Should Your Puppy Have Grain-Free Food?

Here’s a package of proudly grain-free biscuits prepared by a small dog biscuit bakery in Canada. They list the ingredients:

  • buckwheat flour (they explain that buckwheat is not a grain)
  • potato flour
  • chickpea flour
  • yellow pea flour
  • apple fiber
  • turkey meal
  • cranberries
  • salt
  • rosemary

Those are wholesome ingredients, right? You can look forward to giving your pup these special treats for Thanksgiving so he or she can participate in the traditional dinner. You’ll be having turkey and potatoes and cranberries yourself, maybe apples and rosemary, too. But is grain-free food good for your puppy?

The FDA has something to say

The Food and Drug Administration looked into grain-free dog food after both cats and dogs turned up with unusually high levels of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a heart condition associated with a taurine deficiency.

When the FDA examined the foods these dogs ate, they found that they contained different kinds of meat, but that they all had a few things in common. For one thing, they had exotic ingredients like kangaroo (or, we’d guess, chickpea flour) that haven’t had the kind of rigorous testing that more common ingredients have had.

For another, they came from small companies that don’t have nutritional testing facilities. Those turkey and cranberry biscuits have a macronutrient analysis showing protein, fat, fiber, and moisture, but they say nothing about vitamins and minerals, and not a word about taurine.

Most importantly, they were all grain-free foods. They all contained peas and beans instead of grains. The foods were not all low in taurine, but the dogs that ate those foods and had DCM, they also had taurine deficiencies.

Why are grain-free foods popular?

People are attracted to low-carb diets, including paleo and keto diets that limit grains. Lots of people who do not have celiac disease still avoid grains because they believe that even whole grains are less healthy or more likely to cause weight gain  than protein foods. Folks who feel that way about their own diets are likely to extend that to their pets as well.

Other dog owners figure they never see wolves and coyotes slurping down bowls of oatmeal or crusts of bread, so grains must not be natural for dogs.


Back to the taurine deficiency we mentioned.

Taurine is an amino acid. Protein is made up of a collection of amino acids. Different foods have different collections of amino acids. Those with the 9 amino acids we need for healthy muscles and other functioning are called “complete proteins.” Most plants, including peas and beans, have incomplete proteins.

For people, as long as half your food choices are animal foods, your body can build complete protein. If you are a vegetarian or a vegan, you can combine incomplete protein foods — such as peas and wheat or beans and rice — to make complete proteins.

For some reason, it looks like dogs need grains to build complete protein. With a focus on legumes instead of grains, they end up with a taurine deficiency — and sometimes with heart disease.

Best food choices

We recommend Royal Canin, but many reliable brands include good nutritional profiles. It’s wise to choose a puppy food for your puppy and switch to adult dog food as he or she gets older.

More research is needed to be sure that grain-free dog food is associated with DCM, but it’s not worth taking the chance.

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