fewer resources to grow than some other grain crops. Rye is also hardier than some grains. This means that rye might be a more sustainable grain for the future.
Nutritionally, rye contains less gluten than wheat flour. Rye is unique among grains or having a high level of fiber in its endosperm and not just in its bran. This means that the glycemic index (GI) of rye products are usually lower than products made from wheat and other grains.
Rye tends to have a relatively high protein content (about 15 percent). It is low in fat and most of the fat is unsaturated. It is high in potassium and low in sodium. Rye is also an excellent source of dietary fiber. It also contains the B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin B6), along with folate. And it contains vitamin E, iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, and selenium. Not bad for a grain that is able to grow in poor soil conditions.
Many people rightly associate millet with bird seed. Millet is a small seed that’s often used to feed wild birds. However, you will also find it as an ingredient in some dog foods. It’s a small-seeded grass crop that is grown as a grain. Nutritionally, it is similar to sorghum.
Millet has become more popular today because it is gluten-free. It’s also high in protein and fiber as well as some antioxidants. It’s considered to be an ancient grain. It’s drought- and pest-resistant and it can be grown in harsh environments with less fertile soil.
Nutritionally, millet is a starchy grain so it’s high in carbohydrates. It’s also high in phosphorus and magnesium. It has more calcium than any of the cereal grains. And, it has more essential amino acids than than most other cereals. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein.
On the down side, millet also contains antinutrients. Antinutrients are compounds that block or reduce the body’s absorption of other nutrients. The phytic acid in millet can interfere with the uptake of potassium, calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium. There are ways to work around antinutrients but this can make millet a questionable ingredient for some pet food companies.
Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is a flowering plant in the amaranth family with edible seeds. The seeds are rich in protein, dietary fiber, B vitamins, and minerals. It is gluten-free and it contains essential amino acids.
Quinoa was an important crop for the Incan empire. It’s considered to be an ancient grain.
It is high in manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, folate, copper, zinc, iron, and vitamins B1, B2, and B6.
It is a non-GMO food and considered to be whole-grain (even though it’s not technically a cereal grain).
It’s also higher in fiber than most grains. Most of the fiber is insoluble but it also contains some soluble fiber. Dogs can use both soluble and insoluble fiber.
Quinoa seeds do have compounds called saponins in their outer covering. Some legumes also have saponins. Saponin is a bitter-tasting chemical that protects seeds from birds. Rinsing the quinoa in water and soaking it prior to cooking usually removes the compound. The water may appear soapy when you do this. It won’t hurt your dog – especially if the quinoa is in dog food.
Sorghum is a cereal grain plant with edible, starchy seeds. It’s also known as milo, Indian millet, and great millet, among other names. It’s used for food, animal fodder, ethanol, and to make alcoholic beverages. It is gluten-free and it’s similar in digestibility to rice. However, its glycemic index score is lower.
Originally from Africa, sorghum is considered to be an ancient grain. Like some other grains with renewed interest, sorghum is drought- and heat-tolerant. It can also grow in a variety of soil conditions.
Sorghum is rich in fiber and antioxidants. It’s high in thiamin and vitamin B6. It’s also high in copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc.
Sorghum also has as much protein as quinoa.
Grain Free or Grain-inclusive?
There is room for both grain free and grain-inclusive diets in the world. There are legitimate dietary reasons why some dogs require a grain free diet. Although there is an investigation concerning some of the ingredients in grain free dog foods and whether they might be associated with heart problems in some dogs, nothing conclusive has been proven yet. Even the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, looking into the matter, has not suggested that dog lovers stop using grain free dog foods.
On the other hand, there has never been a reason for the majority of dogs to turn away from eating good quality dog foods that include grains. If your dog has a specific food allergy of sensitivity, a grain free diet can be advisable. If your dog has a health problem, you may need to avoid certain foods and ingredients. Otherwise, most dogs will thrive on good quality dog foods that contain grains.
The important point is to choose the best food for your dog whether the food contains grains or not. Choose a food that’s made by a company you trust. Look for a company that tests and checks their foods. Look for companies that employ animal nutritionists who can competently formulate recipes. Look for companies with good quality control.
Your dog is part of your family and his meals are important to you and to him. Good luck finding the best food available for him whether it contains grains or not.