There are countless reasons you may be considering a grain-free diet for your pooch. Maybe they frequently suffer from excess gas or stomach upset, or maybe you know they have an allergy to wheat or other grains.
Or maybe you’re just looking for a food with fewer filler ingredients like corn and rice, and grain-free seems like the place to find this higher quality.
Whatever drives you to the grain-free market, finding the right food to help your dog thrive is key. In this article, we’ll look at the pros and cons of grain-free food, what dogs this diet might be right for, and our choices for the best grain-free dog foods.
Is a Grain-Free Diet Right for Your Dog?
Grain-free foods have become a popular go-to for many pet owners. But does that mean grain-free is right for your pup?
There are a number of perceived benefits of grain-free diets. Some of them are true for certain dogs and some depend largely on the quality of the food itself.
Allergies and Sensitivities
While it is true that dogs and their wolf cousins aren’t obligate carnivores like cats, they are still carnivores in the sense that their systems have evolved to extract nutrients from meat and fat and not from carbohydrates like grains.
In a perfect world, you could provide your dog with a complete and balanced diet made wholly of animal ingredients that is both affordable and simple to feed. In the real world, this is much easier said than done.
All dry dog foods and most canned foods contain starches and other plant material in their recipes. Often, due to the lower cost and wide availability, these ingredients include a lot of corn, wheat, and rice.
For many dogs, these high-fiber, high-starch additives cause digestive problems because their systems are just not meant to break down that much plant material. For other dogs, grains actually cause an immune reaction similar to the allergic reaction some people have to peanuts.
In fact, a study from BMC Veterinary Research on the prevalence of food allergies in dogs found that wheat was one of the top five most common dog allergens. If your dog suffers from itchy skin, hot spots, or ear infections, a food allergy could be to blame.
Switching to a grain-free food, especially one that contains only novel proteins like venison or rabbit, might be worth a try if you think your dog has allergies or sensitivities to grains.
Searching for Higher Quality
Some dog owners look to grain-free foods not because their dog can’t tolerate grain, but because they believe grain-free diets are better for their dog’s health. While this perception can be true, it certainly is not true of all grain-free diets.
Dry dog kibble traditionally was made from meat, starch, and added vitamins and minerals. Because starch like corn and wheat is much cheaper than meat, it made sense to include a lot of it in the food to offset the cost.
As long as the grains used are free from indigestible fibers and finely ground to release the nutrients, these types of diets provide complete and balanced nutrition for dogs. But, more recently, dog owners have started to seek out food that is more than just complete and balanced.
They want a diet that will help their dog thrive. One that more closely resembles a diet their dog’s ancestors would eat.
Since wolves never eat grains of any kind, grain-free diets seemed an optimal choice. Luckily for the savvy consumer, a few smaller dog food companies saw this demand and started producing quality, meat-based, grain-free dog diets.
Since then, the market has been flooded with grain-free dog foods. While some of them still resemble the initial quality diets, others have just as much plant material in them as any grocery-store brand food does.
Often, because starches like potatoes and legumes cost more than grains, these foods will have even less meat in them and thus, a lot more starch than grain foods. So just because a food is grain-free, does not automatically mean it is better for your average dog.
A Note on DCM and Grain-Free Foods
This trend toward packing grain-free foods with more plant matter than meat may be contributing to the recent trend of DCM in dogs.
DCM, or dilated cardiomyopathy, is a heart condition common to some larger dog breeds. In the past few years, however, a number of cases of DCM have been discovered in breeds not prone to the disease who were being fed grain-free diets.
While this news quickly scared many dog owners away from grain-free diets altogether, it’s important to understand the data before you rush to change your dog’s food.
The most recent spat of DCM cases have been linked to diets high in peas, legumes, and potatoes, both in grain-free and grain-containing diets. But previous reports of non-genetic DCM have been reported as far back as 1997, before any grain-free diets were available, according to Whole Dog Journal.
It’s also important to note that there has been no proven causation between grain-free diets and the disease. At this point, veterinarians and scientists can only speculate that legumes and potato starch are interfering with the absorption, retention, and/or synthesis of taurine, an important amino acid for dog heart health.
To assure your dog is able to use and create taurine effectively, you should feed a diet that is high in quality, low-processed animal proteins, and one that contains little to no protein from plant sources such as peas or lentils. This is true regardless of if you feed a grain-free or grain-containing diet.
How to Spot a Quality Grain-Free Food
So how do you know if your dog’s grain-free diet is high in taurine-containing protein or just filled with unuseable starch? The bag will tell you everything you need to know.
Before you switch your dog to a new food, make sure to check the label for the following qualities.
The Title Should Contain a Named Meat First
The title of the food should contain a named meat or meats and a word such as “meal,” “recipe,” or “formula.” This tells you that the recipe contains between 25% and 95% of that meat ingredient.
If the title is split, such as “lamb and rice formula” then you only know that the two ingredients combined make up at least 25% of the total ingredients, but you also know that there is more lamb than rice since it is listed first.
Titles with the word “with” or “flavor” such as “Dog Food with Chicken” or “Beef Flavor” contain very little meat and should be avoided.
High Protein Levels in the Guaranteed Analysis
The best-rated grain-free dog foods contain around 30% protein. Look for foods that contain around this much or more to assure your dog receives enough quality nutrition.
Meat Listed First
Of course, high protein levels don’t guarantee the food is made with a lot of meat. Peas and legumes can add to the protein level without adding to the nutritional value of the food.
The first ingredient listed in the ingredients list should be a named meat like “chicken” or “buffalo.” The more meats listed high up in that list, the better the food.
If peas or legumes are listed high in the list you can assume at least some of the protein comes from plants. You may want to consider looking for a different food, especially if you have a large breed dog.
Some brands will note how much protein comes from animal ingredients or how much of the food is made with animal ingredients. The higher this number, the better the food.
Reviews of The Best Grain-Free Dog Foods
#1. Ziwi Peak Air-Dried Dog Food Recipe
First on our list of the best grain-free dry dog food is a diet that meets all of our highest requirements for a quality, nutrient-dense diet to help your dog thrive. Ziwi Peak’s Air Dried diet has everything your dog needs to stay healthy and is processed in a way to preserve the nutrients.
This diet comes in six unique flavors, including tripe/lamb, mackerel/lamb, and venison. All flavors are made with at least 96% animal ingredients like lamb heart, green muscles, and tripe.
The remaining 4% of the ingredients are a mix of chicory, herbs, vitamins, and minerals. One of the qualities that makes this the best grain-free dog food brand is that they don’t use any legumes, peas, or potatoes in their recipes.
Plus, since this food is air-dried instead of heat-processed like most dry foods, you can count on the nutrients and proteins in the animal ingredients to stay intact and be readily absorbed by your dog’s system.
This food contains around 37% protein, depending on the flavor, all from quality animal sources. If you’re set on getting the best dog food no grains or legumes added, you can expect to pay a premium for it.
#2. Stella & Chewy’s Freeze-Dried Raw Stella’s Super Beef Dinner Patties Grain-Free Dog Food
Like our first choice food, this diet uses a unique processing method to assure all the nutrients in the recipe are well preserved and available to your pooch. Stella & Chewy’s Freeze-Dried meals are the perfect grain-free option for the owner who expects a lot out of their dog’s food.
This food comes in 12 great flavors, making it easy to find the best-tasting grain-free dog food for your particular pup. All flavors include a number of animal ingredients listed first, like duck, rabbit, and turkey meal.
All flavors, with the exception of rabbit, contain 95% animal ingredients. The remaining ingredients are nutrient-dense, organic superfoods like spinach, pumpkin seeds, and beets.
Like our first choice food, this diet doesn’t contain any legumes or potatoes. And, because it is freeze-dried raw food, you can be sure that the nutrients remain intact and are ready to be put to use to keep your dog strong and healthy.
Protein levels vary by flavor, but most contain around 45%. Like Ziwi Peak, you can expect to pay for all the quality included in this diet.
#3. ORIJEN Dry Dog Food, Puppy
When it comes to providing high-quality nutrition to your dog, there is no more important time than during puppyhood. That’s why we’ve chosen Orijen’s Puppy Food as the third food on our list and as the best grain free puppy food.
This quality kibble diet provides a level of nutrition most dry foods can’t touch, and they do it by including a long list of meats. In fact, the first 15 ingredients listed are animal-sourced, including chicken, flounder, eggs, and herring.
Unlike our first two choices of the best no grain dog foods, this one does contain legumes. However, they are far enough down the list that they likely only contribute a small amount to the high 38% protein.
One place where this food scores better than the other choices on this list is in the fact that it uses only whole-food ingredients and does not contain synthetic vitamins or minerals.
This food will cost you less than Stella & Chewy’s or Ziwi Peak, but it is still more expensive than your average dry food.
#4. Crave Grain Free Adult Dry Dog Food With Protein
The fourth food on our list of the best no grain dry dog foods is one we chose especially for the value. Crave Grain Free dry food packs a lot of quality into a bag that costs close to half as much as our choices so far.
When it comes to the best grain-free dog food for the money, you aren’t going to find many choices better than this. And, since this diet is available in four flavors, including one of the best grain-free salmon dog foods on the list, you can easily keep your dog happy without breaking the bank.
All four flavors include quality meat ingredients like chicken meal, lamb, salmon, and menhaden fish meal. All that meat helps boost the protein in this diet up to 34%, not bad at all for a grocery store brand.
Unfortunately, this food does contain a number of legumes higher up in the ingredients list than we would like to see, including pea protein. But this diet still beats other bargain brands for total animal protein and is easily the best value grain-free dog food on the list.
#5. Castor & Pollux Organix Grain Free Organic Chicken & Sweet Potato Recipe Dry Dog Food
If you’re looking for the best organic grain-free dog food, we’ve got you covered with our final choice. Castor & Pollux Organix food is USDA certified organic and filled with quality ingredients free from artificial hormones and chemicals.
This chicken and sweet potato recipe contains quality organic chicken and chicken meal. While there is no indication of exactly what percent of the formula is meat, we know from the title that at least 25% is organic poultry and sweet potato.
To offset the price of organic meats, this food does utilize a number of organic plant ingredients including legumes and pea protein. And, given that this food only contains 26% protein, you can expect much of that comes from plants.
But, if feeding organic is important to you, you won’t find a better grain-free option that’s made with certified organic meat ingredients. That designation does cost more than traditional diets, though, so be prepared to pay a higher price for this food.
What is the Best Grain-Free Dog Food?
When it comes to grain-free diets, there are more choices than ever on the market, but not all are created equal. After reviewing the best grain-free and best gluten-free dog foods we have chosen Ziwi Peak Air-Dried diet as the best grain-free dog food available.
This food is packed with over 96% animal ingredients and air-dried to assure none of the nutrients are destroyed by heat processing. And with green muscle, a natural source of glucosamine and chondroitin, included, this is one of the best grain-free large breed dog foods we looked at as well.
Looking for something a little more affordable or something specifically for your growing puppy? We’ve included some choices for those on the list above as well.
Frequently Asked Questions
When it comes to choosing the best grain-free wet dog food for your four-legged friend, you’ll want to choose one using the same principles we discussed for finding a quality dry food.
Luckily, since canned foods don’t require starch for processing like kibble diets, it is easier to find grain-free wet food that doesn’t include legumes or potatoes in the recipe.
Some dogs need to be on a grain-free diet because they have allergies to ingredients like corn and wheat. For dogs without sensitivities, you’ll want to choose their food based on what provides the highest quality meat ingredients for your budget, whether that’s the best grain-free food or the best non grain-free dog food.
If you’re curious about the other dog food options, take a look at our list of the best dog foods.
Like all dog food designations, grain-free diets fall on a spectrum of quality. Many large dog food companies have started making grain-free lines because this kind of food has become very popular.
Unfortunately, many of these foods are made with similar, low-quality meats and extra plant ingredients, just like the commercial grain-containing diets. And, even though these diets aren’t any healthier than similar quality grain kibble, they often cost more.
Just as with finding the best grain dog food, finding a high-meat grain-free food requires a little detective work. To make it easier, you can refer to our grain-free dog food reviews above.
Summed Up: The Best Grain-Free Dog Foods
|Name||Ziwi Peak Air-Dried||Stella & Chewy’s Freeze-Dried||Orijen Puppy||Crave Grain Free Adult||Castor & Pollux Organix|
|Features||Air-dried, nutrient dense, high in protein, multiple flavors, no legumes or potatoes||Freeze-dried, very high protein, no legumes or potatoes, nutrient dense, multiple flavors||High in meat ingredients, high protein, easy to feed, low in legumes||High protein, affordable, includes multiple meat meals||Made with organic chicken and vegetables, moderate protein|
- Linda P. Case. “DCM in Dogs: Taurine’s Role in the Canine Diet” wholedogjournal.com, August 15, 2018 Updated: June 19, 2019.
- Ralf S. Mueller, et al. “Critically appraised topic on adverse food reactions of companion animals (2): common food allergen sources in dogs and cats ” bmcvetres.biomedcentral.com, 12 January 2016.