A Guide to Grain-free Dog Food: Is It Good for Dogs?

Updated 29 May 2024
Read time: 14 mins
article author
Written by Corinne Homer
article author
Reviewed by Dr. Linda Simon
Team Vet

You may have noticed that at Pooch & Mutt, we’re big advocates of grain-free dog food. We lean towards using zero-grain products in our tasty dog food ranges, instead focusing on freshly prepared whole proteins, vegetables and fruits alongside a host of botanicals, vitamins and minerals, and other supplements. But what’s the deal with grain-free dog food exactly - why do we feel so strongly about it, and what’s the grain-free debate all about? 


We get it - it’s confusing! Which is why we’ve written this article to debunk some myths and give you an informed, well-rounded argument to the pros and cons of grain-free dog food. So you can decide for yourself whether it’s the right choice for your dog. 


Read on for the full guide to grain-free food for dogs. 


What is grain-free dog food?

First, let’s cover the basics. When a dog food label says ‘grain-free’ it means the food doesn’t contain grains and cereals such as wheat, rice, barley, oats and rye. Most dog foods on the market contain some grain, and many brands offer a grain-free range. But a small percentage of brands (such as Pooch & Mutt) choose to offer solely grain-free dog food.


Grain-free food was initially developed for dogs with a recognised grain allergy, however, over time, many dog owners found that omitting grain could have health benefits for their dog - particularly those with sensitive stomachs or digestive issues.


‘Grain’ is quite a broad term and there are common mix-ups that accompany the phrase ‘grain-free’; it’s often confused with ‘gluten-free’ and ‘wheat-free’, for instance. Some also incorrectly assume that grain-free food is free of carbohydrates. 


Grain-free food will likely have a lower amount of carbs than a dog food that contains grain, however, dogs can get their necessary carbohydrates from vegetables or legumes, such as lentils, peas or sweet potatoes.


Grain-free vs grain dog food

So, is grain-free food better than dog food with grain, or vice versa? That depends, as not all grain-free food is made to the same standard, and the same applies to grain dog food. There are some commonly made arguments in the grain-free debate:


  • A dog that eats a high-quality grain dog food - which includes a portion of ancient grains (such as rice or oats) alongside other freshly prepared ingredients - may do perfectly well on this diet. Grains do contain vital nutrients, and lots of dog owners feed grain to their dogs and do just fine.
The main contentions with grain food is a) there’s a risk that your dog may have an underlying grain allergy, or doesn’t digest grain well, and b) lots of mass-produced commercial foods actually cram in high percentages of grain as filler. Dog food shouldn’t contain rice, wheat, barley, rye or another grain as the bulk of the meal - but instead contain a range of healthy ingredients with a high level of meat or another protein. Despite this, grain is often used to fill up space in low-quality dog food. 


  • Grain-free dog food doesn’t include grains, usually due to the fact that grains could trigger an adverse or allergic reaction in dogs. The other commonly held belief is that it’s considered a more natural diet for dogs, closer to their ancestral roots. Wild dogs or wolves would have eaten meat, vegetables and plants found in nature, for example, so it should therefore be gentler for domesticated dogs to digest and offer many health benefits.


  • Whether food contains grain or doesn’t, it’s essential that whichever range you buy is of a high-quality, contains varied, freshly prepared ingredients that have gone through minimal processing, and is nutritionally balanced. This usually means having a whole protein such as fish or chicken as the main ingredient. Dogs are carnivorous animals, so potatoes, corn, rice or similar shouldn’t make up the bulk of their meals.


Is grain-free the same as wheat-free in dog food?

Wheat comes under the ‘grain’ food group (also called cereals) so the terms ‘grain-free’ and ‘wheat-free’ are often confused - but they don’t mean the same thing. 


Essentially, wheat is a type of grain. If you see the term ‘wheat-free’ on some packaging it doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog food is grain-free, as it could contain other grains such as rye or barley. If you buy ‘grain-free’ food however, it definitely shouldn’t contain wheat.


Is grain-free the same as gluten-free in dog food? 

Similarly, a lot of people wonder if ‘gluten-free’ is another phrase for ‘grain-free’. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, and some dogs (just like humans) have a gluten-allergy, so need to avoid these specific grains. 


Gluten-free dog food might contain other grains such as rice - but as grain-free dog food avoids all grains including wheat, rye and barley, grain-free food is unlikely to contain gluten. Be sure to check the ingredients label to be sure.


Why choose grain-free dog food?

So why should you choose grain-free food over one that contains grain? As we’ve established, there’s much debate on each side, so we’ll discuss both. 


Is grain bad for dogs?

Grain isn’t bad for dogs in general. Used mindfully, it contains useful carbohydrates, and lots of dogs digest it without issue. However, it is bad for dogs who have an intolerance to grain or a grain allergy, and there are anecdotal reports that some dogs with sensitive tummies respond better to grain-free. It’s also bad if you consider how much space grain takes up in many commercial dog foods - space that could be filled with more thoughtfully combined, nutritious ingredients. 


You shouldn’t feel that you’re doing wrong by your dog if you give them food containing grain, but it’s important to check out the nutrition information and be very aware of how your dog’s body is reacting to certain foods.


Pros and cons of grain-free dog food

The debate for and against grain-free dog food is somewhat murky - but which food you give to your dog is down to your dog’s specific needs, your vet’s advice, and your personal choice. To make the decision easier, here are some pros and cons for each type of food:


Benefits of grain-free dog food

  • Lots of dog owners report multiple health benefits. Many grain-free fans say their dogs are more energised, have improved digestion, and a healthier skin and coat since going grain-free. This could be due to ‘upping’ the quality of their previous food. Switching to a food that uses nutritious ingredients over cheap ‘filler’ grains is always going to be a healthier choice.
  • It’s closer to a dog’s ancestral diet. Wild dogs and wolves didn’t eat grain - so many believe that dogs thrive on a ‘more natural’ diet of meat, fish, vegetables and fruits.
  • Dogs can get carbohydrates from other grain-free foods such as lentils, sweet potatoes and peas.
  • It’s gentler on digestion and sensitive tummies. Many dog owners report that their pooches with dodgy tums have seen benefits from a grain-free diet, such as less gas and bloatedness, and firmer, more regular poops.
  • Your dog is less likely to suffer an adverse reaction. If your dog has an allergy that is not yet identified, feeding them grain-free is less likely to trigger a reaction.
  • It’s essential for dogs with grain allergies. Needless to say, dogs with grain allergies are required to eat grain-free dog food that focuses on delicious, nutritious produce to make up their diet.
  • Many dogs actually prefer the taste of grain-free food. This has become  apparent in conducted taste tests, which found dogs being more interested in the grain-free option.

 A small golden coloured dog, against a pale orange background, with Pooch and Mutt Chicken & Pumpkin wet food cartons around it

Issues with grain-free dog food

  • Some say dogs are better off with grain. Just as there are dog owners that report the benefits of going grain-free, there are also many that have no issues with grain food. Some experts say that so long as your dog isn’t allergic, good quality grain is fine as part of a well-rounded diet.
  • Ancient grains are seen as healthy. Grains such as oats, wheat and rice rate slightly higher on the health scale - but only when they’re not used as filler (the main ingredient in a dog food). 
  • Grain-free food needs to be of high-quality. Any diet that omits a food group should make up for nutrition elsewhere, so choosing a high-quality, grain-free dog food brand is essential (but this also applies to grain food!)
  • It’s more expensive. A recommended grain-free food naturally costs a little more than a commercial food that contains grain. 
  • Allergies can be more than just grain specific. Some owners assume that a grain-free diet will cure all their dog’s ailments. However, many dogs have more than one food intolerance (not just grain) and may also suffer from environmental allergies to things like dust mites and pollen - which would need additional attention.
  • Scare-stories lurk on the internet. There’s a certain amount of controversy that chases the grain-free dog food debate. Scare stories exist (read on), which can be upsetting and feel like you’re taking a risk with your dog if you choose grain-free. 

    So, is grain-free dog food good for dogs?

    In summary, yes - in a lot of ways. Grain-free advocates argue that it’s less risky to a dog’s health, gentler on digestion and that dogs don’t need grain so long as they eat a well-rounded, balanced diet packed with nutritious proteins, fruit and veg, vitamins and minerals. For this reason, a decent grain-free dog food tends to use mindful recipes that are aimed towards a dog’s overall nutrition - and lots of dog owners report a more sprightly, energetic dog with fewer digestive issues when switching to a grain-free diet.


    Do vets recommend grain-free dog food?


    Vets can fall on both sides of the spectrum. But all vets would agree that grain-free food is necessary if your dog has a grain allergy, however some say that grain is fine as part of a healthy diet as it contains useful carbohydrates and nutrients. This is why if you choose to go grain-free for your dog, a high-quality grain-free food is so essential - as when grain is mindfully replaced with other healthful foods it can have major benefits. With any dietary change, you should discuss it with your vet first in relation to your dog’s specific needs. 


    Vet Linda, our in-house Pooch & Mutt vet shared:


    “Vets will tailor their recommendations to the patient. For many patients, a grain-free diet would be recommended. This is particularly true of those with chronic allergies or digestive issues.”


    I’ve heard about a grain-free dog food warning… 

    As with many ‘alternative diets’, it’s common for scare stories to develop. A FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) investigation which started in 2018, is looking at whether there are any links between grain-free dog food and the heart. Let’s unpack this below…


    Is grain-free dog food linked to heart disease?

    The most common ‘warning’ you’ll likely hear is that as grain is linked to heart function, a grain-free diet can be detrimental to a dog’s heart health. This stemmed from a spike in reported cases of dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM; a heart condition that leads to an enlarged heart and weakening of heart muscle; which led the FDA to investigate. 


    After studying the reports, the FDA found lots of the dogs affected were on a grain-free diet. Understandably, this caused a lot of concern among dog owners and fuelled the persistent myth that grain-free food is a dangerous choice.


    Grain-free dog food study debunked 

    The FDA is continuing its study into the increased cases of dilated cardiomyopathy, but has so far found that there is no firm evidence to suggest that grain-free diets are solely to blame - or that any food should be smeared, recalled, withdrawn from market, or for grain-free diets to stop being fed to dogs - as there are multiple other factors at play that are still being considered. 


    Dr. Steven Solomon, Director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) for the FDA said, ‘We have observed a correlation between certain diets and DCM [...] however this issue seems to involve more factors than the food itself.’ He also emphasised that this was not an investigative update and that the study is still in progress. 


    Basically, after years of investigation, there isn’t sufficient evidence to claim a causal relationship between grain-free products and DCM - the issue is multifaceted and the relationship between the two is not currently known.


    The review states that the link between grain-free diets and DCM could be nothing more than confirmation bias.


    Pooch & Mutt, along with all other dog food manufacturers, are keeping up to date with all of the newest research, to ensure our diets provide your dogs with the best, and healthiest, nutritional support.


    If you have any concerns about your dog being on a grain-free diet, it’s important to have a chat with your vet to discuss your particular dog’s health and put your mind at ease.

    What's the best grain-free dog food? 

    Many pooch parents feed their dogs delicious, grain-free dog food each day and report nothing but benefits. With any diet, the number one rule is that your dog should be receiving complete and balanced nutrition. If you think grain-free food is the right choice for your pooch, be sure of the following attributes to ensure they’re getting the healthiest, most nutritious option available:


  • Contains whole, natural ingredients - no mention of meatmeal, meat flavourings or artificial junk and additives.
  • Has high levels of lean protein - such as chicken, fish, lamb, turkey, etc. The source of protein should be the main ingredient in the food, not a carbohydrate such as potato or peas.
  • Added vitamins, minerals and supplements. The best quality grain-free food will add health boosters such as glucosamine, fish oil, B vitamins, zinc, prebiotics etc. so that your dog gets the maximum nutritional benefits from what they eat. 

    At Pooch & Mutt we specialise in hypoallergenic, grain-free food that not only adheres to the above criteria but tastes delicious, to boot. Our Joint Care dry food, for example, contains fresh salmon, sweet potato, linseed and glucosamine for strong and supported joints; while our tasty Puppy wet food, with chicken, potato, seaweed and prebiotics is made to boost a pup’s healthy growth and development. Whatever your dog’s specific tastes or needs, there’s loads of exciting Pooch & Mutt recipes to try.

     A range of Pooch & Mutt grain-free products on a pale orange background


    If you have questions or concerns about switching your dog to a grain-free diet, feel free to get in touch with us - and remember to consult your vet before any significant dietary change. Ready to take the plunge into grain-free? Check out our lip-smacking grain-free dog food ranges, lovingly formulated to keep your dog well-functioning, happy and healthy. 


    •  ‘Opening Remarks Stephen M. Solomon DVM, MPH’, 2020 -
    • ‘FDA Investigation into Potential Link between Certain Diets and Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy’, updated 2022 -


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