Whole Dog Journal's Blog August 9, 2018

Choosing Dog Foods After the Grain-Free Scare

Posted at 10:10AM - Comments: (53)

Whether you feed your dog grain-free food or not, a balanced diet is best for your dog.

Learn more about DCM in the September 2018 issue: "DCM in Dogs: Taurine's Role in the Canine Diet"

A warning from the FDA about a recently reported spike in the number of dogs developing dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) (linked here again) and a possible connection between DCM and the inclusion of peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes in the diets of a majority (not all) of the dogs means we are going to be talking about diet a lot for a while.

I read the comments on both my blog from last week and Whole Dog Journal’s Facebook page (where a link to the blog is posted), and I have also been reading messages and emails sent directly to me, and one thing jumps out: So many people have been feeding grain-free diets with absolutely no reason or justification for their decision. Some people have gone so far as to accuse WDJ of promoting these diets over diets that contain grain – oh, no you don’t! That is just flat untrue.

The Popularity (Overpopularity?) of Grain-Free Dog Food

When the first few grain-free dry foods began appearing on the market about 10 years ago, we were happy to see products that could be fed to dogs who were allergic to or intolerant of grains. Mind you, these dogs are in the minority. Nevertheless, the fact that some commercial foods were available meant that more people who suspected that their dogs might have an allergy to or intolerance of some grain or another could try one of these foods and see for themselves: Did their dogs improve? Get worse? Or did it make no difference whatsoever? The commercial availability meant they could do a feeding trial that didn’t take a lot of time to research or money (for a home-prepared diet trial).

Lots of people tried grain-free foods and some of them noticed that their dogs’ allergy symptoms or digestive problems went away. When you have been dealing with a chronically itchy dog, or one with persistent diarrhea or gas, and these symptoms cease – well, it’s almost like a religious conversion. These folks often go out and preach.

Between the feeding success of these foods in some dogs, the enthusiasm of the owners of the success-story dogs, and the relentless hype coming from the “bones and raw food” / “biologically appropriate raw food” / “evolutionary diet” people (many of whom have strong anti-grain sentiments), grain-free just took off. I complained in a blog post over a year ago that it has gotten to the point where I was having a difficult time finding a food that did contain grain in pet specialty stores.

It came home again about a month ago, when three different people who were adopting the puppies that I had been fostering for my local shelter each asked about food recommendations and each said, “Should I get a grain-free food?” In each case, I asked them, “Why do you ask?” And not one person had a real answer. “I heard grain-free was better!” seemed to be the consensus. (My answer to that: It’s better for dogs who have problems with grain!)

If pressed about my misgivings about grain-free dry dog foods for any or all dogs, I say this: There is a far shorter history of dogs eating the carbohydrates that are being used in these diets than there was of dogs eating grains. I don’t like putting my dogs on the front wave of anything, whether it is the latest/greatest heartworm prevention medication (when ivermectin works just fine, and has been for decades), or flea treatments, or diets. I tend to want to hold back and see whether an inordinate number of adverse experiences are reported as these things hit the market.

litter of black puppies

Dogs Need Balance Over Time in Their Diets

But, perhaps more importantly, feeding ANY type of food every day, all year, for years and years, goes against my longest-standing food recommendation. We have always encouraged owners to switch foods frequently – at least several times a year – and switch manufacturers, too. Many food makers use the same vitamin/mineral premix in all their products, making us worry that any nutrient excess, deficiency, or imbalance would become essentially entrenched in the body of a dog fed an exclusive diet of that company’s foods.

Home-prepared diet advocates talk about “balance over time.” The concept is this: If you change the ingredients and recipe of your dog’s diet – exactly as most of us feed ourselves and our human families – as long as you include everything that a dog needs over the span of any, say, week’s worth of meals, the dog will be fine. In other words, every single meal doesn’t have to be “complete and balanced” – you can accomplish this over the course of several meals.

I look at the feeding of commercial diets the same way; I think you can similarly achieve balance over time by feeding different commercial products from different manufacturers, and, in this way, hedge your dog’s nutritional bets, rather than going “all in” on any one manufacturer or set of ingredients.

Whole Dog Journal’s General Dog Food Recommendations

When I am asked to make diet recommendations, these are the things I say:

1. Feed a variety of products, rotating both among and between several manufacturers of products, for nutritional balance over time, and to avoid problems caused by long-term exposure to any formulation problems or nutritional imbalances/excesses/inadequacies in your dog’s diet.

2. Feed the best food you can afford and that your dog does well on. This doesn’t mean spend the most that’s possible; if your dog does great on mid-range foods, great! But super cheap food should be avoided. The difference in the ingredients of cheap foods versus mid-range foods is staggering.

3. DO READ ingredient labels. You should recognize most of the foods in the food; if things are weird, and only sound sort of food-like, they are likely highly processed food fractions. You don’t want to see a lot of those. If the front of the label says the food is “chicken and rice” you had better see chicken and rice high up on the ingredient label, not buried four ingredients back below chicken by-product meal, corn, wheat, and pea protein.

4.  Feed grain-free foods only for good reason (dog intolerant of/allergic to multiple grains). Feed limited-ingredient foods only for good reason (dog intolerant of/allergic to multiple ingredients). Feed exotic protein sources only for good reason (as a part of a formal food allergy trial, or to a dog intolerant of/allergic to multiple “common” protein sources).

5. Above all: Trust. Your. Dog! If it works for him, it’s okay. If it doesn’t work for him, change!

Comments (53)

Is this opinion based on speculation or proven fact? I don’t see test study results proving that gain free diets cause health issues. Are there test study comparisons to share? I do agree we should buy the most nutritious food for our family members.

Posted by: Leonm1 | April 17, 2019 1:08 PM    Report this comment

I wonder if Dr. Gundry is right all along - it’s all about lectins. He mentions that plants release lectins as their sole defense against insects. Mankind and all the mammals are nothing more than large insects caught in the crossfire of this 400 million year war between plants and insects. Plants that get genetically modified evolve new lectins the world hasn’t seen before. It takes organisms tens of thousands of years to evolve many new enzymes to handle/digest new plant lectins. On this evolutionary time scale of gut bacteria colonies, grains are relatively new in the world. Before agricultural grains were added to our diet there is virtually no fossil record of anyone with arthritis or an autoimmune disorder. Plants from the new world that Columbus brought to Europe also are quite new - 500 years is hardly enough time for organisms to evolve digestive enzymes that effectively handle lectins from the nightshade family. Obviously dog food producers in trying to make complete food have been adding far too many ingredients including like “meals”, peas, legumes, beans, rice, etc thereby adding many new uncontrollable factors with questionable cooking schemes.

Posted by: OmarKou | November 17, 2018 9:56 PM    Report this comment

I was startled when a moderator on a site for dog pancreatitis told me that legumes are dangerous for dogs, and just a fad in pet food. The reason stated was that they were too hard on the dog's digestive organs. A brand called "Nature's Logic" was recommended because there are no legumes in their products.

I know that dogs with pancreatitis often use veterinary diets which require restricted amounts of fat, and need to make more use of vegetable proteins. The food mentioned above seems like it's a good food, but for dogs with pancreatitis I don't see anything low enough. I'd also read an article a few years ago that grain-free diets were a fad, and maybe to high in fat for some sensitive dogs.

I suggest people, especially those using some facebook health sites, speak to their treating veterinarian, about the safety of using Veterinary Diets with legumes currently getting a bad rap on self-professed nutritionists. It seems to me there is some "bad advice" circulating.

Posted by: twovillages | September 23, 2018 9:24 AM    Report this comment

We feed our 11 year old Lab mix Pure Balance Chicken and Rice (sometimes Chicken and Peas). According to our vet, his bloodwork looks like a three year old's. No heart problems so far. But I watch that anyway, simply because of his age and the fact that when we rescued him two years ago he was 30 lbs overweight.

Posted by: DreamWeaver | August 15, 2018 5:13 PM    Report this comment

I have never selected grain-free food just because it's grain free (none of my dogs are known to be grain intolerant) but sometimes my criteria: WDJ approved, price, preferred brands and availability just happen to line up on a grain-free product. Just to be safe I'll make sure my mix isn't totally grain free until all of this information gets sorted out.

Posted by: Elmer_Fudd | August 13, 2018 6:26 PM    Report this comment

I have followed your recent articles with great interest in light of the latest grain-free food scare. I have been feeding my dogs grain-free food from the WDJ's journal's approved list, always looking for products that list meat and/or meat meal first in their ingredient list. I am very frustrated by the fact that most non grain-free products do not comply with the criteria WDJ recommends. For the time being, I will continue to buy the best kibbles I can afford, rotate them often, and supplement my dogs' diet with sardines, eggs, and home-cooked meats.

Posted by: storna@bcp.org | August 12, 2018 5:13 PM    Report this comment

We got our now 11-month-old dog from a breeder at 14 weeks. He was started on grain-free about three weeks after we got him because he was scratching constantly, couldn't seem to go more than two days without vomiting up his feedings, and had horrendous gas and soft poop with horribly foul odor. After a series of trial and error, with many different foods, including a 30-day trial of Hill's I/D, we have finally found a grain-free food that has eliminated all those problems. He has not vomited in almost four months; he has little if any gas, and his poop can now be picked up easily with one bag and without leaving fecal matter clinging to the grass. I call that a huge win! When I spoke to our vet about this DCM scare, he first advised flippantly that I "just take him off the grain-free food." When I reminded him (obviously, he hadn't looked at the chart) of his itching and GI history, he said I need to keep him on the grain-free but get his taurine level checked. He said some special kind of tube needs to be used for the blood draw, and that he'd have to order those tubes. If my dog's level is low, we'll have to supplement, but he would have to investigate supplementation because he has never had to taurine-supplement a dog. We go in Wednesday for the blood draw. The specimen will have to be sent out, and will be back in 7-10 days. He indicated the blood draw "will be pretty pricey," and continued draws will be required whether or not supplementation is commenced, unless this DCM scare "turns out to be unsubstantiated." However, he also indicated that "sometimes dogs outgrow allergies, so if I'm really concerned (duh!) I could start all over, take him off grain-free and see if the itching and GI disturbance comes back." I REALLY don't want to do that. So, I guess only time will tell what we do next.

Posted by: Lulukay | August 12, 2018 3:38 PM    Report this comment

The reason I avoid grains is concern over GMO grains. GMO is linked to rise in GI problems in humans & animals. If the pet food is certified organic, non GMO, & has acceptable ingredients, then I feel ok in using it. I feel it's best to give fresh (raw or cooked) food & species appropriate extras. When traveling, etc., I will give commercial food.

Posted by: Fran Coe | August 12, 2018 3:34 PM    Report this comment

The reason I avoid grains is concern over GMO grains. GMO is linked to rise in GI problems in humans & animals. If the pet food is certified organic, non GMO, & has acceptable ingredients, then I feel ok in using it. I feel it's best to give fresh (raw or cooked) food & species appropriate extras. When traveling, etc., I will give commercial food.

Posted by: Fran Coe | August 12, 2018 3:34 PM    Report this comment

The focus from the articles I have read seems to be on lentils and peas, both of which are included in the home cooked diet I make for my basset hound.. I wondered if the problem is the lentils and peas themselves or perhaps the way they are processed in commercially prepared dog foods. Any thoughts on whether it's the ingredients or the processing? My girl seems to do well on her home cooked diet, but DCM takes a while to develop, so we may not see symptoms for several years. Should I look at using alternatives to those ingredients? Her diet does include some grains, so it's not grain-free.

Posted by: texasless | August 12, 2018 3:15 PM    Report this comment

Our last dog was diagnosed with inflamatory bowl disease at the age of 2, after months of trying meds etc. His diet needed to be free of the most common dog allergens: beef, chicken, dairy, eggs, wheat, corn and soy! He did extremely well until diagnosed with 2 kinds of cancer,. We lost him at age 13. During a bout of valley fever, we rotated his food brand every week to encourage him to eat, we maintained this for the rest of his live.

Posted by: Tmalven | August 12, 2018 3:09 PM    Report this comment

A couple of posts commented that wild canines consume grain found in the stomachs of prey animals. This isn't entirely accurate. Don't confuse SEEDS with GRAINS.

Most of the prey animals are grazers and browsers who consume various grasses and plants and twiggy things like my blackberry bushes. This diet contains SEEDS from grasses and lots of fibre but very little GRAIN.

Unless the deer or mouse lives next to Farmer Brown's wheat or corn fields, there just isn't much grain in their stomachs. Each year DNRs warn against feeding corn in the winter because deer are unable to produce the necessary enzymes to digest the sudden change in diet. Animals are routinely found starved to death with a stomach full of corn. Only those deer who have access to corn thought out the year manage to produce the proper enzymes.

Can dogs eat grains? Absolutely! They are opportunistic carnivores who are able to draw nutrition from a wide variety of foods. But if you think a dog can digest raw grains, feed some to your dog and watch their poop! They are not very efficient at breaking it down. Cooking changes that.

As Nancy's extremely well written article points out, there is no one diet that suits all animals and rotating formulas is key to nutritional health.

Posted by: noahsapothecary@mindspring.com | August 12, 2018 1:31 PM    Report this comment

First one should read the book that has been out a long time. FOODS PETS DIE FOR by Ann Martin. I researched in 2000 and called rendering plants and they admitted euthanized cats and dogs go into commercial dog food. There is no way to tell the amount of dogs and cats or road kill,diseased animals etc. that go in the food. A food that doesn’t contain rendered animals is the first rule to me. Then go from there. I fed VeRus for 17.5 years to my dachshund. No issues. She also was given fruit, veggies and meat from the table. Second is look at vaccines. My dog was allergic to her rabies shot so I had to titer yearly. Last rabies shot given in 2001 that almost killed her lasted in her 11 pound body till she passed in late 2017. ANY health problems in any animal is exasperated by vaccines. Read STOP THE SHOTS by John Clifton. A very short and easy read explains it all. I will never ever trust the pet food industry, especially large commercial companies. WDJ published during the largest recall that had melamine in the food , a letter from a vet. She wrote to all the tainted food commercial companies saying how every day they get faxes promoting Science Diet, Royal Canine and other foods. But did ONE of them fax her the food was poison? NO! Those companies knew in October the food was tainted but waited until March to let everyone know. Then the frenzy began. Companies started up that you never heard of. Most of them very good. I have researched everything I can get my hands on about the wellness of dogs for over 20 years. Just the basic nutrition. Nothing crazy. I don’t have a degree. It’s just common sense. Rawhide? Yikes the worst thing you can give a dog. Made with nothing but chemicals. My go to are WDJ, MERCOLA PETS/ Dr Karen Becker. I have proven my vet wrong so many times on the simplest things. Do your research on your vets. Some continue to learn, while others don’t. I would never go to a vet who didn’t use holistic along with antibiotics. Or one that doesn’t titer. It’s that simple.

Posted by: Cpn2jxp | August 12, 2018 12:57 PM    Report this comment

I have always found it iteresting that people say wild canines eat only meat and bones. They eat the whole animal, which usually starts with the internal organs, including intestines, of what is vegetation and grain eating animals. Granted those contents are in the process of being digested, but they are still getting what amounts to vegetation and grains when the canines eat them. The do get some of the non meat foods that some people think are so bad for our pets. Variety, to a point, works for people and animals, as does moderation.

Posted by: MyRottonylr | August 12, 2018 12:24 PM    Report this comment

I thought the grain free issue was the taurine and a heart problem. I have 3 Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. This breed already is susceptible to heart number then to chf.

What should I be feeding ?

Posted by: firegal345 | August 12, 2018 12:22 PM    Report this comment

Would someone please explain why dogs SHOULD eat grain.
Do wild dogs eat grain? It seems to me that grain would not be a natural part of a dog's diet.

Posted by: PeterPony | August 12, 2018 11:04 AM    Report this comment

Just remember, those of you who are planning to abandon "grain free" foods, that the "hypothetical issues" (hasn't proven to be causative yet) are some of the ingredients (legumes, peas of all sorts, etc) seen more often in these foods. There are genetic tests that determine whether a dog is clear, carrier or affected (simple recessive mode of inheritance) by DCM, which was first discovered in the standard schnauzer. The same gene in one breed can be a variance of that gene which results in DCM (or any other disorder) in another breed. Ongoing research on this as well. The vets that are doing the research on why they are seeing DCM in breeds that they haven't seen before, at this point, are grasping at straws that appear to be logical, and not even considering genetic markers. Having said this, there ARE grain free or foods with limited grains in some very good products on the market. Here are a few examples: Farmina (some of their formulas), Nature's Logic (which contains millet-good cancer fighting grain supposedly), SportDogFood (majority or all of the formulas contain no grain and very good food) I mentioned earlier, that, for me, many grains are GMO and I'm not keen on that. As a breeder, short of going totally raw, I want to avoid grains, for the most part, for reasons stated, but don't want legumes, peas, flax, etc, because they are phytoestrogens, which, according to my very good repro vet (board certified theriogenologist and research vet), there have been studies done showing that these ingredients affect fertility, may cause resorptions of Fetuses/embryos. Before this research finding, I happily fed my dogs grain free full of legumes, varieties of peas, flaxseed etc. to my Norwegian Elkhounds. I have never had any heart issues nor have any breeders or Elkhounds that I know of have, even those seen on the FB pages that are companion animals. Maybe Elkhounds just aren't genetically pre-disposed to this. So I'm not jumping on any bandwagon before the research is in and I see that it is devoid of "conflicts of interests", such as the "pet food industry" , mainly the big corporate companies such as "Nestle-Purina", Hills, etc. the ones that give kick backs to the young vets fresh from vet school. I have done my research to the extent that I traced back one of the vets researching this issue to be on the board of Nestle-Purina. Something to think about.

Posted by: estee | August 12, 2018 2:44 AM    Report this comment

Excellent informative article. I combine foods I cook along with some raw and a handful of kibble. One excellent brand I use that is not grain-free is Nature's Logic (contains none of the 'beware of' foods) so would recommend visiting their website and reading the ingredient list to see if it suits your dog(s). Every dog is different and I really agree with mixing up the foods and brands. I was using Stella & Chewy's raw coated kibble because it was baked but it contains all of the many ingredients listed in the 'beware of' list so dropped them. Northwest Naturals makes a nice line of raw and dehydrated foods as does Honest Kitchen. Fresh Pet Select Roasted Meals are a good choice available in the grocery store refrigerated section but that's the only one I use because the other items they make like the meat rolls contain carrageenan as a thickener. Just saying there are choices but you have to read labels and use what best suits your pet. ps -- I am not affiliated with any company or pet foods -- just sharing what I have researched as I have a dog with sensitive digestion.

Posted by: Goldens | August 11, 2018 1:15 PM    Report this comment

WDJ reviews dog food every year! You have to do your homework. Many people rely on their Vet. Think about it. A traditional Vet treats many different species of animals—basically one doctor covering the equivalent of what humans rely on dozens of doctors to treat. Nutrition is a VERY small part of their training and many times it’s taught by pet food industry employees. Nancy is right—use common sense and buy the best food you can afford. Change often—would you feed your kid the same food EVERY day for their entire life? I personally like Dehydrated & raw frozen food the best. There are so many brands—Honest Kitchen, NRG, Grandma Lucy’s, Stella & Chewy, Tylee’s—too many to list. You can also supplement with human grade protein like canned salmon, white fish, chicken liver, beef liver, etc. Chewy.com probably has one of the largest assortments of pet food.

Posted by: Christy | August 11, 2018 10:45 AM    Report this comment

I find this article disappointingly unhelpful. First, this may not have been the author's intention, but from her tone, I get the feeling that she thinks anyone who has been feeding their dog grain-free food without a specific reason is stupid. OK, I'm stupid -- now what? Get the "best" food I can afford, with ingredients that "sound like food" -- but not "limited ingredient" or grain free? Hot news: The only dog foods that don't contain ingredients that "sound like food" are the "limited ingredient" variety -- and even those contain plenty of supplements that don't sound like anything I'd pick up at the grocery store. My vet says to get a grain-containing food from a "major manufacturer" such as Purina or Royal Canin. But I look at their ingredients and they almost all contain corn gluten or other things that I've been led to believe over my years of dog ownership are virtually poison. I'm no less confused now than I was before reading this article, and kind of upset at the accusatory tones both there and in the comments. All I want to do is feed my dog something that's reasonably good for him!

Posted by: VirginiaS | August 11, 2018 1:37 AM    Report this comment

I have fed grain free, but I am not entirely against grains. But which grains are good? I notice my lab gets itchy ears on wheat. GMO corn? Forget about it! Or how about rice. It is recommended people limit rice comsumption due to the arsenic found in it, but why do so many manufacturers and consumers think it's okay to feed it to their dogs as a main ingredient twice a day, every day?? Arsenic is a carcinogen and, in case nobody has noticed, pets are getting cancer at an alarming rate. I don't think it's just rice(but who knows, with the amounts our pets are getting fed), also lawn chemicals, topical chemicals, chemicals found in household products and cleaners, etc. Sorry, I digress...

My dog is currently on a limited ingredient diet by Wellness with lamb and oatmeal because he has a sensitive tummy (gets the runs easily) and this has helped. Does have potatoes and rice further down the list. I usually avoided both anyway because potatoes aren't the best for blood sugar and the whole arsenic/rice thin, but at least they aren't high on the ingredients list. It was hard finding a limited diet dog food that didn't have either potatoes, rice or legumes (which I instinctively stayed away from because it didn't seem like beans would be a good idea for a dog with loose stools) as the second ingredient. Want to find another food but I don't know what the heck to feed him anymore.

I also avoided products with heavy legume proteins because it just seems more natural for a dog to get their protein from, um, meat... I'm trying to find something with oats or barley, sweet potatoes, and without the 'bad' ingredients (to me: wheat, corn, rice too much potato or beans) I go on Chewy and look at ingredients until I'm nearly blind.

As far as the grain-free scare, I'd rather err on the side of caution. More research is going to take time. Lots of time. And if there is something to it, why put your dog at risk waiting for the research results?

Posted by: Krista April | August 10, 2018 8:33 PM    Report this comment

In response to the post by Circus, look at www.BalanceIt.com and www.monicasegal.com for home-prepared diets and www.dogaware.com for information on chronic kidney disease.

Posted by: BebeRussell | August 10, 2018 3:27 PM    Report this comment

My dog a Norrbottenspets has discoid lupus, when I got him his nose was horribly raw and sore. I feed him grain free kibble plus a little flavoring with added fish oil and vitamin E based on research from a vet in Australia. His nose is perfect now. He gets Milk bone for breakfast and snacks that I try to keep LID, but I worry about heart disease having lost three dogs to it - 2 mutts and a Bull Terrier. I change brands of the kibble every 4-5 pound bag so it stays fresh and any deficiencies are taken care of by the next bag. He has no digestive problems, no allergies, a good coat, and lots of energy. I am researching all the next purchases for less peas, etc. Purina Pro-Plan Salmon and Rice has lots of meats, barley, oatmeal and rice but no legumes or potatoes, so I am planning to try that, plus more research into the Australian vet's suggestions.

Posted by: NorbyLover | August 10, 2018 2:17 PM    Report this comment

My very first Australian Shepherd's marking featured a lovely voluminous white collar. He was also an enthusiastic fetcher; we normally played this game on a whole soccer field for close to an hour daily, even during our hot Georgia summers. He was born before "grain free" foods became popular. I noticed, as he matured (age 2-4 years), he spent a lot of time licking his paws, and not just to remove our red clay. His beautiful white feet started developing the dark staining between his toes, that to me looked a lot like the staining around the eyes of small light colored fluffy dogs. No amount of cleaning or special show dog shampoo, lightened that staining. One day, I compared him to photos of his younger self, and realized the center of his chest was starting to develop that same kind of staining between his toes. My vet had no suggestions. Conformation exhibitors suggested using the same hair bleach cosmetologist use, and they warned me to expect his hair to get brittle and fall out. Yikes! A fellow dog trainer suggested trying a different food, with no wheat ingredients. The big surprise came before he'd finished the first bag of a wheat free food. He was going through a normal shedding cycle as we started the new food - and much to my astonishment, the new coat growing in, was beautiful white again, with no red staining at all on his chest, or feet - and all that paw licking ceased within a week of starting the new food. Ever since then, I have chosen to feed wheat-free, and later grain-free foods for my Aussies, and had beautiful full coats. Was it wheat that made my old boy lick his feet, that turned happy dog saliva from hours of fetch in the sunlight, into dark red patches - or something else? All I know was, a food change seemed to be the one thing I could connect with the disappearing red brown, and wheat seemed to be the problem.

Three Aussies later, I now have one that will eat anything, and another that's extraordinarily picky about any sort of food. I've avoided wheat, and neither of the two current dogs have ever developed those red brown stains on their chests or feet. I normally choose kibbles with the highest protein and fat available, with the lowest possible carbs, because keeping weight on two VERY active dogs is a challenge! Still, I regularly add raw meaty bones and organ meats, and the fussy dog will pick out all of those items first, even if I practically mince everything to goo. Wish I could feed only raw - it's not practical to travel with raw feeding two dogs for regular competitions away from home with no kitchens in hotel rooms. I still use cooked rice whenever they get into stuff that upsets their tummies, but will choose foods with the fewest carbs whenever I can, just because it works for us.

Posted by: mamafirebird | August 10, 2018 8:43 AM    Report this comment

Legumes such as garbonzo beans, peas, lentils, etc. are high in phytic acid and lectins. The phytic acid causes problems in humans and I think it is not healthy on a day after day after day ingestion for pets. Leaky gut! It is extremely hard to find a dog food without them in it!! They are just Fillers to keep their costs down !! Seems to be the way of most dog food manufacturers, including holistic. Not good !! Grain free and legume free and starch free is even harder to find! and expensive !

Posted by: know29 | August 10, 2018 7:50 AM    Report this comment

The problem may not lie in the fact that the foods are grain-free, but rather than the new ingredients contain lectins. I doubt there has been any research on lectins in dogs, but Dr. Steven Gundry, a heart specialist, found that lectins were playing a role in human heart disease. He writes about them in his book "The Plant Paradox." The food groups high in lectins are legumes (including peas), squash, nightshades (including potatoes and tomatoes), dairy AND grains. I mention this not necessarily to endorse Dr. Gundry's work but rather to raise the possibility that lectins might be playing a role in canine heart disease as they do in the human heart.

Posted by: muriel33 | August 9, 2018 11:15 PM    Report this comment

Please do recommend some good foods. My dog has tummy issues and Natural Balence has been the best. However: grain free, potato listed twice in first five ingredients, and one protein. What shall I do? I love my dog.

Posted by: Lloveslabs | August 9, 2018 6:44 PM    Report this comment

Here's my reason for grain free, simply Dogs are not grazing animals like cattle, horses, deer... The dogs cannot digest grass, they puke. Dogs can eat most everything else, they are scavengers!

Posted by: Redbuffalo | August 9, 2018 4:48 PM    Report this comment

I made dog food for my last 3 for long periods of time. I've had 2 dogs out of 4 get cancer (my current 11 year old being one). Both of these dogs were 10 pounds or less and had trouble being over weight. Both dogs were exposed to ChemLawn. The one I have now has always chewed on one back foot since she was a puppy. I think the extra weight is probably the most likely reason for the cancer, as the current dog was raised together with her half brother (2 days older) until he had to be put down last summer due to a degenerative spinal disease that paralyzed him. Both were exposed to the chemicals, but he was never overweight. Neither was the male I had before him who was also exposed to ChemLawn his whole life and lived to be 16 1/2. All 4 dogs were Rat Terriers. My oncological vet in Houston said she chose to have Whippets because "they were one of the few breeds that didn't have a cancer gene bred into them." When I made the food for my dogs I read articles from several breeders who made food for their dogs. One recommended a little ketchup in the food to give Taurine, so I did that. I used white rice because one said a dog's digestive tract was too short to digest brown rice. And I also used oatmeal or sometimes barley. I added green beans, green peas, sometimes spinach, some kind of fruit, olive oil or walnut oil, eggs, ground egg shell, and sometimes Dinovite in far less quantity than the company recommended. My dogs loved it, but I got tired of making it and worrying if they were getting the right nutrients. I have my female who has cancer on Ollie now, and my new pup from the shelter is on Science Diet puppy with some of the Little Caesar type puppy food added at each meal. Can't bring myself to do the raw as my dogs have always licked my face--whether I wanted them to or not. My dog that made it to 16 1/2 lived on Purina One kibble with our dinner scraps--fajitas from our local Mexican restaurant being his favorite! A friend has had several Dachsunds live 14-16 years on Beneful and other grocery store brands. It's all VERY confusing, but I'm skeptical of this new grain free trend and think it's probably a spin off of the gluten free fad--some need it, most don't. Thank you for the info, though.

Posted by: Donna O | August 9, 2018 4:39 PM    Report this comment

I trust Whole Dog Journal! My last dog had EPI. 17 vets refused to diagnose it, but when I finally found a vet that made me sign a waiver before giving my dog meds for EPI, the dog got better and lived 7 years longer.

My 4xrescued fur baby came to me with severe IBS and a slew of allergies. The grain free food totally saved him - until now. Your article on grain free food issues lit up my brain and described several problems that I’d been trying to figure out. I jumped into research, and he’s now getting tested for Taurine. My vet was thrilled to read your article which now gives us a plan of attack.

I have been researching about 50 Dog food companies since. It’s going to be hard to find anything that he can eat. I really appreciate the suggestions mentioned in the comments. Thank you so much. I will follow up on each of them.

Whole Dog Journal is on the cutting edge. You’re the only Journal I know that does the research when we need it. Thank you for helping me save my dogs!!

Posted by: Nina Hanson | August 9, 2018 3:36 PM    Report this comment

I am going to suggest that everyone find and read the ORIGINAL RESEARCH PAPER that this article is referencing. You might just stop worrying.
And remember this.......grains are often GMO and they are sprayed with dessicants immediately prior to harvest........unless you feed organic.
As well, learn about the cause of dilated cardiomyopathy and simply supplement the specific nutrient......if you are worried.

Posted by: 24dogs1cat | August 9, 2018 2:47 PM    Report this comment

I am thankful for your article last week regarding the FDA’s warning. I switched my 2 Labs to grain free when one of my dogs started having seizures and have been feeding this type of food for the last 15 years. One of my labs became suddenly ill and died of CHF. I can’t say it was the food because he was 10 years old, but I can’t heko but wonder if diet played a role. Yesterday, I went to buy dog food and true to your blog, most of the food is grain free. I ordered Taurine to supplement diet, but this is an added expensive. The worker at pet food retailer said not to worry about the grain free food because “everyone is going to this now”. Sorry, but that statement won’t cut it anymore for me.

Posted by: Neecie | August 9, 2018 2:15 PM    Report this comment

Thanks again, Nancy, for a good article. I do rotate my foods between brands, even from grain-free to limited grain. Believe it or not there are foods out there, good foods, that are at least 95% grain free or with limited grain, and not all grain free foods have peas, flax, legumes, at least in the first 9-10 ingredients. The reason I personally tend to go grain-free (and no, it wasn't about "jumping on the bandwagon") is the risk for mycotoxins which you find in grains, and especially corn. Also, unless the grains in a dog food are listed as organic (and there are foods that are organic) I really don't want my dogs exposed to GMO's that are the case with most common grains. I don't want pesticides/herbicides in my dog food for obvious reasons. I attended a 4 day Canine Health Symposium in 2008 at Colorado State University put on by the National Golden Retriever Club. This symposium was mainly about cancer (Dr Ron Schultz was there discussing vaccines) and presented by top research vets throughout the country. Not to get lengthy, in a nutshell, all agreed based on years of study that the most common trigger for canine cancers (especially blood cancers-hemangiosarcoma, lymphoma, etc) are lawn pesticides, that contain the same ingredients used by the big pesticide companies that spray the fields of GMO crops, changed to resist being damaged by the pesticides in order to kill the bugs. This is why I do use raw and generally a grain free food, or nearly grain free rather than a food full of grains. There is such a thing as moderation and keeping up with research. Years ago, someone recommended a very good site for very complete information on all things "dog food". It's called "The Dog Food Project". The author, Sabine Contreas, is from Germany, with high credentials. If you go to betterdogcare.com, that is where is where she is, with a link to "The Dog Food Project". She puts up good information about "good ingredients", " ingredients to avoid", among hundreds of other things, and this site goes back many, many years and facts don't change. She puts up dog foods with no bias, one way or the other, and some are out of date. I would highly encourage everyone to visit this. It's an education, in and of itself and may answer many questions!

Posted by: estee | August 9, 2018 1:58 PM    Report this comment

Thanks WDJ for the timely info on this scary topic. Like many others, I vary my dog food frequently, more from " yikes, almost out of dog food, and i'm at the feed store, wally world, Raley's, etc." I also give them raw bones on an almost daily basis, which some have a problem with as this could cause an expensive vet bill due to a broken tooth, but they are enthusiastic and devoted bone chewers, and it keeps their teeth very clean, even as elderly dogs. Due to this current controversy, I will make sure that I limit no grain food to only occasional, and start looking for a good daily vitamin with taurine. I also give them raw chicken, beef, etc. fairly often. Their weights are all very healthy, and even the 13 year old is quite spry.
Older folks like me probably remember how until cat food improved in the 90s, male cats frequently were afflicted with cystitis due to a too high percentage of minerals in the food, which often lead to death from kidney failure, cause cats are more likely than dogs to hide when ill. The connection of food quality with health is so much better understood now than in the past.
Just wish that I could apply that knowledge to myself and give the junk food a wide berth:(

Posted by: abbeyrhode | August 9, 2018 1:28 PM    Report this comment

Ziwi Peak does not have green peas, lentils, potatoes, tapioca, no rendered meals, no antibiotics or growth promotants, no grains, rice or soy. I use this for my dry dog food and then add other foods (beef, chicken, salmon, green beans, fruits) to it.

Posted by: PhyllisB | August 9, 2018 1:27 PM    Report this comment


I too needed a food without peas since the allergy panel for my dog listed peas as an allergen.
Look up sportdogfood.com, Natural Balance Duck and Potato and Natures Logic Rabbit.

Also, those allergy panels are not 100% accurate, can have false positives.
Only 10% of allergies are caused by food and beef and dairy, not grains, are the most common allergens.
Most allergic reactions are to fleas and environmental (grasses, dustmites, molds, etc).

I think a lot of times people conclude food is why their dog is itchy but it may be other allergens that are responsible.

Posted by: tv | August 9, 2018 1:22 PM    Report this comment

I have three medium sized dogs, two purebred and one mixed breed. I too jumped on the grain-free wagon, but not because I thought grain in itself is bad, but because of all the chemicals used in growing the grains. I have one who gets "yeasty" (ear and paw issues) when fed foods with corn over a period of a couple weeks, but otherwise I haven't seen any real difference in their health. Recently I have been feeding foods with brown rice as the main carb, but still look for meat to be at the top of the list and meat meals up there too. I don't feed just kibble though- it is supplemented with home cooked foods- often some of what I am cooking for the humans in the family.

Posted by: SBS | August 9, 2018 1:14 PM    Report this comment

I agree that perhaps including a list of quality grain-inclusive foods would be a good idea, I find that a lot of people who ask me, don't take the time to read labels for themselves. Not to mention we "everyday folk" don't have easy access to case studies and scientific research. To add further complications, the issue of where in the ingredient list items are, and whether they are added with or without moisture. Most pet parents will never do that kind of research, it should be more transparent. We are currently on a grain-free food because one of our three has a very sensitive gut, and finding a brand that works for him can be a challenge, grain or no grain, but also ends up being the food we feed to the rest of the household. They do eat raw at one meal, and kibble at the other. While raw has been excellent, it can be expensive and also challenging to balance and provide all needed nutrients, so feeding a quality dry as well helps to fill in some gaps. Always love reading WDJ articles and learning more!

Posted by: Simbasmom | August 9, 2018 12:51 PM    Report this comment

There are several vets and LOTS of literature about grains in dog food, which is why so many people changed. I switched to Primal Raw FREEZE DRIED because it seems to be the perfect balance of everything. WE MUST REMEMBER that dogs are only 1% DNA removed from wolves. WHEN did you ever see or hear of a wolf eating cooked corn, rice, peas. lentils, or potatoes??? I have read some expert scientific studies on wolves' eating patterns, and because of those studies, several veterinarians don't believe dogs need -- or should even eat -- any of that stuff. We all know corn is just a filler food and ALL corn in this country is genetically modified anyway-- no way around it, and brewers rice is the discarded, no-good garbage pieces left over after the best part of the rice is hulled. Yet there are so many dog foods with corn and brewers rice in them. IT'S CRAP, people!! Freeze dried raw with some probiotics is the best you can give your dogs. I have MANY dogs of several different breeds and they all previously had issues, from allergies to intestinal problems, and since they have been on this food there have been NO PROBLEMS with any of them. We should stay as close to what wolves eat in nature, adding probiotics for the benefits of whatever is missing in food, and for anybody who tries to argue that a wolf goes first to the stomach for the veggies in it -- that is patently untrue. Read the research, folks!

Posted by: Caprezia | August 9, 2018 12:34 PM    Report this comment

First of all, feeding raw is hardly "front wave." It's the way wolves have always eaten, and dogs and wolves are of the same species: canis lupus. Second, it doesn't take much research to realize that the digestive system of wolves/dogs is shorter and more acidic than that of humans, and that their teeth are designed for tearing and crushing, not chewing. That's the digestive tract of a carnivore. Vegetables and grains need to be pulverized or cooked to be digestible. In other words, not as nature intended, and even though tolerable, not a necessary part of the diet. And third, when I changed five dogs to raw overnight 20 years ago, the improvements to their health and overall condition was instant and dramatic. No itching, no dry skin, no allergies, no bad breath, no need for dental cleaning (ever), no soft, foul-smelling stools, and no expensive vet bills. Not in those dogs or in any of the ones (around ten) I've owned since.

Posted by: GiftofGalway | August 9, 2018 12:26 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for this article. I'm an elderly, disabled woman with an 18-pound, 16-year-old miniature poodle. My dog has always had a very sensitive stomach, allergies, and lately has developed kidney disease. I cannot believe what a nightmare it is to learn how to provide proper nourishment for my dog!

The vet was happy to sell me a large bag of "kidney diet" kibble for about $90, but after a week my dog developed uncontrollable diarrhea. This was a HUGE problem, especially with my disability. I fed her boiled chicken and rice for a week to stop this problem, but what am I to do now?

When I asked the vet for a homemade diet, she referred me to a veterinary dietitian's website where, for only $350, I can get a personalized kidney disease diet. On top of the $300 every 6 months for bloodwork, $110 every 7 weeks for kidney medicine, flea & tick med, heartworm med, and regular vet bills, I can't really afford to eat myself, let alone purchase a "personalized diet."

I'm at the end of my rope trying to figure out a safe & nutritious diet for my dog. I've scoured the internet for dietary information, but have found conflicting information about foods to feed with kidney disease. And now this new info about peas, which I have been using in my homemade concoction! The vet's suggestion? Come in and purchase yet another "kidney diet" kibble. Over the years my dog has had so many problems with commercial food, I'm just terrified she will get the runs again!

I could never before understand why a pet owner would abandon an older, sick dog, but now I can see how it sometimes becomes just impossible to go on. Why on Earth does this have to be so difficult???

Posted by: Circus | August 9, 2018 12:26 PM    Report this comment

I've been cooking for my mixed breed dog for a few years--she is now 12. I tried many different commercial foods before making that decision and she continued to cough and spit up bile. She is much healthier and happier now and cooking for her is not that big of a deal, although it can be expensive. I alternate between ground turkey, chicken hearts and giblets, and canned salmon. She also gets cooked yams, coconut oil, and vitamins. I received advice from a canine nutrition expert and my vet. She is a healthy weight, plays like a puppy, and runs about 15 miles per week.

Posted by: Peggie | August 9, 2018 12:24 PM    Report this comment

Over 30 years ago we were feeding our dogs whatever was on the market at that time with no regard to the ingredients. Our Dalmatians did fine on good old Purina and lived to be almost 16 years old. As we moved into another breed, Italian Greyhounds, we started becoming more aware of what was in their food and like most dog parents moved into the grain free era of dog food. Did their health benefit? Not sure. We have had for over the 22 years 5 IG's and all have had some form of cancer or another. Is it due to the food or other environmental or hereditary factors? Your guess is as good as mine.
I have come to the conclusion to search for food that has a high meat ingredients followed by some vegetable and fruit. I too have been concerned about the recent findings on all the peas and such in dog food and now avoiding foods that have an overwhelming amount of peas, chickpeas, pea starch etc..., mainly because I supplement my dogs food with fresh vegetables every day like peas, carrots, broccoli, sweet potato. They also get fruit such as apples, blueberries, bananas with brown rice in addition to dark and white meat chicken. I feel as though even if the food I am feeding is grain free, I can provide additional nutrients and wholesome grain on my own by adding human grade foods to their diets. Not sure this is the right way to approach the feeding issue but we are doing what we feel is in their best interest and they love the fresh additions to their kibble meals.

Posted by: JKRiddle | August 9, 2018 12:19 PM    Report this comment

I switched from Orijen to Ziwipeak. On the regional red ingredient list (yes, further down on the list) are whole green pea, whole red lentils, whole chickpeas, whole green lentils, whole yellow peas, lentil fiber. I do not know what these total altogether. Also, as another woman wrote - if your dog has a heart problem, by the time you discover the problem, then it is too late. I would prefer not to feed this food.

Posted by: PhyllisB | August 9, 2018 12:06 PM    Report this comment

I agree in theory with your article. However, there are several problems finding quality dog food - be it with grain or without grain. Asking your vet gets you the over priced stuff that they sell and many dogs do not care for it. Scratch those. Just because some brands have been around for years does not mean they are better. Many have questionable ingredients and/or questionable sourcing of ingredients. I know of one who got in trouble when it was proved what was in the bag was not what was on the label. Good luck in getting an honest answer from this group. Then you have the companies who have recalls once a year or more. Do we really want to gamble with those? Things get more complicated when our seniors (and there are a lot of them) need something special due to a health issue like low sodium, low carb, absolutely no chicken....you get the idea. Some of us will contact the companies directly and ask for (in my dogs case) the sodium content of their different brands. Any company who does not respond, gets dropped. So we are left with very few companies and it seems those are usually the grain-free. And because they cheapen the food by substituting meat with foods in the pea family, there is not enough taurine. Would I like to be able to rotate the foods? You bet. If only I could find the quality I'm looking for in low sodium, and not make a career out finding those foods.

Posted by: VT Dog Mom | August 9, 2018 12:01 PM    Report this comment

As Batgirl previously asked, I would love a list of recommended dog foods. Thanks!

Posted by: wolfspirit | August 9, 2018 11:58 AM    Report this comment

I have a 9 year old lab who I have always fed grain free until these articles started coming out. I actually changed for two reasons, the first being the concern about heart problems and the second was that she started having more frequent and larger poops. Hard to get recommendations for food with grains so I settled on PureVita by Nutri Source for the time being. She is doing well on it, the poop problem has gone away and she seems more satisfied. Would still like recommendations for food that is not grain free as most of the feed stores and pet stores still advocate grain free.

Posted by: labbygirl | August 9, 2018 11:54 AM    Report this comment

I just had an allergy panel run for my dog and among numerous other things, he is allergic to green peas! Almost every dog food on the market has green peas in it to boost the protein content! I did find one brand without them, but it has chickpeas listed as the second ingredient! After reading an article earlier this week, I am afraid to feed that one also. I wish dog food manufacturers would make a food without peas and just let people add additional meat to it themselves. I guess I will be cooking for the dog too until or even if I ever find a suitable dog food.

Posted by: Susan1949 | August 9, 2018 11:40 AM    Report this comment

Much of the confusion in the debate about grain-free diets is that "grain-free" is rarely defined. Grain includes by-products such as corn gluten feed, brewers' grains and wheat middlings (all co-products of grain processing), as well as whole grains such as rice, barley and corn. The nutritional values of these grain products vary widely. Legumes and potatoes (and other tubers) are not classified as grains by nutritionists, but they often are part of the grain-free discussion even though their nutritional consequences to dogs differ from grains. Before "grain-free" diets became popular, many low-cost dog foods contained grain by-products with low nutritive value as primary ingredients to keep costs low. Many of these feeds have had important nutrients removed during processing and should be used sparingly. As dogs and people co-evolved since dog domestication, dogs developed the ability to digest and benefit from inclusion of plant products in their diets in addition to important animal-based products. It is our job to ensure that we are feeding our dogs foods that provide necessary nutrients and do not have adverse digestive consequences, which can result from the foods themselves and from how they are processed. Just as we should with our own diets, we need to avoid simplistic terms like grain-free and focus more on specific ingredients and animal requirements if we want healthy pets.

Posted by: Alice P | August 9, 2018 11:35 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for this blog post. I have been slightly appalled at the quasi-religious fervor with which many dog owners have embraced raw feeding, grain-free feeding, limited ingredient feeding, and exotic protein feeding. I was equally appalled to see the post by someone whose name I can't remember (was she a vet? but how could that be), who appeared to be badly jumping the gun in terms of blaming grain-free food for DCM, when this is in the early stages of being investigated. Fanaticism, especially of the agenda-promoting variety, isn't good for our dogs. I feed a wide variety of nutritional material to my dogs on a rotating basis. When it comes to purchased foods, my policy is to stay in the 4 to 5 star range on DFA, and cook a stew of high-quality grains, veggies/fruits, eggs, and meat, to be poured over the purchased base. Sometimes I substitute cottage cheese, ricotta, kefir, yogurt, or milk, serving very little to any dog whose tum doesn't do perfectly well with dairy (and what I see is that gradually, that situation improves). As my vet says (paraphrased), Dogs have evolved to survive and thrive on a wide variety of foodstuffs. I have wondered whether the fact that almost all of my dogs are mixed breeds is at least partly responsible for the absence here of any food allergies and intolerances, and I'm sure there are dogs who need the special diets I mentioned above. Thanks again for this article encouraging us to stay on an even keel when it comes to feeding our dogs.

Posted by: cellopets | August 9, 2018 11:32 AM    Report this comment

What we need from you, please oh please WDJ, is a LIST of quality foods that are not grain-free. I realize that in your annual list, you might include mfrs. that make both grain-free and non-grain-free diets. However, when I go to my local suppliers, ALL of the foods carried by the better mfrs are grain-free, and ALL of them have some combination of legumes, potatoes, pea protein, etc. The rest are at the low end of the spectrum (Purina, etc.). If you could give us a quick list, we could at least order online until this gets sorted out! Thanks in advance!

Posted by: Batgirl | August 9, 2018 11:14 AM    Report this comment

Thanks so much for the article, Nancy! There needs to be more of this plain sense information out there. We have a golden who started with acute skin allergies which became chronic. She was so miserable - red, oozing itchy skin - and losing her gorgeous hair over one third of her body. For 6 months our vet tried every med she could think of. Nothing worked. I switched the dog food. Nothing. Started home-cooking. It seemed to get worse. Finally did a NutraScan test - although a little doubtful of this working - but desperate to solve my dog's misery. Turns out Emma had issues with white potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, barley, and legumes. Guess what was in ALL the high end expensive food we were feeding her every day - as well as what I home-cooked for her - as well as all her treats?? All those same ingredients! Do you know how hard it is these days to find dog food and dog treats WITHOUT potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, barley and legumes?? HA!! Good luck. Took her off those foods and all her symptoms resolved very quickly. Amazing what diet can do.

Posted by: Emma'sMom | August 9, 2018 11:10 AM    Report this comment

we are feeding our 3 year old cocker Orijen dry foods with some roasted chicken, both dark and white meat, substituting some cooked beef occasionally. Is our feeding habits healthy.

Posted by: archgranda1@gmail.com | August 9, 2018 10:48 AM    Report this comment

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