With the number of grain-free dog foods on the shelves, you may wonder if it’s a nutritious option for your pet.
“Food allergies in dogs are uncommon, and there’s no need for most dogs to be on a grain-free diet,” says Megan Shepherd, DVM, Ph.D., DACVIM (Nutrition), a board-certified veterinary nutritionist at Veterinary Clinical Nutrition, PLLC. “In addition, there’s a link we don’t yet understand between dilated cardiomyopathy and these diets.”
Researchers aren’t sure why grain-free diets have been associated with an increase in dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs, which can be fatal, but it’s currently being investigated by the FDA and other organizations.
Another expert we consulted for this roundup agrees: you should only consider a grain-free dog food if your dog has been diagnosed as having an allergy.
“Grain-free dog food is only necessary if your pet has been diagnosed with an allergy or intolerance to grains via an elimination diet trial. This type of allergy is rare in dogs,” veterinarian Kristin Wuellner, an employee of Hill’s Pet Nutrition, told The Spruce Pets.
However, some pets do need special diets to manage food allergies, which often show up as itchy skin. If your vet has ruled out other conditions such as seasonal allergies or fleas, you may want to consider evaluating for food allergies, which is done by feeding a veterinary therapeutic diet for a period of time, in order to eliminate common allergens.
We sought out the best grain-free dog foods based on criteria from Dr. Shepherd, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, the Association of American Feed Control Officials, the Pet Food Institute, and other expert sources.
After extensive research, our favorite grain-free dog food is Taste of the Wild High Prairie Grain-Free Dry dog food. If your dog prefers wet food, then we recommend Purina Beyond Grain-Free Chicken and Sweet Potato. However, there are several other grain-free dog foods available that we also think are worth your consideration if your dog has been diagnosed with a food allergy.
Here are the best grain-free dog foods.
Best Overall Dry: Taste of the Wild High Prairie Grain-Free Dry Dog Food
Kibbles seem extra-hard
Our top pick for grain-free dry dog food is from Taste of the Wild because real meat is the number one ingredient, and it includes superfoods, fatty acids, and probiotics for a balanced diet in a convenient dry form. This food also available in other flavors such as wild boar, duck, smoked salmon, bison, and venison, if your dog tends to be finicky and needs variety.
Taste of the Wild High Prairie Grain-Free is formulated for the needs of adult dogs, and contains no grains, corn, wheat, artificial flavors or colors.
The Taste of the Wild line includes a puppy formula too, which is important because puppies have different nutritional needs because they’re growing. It’s available in 5, 14, and 28-pound bags.
Best Overall Wet: Purina Beyond Chicken & Sweet Potato Recipe Grain-Free Adult Wet Dog Food
Variety of flavors
Owners say it’s easy on sensitive stomachs
Can size too large for small dogs
Purina Beyond Grain-Free is our top pick for wet food because it’s readily available and comes in a range of flavors including beef and spinach; chicken, carrot, and pea; chicken, lamb, and rice; and turkey and green beans in chunks with gravy. None of the varieties contain corn, wheat, or soy. It’s also free of artificial flavors and preservatives, as well as poultry by-products. Meat is the main ingredient in every formula, and added vitamins and minerals offer a complete nutritional profile.
The food is available in 12.5-ounce cans, which is a bit large for a small dog's meal, so you may have to split a can over several feeding times. There’s also a multi-flavor case option if you want to mix up the tastes occasionally. However, because it’s popular, the multi-case options are sometimes sold out. Purina Beyond is sold in packs of 12, with 12.5-ounce cans.
Best for Large Breeds: Wellness CORE Grain-Free Large Breed Chicken and Turkey Dry Dog Food
Available in other formulas
Larger kibble size for large breeds
More expensive than some brands
Big dogs—generally considered those who weigh more than 50 pounds at maturity—have somewhat different nutritional needs from smaller dogs. For example, they may be more prone to orthopedic issues than little dogs. Wellness CORE offers a grain-free option designed to support some of the medical conditions large dog breeds are more susceptible to, containing glucosamine and chondroitin to support joint health.
(While glucosamine and chondroitin are commonly recommended for joint pain by veterinarians, there is limited hard evidence demonstrating their effectiveness. Nevertheless, they are safe additions to your dogs diet while research continues.)
Wellness CORE is also available in a puppy formula, which is important because large breed puppies can be more susceptible to excess calcium in their diets. The kibble size (about ½ inch) also is appropriate for large breeds. This line includes many other grain-free options such as small breed, large breed, senior, and reduced fat formulas.
Best for Small Breeds: Nature's Recipe Grain-Free Chicken, Sweet Potato & Pumpkin Recipe Dry Dog Food
Small kibble size
Small bag size so it doesn’t go stale before little dogs can eat it
Kibbles are hard and crunchy, which can be difficult for older dogs with dental issues
Your little dog may think they are a big dog, but a small dog has different nutritional requirements than a large one. Small dogs require more calories per pound than large breed dogs because of their higher metabolic rates. Nature’s Recipe is formulated especially for your little dog’s needs. It’s made with high-quality chicken, and also includes nutrient-dense carbohydrates from sweet potato and pumpkin. Tailored to dogs under 25 pounds, it’s a great source of the vitamins and nutrients—with a grain-free recipe that’s easy on the stomach.
food also has more petite nuggets (about the size of a pea or smaller), which are more manageable for the mouths of toy and small dogs. Nature's Recipe grain-free small breed dog food is sold in 4, 8, and 24-pound bags.
Best for Seniors: ORIJEN Senior Dry Dog Food
Suitable for all breed sizes
Small kibble size
More expensive than some brands
Just like as we humans get older, nutrition can be a tool in managing good health and disease risk in dogs. While there are no legal definitions for “senior” dog food, many senior diets have reduced amounts of nutrients such as phosphorous and sodium. While it’s not necessary to switch to a senior diet if your pet is healthy, it may be recommended for certain conditions associated with aging, such as kidney and heart disease.
The first eight ingredients in Origen Senior Grain-Free Dry Dog Food are chicken, turkey, flounder, whole mackerel, turkey giblets, chicken liver, eggs and whole herring, providing multiple protein sources. The small kibbles are a more manageable size for finicky older dogs or those with dental issues.
Best Grain-Free Treats: Hill’s Grain-Free Soft-Baked Naturals with Duck and Pumpkin Treats
Soft texture for dogs with dental issues
Available in several flavors
Expensive for a small bag
When it’s time for your good boy or girl to get a treat, Hill’s Grain-free Soft-baked Naturals with Duck and Pumpkin are a vet-recommended favorite. Other flavors include beef and sweet potato and chicken and carrots. They also contain no corn, wheat, soy, or artificial preservatives, colors and flavors.
The treats are soft enough to be broken in half, too, to make them go farther or if you’re watching your pup’s weight.
Our top pick for grain-free dog food for dogs who have been diagnosed with food allergies is Taste of the Wild High Prairie Grain-Free Dry Dog Food for its variety of flavors to entice picky eaters. When it’s treat time, Hill’s Grain-Free Soft-Baked Naturals with Duck and Pumpkin Treats are a good option because they’re soft and easy to break into smaller pieces to make them go farther.
What to Look for in Grain-Free Dog Food
AAFCO Nutritional Adequacy Statement
The Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, identifies safe ingredients and recommends nutrient profiles for pet foods based on the most recent pet nutrition research. However, it’s important to understand that they do not inspect, approve, certify or regulate pet foods. Instead, the organization provides a standard for each state’s feed laws.
Foods must meet nutritional standards outlined in AAFCO’s minimum requirements in order to be marketed as “complete and balanced.” The statement will be based on either meeting AAFCO’s minimum standards or animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures. If not, it will say the product is intended for intermittent and supplemental feeding only (such as the case with treats).
Age and Breed Size
Pet foods are developed for specific stages in your dog’s life. Diets are formulated for Growth and Reproduction (puppies and pregnant dogs), Adult Maintenance (adult dogs), or All Life Stages. In addition, a puppy’s breed also plays a role in the what life stage food is recommended. For example, large breeds, based on an adult weight of 70 pounds or more, can be more susceptible to excess calcium in their diets. Make sure you’re choosing the correct food for your pet’s life stage.
Dry vs. Wet
Dry foods contain 10 to 12 percent moisture content, while wet foods contain 75 to 78 percent moisture. Dry foods are often less expensive and may prevent tartar buildup because your pet has to chew them, while wet foods may be more appealing to picky eaters, senior dogs, or dogs who have difficulty chewing due to tooth loss. It’s fine to mix types, too. More importantly, consult your vet for your dog’s calorie needs so you don’t overfeed. As with people, obesity can affect your dog’s health and lifespan.
It's always important to check the ingredients in your grain-free dog food. You will want it to be free of artificial flavors, preservatives, and poultry-by products to ensure that your dog is getting a healthy meal. Also, take note of the carbohydrates in the food you're buying. Since grain-free food often substitutes grains with potatoes or sweet potatoes, their carbs can sometimes be higher than grain food. This is important to look for if you're watching your dog's weight.
Whether your dog is a picky eater or needs to be on a diet for weight loss, make sure that the food you choose meets their caloric needs. It's always a good idea to consult with your veterinarian to determine the right number of daily calories for your dog. There are plenty of options on the market that are specially formulated to help you achieve your pet's health goals.
“The caloric requirements of puppies are much higher than adult dogs, and if not fed a diet that’s calorie dense enough, they may lack the energy necessary for growth and development,” says Dr. Erin Katribe, DVM, MS, medical director and veterinarian for Best Friends Animal Society. “In contrast, older dogs tend to have slower metabolisms, and senior diets have nutrient profiles that are adjusted to prevent or slow the onset of chronic diseases that we commonly see in older pets."
What does grain-free dog food mean?
Grain-free dog foods replace grains such as wheat, rice, corn, barley, and soy with other carbohydrate sources, such as potatoes, beans, peas or lentils. They are formulated to be eaten by dogs who have been diagnosed with specific food allergies, not the average dog.
Why use grain-free dog food?
“Although uncommon, some dogs do develop allergies to ingredients, often animal proteins. The most common symptoms of a food allergy include itchy skin, ear infections, skin infections, and scooting to relieve itchiness. Dogs also may have gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea.
If other causes are ruled out, such as environmental allergies or fleas, your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist can help you evaluate possible food allergies by instituting a dietary elimination trial, which is done by feeding a veterinary therapeutic diet for a period of time (usually 6 to 8 weeks). It’s the most reliable method because blood and saliva tests often yield false positives, says Dr. Shepherd.
Is grain-free dog food better for your dog?
Grains are not “bad” for dogs. While proponents of grain-free foods say it’s healthier for dogs, the truth is that grain-free diets are meant only for dogs who have been diagnosed by a vet with food allergies. There is no reliable evidence or nutritional studies that support the use of grain-free foods in dogs that haven’t been diagnosed with food allergies.
Despite the increased availability of this type of food in recent years (and plenty of anecdotes supporting grain-free foods on social media and other websites), it’s not recommended to give your dog a grain-free diet because it has been associated with an increase cardiac disease, or dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs, a potentially fatal condition. In fact, the FDA and other organizations are now investigating an increase in dilated cardiomyopathy associated with grain-free diets, says Dr. Shepherd.
Why Trust The Spruce Pets?
This article was updated by Arricca SanSone, a lifelong dog lover, who shares her home with two papillons who believe they’re in charge of the neighborhood. She researched the market based on an interview with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and criteria from the American Veterinary Medical Association, American College of Veterinary Nutrition, the Association of American Feed Control Officials, and the Pet Food Institute. She is a health and lifestyle writer for Prevention, Country Living, Veranda, House Beautiful, PureWow, and many others.