Is grain-free good for dogs?

Hungarian Vizsla dog in field

When you see the term ‘grain-free’ on dog food packaging, it’s natural to assume it’s a healthier option than standard kibble. But for grain-free dry food, this is far from the truth.

In 2018, an unusually high number of dogs were diagnosed with life-threatening canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). As a result, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) began an investigation into the relationship between DCM and grain-free dog food.

Whether you’re looking for an update on this issue or wondering if grain-free dog food is good or bad for your dog, we’re here to share everything you need to know about grain-free diets.

Do I need to add grains to my dog's food?

With this knowledge in mind, you can choose the best food for your pup. Here’s what we’ll be covering:

  • First, here’s what you need to know about DCM

  • The link between grain-free dog food and DCM

  • Why do dogs get DCM?

  • 5 myths about the ‘benefits’ of grain-free dog food

  • The issues with grain-free dog food

  • Grain-free dog food FAQs

  • Choose fresh food for healthy hearts

  • Lyka goes against the grain

First, here’s what you need to know about DCM

Canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a disease that affects the heart muscle, causing enlargement of the left ventricle, which thins and weakens the muscular wall, leading to the reduced ability to generate enough pressure to pump blood throughout the body.

Signs of DCM can be hard to identify but can include lethargy, weakness, weight loss, coughing and heart arrhythmias, which can be fatal. If you suspect your dog is showing signs of DCM, check in with your vet as soon as you can.

Grain-free dog food has emerged as a trend over the past 15 years, spurred on by the human interest in grain-free and gluten-free diets.

This is where humans and dogs differ, as our pups don’t need grains in their diet: as long as they get the necessary energy and nutrients from healthy carbohydrate sources like vegetables.

In reality, commercial dry dog food companies jumped on this trend as a way to cut costs rather than improving the quality of ingredients in their products, replacing whole grains and cereals with a more affordable alternative, legumes and pulses.

After an increase of dogs being diagnosed globally in 2018 with DCM, the FDA explored this increase further, presuming it was nutritionally related. Although the cause is still not fully understood, there is a correlation between a dry, grain-free high legume or pulse diet and the development of DCM in canines.

Their most up-to-date findings, and numbers of reported cases, were published in a recent Q&A article. The FDA found that the issue wasn’t with the pulses and legumes themselves, but due to their high concentrations of oligosaccharides, a highly fermentable carbohydrate, which may lead to gastrointestinal losses of taurine absorption and metabolism in some dogs. This potential interference could lead to decreased taurine levels, which may contribute to the development of DCM.

Why do dogs get DCM?

The exact causes of DCM in dogs are not yet understood, but several factors have been associated with its development. These include genetic predisposition, taurine deficiency, nutritional factors, infectious causes and toxin exposure.

Genetic predisposition

Certain dog breeds are more prone to developing DCM. Breeds such as Doberman Pinschers, Boxers, Great Danes, and Irish Wolfhounds have a higher incidence of genetic DCM. In these cases, the disease is believed to have a hereditary component with specific genetic mutations.

Taurine deficiency

Taurine is an amino acid that plays an important role in heart health. Some breeds like Cocker Spaniels are more prone to DCM, as well as certain large and giant breeds. This is due to a deficiency in taurine. Taurine deficiency can happen when a pup isn’t getting enough taurine in their diet — or it points to issues with taurine metabolism. In the 90’s, there was an increase of cats that developed DCM. Pet food companies added additional taurine to their diets, and DCM in cats is rarely seen today.

Nutritional factors

In addition to taurine deficiency, other nutritional factors have been implicated in dogs with DCM. Diets that are low in essential nutrients, such as certain amino acids, carnitine, or antioxidants, may contribute to the development of the disease.

Infectious causes

In some cases, DCM in dogs can be secondary to underlying infections. Certain infections, such as canine parvovirus or Chagas disease, can lead to myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle). This can lead to DCM.

Toxin exposure

Exposure to certain toxins or drugs can damage the heart muscle, potentially leading to DCM in dogs. Some medications (including certain chemotherapy drugs) can have toxic effects on the heart.

5 myths about the ‘benefits’ of grain-free dry food

  • Myth #1: Grain-free dog food leads to healthier coat and skin

Fact: A balanced and complete diet is the ideal foundation for healthy skin and a shiny coat. Grain-free dog food that’s full of legumes and pulses is a carb-heavy diet that may not meet their daily dietary requirements. This can lead to a dull, dry coat and skin.

  • Myth #2: Dogs that eat grain-free food create smaller stools and release less gas

Fact: Legumes and pulses are high in lectins which dogs cannot digest. When these ingredients reach the intestines they ferment, creating lots of smelly gas. Beans and peas are also high in insoluble, indigestible fibre. In small amounts, they can aid the movement of food through the digestive system, but in large amounts, they create big and bulky stools.

  • Myth #3: Oral health is improved on a grain-free diet

Fact: A limited diet that’s predominantly carbohydrate-based can lead to dysbiosis and an increase in bad bacteria in the mouth. This can lead to tooth decay, cavities, oral inflammation and bad breath. Legumes are full of phytic acid that decreases the ability to absorb minerals essential for oral health, including calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron and vitamin D.

  • Myth #4: Dogs gain more energy when they eat grain-free food

Fact: Dry dog food often uses high GI ingredients, such as corn, wheat and cereals that cause spikes in your pup’s blood sugar levels — creating a short burst of energy followed by a heavy slump as their sugar levels drop.

To create the hard, dry texture of standard kibble, the majority of the ingredients are typically grain.

In grain-free products, high quantities of legumes and pulses are a cheap alternative because they create a similar texture and are suitable for mass production and support a long-shelf life. It’s best to look for diets containing low GI ingredients that release energy slowly.

  • Myth #5: Grain-free dog food supports weight management

Fact: Quite the opposite. Grain-free dry food can lead to weight gain, due to its high carbohydrate content. The most effective way to manage your dog’s healthy weight is by feeding a portion-controlled, complete and balanced wholefood diet in addition to regular exercise.

Although grains aren’t an essential element in your dog’s diet, some grains do have nutritional value. To make an informed decision on your pup’s diet, it’s important to understand the differences between grains and other key ingredients.

The issues with grain-free food

While not all grain-free food is bad, some vets advise against grain-free dog food due to its publicised connection to DCM.

High-fibre legumes aren’t always a good thing

Legumes, such as beans, chickpeas and peas, are high in fibre and starch. Dogs don’t need a high-fibre diet, in fact, high-fibre diets have been shown to actively lower taurine levels, making them more susceptible to DCM.

While legumes can be healthy for your pup in small amounts, the proportion of legumes in grain-free dog food is significantly higher than what is nutritionally required. These can bind and block the absorption of certain minerals, affecting taurine levels and increasing the risk of DCM.

Low protein means low zinc and amino acid content

Dry dog food normally contains more than 50% carbohydrates, which means at least half a dog’s diet comprises non-essential sugars. To increase the overall protein content on the label (which is as low as 20-30% in most brands) without having to increase the proportion of expensive meat content, dry food companies often add cheap plant protein: usually legumes and pulses.

The problem with plant protein is this: it has a different composition of minerals and amino acids to animal protein. When plant protein replaces or outweighs animal protein, dogs may not get sufficient zinc, taurine and L-carnitine, which are not only essential for the health and wellbeing of our dogs, but may contribute to this disease.

Look out for products with beet pulp

Not to be confused with nutrient-rich beetroot powder, beet pulp is the fibrous by-product of sugar beet processing. It’s sold to dog food companies who use it in both regular and grain-free kibble. Studies have shown that beet pulp decreases taurine levels in dogs, increasing the risk of developing DCM.

Grain-free dog food FAQs

Q. Do I need to completely avoid grain-free ingredients linked to DCM?

A. Legumes are healthy for dogs in small quantities. To be safe, we don’t use any legumes in our recipes at Lyka.

Beet pulp, the by-product of beet processing, offers very little nutritional benefit for your dog and has also been proven to decrease taurine levels. We do use beetroot powder in our lamb bowl, which is simply whole, dehydrated beetroot that’s full of nutrients such as Vitamins A and C, manganese, and folic acid.

Q. Will a hypoallergenic or “healthy” grain-free diet be better for my pup?

By promoting grain-free food as ‘hypoallergenic’, dry food brands are following the human food trend and appealing to pet parents who want to choose the healthiest option for their pup.

The trend of gluten-free human food became popular in response to intolerances or allergies to gluten. Dog food allergies are uncommon, and often signs of reaction to a specific protein can be mistaken for a grain allergy.

Lyka’s wide range of complete and balanced meals offers a variety of wholefood ingredients and high-quality protein for optimal health and wellbeing. In particular, our hypoallergenic Chicken, Fish, Turkey, Kangaroo and Lamb recipes contain limited proteins.

Q. What’s the difference between grain-free and gluten-free diets?

Gluten is the protein in grains like wheat, barley and rye, but not all grains contain gluten.

A grain-free diet contains zero grains. However, gluten-free or wheat-free dog food may contain other grains, pseudo-grains and seeds, like quinoa.

Dogs that have gluten intolerance may experience gastrointestinal (GI) problems including bloating, vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation. Whereas, an allergy to grain or another ingredient will often trigger itchy skin, hives, ear infections as well as GI issues.

Q. Why do dry food companies claim that dogs need carbohydrates for energy?

Carbohydrates are essential to dry food production, so it should come as no surprise that kibble manufacturers claim that dogs need carbohydrates.

"It’s a common misconception that dogs need to eat carbohydrates to meet their daily energy requirements.”

— Dr Darcy Marshall, Lyka Veterinarian

Dogs thrive on protein and healthy fats

Lyka recipes include vegetables and quinoa that have an abundance of micronutrients not found in meat. These low-GI ingredients support optimal health, promote satiety and release energy gradually, unlike high-GI carbohydrates like potatoes, rice and corn.

Choose fresh food for healthy hearts

Processed dog food, like kibble, is cooked at temperatures of over 200℃ to create a hard texture and long shelf life. As a result, it loses much of its taste and nutritional value, which has to be artificially re-added. Studies have shown that dry food causes elevated levels of inflammation and metabolic stress — this is why kibble gets its reputation for being like junk food for dogs!

At Lyka, we believe that dog food should be made from fresh, bioavailable ingredients to nourish your pup from the inside out. Ingredients like beetroot powder, broccoli, fennel seeds and fish oil all support your pup’s cardiovascular health. The higher proportion of meat content in our meals also gives your dog all the protein and amino acids they need.

Lyka goes against the grain

All of Lyka’s fresh food meals are free from legumes and pulses. The only ancient grain we use is organic white quinoa in our Turkey and Lamb meals. Quinoa is a protein superfood that contains all nine essential amino acids, with plenty of antioxidants and essential minerals.

From our kitchens, we cook with low-GI wholefoods that don’t trigger metabolic stress or inflammation. The level of carbohydrates in our recipes doesn’t exceed 17% (dry matter), much of which comes from vegetables like purple sweet potato and butternut squash.

We work with our in-house Integrative Veterinarian, Dr. Matthew Muir to ensure that your pup enjoys a complete and balanced diet, backed by the latest scientific research.

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This article was reviewed by Lyka’s animal care experts.

Reviewed by:

Dr. Darcy Marshall BSc (Hons), Doctor of Veterinary Medicine

Louise Hawkins, Qualified Veterinary Nurse and Research and Development Associate

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