Do Dogs Need Grains in Their Diet?

Pet owners commonly question, “do dogs need grains” in their diet. In this article we will review what is a grain, types of grains, if dogs need grain, and what food is best if you are feeding your dog a grain free food.

First, just exactly what is a grain? Per the dictionary, “a grain is defined as a hard dry seed that is small and attached to a fruit layer.” Many grains grow in crops and are harvested from producing plants. Two common categories of grains are cereals and legumes.

Depending on your location in the country and world, you may be more familiar with some grains than others. The most common grain as it pertains to dog food are the cereal grains. Types of cereal grains include maize (corn), various types of millet, sorghum, fonio, barley, oats, rice, rye, spelt, wheat, wild rice, triticale, and teff.

Other kinds of grains include buckwheat, chia, quinoa, kiwicha, lentils, chickpeas, common beans, lentils, lima beans, fava beans, soybeans, runner beans, pigeon beans, peanuts, mustards, sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, flax seed, hemp, poppy seed, and lupins.

The most common grains used in dog foods are barely, buckwheat, corn, rice, oats, and quinoa.
Grains in the diets of humans are considered healthy and full of protein, vitamin E, iron, and linoleic acid. Some grains are promoted in people as being very healthy. For example, quinoa is commonly referred to as a “super food” due to its high quantities of iron, protein and fiber. However, this is not necessarily true for dogs.

Do Dogs Need Grain Free Dog Food?

There are several opinions and theories from experts as they relate to different aspects of feeding grains to dogs. They include:

  • Filler Theory – Some believe that grains are dog food fillers and are not optimal to feed for good canine health. Grains are less expensive than proteins such as beef or chicken and therefore pet food companies will manufacture dog food with large amounts of grains to keep the prices down.
  • Natural Theory – In nature, dogs do eat some grains. Access to grains stems back to when dogs hunted and killed prey to survive. Dogs would eat the meat, bones, organs, and contents of organs such as the stomach and intestine. The prey that dogs kill was commonly herbivores whose intestines and stomachs contained grains. Grains are not a majority component of a dogs diet but it was a natural part of their diet in small amounts.
  • Good Grain Theory – There are some grains that are better than others. Some grains such as quinoa are even considered a “super food” due to the high nutrient properties of protein, iron and fiber. Some grains can be good for dogs in small quantities.
  • Allergies Theory – Some experts believe that grains create allergies in dogs. On the other hand, some disagree with this theory. The reality is that grains can cause allergies but grains are not the most common cause of canine allergies. The most common food that causes allergies in dogs is beef. Other common food allergens include dairy, chicken, fish, eggs, and milk.

Do Dogs Need Grains?

Pet owners commonly ask if dogs need grains in their diet. The answer is no. Dogs do not need grains in their diet. Dogs are carnivores. Dogs require a balanced diet formulated to meet the needs of your dog’s life stage and condition. Dietary requirements for dogs can vary according to age, activity levels and medical history. Although dogs don’t need grains, whole grains can provide protein, amino acids, and vitamin E.

Many dry dog foods based on grain as the primarily ingredients including soybean, corn, or rice. Many dog foods list these grains as the first ingredient. Some better brands of dog food list meat or fish as the first listed ingredient. Higher quality dog foods generally cost more but dogs eat less of them that helps to balance out cost.

What Dog Food Should I Feed My Dog?

The most important factor when choosing dog food is to choose a food that is AAFCO approved and formulated to meet the needs of your dog. AAFCO is the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). It is a voluntary membership program that indicates that the dog food manufacturer has confirmed to AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles. Check the dog food label to ensure the food conforms to these standards.

When choosing a food for your dog, consider nutritional needs, life stage, activity level, body condition, and underlying medical conditions. A puppy has different needs and requirements as compared to a senior dog. A working dog has different needs than a nonworking lap dog.

Grain Free Dog Food: Should Your Dog Eat it?

There are so many dog foods on the market that pet owners commonly question, “What is the best food to feed my dog?” A quick walk down the pet food aisle provides a glimpse of adult, puppy, senior foods, prescription foods created to treat various medical conditions of dogs, foods for specific breeds or sizes of dog, gluten free, grain free, limited ingredient, organic, preservative free, vegan, and vegetarian…just to name a few. On top of that, the dog owner needs to consider various formulations such as dry kibble, canned, semi-moist, raw, frozen, and freeze-dried. So many choices can be overwhelming.

One of the recent trends in dog foods has been grain free foods and gluten free foods. As this category of foods has grown in popularity for people, pet owners apply their own food choices to their dogs making it also a popular craze in dog foods. Pet food manufacturers have identified these desired qualities and now produce hundreds of grain free dog foods.

This brings up a few points about grain free foods. Such as…do dogs need grains in their diet? Which dogs may benefit from eating a grain free food? And…how do you pick the best grain free dog food. We will cover these topics below.

What is Grain Free Dog Food?

A grain free dog food is a dog food made free of all grains. The most common grains in dog food are rice, barley, buckwheat, corn, oats, and quinoa. Many pet food manufacturers list grain as the first and thus most common ingredient in their foods that may not be ideal for many dogs.

Do Dogs Need Grains?

A question pet owners commonly ask veterinarians is “do dogs need to eat grains?”

To answer this question, let us consider how a dog has been programmed to eat in nature. In the wild, dogs would run in packs, and scavenge or hunt for a meal. Dogs are carnivores. A wild dog thrives with meat as the main food but also may ingest some berries and wild grasses. There is very little grain in their natural diets.

Some dogs can enjoy and even benefit from eating some grains in their diet. Every dog is a little different. Even dogs within different breeds and or within the same litter may have slightly different dietary needs, allergies, or intolerances.

To answer the question do dogs NEED grain… the answer is no. Their bodies don’t require grains but grains don’t cause a problem in most dogs.

Why Would A Dog Need a Grain Free Dog Food?

Some experts believe that dogs do well and can benefit from eating grains and others do not. Learn more about Do Dogs Need Grain Free Dog Food?

One reason a dog would benefit from a grain free food is because he is allergic to grains. Allergies are very common in dogs. Allergies can develop from various foods as well as to environmental things including dust mites, tree and plant pollens, insects such as fleas, and even other animals such as cats. Experts believe that only a small percentage of allergies in dogs are caused by food. The most common food allergens in dogs are beef, chicken, and dairy. Grains are not high on the list but can cause allergies in some dogs. It is also possible for dogs to have allergies to more than one food.

Symptoms of allergies in dogs can include skin infections, ear infections, scaly dry skin, and persistent itching.

Veterinarians may recommend grain free foods for dogs with signs of allergies. There are additional benefits to feeding a grain free food. For example, you generally can feed less food and dogs on grain free foods produce fewer and smaller bowel movements. Learn more about What Are the Benefits of Grain Free Dog Food?

What Is the Difference Between Gluten Free and Grain Free?

Dog owners have questions about gluten free diets due to the substantial press coverage for humans about the issues about glutens and gluten free foods.

First, let’s look at what is a gluten? Gluten is a protein that functions as glue that holds food particles together. It is common in cereal grains but also present in many other foods. It is estimated that approximately 1% of people have allergies, sensitivities or intolerance to glutens.

Gluten allergies in people is called Celiac Disease. Common symptoms of gluten intolerance or allergies in people include abdominal cramping, bloating, intestinal gas, diarrhea, and/or constipation. The three grains that cause the most gluten problems in people are wheat, barley, and rye. Learn more about Gluten-Sensitive Enteropathy in Dogs and Cats.

The Ultimate Guide to What Dogs Can’t Eat

There are human foods that are completely safe for dogs and also foods that are dangerous and even potentially fatal. Many pet owners learn about toxic foods only after their dog has ingested something and started having abnormal symptoms.

Since dogs are naturally curious and have an amazing sense of smell, this combination often leads to them getting into purses, getting food off of counters, getting into trash cans, stealing food from grills, and sneaking food from plates. Other times, well-intentioned pet owners offer tables scraps or human foods without understanding that they are toxic.

Below, we will review what can’t dogs eat as well as list what is safe. It is important to have healthy alternatives once you know what is not safe.

Safe Food for Dogs

There are many human foods that are “safe” for dogs. However, dogs do not need human food. What dogs need is a good quality food formulated for the size, age, body condition, activity, or for any underlying medical problems they may have. Learn more about Nutrition for Dogs.

Safe Treats for Dogs

The ideal dog treat is one made of good quality ingredients that is moderate to low in calories, consistent in ingredients (thus unlikely to cause stomach upset from bag to bag), very appealing to your dog, and safe. Higher-quality treats tend to be more consistently produced, so it is best to avoid discount and supermarket brands if possible.

There are also many human foods that you can feed your dog safely. By safely, I mean the foods listed below are not toxic to dogs. However, large quantities of any food or food given to dogs with sensitive gastrointestinal tracts can lead to problems such as vomiting, diarrhea, and/or pancreatitis. Treats should make up less than 5% of your dog’s caloric intake.

Safe Foods and Treats for Dogs

Human foods that are safe for dogs include those in the list below. These foods are considered to be fresh, seedless, shelled, sliced, peeled, and in some cases, washed, and/or cooked depending on the particular product. Butter and seasonings can create their own dangers.

Tips for Giving Human Food as Treats to Your Dog

  • Treats are never a replacement for a good quality core dog food.
  • Consider low-calorie treats for dogs with weight control problems.
  • Give only fresh food. Moldy or rotten food can cause gastrointestinal upset.

What Dogs Can’t Eat: Foods Not Safe for Dogs

Any food in large pieces or chunks can cause difficulty chewing or swallowing and can be a choking hazard.

Specific foods that veterinarians commonly recommend NOT to give to dogs include the following:

  • Apples, Apricots, Cherries, Peaches, and Plums. Ingestion of large amounts of stems, seeds, and leaves of these fruits can be toxic. They contain a cyanide type compound and signs of toxicity include anxiety, dilated pupils, labored breathing, fast breathing, and shock. Small pieces of cleaned apple without the seeds can be safe.
  • Avocados. The leaves, fruit, bark, and seeds of avocados have all been reported to be toxic in some animals. The toxic component in the avocado is “persin,” which is a fatty acid derivative. Symptoms of toxicity include difficulty breathing, abdominal enlargement, abnormal fluid accumulations in the chest, abdomen, and sac around the heart, which can occur in some animals such as cattle and horses. The amount that needs to be ingested to cause signs is unknown. The biggest danger of avocado in dogs is the ingestion of the pit that can cause life-threatening gastrointestinal obstruction. Learn about the safety of avocados here.
  • Baked Goods. The products which are made with xylitol are highly toxic to dogs. Xylitol is a sweeter used in place of sugar primarily because it is lower in calories. Xylitol is also an ingredient in many different types of gums. It is in many products designed for people with Diabetes due to its low glycemic index. Xylitol can cause low blood sugar and liver failure in dogs. Learn more with this article on Xylitol Toxicity in Dogs.
  • Baking Powder and Baking Soda. Baking soda and baking powder are both leavening agents. A leavening agent is a common ingredient in baked goods that produces a gas causing batter and dough to rise. Baking soda is simply sodium bicarbonate. Baking powder consists of baking soda and an acid, usually cream of tartar, calcium acid phosphate, sodium aluminum sulfate or a mixture of the three. Ingestion of large amounts of baking soda or baking powder can lead to electrolyte abnormalities (low potassium, low calcium and/or high sodium), congestive heart failure, or muscle spasms.
  • Bones. There are many bones that aren’t safe for dogs. This can be due to the danger of them getting stuck or caught in the mouth, sharp splinters injuring the intestines, risk of constipation when passing relatively indigestible bone fragments, as well as possible bacterial contamination on the bone that can lead to illness. Learn more about The Danger of Bones.
  • Bread Dough. The dough contains yeast which rises in moist, warm environments, such as in the stomach. After ingestion, the rising dough can expand the stomach and decrease blood flow. Fermentation of the yeast can be reduced to alcohol causing signs of intoxication.
  • Chewing Gum. Gums that are made with xylitol can be toxic. Learn more with this article on Xylitol Toxicity in Dogs.
  • Chocolate. Chocolate, in addition to having a high-fat content, contains caffeine and theobromine. These two compounds are nervous system stimulants and can be toxic to your dog in high amounts. Learn more about the specific amount of each toxin that is based on body weight in this article: Chocolate Toxicity in Dogs.
  • Coffee (grounds and beans). Dogs that eat coffee grounds or beans can get “caffeine” toxicity. The symptoms are very similar to those of chocolate toxicity and can be just as or even more serious.
  • Dairy Products. Human dairy products are not highly dangerous but can pose problems for two reasons. One is their high-fat content and like other foods with high-fat content, there is a risk of pancreatitis. The second reason is that dogs poorly digest dairy products since they lack the enzyme required to digest lactose. This affects some dogs more than others and can cause issues from gas to diarrhea. Small amounts of plain yogurt or cheese are tolerated by most dogs but it is probably safest to avoid dairy products altogether.
  • Diet Foods. Foods made for weight loss or diabetes may have the ingredient xylitol.
  • Fatty Foods. Rich and fatty foods are favorites of dogs. They often get them as treats, leftovers, or from getting into the trash. These fatty foods can cause pancreatitis. Pancreatitis can affect any dog but miniature or toy poodles, cocker spaniels, and miniature schnauzers are particularly prone. Signs of pancreatitis generally include an acute onset of vomiting, sometimes diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Abdominal pain is often evidenced by the hunched posture or “splinting” of the abdomen when picked up. The dog may become very sick quickly and often needs intensive fluid and antibiotic therapy.
  • Grapes and Raisins. Ingestion of grapes and/or raisins can cause kidney failure in some dogs. Some pet owners feed grapes thinking they are a healthy treat or give a piece of a cookie with raisins. Aggressive, and sometimes prolonged, treatment may be necessary to give the affected dog a chance at survival. Despite testing, the reason for the kidney failure and the amount necessary for toxicity remains unknown. Learn more about Grape and Raisin Toxicity.
  • Onions and Garlic. Dogs and cats lack the enzyme necessary to properly digest onions which can result in gas, vomiting, diarrhea or severe gastrointestinal distress. If large amounts of onion or garlic are ingested or onions are a daily part of your dog’s diet, the red blood cells may become fragile and break apart. This is due to the toxic ingredient in onions and garlic, thiosulphate. Learn more at Why You Shouldn’t Feed Your Dog Garlic.
  • Peanut Butter. Some peanut butter manufacturers add xylitol to peanut butter, which is toxic to dogs. Learn more about Peanut Butter Toxicity in Dogs.
  • Rawhides. Like bones, rawhides can also get stuck in the esophagus or stomach of dogs, causing problems. There is also a risk of bacterial contamination. Although this is not human food, it is worth a mention with the goal to prevent your dog from getting sick. Learn more about The Good and Bad of Rawhides.
  • Table Scraps. Scraps, especially those that are fatty can cause gastrointestinal upset or pancreatitis in dogs. Some dogs tolerate table scraps well but others can become very ill.

Best Treats for Dogs

When shopping for treats, look for the seal of approval from the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which publishes feed regulations and ingredient definitions.

My Dog Is Not Eating, What Do I Do?

A common reason for dogs to visit the veterinarian is for the concern that “my dog is not eating”.  The medical term for not eating is anorexia.

Sometimes canine anorexia is complete which means a dog will not eat anything and other times the anorexia is partial where a dog will eat but only if the food is augmented with more palatable things such as cooked chicken or beef or other table food. Another common scenario when a dog has partial anorexia or a decreased appetite and won’t eat his food but will eat treats.

There are many reasons why a dog will not eat or has a decreased appetite. Below we will discuss some of these reasons and give you tips on what you can do at home and when you should see your veterinarian.

First, why will a dog not eat his food but eat treats?

Dog Won’t Eat His Food But Will Eat Treats

Many times when dogs get sick or feel ill, the first symptom that we observe is a decreased appetite. Some dogs will still eat if you “doctor-up” the food with canned food, cooked meats such as chicken or hamburger, or offer other table scraps or human foods. Other dogs will eat only treats but not their food.

There are many causes of anorexia in dogs. Anorexia is considered a symptom, which means it can be caused by many different diseases.  In some cases, a decreased appetite can be one of the first signs of illness. For example, diseases of the stomach, liver, intestine, and/or pancreas can cause a decreased appetite or anorexia. In addition, diseases of the kidneys, blood, and brain can cause a decreased appetite. In addition, dogs that are in pain or have infections are often unwilling to eat. Learn more about Anorexia in Dogs in this complete medical article written by a board-certified veterinary specialist.

Get some good tips on how to get your dog to eat at What to do When Your Dog Won’t Eat His Food — But He Will Eat Treats.

Look for Other Symptoms in Your Dog

When a dog is not eating, closely evaluate him for additional symptoms or problems. It is important to know if the anorexia is the only symptom or if they’re other symptoms. Take your dog out on a leash so you can observe all his or her habits.

Monitor your dog for:

  • Is there vomiting? If s0, how frequently? Is it undigested food or bile? Is there blood?
  • Are the bowel movements normal? Is there diarrhea? Have you seen abnormal blood or mucous? Is the stool black that can suggest digested blood?
  • Is your dog scooting?
  • Is your dog urinating normally? Have you noticed straining or more frequent requests to go out? Is there any change in the urine color? Have you noticed blood?
  • Is your dog coughing? Any trouble breathing? Exercise intolerance?
  • How is your dog’s attitude? Is he/she active, playful and happy? Are you noticing lethargy?
  • Is your dog drinking? Have you noticed decreased or increased thirst?
  • Has your dog lost or gained weight recently?
  • Have you noticed any lameness or trouble walking?
  • Is there any evidence that your dog is in pain?
  • Does your dog have an abnormal odor or foul odor on his breath?
  • Have you noticed any abnormal skin tumors or growths?

If your dog is showing any other abnormal symptoms such as not eating, vomiting, lethargy or anything else, please see or talk to your veterinarian. These observations may help identify the underlying cause of the inappetence.

How to Get Your Dog to Start Eating

If your dog is not eating, how do you get your dog to start eating?

  1. Consider the flavor your dog may like most. Just like humans, every dog is different as far as what he or she likes. Some prefer fish flavors, others beef and yet others may like poultry.
  2. Some dogs prefer dry food over canned and others prefer canned over dry.

The best approach is to try to get your dog to eat something….really anything. Start with healthy choices then work to other options. Begin by offering your dog his regular food but if he won’t eat that, then try something else.

  1. You may offer a bland diet such as a combination of boiled hamburger with rice as an option that works well in some dogs. You can purchase a commercial version of this diet e.g. Hill’s Science Diet i/d or make your own. Get our recipe on How to Make a Bland Diet for Your Dog.
  2. Offer your dog some different canned dog foods to help stimulate your dog’s appetite. Choose one that he has had and likes but if that doesn’t’ work, pick something new. The best approach is to add a small amount of canned food to his regular food and hope that he eats the combination of regular food with some of the canned.

If this doesn’t work, then you can start trying other options. Please see our article on Home Care of Dogs with Anorexia for some really good tips on how to get your dog to eat.