Best Grain-Free Dog Food – top options for adults, puppies, and seniors

Best grain-free dog food

Read my detailed guide to the best grain-free dog food, in which you will find the best products grouped by breeds, life stages, and budget. (Fully updated in 2021)

Grain-free diets are quite common among pet owners today. 

There can be various reasons for this, but one thing is for sure. It would be best if you found the best possible option because this will ensure your pooch’s health. 

I spent long days finding the best grain-free products on the market. The overall best is the Merrick Grain-Free Real Salmon & Sweet Potato Recipe. But you will also find other options to suit the different needs of different dogs.

Let’s start!

Why you should trust me

Whether you’re experienced in dog and other pet topics or not, I’m sure you’re in the right place. I do my best to provide the best and most reliable information possible to my readers.

My name is Peter Laskay, and I have been a pet lover since I was a child. One of the most important places in my life is to gain as much knowledge as possible about pet care. And I want to pass this knowledge on to my blog visitors.

Should you have any questions at any time, feel free to contact me using the contact information on the website.

And now here is the essential part of my whole article. 

To find out which is the best grain-free food for dogs, we need to know what kind of dogs we want to choose a diet for. 

Adult or senior dogs, but also puppies, have different dietary needs. Therefore, in the review section, I chose products for all three life stages of canines. Moreover, I made a distinction between normal, large breeds and small breeds. 

Each section will also have a cheap dog food version if you are on a tight budget and need to consider how much you want to spend on your dog. For some products, I tried to look for a wet canned version as well.

Best grain-free dog food for adult dogs

Healthy adult dogs need lots of animal protein, wholesome carbs, and healthy fats. I have selected the following recipes so that each meets the AAFCO nutritional guidelines for dogs.

Overall winner:

Merrick Grain-Free Real Salmon & Sweet Potato Recipe

best grain-free dog food merrick

Key features:

  • First 5 ingredients: Deboned Salmon, Salmon Meal, Whitefish Meal, Sweet Potatoes, Potatoes
  • Crude protein: 32%
  • Taurine in it: yes
  • Ingredients quality: only natural ingredients, no artificial additives
  • Special ingredients: added fruits, veggies, vitamins, minerals, and prebiotics

Protein intake is very important for dogs. This recipe perfectly meets this requirement as Deboned Salmon, Salmon Meal, and Whitefish Meal give a significant portion of the impressive 32% protein content. 

For grain-free products, it is a common mistake for manufacturers to try to improve the total protein content with a lot of legumes or legume proteins. (If you want legume-free dog food, read my article on that.)

Merrick Grain-Free Real Salmon & Sweet Potato Recipe does not have this problem, as Peas, Potato Protein, and Pea Protein are only sixth, tenth, and eleventh in the order of ingredients. From here, you can know that most of the protein is given by real meat and meat meal. 

Salmon is a very nutritious and rich source of omega 3 fatty acids. These important ingredients play a major role in reducing inflammation and promoting skin and coat health. Whitefish has similar positive properties. 

Finally, I have to mention the form of the meal, as it also contains parts of the animals that also contain a lot of glucosamine and chondroitin. This is beneficial for all dogs, as these two compounds are the “vitamins” of the joints

The recipe also includes wholesome digestible carbs like Sweet Potatoes, Potatoes, and Peas. In addition to their fiber content, it is their vitamin and mineral content that is why you should definitely consider them. 

In addition to fish, other fat sources are Sunflower Oil and Flaxseed, which further balance the already optimal omega fatty acid profile. 

Added Taurine is one of the most important supplements in grain-free diets. This is because these amino acids have been shown to greatly improve the condition of dogs (and cats) with heart disease. This way, you should be less afraid that a grain-free diet could have an impact on your dog’s health. 

When it comes to health: added fruits (e.g., Apples, Blueberries), vitamins (e.g., vitamins A, B, D, and E), minerals (e.g., iron, zinc, manganese, potassium), and prebiotics maximally support your pooch’s immune system. 

Considering the above, it is not surprising that this product has become the overall best grain-free dog food.

Pros

  • High protein content
  • Added Taurine
  • Suitable for adult dogs and all breeds
  • Features valuable micronutrients

Cons

  • Little bit pricey
  • Contains plant proteins (but only small amounts)

Pet Worshiper rating: 9.8


Runner up:

Taste of the Wild High Prairie Grain-Free Dry Dog Food

taste of the wild grain free dog food

Key features:

  • First 5 ingredients: Water Buffalo, Lamb Meal, Chicken Meal, Sweet Potatoes, Peas
  • Crude protein: 32%
  • Taurine in it: yes
  • Ingredients quality: only natural ingredients, no artificial additives
  • Special ingredients: added fruits, veggies, vitamins, minerals, and prebiotics

This recipe for Taste of the Wild has similar beneficial properties as Merrick and is even more affordable. 

I chose it as a runner-up for two reasons. One is that the order of the ingredients comes sooner than Peas. In addition, this legume has a high protein content. Therefore it is suspected that less than the total 32% protein content is given by real meat. 

Another reason is that the meats and fat sources in the recipe provide fewer omega 3 fatty acids. 

Otherwise, the protein sources themselves are excellent. Water Buffalo and Lamb Meal are not only nutritious but rarely cause allergic reactions in dogs. And the meal form also contains the already mentioned glucosamine. 

Other protein sources are Egg Product, Roasted Bison, Roasted Venison, and Beef, which make this recipe quite diverse for dogs. 

Taste of the Wild has not forgotten to support the immune system of dogs either: the product contains many added vitamins (e.g., B and D), minerals (e.g., zinc, copper, iron), fruit (Blueberries, Raspberries), and prebiotics. 

In addition, the brand has also paid attention to the essential Taurine supplement, which makes all grain-free diets complete and safe.

Pros

  • High protein content
  • Added Taurine
  • The protein sources are rare allergens
  • Affordable

Cons

  • Plant proteins come sooner
  • Less omega-3 fatty acids

Pet Worshiper rating: 9.4


Best affordable:

Nature’s Recipe Grain-Free Salmon, Sweet Potato & Pumpkin Recipe

nature's recipe grain-free

Key features:

  • First 5 ingredients: Salmon, Garbanzo Beans, Peas, Menhaden Fish Meal, Pea Starch
  • Crude protein: 27%
  • Taurine in it: yes
  • Ingredients quality: only natural ingredients, no artificial additives
  • Special ingredients: added vitamins, and minerals

Of course, it is not enough to choose the cheapest grain-free dog food. The same quantity and quality of ingredients must be taken into account. Therefore, it is a huge responsibility to choose an affordable yet healthy and safe product.

I think Nature’s Recipe perfectly meets my criteria. More than an acceptable 27% protein content is given by meats like Salmon and Menhaden Fish Meal. Not only are they well digestible, but their omega fatty acid content is also satisfactory. 

Menhaden Fish Meal is only the fourth ingredient, probably that’s why it has lower protein content than the previous two. 

The recipe’s carbs include Garbanzo Beans, Peas, Pea Starch, Sweet Potatoes, and Pumpkin. Among these, starch alone is controversial as a concentrated source of energy with little nutrient content. 

The fat content of the product is 12%, which is lower than average. Because of this, the caloric content is also lower (336 kcal/cup), which means that Nature’s Recipe is also suitable for dogs who have weight problems. 

Ingredients do not include fresh fruits and vegetables. But don’t worry, the added vitamins (E, B, C, D) and minerals (e.g., calcium, iron, zinc) take proper care of your dog’s immune system. 

If you are looking for the best budget option, be sure to consider this product.

Pros

  • Great price
  • Added Taurine
  • Great for weight management
  • Features valuable micronutrients

Cons

  • Not that high protein content (27%)
  • No added fruits or vegetables

Pet Worshiper rating: 9.3


Best for small breeds:

Wellness CORE Grain-Free Small Breed Turkey & Chicken Recipe

wellnes core grain free dog food

Key features:

  • First 5 ingredients: Deboned Turkey, Turkey Meal, Chicken Meal, Lentils, Peas
  • Crude protein: 36%
  • Taurine in it: yes
  • Ingredients quality: only natural ingredients, no artificial additives
  • Special ingredients: added fruits, vegetables, vitamins, minerals, and prebiotics

Small breed dogs do not differ much in their nutritional needs compared to normal-sized dogs. 

These canines are usually more active, so they need more calories. Therefore, it is positive that this Wellness product provides 412 kcal/cup due to its 36% protein and 16% fat content. 

The other thing you should look out for is kibble size. Small dogs have smaller teeth and jaws, so you may want to choose a perfectly formulated product for this purpose. With the dimensions of the Wellness CORE Grain-Free Small Breed Turkey & Chicken Recipe kibble, your little dog will not have a problem. 

This product is also excellent in terms of ingredients. Deboned Turkey, Turkey Meal, and Chicken Meal are very well digestible protein sources. In addition, the latter two are excellent sources of glucosamine and chondroitin. You know, these are very important because of the joints. 

The recipe includes grain-free carbs like Lentils, and Peas, and Potatoes. To make grain-free diets safe, manufacturers usually add added taurine to their products. This is not left out of this recipe either. 

What is especially positive for me is the many fresh fruits, vegetables, vitamins, minerals, and prebiotics. This way, you can essentially be sure that your small pup’s immune system will work at maximum efficiency.

Pros

  • High protein content
  • Added Taurine
  • Suitable for small breeds
  • Features valuable micronutrients

Cons

  • Little bit pricey
  • Not suitable for weight management

Pet Worshiper rating: 9.6


Best for large breeds:

Wellness CORE Grain-Free Large Breed Chicken & Turkey Recipe

wellness grain free dog food

Key features:

  • First 5 ingredients: Deboned Chicken, Chicken Meal, Turkey Meal, Lentils, Peas
  • Crude protein: 34%
  • Taurine in it: yes
  • Ingredients quality: only natural ingredients, no artificial additives
  • Special ingredients: added fruits, vegetables, vitamins, minerals, and prebiotics

One of the most important aspects of the diet of large and giant breed adult dogs is glucosamine and chondroitin content. After all, the joints of these dogs develop differently and are subject to a much greater load. In general, large dogs are more prone to joint problems. 

Fortunately, this recipe for Wellness includes protein sources like Deboned Chicken, Chicken Meal, and Turkey Meal. The latter two contain a lot of glucosamine and chondroitin. 

Large dogs have a slower metabolism compared to their size. So they need moderated calories. The Wellness large breed formula also meets this requirement. Due to its 6% fiber content and 12% fat content, a cup contains only 342 calories. 

Anyway, the other ingredients are also above average in this product. Lentils, Peas, and Potatoes are delicious, nutritious, and healthy grain-free carbohydrates with lots of fiber. Like the previous Wellness recipe, you will find fresh vegetables, fruits, vitamins, and minerals here. 

If you have a large adult dog, you may want to consider this product.

Pros

  • High protein content
  • Added Taurine
  • Contains glucosamine for large breeds
  • Features valuable micronutrients

Cons

  • 6% fiber content can be too much for some dogs
  • Could be cheaper

Pet Worshiper rating: 9.5


Best grain-free dog food for puppies

If you need to pay attention to the nutrition of adult dogs, this is especially true for puppies. This is because their bodies are growing, and they are in dire need of the right amount and quality of nutrients. The AAFCO guidelines are also worth following here. 

Each recipe should include lots of real meat or meat meals and easy-to-digest wholesome carbs. Fat sources should provide omega fatty acids, as puppies ’brains, skin, and coat really develop thanks to these compounds. 

Let’s see my top picks!

Best for puppies:

Wellness CORE Grain-Free Puppy Chicken & Turkey Recipe

grain free dog food for puppies

Key features:

  • First 5 ingredients: Deboned Chicken, Chicken Meal, Turkey Meal, Lentils, Peas
  • Crude protein: 36%
  • Taurine in it: yes
  • Ingredients quality: only natural ingredients, no artificial additives
  • Special ingredients: added fruits, vegetables, vitamins, minerals, and prebiotics

Wellness CORE Grain-Free Puppy Chicken & Turkey Recipe Dry Dog Food is guaranteed to be one of the best choices for your pup. The small kibble size allows for proper chewing, and the ingredients also support the development of the puppies. 

The protein content is 36%, which is simply impressive. And all of this is provided by protein sources like Deboned Chicken, Chicken Meal, and Turkey Meal. They are not only well digestible but quite nutritious. 

The main grain-free carbohydrate sources of the product are Lentils and Peas, which are also well digestible and nutritious. 

The manufacturer has not forgotten to add taurine to the recipe, which is an important aspect of grain-free diets. 

Your puppy will get the best omega fatty acids from this recipe. This is due to Chicken Fat, Flaxseed, and Salmon Oil. These are also very delicious anyway. A chicken fat recipe comes in handy when someone has a very picky dog. 

And that’s not all. Added vitamins (e.g., C, D, B, E), minerals (e.g., phosphorus, calcium, zinc), and prebiotics support and underpin the functioning of puppies’ immune systems and body development. We even find fresh fruits and vegetables among the ingredients, and that makes this formula really outstanding. 

This product is also available in a canned wet form.

Pros

  • Really high protein content
  • Well digestible
  • Formulated for puppies
  • Contains taurine, omega fatty acids, and other micronutrients

Cons

  • Little bit pricey
  • Too much protein is not suitable for every dog

Pet Worshiper rating: 9.8


Best affordable for puppies:

Taste of the Wild High Prairie Puppy Formula Grain-Free Dry Dog Food

taste of the wild grain free dog food

Key features:

  • First 5 ingredients: Water Buffalo, Lamb Meal, Sweet Potatoes, Egg Product, Pea Protein
  • Crude protein: 28%
  • Taurine in it: yes
  • Ingredients quality: only natural ingredients, no artificial additives
  • Special ingredients: added fruits, vegetables, vitamins, minerals, and prebiotics

The company Taste of the Wild created its recipes, taking into account the ancient natural diets of dogs. 

I like these formulas because they offer high quality at an affordable price. It is no different with this formula either. 

Its protein content is lower than the previous one (28%), but it is still plenty enough for your puppy to get the amino acids needed for development. 

In addition, the quality of protein sources is unquestionable. Water Buffalo and Lamb Meal are not only well-digestible red meats but very rarely cause allergic reactions. 

Egg Product and Pea Protein are additional sources of protein. The latter is not considered good quality; however, as it is only fifth on the ingredient list, I do not consider it a huge problem. 

The product contains potatoes, sweet potatoes, and peas as carbohydrate sources. They are well digestible, nutritious, and rich in fiber. 

Chicken Fat and Salmon Oil are excellent sources of delicious and contain the essential omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. This, as I mentioned earlier, is very important for the proper development of puppies’ brains, skin, and coats. 

The recipe also contains additional health-promoting ingredients. These include fruits, vegetables, vitamins, minerals, amino acids (taurine), and prebiotics.

Pros

  • High protein content
  • Added Taurine
  • A natural diet for puppies
  • Affordable price

Cons

  • Less protein content compared to other products on this ist (28%)
  • Contains plant proteins (but only small amounts)

Pet Worshiper rating: 9.6


Best for small breed puppies:

Solid Gold Mighty Mini Gut Health Small & Toy Breed Puppy food

best grain free food for small breed puppies

Key features:

  • First 5 ingredients: Chicken, Chicken Meal, Chickpeas, Peas, Pea Protein
  • Crude protein: 30%
  • Taurine in it: 0.05% taurine content guaranteed by the manufacturer
  • Ingredients quality: only natural ingredients, no artificial additives
  • Special ingredients: added fruits, vegetables, vitamins, minerals, and prebiotics

This dog food has everything you need for a small breed puppy. In addition to the small kibble size, the manufacturer ensured that high-quality protein sources were among the ingredients. 

These are Chicken and Chicken Meal, which are not only well digestible but nutritious, and their glucosamine content is also ideal. 

Thanks to its high 30% protein and 18% fat content, this recipe contains 450 calories per cup. This way, you can be sure that your small breed puppy’s huge personality and activity will be fueled. 

Although we find pea protein among the ingredients, it’s in fifth place, so I’m not worried about not having enough meat in the recipe. 

In addition, this dry dog food contains adequate amounts of omega fatty acids, thanks to ingredients such as Chicken Fat, Ocean Fish Meal, Flaxseed, and Salmon Oil. DHA in omega 3 fatty acids is essential for the proper development of puppies’ brains, skin, and coats. 

In addition to peas, other sources of carbohydrates are Pumpkin and Sweet Potato, which are good for digestion in dogs due to their high fiber content. In addition, their vitamin content is significant. 

Speaking of vitamins: the product contains plenty of added vitamins, minerals, fresh vegetables, fruits, and prebiotics. We already know well that they contribute greatly to your little pooch living a healthy and happy life.

Although I did not find any added Taurine among the ingredients on the package, the manufacturer guarantees a Taurine content of 0.05% in its product. This is sufficient in a grain-free product.

Pros

  • High protein content
  • Perfect for small breed puppies
  • Contains many calories
  • Features valuable micronutrients

Cons

  • Taurine is not listed as an ingredient
  • Contains plant proteins (but only small amounts)

Pet Worshiper rating: 9.4


Best for large breed puppies:

ORIJEN Puppy Large Grain-Free Dry Puppy Food

orijen dog food

Key features:

  • First 5 ingredients: Deboned Chicken, Deboned Turkey, Flounder, Eggs, Whole Atlantic Mackerel
  • Crude protein: 38%
  • Taurine in it: No
  • Ingredients quality: only natural ingredients, no artificial additives
  • Special ingredients: Internal organs, added fruits, vegetables, and prebiotics

Orijen dog food is exceptional. This is because the manufacturer strives for a biologically appropriate diet, which means high natural meat and other animal ingredients. If you look at the ingredient list for this product, you will immediately understand what it means. 

The recipe features 85% animal ingredients, a significant portion of which is real meats and internal organs. But we also find eggs, which also have a very high biological value. 

This dry dog food contains no added vitamins and minerals nor taurine. However, you should know that there is no need for added taurine with a high protein content due to a lot of meat and viscera. And the internal organs and fresh fruits and vegetables add vitamins and minerals to your dog’s diet. 

In addition to all of this, I’m sure your large breed puppy will get all the nutrients it needs from this diet.

Pros

  • High protein content
  • Contains nutritious internal organs, fruits, and veggies
  • A biologically appropriate diet

Cons

  • Pricey
  • No added taurine

Pet Worshiper rating: 9.7


Best grain-free dog food for senior dogs

The metabolism of old dogs slows down over the years. For this reason, it is worth looking for recipes that do not contain many calories. This is most easily achieved with low-fat content and relatively high fiber content. 

It is also important to support our senior pups’ aging and worn joints with dog food containing glucosamine and chondroitin

Below you will find products that I have selected, taking into account these nutritional needs.

Overall best for seniors:

Merrick Grain-Free Senior Chicken + Sweet Potato Recipe

merrick grain free senior

Key features:

  • First 5 ingredients: Deboned Chicken, Chicken Meal, Sweet Potatoes, Potatoes, Turkey Meal
  • Crude protein: 30%
  • Taurine in it: yes
  • Ingredients quality: only natural ingredients, no artificial additives
  • Special ingredients: Added fruits, vegetables, and prebiotics

If you want the best grain-free dog food for your old pooch, be sure to consider the Merrick Grain-Free Senior Chicken + Sweet Potato Recipe. 

This dry dog food has a 30% protein content given to chicken, chicken meal, and turkey meal. This will ensure that your senior pooch gets the amino acids needed to maintain muscle mass even in old age. 

In addition, chicken meal and turkey meal add plenty of glucosamine and chondroitin to the diet. The product contains 1200 mg/kg of both compounds. This will help keep your dog’s joints healthy, which is an important aspect of old age. 

The main carbohydrate sources are Sweet Potatoes and Potatoes, which are well digestible and support old dogs’ immune system due to their vitamin and fiber content. 

Due to the fiber content and moderated fat content, there is less chance of your pup gaining weight. 

The added fruits, vegetables, vitamins, minerals, and prebiotics are essential for the optimal functioning of the immune system. Highly recommended product!

Pros

  • High protein content
  • Added Taurine
  • High glucosamine and chondroitin content
  • Great for weight management

Cons

  • Little bit pricey

Pet Worshiper rating: 9.8


Affordable option:

American Journey Senior Chicken & Sweet Potato Recipe

american journey grain free dog food

Key features:

  • First 5 ingredients: Deboned Chicken, Chicken Meal, Turkey Meal, Sweet Potatoes, Peas
  • Crude protein: 30%
  • Taurine in it: yes
  • Ingredients quality: only natural ingredients, no artificial additives
  • Special ingredients: Added fruits, vegetables, and prebiotics

I love American Journey dog food because they offer great quality products at quite affordable prices. If you’re on a tight budget and you’re looking for the best grain-free option for your elderly dog, consider this product. 

Thanks to high-quality meats and meat meals, your senior pup receives the glucosamine (600 mg/kg) and chondroitin (500 mg/kg) needed for joint support. 

But that’s not all. Due to the moderated fat content (11.0%) and high fiber content (7.0%) this recipe is great for preventing weight gain. However, you should be aware that high fiber content can cause too many poops in some dogs. I prefer low residue dog food for them.

The main sources of fat are chicken fat and coconut oil. The former makes the food very tasty and also very healthy. 

The latter is a bit controversial, as some experts say coconut oil MCT oils are not necessarily suitable for weight loss. However, since there is a lot more chicken fat in the product and the total fat content is 11%, I don’t consider it a huge problem to find coconut oil among the ingredients. 

In addition, the product contains a lot of added vegetables, fruits, vitamins, minerals, and prebiotics, which provide outstanding support for the overall health of dogs.

Pros

  • Affordable
  • Added Taurine
  • Suitable for senior dogs
  • Great for weight management

Cons

  • 7% fiber content is not good for all dogs
  • Coconut oil is a little bit controversial

Pet Worshiper rating: 9.3


Best for small breed seniors:

Merrick Lil’ Plates Grain-Free Real Chicken & Sweet Potato Senior Dog food

merrick grain free senior dog food

Key features:

  • First 5 ingredients: Deboned Chicken, Chicken Meal, Sweet Potatoes, Peas, Potatoes
  • Crude protein: 32%
  • Taurine in it: yes
  • Ingredients quality: only natural ingredients, no artificial additives
  • Special ingredients: Added fruits, vegetables, and prebiotics

Merrick products appear several times in my article. This is no wonder, as this brand seems to make great grain-free products. 

If you are looking for the most suitable recipe for your small breed old dog, be sure to consider the Lil ‘Plates senior formula. It perfectly meets the nutritional requirements of old dogs, and the kibble size is also formulated for the tiny jaws of small breeds.

In addition to Deboned Chicken, it also includes Chicken Meal and Salmon Meal. This guarantees a super glucosamine and chondroitin content (1200 mg/kg) which is essential for the joint health of senior dogs. 

The carb sources are Sweet Potatoes, Peas, and Potatoes. These are very digestible plants, high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. 

The moderated fat content (12%) comes from meats, Chicken Fat, and Salmon Oil. This gives the recipe a perfect omega fatty acid profile that maximally supports the skin and coat of your senior pooch. 

The added minerals, amino acids (taurine), vitamins, and prebiotics promote overall health.

Pros

  • High protein content
  • Added Taurine
  • High in glucosamine and chondroitin
  • Features valuable micronutrients

Cons

  • Little bit pricey

Pet Worshiper rating: 9.8


Best for large breed seniors:

Wellness CORE Grain-Free Senior Deboned Turkey Recipe

wellness grain free dog food

Key features:

  • First 5 ingredients: Deboned Turkey, Chicken Meal, Lentils, Dried Ground Potatoes, Peas
  • Crude protein: 32%
  • Taurine in it: yes
  • Ingredients quality: only natural ingredients, no artificial additives
  • Special ingredients: Added fruits, vegetables, and prebiotics

The joint health of large elderly dogs should be closely monitored. One of the most suitable ingredients for this purpose is glucosamine and chondroitin. 

The Wellness CORE Grain-Free Senior Formula contains chicken meal and turkey meal, which add these two important compounds to your dog’s diet. Although there could be more of them (275 mg/kg and 200 mg/kg), the starting point is not bad. 

With moderated fat (12%) and relatively high fiber (6.25%), you don’t have to worry about your old pooch picking up a few extra pounds. 

What is especially positive for me in this recipe is the high omega 3 fatty acids given by Flaxseed as well as Salmon Oil. This fatty acid takes care of the health of the skin, coat, and brain of every dog , even in old age. 

As a source of carbohydrates, we find lentils, peas, and potatoes, which are not only well digestible but also nutritious. 

And that’s not all, as vitamin and mineral intake is also important. These micronutrients are  added to the recipe by fresh vegetables, fruits, and vitamins and minerals. In addition to these, even prebiotic fibers support your dog’s overall health. 

Because of these benefits, you may want to consider this recipe.

Pros

  • High protein content
  • Added Taurine
  • Suitable for older dogs
  • Great for weight management

Cons

  • It could contain more glucosamine and chondroitin

Pet Worshiper rating: 9.6


Do dogs really need a grain-free diet?

A grain-free diet is quite common among dog owners today. This is no wonder, as people want to live a healthy life, and they also want to ensure a healthy lifestyle for their dogs. Many people think grain-free diets are the only healthy alternatives for canines. 

But is that true? To answer this question properly, we need to understand exactly why people choose this diet for their dogs. I list these reasons below and write some explanations for them.

  • People think grains are the most common allergens in dog food: Well, that’s only partially true. Wheat is quite high on the list of allergens, but this is due to gluten.

    But there are also gluten-free grains (rice or oats) that are much less likely to cause allergic reactions than chicken or beef. Many dogs are allergic to grains, but unless it’s confirmed at your pooch, you don’t need to choose a grain-free diet for him.
  • People think that dogs are carnivores: Most experts agree that cats are carnivorous animals. Their teeth and their digestive system evidence this. The situation is quite different for dogs.

    Although animal sources are more beneficial and preferable to them, they can still thrive on vegetables, fruits, and other plants in the diet. This is true for all types of dogs.

    Of course, there may be several reasons why you want to give your pup low-carb dog food. In that case, check out my article on this to find the best options.
  • People think that because there is no amylase in dogs’ saliva, they are unable to digest grains: Amylase is very important for the body to break down carbohydrates and starches. This digestive enzyme is found in human saliva but not in dogs.

    Many people may rightly think, knowing this, that then probably any dog may have a problem digesting grains. However, think about it for a moment. Amylase is needed to break down grains and all carbohydrate sources, including fruits and vegetables. So because of the lack of amylase in saliva, dogs would not be able to eat carbs at all.

    Fortunately, however, this enzyme is produced elsewhere, in the pancreas of canines. So don’t worry; grains and carbs won’t go undigested from your dog’s digestive system.

Based on the above, there are a few things worth seeing. First, most people choose grain-free food for their dogs because they think it is healthier. However, you should be aware that this in itself is not necessarily true. 

If, on the other hand, your dog is allergic to grains, there is no other solution; you need to find the best grain-free dog food.

Common allergens in dog food

Allergy is essentially a protective reaction by which the body tries to protect itself from various foreign substances. For example, dog food allergies are triggered by various proteins. 

You should know that almost all nutrient sources contain protein, including carbohydrate sources. Therefore, not only meat but virtually anything can be a potential allergen.

The graph below shows the most common allergens that can trigger reactions in dogs.

As you can see, the most common allergen among grains is wheat, and it is also more so because of its gluten content. On the other hand, rice and brown rice can be considered quite safe. 

Moreover, other grains are scarce as allergens. Examples include oats, amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, and millet.

You will also find additional allergens in the infographic below, but not by frequency but by type.

And what can be deduced from this? First, we should not be afraid of these carbohydrate sources right away. If a product is not grain-free, read the ingredient list carefully. It could easily not contain any ingredients that your pooch would be allergic to.

most common allergens in dog food

Symptoms of grain allergy

Grain allergies can usually have the same symptoms as other food allergies. These are most often related to the skin. Sensitivity and intolerance can also be linked to food, but these are much more likely to have gastrointestinal symptoms. Of course, this does not mean that allergic reactions do not include digestive problems. 

Pay attention to the following symptoms and signs:

  • Loose stool
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Excessive gas
  • Itching (and because of this excessive scratching and licking)
  • Skin irritations
  • Ear infections

Of course, the symptoms listed above may also indicate other diseases. This is one of the reasons why it is important to see a veterinarian with your dog as soon as possible if you experience these.

How to feed your dog with food (grain) allergy?

When detecting food allergy symptoms, you must take the right steps as soon as possible to keep your dog healthy. However, for this, it is crucial to know exactly what your pup is allergic to. 

For example, he may be allergic to grains in addition to other ingredients. I want to give some advice on this below.

  • Allergy tests: There are two types of allergy tests available today. One is the blood test; the other is the patch test. Unfortunately, none of them is one hundred percent reliable. However, if you discuss the details with your veterinarian, these options may be worth a try.
  • Look carefully at the ingredients: Whether it’s about you or your dog, health starts with consciousness. Whatever product you choose, always look at the list of ingredients. First, find out what the good and bad ingredients are. With a little research, you can easily determine the criteria for the worst dog foods or bad dog treats. After this, you just need to avoid them. You may also need to look at multiple formulas from multiple brands before you get to know the best. I will also write later in this article about what ingredients to look for and which to avoid in good grain-free dog food.
  • Limited ingredient diet: There is one source of protein in this type of dog food, and the number of other ingredients is limited. Therefore, this is a great and easy way to find and filter out things from your dog’s diet that cause allergic reactions.
  • Novel proteins: These are meats that are relatively rare in dogs’ diets. This can greatly reduce the chances of allergic reactions.
  • Hydrolyzed proteins: Hydrolysis means that proteins are further broken down into peptides and amino acids. This prevents the immune system from being activated and the immune response from developing. Most prescription recipes from certain brands contain hydrolyzed proteins.
  • Elimination diet: This is essentially a principle of identifying and filtering out problematic ingredients from your dog’s diet. If you notice any symptoms of food allergies in your dog, you may want to change your formula immediately (in consultation with your veterinarian, of course). If possible, choose a limited ingredient product that contains one type of protein and carbohydrate source. It’s best if the protein source is some kind of novel protein, meaning your dog hasn’t tried it before. The new diet should last for at least eight weeks. Then, if your dog’s symptoms go away, take back his old diet and see if the symptoms return. I know this sounds roughly like this, but only with this method can you determine one hundred percent of dog food that caused allergic reactions.
  • Ask your veterinarian for advice: Optimally, your veterinarian is the one who has the most professional authority over your dog’s diet. Not to mention that he knows your dog’s medical history and current condition. So, whatever dietary change you plan, always ask for his or her opinion.

dog eats

Are there any benefits of grain free dog food?

If your pup is sensitive or allergic to grains, the best grain-free dog food can have the following benefits:

  • It helps relieve the symptoms of food allergies
  • Higher energy levels
  • Healthier skin and coat
  • Stronger stool
  • Reduced gas forming
  • Good breath
  • Satiety

What to consider when choosing the best grain-free dog food

The decision is not just to choose a formula that does not contain grains. Quality is mostly determined by the quantity, balance, wholesomeness, and type of ingredients. So when choosing the best grain-free dog food, you need to pay the most attention to this. 

Below are some of the most important things to look out for:

Wholesome animal-based protein sources

Proteins are essential in the diet of dogs. This is because they provide the amino acids needed to build and regenerate cells. Plus, they’re good sources of energy and help your dog achieve optimal body weight. 

You should prefer animal protein sources over plants. This is because animal proteins (meat, internal organs) are much more digestible and better utilized. 

In addition, the order of the ingredients on the packaging determines the quantity. Therefore, strive for a recipe whose first ingredient is real meat. This way, you can be sure that your pooch is getting all the amino acids needed to build and maintain muscle mass. 

Meat meals are also good sources of protein because they are dried and minced versions of real meat. In addition, they also contain parts of the animal, such as cartilage, that are excellent sources of glucosamine and chondroitin.

Chicken and beef are common allergens, so if your dog is sensitive to or allergic to the stomach, choose another source of protein. Excellent alternatives are lamb, duck, fish, salmon, or turkey. 

I need to note something! Grain-free dog foods tend to be high in protein. There is nothing wrong with that. However, you may want to look at the ingredients because manufacturers use vegetable proteins to improve the protein content of products. This is absolutely not beneficial for dogs, so avoid such formulas. Some vegetable protein doesn’t hurt in the recipe, but it’s good if these ingredients aren’t among the top five ingredients.

Wholesome carbs

There are plenty of carbohydrate sources besides healthy grains. Examples are wholesome fruits and vegetables. Not only are they delicious, but they are high in vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber, so they improve your dog’s overall health. 

The most common grain substitutes are peas, beans, lentils, other legumes, potatoes, and sweet potatoes.

Healthy fats

Fats are important in a dog’s diet. Not only are they excellent sources of energy, but they play an important role in the utilization of certain vitamins and thousands of other bodily processes. The best sources of fat are animal fats. 

Fish oil properly balances the ratio of omega fatty acids, which has an excellent effect on dogs’ skin and coat health.

Vitamins, minerals, antioxidants

I mentioned earlier that vegetables and fruits are healthy for dogs and are high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. However, many manufacturers also add these micronutrients to their recipes as a supplement. This can usually be clearly seen in the ingredient list. This way, you can be sure that your dog’s immune system will be properly supported.

healthy ingredients

What to avoid when choosing grain-free dog food

In fact, whatever your diet, you need to consider the basic quality factors. You should avoid poor or downright harmful ingredients at all costs. Let’s see these:

Fillers

By fillers, we mean ingredients with no or deficient nutritional value and are only included in dog food to make your pup feel fuller. Examples include corn, soy, wheat, starches, and cellulose. 

These are not harmful, but they are also not helpful for dogs. You don’t have to avoid them one hundred percent, but if you have a choice, pick a product that has no fillers.

By-products

By-products are generally unfit for human consumption. For this reason, I do not recommend feeding your dog with such ingredients. Instead, nutritional sources should always be of good quality, as this is the only way you can ensure your dog’s health.

Artificial ingredients

Artificial preservatives increase the shelf life of products. However, for many dogs, these compounds cause digestive problems. In addition, a preservative called BHA is a known carcinogenic compound

Flavor enhancers and colorants can make food more desirable, but they are not good for your dog’s health either. Make sure the grain-free food you choose contains only natural ingredients. 

In one of my articles, you can learn about the worst dog food brands and what ingredients you should avoid.

FDA Warning about grain-free diets

You should know that the FDA has received many reports that many dogs that have been on a grain-free diet have developed a heart disease called canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). 

The link between diet and his disease has not yet been proven. Still, I think you should consider this when choosing the right formula. 

Experts have observed that the condition of dogs (and cats) with DCM has been greatly improved by supplementing an amino acid called taurine in the diet. Therefore, I suggest you choose dog food that also contains taurine. 

I have a much more detailed article on the relationship between grain-free and DCM that I think you should check out.

Frequently asked questions

I hope you get closer and closer to finding the best grain-free food for your dog. First, however, here is a list of frequently asked questions about this topic:

What is the best grain free dog food on the market?

I chose Merrick Grain-Free Real Salmon & Sweet Potato Recipe as the overall best grain-free dog food. This product is high in protein, and its ingredients are impeccable.

Is it really healthier for a dog to eat grain free?

If your dog is sensitive or allergic to grains, you have no choice; a grain-free diet will be the healthiest for him. However, this diet already seems to be a healthier alternative for many dog owners due to marketing. You need to know that this is not true. Wholesome grains contain plenty of valuable fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients from which canines absolutely benefit.

Will grain free dog food kill my dog?

In recent years, the FDA has received several reports that a grain-free diet in dogs may cause dilated cardiomyopathy (also known as DCM). Nevertheless, the relationship between diet and DCM has not been confirmed by studies. In any case, be careful, and if you buy grain-free food for your dog, don’t forget regular vet checks and signs of heart disease. Also, look for a recipe that contains taurine, as this amino acid has been observed to help dogs with the condition mentioned above.

What grains can I add to my dog’s food?

Basically, I can say that you can give almost any unprocessed whole grain to your dog. Gluten-containing ones often cause problems, but the rest are very healthy and safe alternatives. The best grains are brown rice, oats, millet, and quinoa.

What grains should dogs avoid from my dog’s diet?

Gluten-containing grains often cause allergies, sensitivities, and digestive problems in dogs. But, of course, other grains can cause such reactions; in such cases, you must eliminate them from your dog’s diet.

Which is better for dogs white or brown rice?

Both white and brown rice are ideal sources of carbohydrates for dogs. However, brown rice contains all parts of the grain of rice, so your dog gets a lot more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Therefore, overall, brown rice is more valuable in a dog’s diet than white rice.

Is Sweet Potato good for dogs?

Sweet potatoes are one of the best sources of grain-free carbohydrates for dogs. It is delicious and contains plenty of vitamins A, C, B, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron. So you should look for grain-free food for your dog that contains sweet potatoes.

How should I know if I need to feed a grain-free diet to my dog?

Grain allergy has similar symptoms as any other dog food allergy. If you notice various digestive or skin problems, as well as common ear infections on your pooch, it’s time to take him to the vet. After consulting with him, you can figure out the treatment you need and the diet change. In the case of grain allergies, switching to a grain-free diet usually helps.

Is grain-free dog food good for lactating and pregnant dogs?

Pregnant and lactating dogs have special nutritional needs. Their caloric, vitamins, minerals (mainly calcium and phosphorus), and protein requirements are higher than average dogs. The best grain-free dog foods generally meet these conditions. However, you must consult your veterinarian before making any dietary changes. Also, look carefully at the ingredient list on the packaging of the selected product.

Are there breeds that are more prone to grain allergies?

Observations and studies have shown that any dog breed can develop food allergies or grain allergies. Some say some breeds are more prone to these conditions, but it has more to do with different breeding methods. This is because food allergy can be an inherited condition in dogs.

Final words

The purpose of my article was to introduce you to the best grain-free dog foods on the pet food market. 

As I mentioned in one section, grain-free diets can be potentially dangerous, as the FDA has received many reports in recent years. You should definitely read my article on this so that you can decide with complete confidence. You should also consult your veterinarian. 

Based on my research and experience, I can say that if you choose the best quality grain-free dog food that also contains taurine, you have nothing to worry about. 

The overall winner for me was the Merrick Grain-Free Real Salmon & Sweet Potato Recipe. But as you can see, in my article, I also grouped the options according to different life stages and breed sizes and budgets. Feel free to choose from the 13 options listed.


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Amber LaRock

Amber LaRock

My name is Amber, and I am a licensed vet tech with 10 years of experience in the field. I spent the majority of my career working in emergency medicine, but recently transitioned to creating accurate pet care information online. There is nothing more important to me than helping pet owners understand their furry friend’s health, and giving you the tools you need to offer your pet the best future possible!

Peter Laskay

Peter Laskay

Hey, my name is Peter, and I am the owner of this site. I have loved animals since I was a kid. I am constantly training myself; I recently obtained an accredited certificate in pet nutrition. But I am constantly learning about training, grooming for dogs and cats. I am currently a happy owner of two dogs, six cats, and two red-eared sliders. My goal is to provide my visitors with the most authentic information possible on any pet-related topic.