Dog Food Wonkery: Grains

There are various arguments against the inclusion of grain in the canine diet.  One is that grains cause allergies in dogs.  This article offers the perspective that the incidence of grain allergies in dogs is extremely low.  Another common argument against feeding grains is that the dog has no dietary requirement for carbohydrates and would not encounter grains (except for very small amounts in the stomachs of prey animals) in the wild.  This is true but also raises more complex issues.  For example, dogs were likely domesticated partly because they could adapt to the diet of humans (omnivores) and thrive off humans’ “table scraps”.  Over time, the domesticated dog evolved differently from wild canids and, even though the genetic differences may be small, I think it’s a legitimate question as to whether we should model our pets’ diets after their wild counterparts.  In other words, I am not feeding a wolf, I’m feeding a domesticated dog who evolved separately and with slight genetic variations from wolves.  So why should I strive to feed my dog the same type of food a wolf eats?  Further, every dog is an individual and the specific needs of the individual obviously outweigh any textbook definitions of “natural diet”.  If your dog can not tolerate X as part of his diet, that’s the end of the discussion on X for your dog’s diet.

A further complicating issue for many pet owners who are concerned, for environmental, ethical and/or economic reasons, with minimizing the amount of animal products they purchase, is whether non-animal food sources, such as grains, can be safely fed to dogs.  That is, can some (or all, in the case of those feeding vegan diets) of the animal-based food sources in the dog diet be replaced with non-animal ingredients which can be digested and utilized by the pet?

In looking at these questions, I think it’s important to remember the basics:  Grains=Carbohydrates=Energy.  (Note:  The issue of grains as a source of protein for dogs is beyond the scope of this short post.)  Energy is required by all living things.  Dogs can get energy from more than one food source:

If the dog’s energy requirement is not supplied by a carbohydrate or fat source, the energy deficit will be met by the metabolism of protein. Although the dog does not have a specific dietary carbohydrate requirement, carbohydrates are usually its principal source of calories.

Of the grains I currently feed to my dogs, rice is by far the most common.  Cooked rice is highly digestible and well utilized by dogs (although historically with my dogs, white rice is well digested whereas brown rice is not).  I want to feed the amount of animal products necessary for my dogs to thrive and I want to make use of non-animal ingredients which they are capable of utilizing for the remainder of the diet.  Rice works well for my purposes.

Do you include grains in your dog’s diet?  Why or why not?  For those who do include grains, what type do you use and what percentage of the total diet do grains represent?



36 thoughts on “Dog Food Wonkery: Grains

  1. Aside from having a dog who pops ear infections when fed most grain products, corn protein, while indigestible outside the traditional mexican masa preparation is allowed to be counted in the total protein in food. It also converts to sugar and has almost no nutritional value whatsoever.

    I have no problem eating or feeding animals. I do have a problem with how food animals are treated prior to their becoming food. There isn’t much I can do about that till spring when I will be raising my own chickens for eggs and meat for both me and my dogs.

  2. You seem to be sharing your feelings about feeding grains, but without any facts. In particular you say the dogs have evolved to eat human (omnivore) food. If they have evolved, there would be some evidence of this evolution. Is the digestive tract of the dog longer ? Does it contain different enzymes, such as more amylase ? You say that brown rice is not well digested by your dogs. Most dog foods contain wheat and corn, which are poorly digested by the short digestive system of the dog.

    There may be reasons to include some carbs in dog food, but you haven’t shown us any.

    1. I did include several links in the post for those wanting to read more on the subject but I left some things as accepted facts. One such accepted fact is that domesticated dogs evolved differently from wild canids. If you require a scientific reference on this subject, please try Google or another search engine.

      On the subject of domesticated dogs eating “table scraps” from humans, again a widely accepted fact which I didn’t feel any need to reference with a link. Dogs are scavengers and have the ability to adapt their diets as such. Clearly, if early humans were rock eaters and dogs were unable to make use of our throwaway rocks, they wouldn’t have bothered hanging around us – unless they just thought we were super cool and awesome maybe. But it was probably the food scraps that got them interested in the first place.

      Please don’t start a grain war. I really had hoped to avoid that which is why I kept the post rather short and experience/opinion based.

      1. Shirley, at the time that dogs (wolves) and humans made their alliance, humans were not grain eaters. That came tens or hundreds of thousands of years later.

        I have never seen any evidence that our paleolithic ancestors had “scraps” for the “scavengers.” Just as likely that they were scavenging from the canines’ leftovers.

        CAN dogs live on a grain-heavy diet? Obviously they can. Ought they be required to do so if there is an option? Different question.

        Be cautious about using the white rice exclusively. The calcium:phosphorus ration is bass-ackwards. Our mostly raw-fed dogs do get some starches, including rice, bread, pasta, biscuits (multiple grains), kibble, leftover pancakes, etc. I try to rotate the starches, just as I rotate the animal protein.

      2. Regardless of when dog domestication happened (which is another debate I don’t plan to enter into at the moment), humans became grain eaters and dogs likely scavenged off their scraps. I don’t feed white rice – or any ingredient – exclusively. It works the best for my grain ingredient but I also toss in various supplements and include other grains in the diet as well.

  3. Well, I avoid giving my dog grains containing gluten as much as possible, the reasons simple: he gets massive diarrhea after just eating a couple treats that contain wheat or similer. But he does get other grains, including rice, as a small percentage of his diet. He’s on a mostly raw diet as that is what his digestion seems happiest with.

    I’ve been trying to get my cats over to completely gluten free for a while, the older one has digestive issues that I suspect eliminating gluten might help, but they’re picky eaters and incredibly resistant to new foods.

  4. I’ve been feeding grain-free for 7-8 years. First grain-free kibble, then a grain-free home cooked, finally a grain free raw that includes a little fruits and vegetables. I made the change over my concern about exactly what I was feeding my dogs when I allowed someone else to source my ingredients and cook them down into an unrecognizable form. Of course, there is a lot more to the story, but bottom line, I’m very happy with the health and vitality of my dogs as is our vet. The bonus – no more picky eaters.

  5. It’s not about “allergies”, Shirley, it’s about intolerance and results.

    My dogs are intolerant to grains, resulting in loose stools, odor, poor breath, gas and other symptoms. But beyond that we don’t feed grains (or any high carb diet) because of the benefits of feeding a low carb diet. Grain free is great for dogs with skin problems, ear infections, chronic digestion issues, diabetes and cancer. Knowing that removing this ingredient (which many dogs tolerate fine – until they don’t) will avoid these problems, why would I choose to feed my dog an inferior ingredient?

    On top of the canine reasons, there are also mycotoxins, molds, and the bugs that come with grains. Pet quality grains are even worse.

    If I had a dollar for every person whose dog’s diet has been changed to a grain free variety on my suggestion and experienced a increase in quality of life, well, I could afford a pretty nice vacation.

    Here’s a GREAT example. 11 year old beagle. Chronic ear infections (1-2 months apart) for its entire life. At 18 months of age, the dog had surgery to open the ear canal hoping to solve the problem, leaving the dog effectively deaf in both ears, and only slightly reducing the incidence of ear infections. After 11 years of steroids and antibiotics, this dog’s coat, skin and digestion were a MESS. One day the owner shared the story with me and I immediately recommended a grain free, low carb diet (these two things do not always go hand in hand). A month later she returned to report no ear infections, and improvements across the board. Better stool, better coat, better skin and energy level. Six months later there were still no ear infections, and the owner wanted to sue her vet for putting them through 11 years of hell instead of just changing her diet.

    Grain has absolutely no place in the canine diet in my opinion, with the exception of small quantities in treats for those dogs who tolerate it well. Ask any anthropologist how you tell when a society developed agriculture – grains – and they will tell you it’s simple. Their dental status goes straight to hell as soon as they start farming and consuming grains as a large part of their diet.

    Not only should dogs not be eating grains, we’d all be wise to consider a paleolithic diet. We weren’t meant to eat these foods in high quantities either.

    1. “Not only should dogs not be eating grains, we’d all be wise to consider a paleolithic diet. We weren’t meant to eat these foods in high quantities either.”

      Thanks for posting that! I’m grain free and so is my dog. It’s helped us with numerous problems. Grains contain anti-nutrients that bind to important minerals, causing them to be unusable by the body. Soaking and sprouting can help, but you’ve got to be kidding if you think dog food manufacturers are doing that. They are also a very poor source of nutrients themselves. You’re much better off eating meats, fruits, and veggies instead.

      What is the currently accepted year of dog domestication? 12-14,000 years ago? That is a mere fraction of a blink, in evolutionary terms. Selective breeding has allowed humans to change our dogs’ appearance and behavior, to the extent that you really, really shouldn’t treat or train your dog like a wolf, but it’s not long enough to change their digestive system, just like our 10,000 years of agriculture wasn’t long enough for us, either.

  6. Don’t surrender yet! I have 18 rescue dogs plus 6 of my own – my preferred food would be from Wysong but I can’t afford it for this number; most of our food is donated, much of which has grain. I have a couple dogs with skin issues for whom I reserve the better, grain-free food I’m able to get at discount but the others get everything – and do well. Would I prefer a consistently better grade of food or to feed raw? Sure – but grains are not in my equation. I watch weight, skin, teeth, breath (poor newbie Walter Brennan needs to see the vet soon about his breath – whoowhee) and energy level. I don’t have the luxury of going “grain-free” nor do I see a huge benefit which would drive me in that direction (and no, I have no quotes nor links in this reply, only my experience over 10 years of dog rescue).
    I am a fan of Temple Grandin and agree re: the way our food source animals are treated in the main.

    1. haha – I meant I am not inclined to enter into a grain war. I’ll keep making my dogs’ food choices based on what seems to yield the best results in combination with what I feel comfortable and can afford to feed. I expect others will do the same, which I understand and respect.

  7. Well, I used to home cook for my dogs – organic lamb and organic wild rice. My terrier girl had early onset arthritis (vet thinks from past abuse) and had to “warm up” in the mornings because she was so stiff. She’d limp early morning and late evening.

    We switched to raw, took all grains out of her life (though truly the cooked rice was all she was getting) and lo and behold, no more limping! So much for rice being a “safe” grain…

    We’ve been raw and grain-free for more than ten years now and I don’t see us ever going back. I have two large twelve year old dogs, one with hip dysplasia and one with arthritic joints and neither one of them would benefit from the addition of grains. Oh – and my terrier girl is still with us, now 17 years old. Her “early onset” arthritis has finally caught up with her, but I can honestly say that we wouldn’t have had so many pain-free years with her if we’d been feeding a grain-inclusive diet.

    Now, if only I can work a little harder to get the grains out of MY diet…

    1. The story of your terrier reminds me of a Flatcoat I had who tore her cruciates (first one, then the other). We were advised that surgery was the only hope. But in fact, in eliminating grain from her diet and limiting her to leash walking, we were able to get sufficient recovery on the one knee to allow for surgery and recovery on the other. So she only had to have one surgery, which was much better than two. While I can’t say definitively of course that eliminating grain from her diet during that period was helpful, I believe that it was. She went back to having grain included in her diet afterwards and never suffered any additional knee problems.

  8. perhaps if people are resistant to feeding a dog the natural diet they require ( meat) and certainly cats.. (lots of meat) they should consider a pet that is a herbivore.. rabbits, gerbils, hamsters and guinea pigs to name but a few species of pets that live very comfortably on a diet of grains and fruits. I am not being facetious .. but very serious.. i find that often people who are vegan or vegetarian for some odd reason have no problem with wild animals eating a natural diet that is comprised of meat but for some intrinsic reason use anthropomorphism to create their pets diet and want them to eat the same diet that they choose for themselves.
    My dogs eat meat.. mostly chicken.. but some beef.. and pork .. raw bones.. and yes the occasion bean. rice ,grain or bread if i have some left over

    1. Alice,

      When you say that dogs “require” meat, you are ignoring the many pets who have lived long and happy lives being fed vegetarian or vegan diets. While I don’t feed either a vegetarian or a vegan diet to my dogs, I respect that there are some people who do and apparently have good results. One could argue perhaps their dogs would have lived even longer (or even happier!) lives had they included meat in the diet but really, that information is unknowable. In general, dogs appear able to adapt to various diets. Of course generalizations mean nothing when you are dealing with your individual dog who does not tolerate one or more particular foods. Luckily for me, I’ve never had a dog who could not tolerate a specific food so I’ve been free to try different foods with them according to things I’ve learned and what I could afford.

      1. Not trying to beat you up or enter into a grain war :o), but just because any organism can live on an inappropriate diet, doesn’t mean it is thriving on that diet. I’ve always been an advocate for feeding all your animals a species appropriate diet of the best that you can reasonably afford.

      2. I feel confident in my ability to judge whether my dogs are thriving or merely surviving. If I thought the latter, I would certainly make an immediate and major change.

      3. no problem if that is what you want to do.. but I have never seen a young puppy who has been raised on a vegan diet alone that “thrived’.. I find it difficult to believe that a puppy can go from mothers milk to a rice/grain only diet and still be in optimal condition..dogs can adapt if older I suppose.. but just weaned pups? No milk, no meat, no healthy pup.. just my opinion..

      4. I have never personally known a pup weaned to a vegan diet. I hope if someone here has one or knows one, they’ll chime in with their experiences.

      5. I do not think there are many, or any, vegan dog breeders.

        I would not like to see the result if a pregnant / lactating bitch was forced to be vegan, or young pups weaned on a vegan diet.

        One could hope that there were plenty of slow mice and squirrels about.

      6. Not to mention the dietary requirements of any animal change as they age. When I started Mina on a raw meat diet, she lost 10 pounds. This was good for her health and joints. But she kept losing weight until she got down to 32 lbs.

        Now, at age 13, she has a hard time keeping weight on. Meat does not do it for her. Raw, cooked, pureed, whatever – the flesh of animals does not help her gain weight. But carbs do. Adding couscous, potatoes, pasta have helped her keep on weight.

        I would like to get Mina back up to 38-40 lbs. She wavers between 35-37. I will do what is best for Mina’s health, even if it means she eats a vegan diet (and I’d love for her to do so). And I will do the same for Celeste, even if it means feeding her animal products (which hurts my heart). I do what is best for THEM and, as of yet, no veterinarian with any knowledge on nutrition has had any problems with any diet I’ve fed my dogs – from kibble to raw meat to a home cooked diet w/ meat, grains and veggies. Contrary to what some people seem to think, it’s not rocket science! (And no, I’m not suggesting it’s as easy as hopscotch, either).

  9. I have a dog that gets various degrees of black/bloody diarrhea whenever he eats wheat or anything contaminated with wheat (most grains or any food bagged in the same facility as a grain-containing food). He eats a home-prepared diet (to NRC requirements) with potatoes. Most grain-free commercial diets I see have large quantities of potatoes in them, which are carbohydrates. It always amuses me to see “grain free and low carb” diets with potatoes.

    My biggest problem with grain free foods is that they are preserved with rosemary. It’s extremely difficult and expensive to get a grain-free commercial diet without rosemary. My dog’s seizure activity dropped by 80% when I stopped feeding him anything with rosemary.

    My previous dog, however, could not keep a good weight without grains in her diet. I never did try potatoes with her. It would have been interesting to see if those worked for her instead of grain.

  10. I’ve seen all of my pets improve in some very obvious ways when switching to a grain-free (or low grain) diet. My current dogs have grain intolerances, with the older one having more severe symptoms. My cat (R.I.P.) vomited anything with grains to the point that stomach acid eroded portions of her esophagus. (White rice and corn were the worst culprits). This made choosing foods pretty easy.

  11. The diets of Mina and Celeste have changed throughout the years. Kibble. Raw meat. Cooked meat. Cooked combo of meat, grains, veggies, etc.

    Items I have discovered Mina is allergic to:
    * beef
    * barley

    Items I have discovered Celeste is allergic to:
    * rice

    That leaves a lot of food options for them. When I stopped eating a traditional meat-based diet, that did not eliminate a large amount of food from my diet. In fact, it expanded my options! The same has been true for my companion dogs. Ideally, I would like to switch them to a completely home-prepared vegan diet, but I’m just not there yet (as in I just have not sat down and planned it out). If their health was compromised, I would modify it just as I did when Mina nearly died from a kibble-based food containing beef and my own home-made diet containing barley. I adapt and so do they.

    Because the dogs eat the same food, I don’t use rice or barley. I do use quinoa, which is a powerhouse grain, and couscous which is just really affordable. They also get potatoes, yams and pasta. They still get animal products and they get pureed/cooked veggies. And yeah, i share my own food with them if there are leftovers. Celeste benefits more from this as she does not have a fickle gut. They get eggs from the hens at the sanctuary – boiled up and crushed so they get the calcium along with protein.

    Slowly, but surely, I’ve become less of a purist when it comes to the food my dogs eat. :)

  12. My lab (who has become my mom’s dog since I moved out) and my mom’s terrier mix are fed raw and they are quite healthy. Dogs still have teeth built for rending meat and bone, and they still have a digestive tract completely capable of digesting meat and bone. Plus it cleans the teeth and massages the gums, keeping the mouth healthy. When I am finally in a place of my own and can have dogs I want (right now we just have my roomie’s little pom, who is fed a good quality grain-free kibble), they will be fed a quality kibble daily with some raw meaty bones once a week to keep the mouth healthy.

    I haven’t done much research on whether grains are healthy for dogs or not, but at the rescue I volunteer for, the dogs are all fed Regal, which is a brand sold by U.S. Grain, thus chock full of grain. Those dogs seem to do ok on it. They sure do poop a lot though!

  13. I saw an article about this the other day written by a practicing vet and when I went back to quote it…it was gone. This particular vet tells it like it is no matter if its about patients or vets. The article said that there was not a lot of money to be be made in pet nutrition except by the manufacturers and the people who sponsored nutrition research at vet schools were…the manufacturers, so we really do not have all the answers to pet nutrition.

    I also read a business article about the consolidation of the pet food manufacturers because the pet food industry was growing at a faster rate than the people food industry back in about 2004 or so.

    So as usual you picked a good topic. I have a cat that is turning 6 (maine coon mix) that is pretty healthy being fed a middle of the road diet. Since the recall fiasco with chinese gluten I increased the quality of their diet with one top end grain free dry food, one mid level that has grain and a high end canned meat. I would be concerned feeding cats dry if they did not drink water but all mine do if its out of a clear glass bowl. (dogs prefer clear glass also)

  14. After all 3 of our dogs having tummy issues, and one of them gaining a pound AFTER reducing her kibble by a full cup per day, I started making their food myself. While we didn’t feed the ‘top shelf’ foods, we didn’t feed cheap … perhaps what might be called ‘upper second shelf’. I have put in a lot of research time about this to help ensure I am doing right by them.

    The biggest issue I find with the amount of carbs in the food is that it directly affects the amount of protein. The information I found concerning protein is the recommended amount be at least 30%. Formulating the recipe is a balancing act. Too many carbs and the protein drops. I also take dry matter and water content into account, as well as actual protein vs bio-available protein.

    That being said, my formulation includes not more than 15% carbs in the form of white rice and vegetables/fruits. I do make sure to add extra liquid to the rice for cooking, as well as an additional 5 minutes or so cooking time, to ensure the rice is reaching ‘mushy’ stage (basically, slightly over cooked). All vegetables are either finely chopped or pureed, and added to the stock for the rice and allowed to simmer 5 or 10 minutes before I bring the water to a boil and adding the rice. Speaking from experience, my dogs do not digest raw vegetables and fruits very well. The size reduction and cooking helps them digest it better.

    In the past I made “skillet casseroles” where the carb ratio was higher before I came up with my current recipe formulation. I still do this in a pinch when I’ve run out of their food and haven’t been able to make another batch (I make food every 4 days or so), although I’ve modified it a bit based on what I’ve learned over the past 6+ months. What I started with, while better than the commercially manufactured kibble, is not what I would feed them now because the carbs were too high. While improvements were apparent within a couple of weeks of starting to make their food, most improvements have come since I upped the protein and lowered the carbs.

    All 3 are healthy, flea free despite not using flea protection, have excellent coats, and have a high muscle to fat ratio. They also have a lot of energy. The oldest, who has hip dysplasia, has lost weight and gained muscle, and is physically doing much better than before I started cooking for them. Before the switch, she wasn’t very active in terms of play because it hurt. The changes brought about by their diet has resulted in a much more playful dog.

    I don’t believe there is a “one size fits all” food for all dogs. Like humans, some will have allergies or sensitivities to particular ingredients. Like humans, some will have specific dietary needs. You have to find what works best for your dog, even if others don’t agree with you.

  15. I feed mostly RAW meat and bones to my three dogs (all shelter dogs). If you have a slaughter house near that sells raw beef bones and dog meat it can be affordable to feed this way. I also buy raw chicken at the store to feed. Many stores will order chicken necks or backs for you if you order enough at a time.

    Most of my foster dogs also prefer the raw meat and bones over dry kibble — no matter what the brand.

  16. For anyone that has a dog with health issues at least consider trying RAW meat and bones for 90 days.

    For many people, dogs, cows, and horses — less grain can lead to better health.

  17. I am so glad you brought this topic up. When I got my dog 4 yrs ago, I fed commercial grain free food. In the last 2 yrs or so, I started buying what was easier and cheaper by picking up grain laden commercial food sold in supermarkets. A few weeks ago, I noticed my dog was losing hair around his eyes and always scratching. Fleas were ruled out. After researching what could be the cause, I realized my dog had demodectic mange. Not only was I shocked, I felt horribly guilty. I refused to allow a vet to introduce poisons into my dogs system so I consulted Dr Pitcairns book. Mange mites naturally live in a dogs skin and if the dogs yeast content rises (due to grains), mites will thrive and colonize quickly. I switched back to grain free food supplemented with a vitamins to boost his immune system, homeopathic sulfur to counter the yeast, omega 3s and echinacea to promote hair growth,all twice a day.I also cut out all carbs like biscuits, pasta and peanut butter which was his favorite thing in the world. Well 3 weeks later, no scratching, his fur grew back, he has no gas and his poop is smaller, darker and and almost non-stinky. His coat looks great and he seems to have lots more energy too.The only carbs he gets now are potatoes as a treat. I don’t think I will ever buy food containing grain again. Its the cause of many health problems in animals and humans as Joni pointed out.

  18. For you food wonks still following this thread (of which I am one), I read this in a book and wondered what your opinion might be.

    The author seems to be ok with some grain in the canine diet but puts a maximum limit at 50% (and adds that less than 50% is preferred). She then relates the story of an owner who had several large breed dogs and wanted to feed homemade food but could not afford to do it unless he included about 50% grains. (I’m going on memory here.) The author said something like: Although I would prefer to see less grain in the diet, I would rather see them eat 50% grain in a homemade diet than feeding kibble due to cost.


    1. I suppose it would depend on the dog. My Lab is prone to yeasty ears and 50% grain would just about kill him.

      Some dogs can tolerate some grains. Some can’t.

      An oft-overlooked source of nutrition is the humble egg. If the cost of meat is too dear, eggs can often be had on the cheap. And some dogs can’t handle raw eggs (my Lab can eat ONE raw egg – any more and it’s a fast ticket to Squirtsville, USA. My GSDx can eat six at a time, no problem), but tolerate them just fine cooked.

      And “meat” is such a variable – beef heart, for example, is so much cheaper than other muscle meats. And venison can be had for FREE this time of year in the US – taxidermists, deer processors, hunters cleaning out freezers, etc. Lots of people really stock up on deer in hunting season and have enough for their dogs for months to come.

  19. Since commercial grain free food costs around $2-3 per pound, feeding a raw diet might be cost effective but my only concern is the amount of hormones and antibiotics meat contains. And venison is not an option as I live in suburban Long Island NY and hunters here drive 3 hrs or more to bag a deer during the season. Venison is considered a prized possession not readily shared. I don’t eat much meat myself. Walking thru the meat aisle in the supermarket is revolting to me. So I guess I will just keep doing what I have been doing. Its working out OK for now but I will try feeding eggs every now and then. Thanks for the tip

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