If you’re reading this post, you’re probably aware that healthy grains can benefit your dog’s diet even though they aren’t needed for your furry friend to survive.
Grain-free diets have become very popular in the last few years.
Trendy diets like paleo and keto have resulted in well-meaning owners wanting to feed a similar diet to their dogs. However, many owners are switching their dogs back to grain-inclusive food since FDA evidence shows that grain-free diets may be linked to a disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).
To help you choose the best food made with wholesome grains for your dog, we’ve put together a complete buying guide along with thorough reviews and a quick FAQ section.
Let’s dive right in!
The Link Between Grain-Free Foods and DCM
On July 12, 2018, the FDA announced that they were investigating a potential link between diet and the rise of a certain type of heart disease in dogs. Since then, three status reports have been released. The most recent was published on June 27, 2019.
DCM is a disease that causes weakened heart muscle contractions.
These weakened contractions mean reduced pumping capability, which can result in other health problems like an enlarged heart and congestive heart failure.
So far, evidence that diet is behind the apparent rise in DCM cases in dogs has been inconclusive. It is now believed that reported cases of DCM are caused by multiple, complex factors and not just diet alone.
It’s interesting to note that cases of DCM have been reported in dogs of all different breeds who are fed a range of diets, including grain and grain-free. More cases have been reported where the dog was fed dry dog food. Over 90% of cases were of dogs on grain-free diets, while 93% were on diets containing legumes like peas and lentils.
The connection to grain-free diets COULD be because they are very ‘in’ right now. This means that even though many DCM cases are attributed to dogs on grain-free diets, grain isn’t the problem (it’s just popular). Still, most experts are using a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach and recommend feeding your dog either a grain-inclusive or rotating diet.
Benefits of Grains For Dogs
Grains may not be a dietary requirement for your dog, but they have evolved with the ability to digest them. Your dog’s wolf ancestors could not digest grains, but because of domesticated dogs’ relationship with humans this trait was developed so they could eat table scraps safely.
When healthy grains are included in your dog’s diet in moderation they can have several benefits:
1. Healthy Stools
Grains are a rich source of fiber that can help keep your dog’s bowel movements regular. This is especially important if your dog suffers from chronic constipation or diarrhea. Whole grains support healthy digestion in general and may reduce the risk of heart disease.
2. Source of Vitamins and Minerals
Another excellent reason to include healthy grains in your dog’s diet is because they are full of vitamins and minerals. Grains can boost the nutritional value of your dog’s food with B vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, etc.) to support healthy metabolism and also contain essential minerals like iron, magnesium, and selenium.
3. Weight Management
Evidence suggests that whole grains as part of a healthy diet can increase metabolism, leading to better weight management. It’s important to note that refined grains like white rice do not have the same effect.
4. High Quality and Affordable
The alternative ingredients used in grain-free foods are actually more expensive, since they haven’t been included in dog food recipes for as long. This means that you’ll generally pay more for grain-free foods even if they are lower quality overall. Grain-inclusive diets can be more affordable and have healthier ingredients overall.
How to Choose a Grain-Inclusive Dog Food
When you’re doing research to find the right grain-inclusive food for your dog, there are a few things to lookout for. Save this list to make sure you’ve considered everything before making a final decision!
Check the Label
When reading the label of a potential dog food, look for these main features:
Evaluate the Company
The thing about labels is that they can be a little misleading. Before you make a decision based on what you see on the dog food package, it’s best to look into the company itself. If you can, find out where the manufacturer is located, how long the company has been in business, and where they source ingredients from.
Companies that have not been in the dog food business for long and those that source most of their ingredients from places like China can sometimes raise red flags. Also do a search to see if the company has had recalls. One or two voluntary recalls are ok if the company acted fast to rectify the issue, but more definitely signals a deeper issue.
Study the Reviews
Reading labels and doing research are excellent ways to perform your due diligence when it comes to picking a food for your dog. The last step before purchasing a food to try is taking a look at reviews from real customers to see what they’ve been saying!
Since customer reviews are very subjective you’ll need to take them with a grain of salt, but they can be very illuminating. Look out for a lot of recent negative reviews that might suggest a drop in quality. Top-rated dog foods often have many positive reviews and owners will often point out if a food has helped with a certain health issue your dog might have too.
What Grains Should Dogs Avoid?
It’s imperative that you keep in mind that not all grains are created equally.
When reading ingredients lists try to choose a food for your dog that doesn’t contain fillers or grain by-products.
Here are some of the main ones to avoid:
The problem with these ingredients is that they are really just waste from processing other food items. These aren’t approved for human consumption and don’t have a whole lot of nutritional value for your dog either.
The Best Grain Inclusive Dog Food
Here's our how we picked our favorites grain dog foods.
We focused on quality named meat sources first: Named meat as the primary ingredient means your dog is getting the protein they need for strong, lean muscles. We did not choose foods with anonymous meat sources or excessive plant proteins.
We chose only diets with wholesome grains: As we’ve learned, grain-free diets are linked to a heart disease called DCM. We also know that wholesome grains have a lot of benefits compared to refined grains, which carry little nutritional value.
1. Merrick Classic Healthy Grains Chicken + Brown Rice Recipe with Ancient Grains
Best Overall Dog Food With Grain
Merrick promises dogs the balanced nutrition they need and a taste they’ll love with their chicken and brown rice recipe. This adult, all breeds formula is made with zero preservatives, fillers, corn, wheat, soy, peas, lentils, potatoes, or gluten. Just the good stuff for your furry friend, including ancient grains to promote optimal digestion!
The first ingredient in this recipe is real poultry to support healthy muscles and energy. Also included is a unique blend of whole grains like brown rice, barley and quinoa, along with healthy whole foods like carrots, apples and blueberries. Omega fatty acids are added to support skin and coat health, while glucosamine and chondroitin supplements promote healthy hips and joints.
This recipe contains a minimum of 26% crude protein and 16% fat. Owners like this food because it doesn’t contain ingredients linked to DCM. While some owners report that their dogs couldn’t or wouldn’t eat this food, it is highly recommended by most. Merrick is a trusted USA-based company with its roots in Texas and they take quality assurance seriously.
2. The Honest Kitchen Whole Grain Turkey Recipe Dehydrated Dog Food
Least Processed Dog Food
The Honest Kitchen invites you to, “Give your pup a taste of Thanksgiving all year round,” with their whole grain turkey recipe. This recipe features simple, limited ingredients like cage free turkey, cabbage, and oats. The Honest Kitchen is one of the few dog food companies whose ingredients and production methods are human grade.
Dehydrated dog food is great because it’s convenient and healthy! All you need to do is mix in warm water, wait three minutes and serve. It’s made in the USA with whole ingredients and less processing. As an owner you can be confident that this food doesn’t contain any corn, wheat, soy, peas, GMO ingredients, by-products, or preservatives.
This food contains at least 22% protein and 15% fat, making it ideal for adult or senior dogs. There’s also a minimum of 0.15% taurine, a mineral whose deficiency has been connected to the development of DCM. The Honest Kitchen has excellent reviews from dog owners who say that this formula is good for older dogs, picky dogs, and dogs with allergies.
3. Solid Gold Hund-n-Flocken Lamb, Brown Rice & Pearled Barley Recipe Whole Grain
Best Dog Foods for Weight Loss
Solid Gold’s holistic, whole grain food is great for adults of all breeds. Made with pasture raised lamb as the first ingredient, this food is good for dogs who are allergic to other proteins like chicken. The recipe is formulated to give dogs the benefits of an enhanced coat, sharper mind, and boosted energy levels.
Other healthy ingredients in this formula are brown rice and pearled barley for fiber, oatmeal, chickpeas, and ground flaxseed as a source of Omega fatty acids. Solid Gold’s unique blend of superfoods and living probiotics helps form healthy muscles, maintain gut health and support your dog’s immune system. You can rest assured that this food does not contain any corn, wheat, or soy.
The Hund-n-Flocken formula contains at minimum 22% protein and 10% fat. Since this fat percentage is lower, this is a good food for dogs who need to lose weight. Solid Gold was founded in 1974 by Sissy McGill and is committed to making healthy, holistic dog food. Many owners are satisfied with this food, especially for dogs with sensitive stomachs or allergies.
4. Hill's Science Diet Adult Healthy Cuisine Braised Beef, Carrots & Peas Stew Canned Dog Food
Best Grain-Inclusive Wet Dog Food
Hill’s knows that if you want your dog to live a long and happy life, what you feed them makes a difference. The Healthy Cuisine line consists of great tasting, nutritious canned food that is perfect if you want something softer and moister for your pup. This particular recipe combines braised beef and tender vegetables into a delicious stew.
No artificial flavors or preservatives are used in the making of this food, which is recommended for adult dogs from 1 to 6 years old. Key nutrients help dogs maintain an ideal body weight, while healthy and easy to digest ingredients make up the bulk of the recipe. The main ingredients in this formula are beef broth, beef, red bell pepper, carrots, and green peas.
This recipe contains at least 4% protein and 2.5% fat, making it a good food to mix with dry. Hill’s pet food is made in the USA using trusted, globally sourced ingredients. The braised beef stew is highly recommended by owners who say what’s great about it is being able to see the whole ingredients and knowing your dog is getting real food.
5. Farmina N&D Ocean Codfish & Orange Ancestral Grain
High Protein Grain Inclusive Dog Food
Farmina’s Ocean Codfish & Orange dry dog food is formulated to extend the life of your dog with just the right levels of protein and fats, limited carbohydrates, and specially selected vitamins and minerals. The Natural and Delicious line consists of 60% animal ingredients, 20% easily digestible grains, and 20% fruits, vegetables, vitamins, and minerals.
This particular recipe contains no peas, legumes, meals, or by-products so as an owner you can feel good about what you’re feeding your companion. Perfect for all breeds and life stages, this food is great if you have a multi-dog household and is also low-glycemic, which means that it won’t cause dangerous spikes in your dog’s blood sugar.
The Ocean Codfish and Orange recipe contains at least 30% protein and 18% fat. There are also Omega fatty acids for coat and skin health, along with glucosamine and chondroitin to support healthy joints. Although it doesn’t agree with all dogs, many owners have seen improvements in dogs with allergies and sensitivities starting this food.
6. Nutro Wholesome Essentials Adult Beef & Brown Rice Recipe with Ancient Grains
Wholesome Dog Food for Sensitive Stomach
The first ingredient in this Nutro Wholesome Essentials formula is beef, a healthy and (delicious) source of protein. Made in the USA using non-GMO ingredients, this all breeds recipe includes brown rice as a source of wholesome grains. Also included are antioxidants for immune support and Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids for skin and coat health.
This recipe’s primary ingredients are beef, pork meal, whole brown rice, brewer’s rice, and split peas. Other great inclusions are barley, lamb meal, and whole flaxseed. What you won’t find in this food are chicken by-products, corn, wheat, soy protein, or artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives. This beef and brown rice recipe offers complete nutrition the nutrients dogs need and flavor they love.
The minimum amount of protein in this recipe is 22%, along with at least 14% fat. Nutro is committed to feeding clean and ensuring quality, carefully sourcing quality ingredients from trusted farmers and suppliers. While beef flavor might not appeal to all dogs, many owners recommend this food because it contains natural fiber that helps with issues like gas and loose stools.
7. Earthborn Holistic Unrefined Smoked Salmon with Ancient Grains & Superfoods
Best Dog Food for Allergies
Earthborn Holistic’s Unrefined line of dry dog food takes quality to the next level with their careful sourcing of ingredients and avoidance of common allergy triggers. Their blend of five ancient grains is sourced by trusted suppliers like family farms, and there are no peas, lentils, legumes, chicken, potatoes, fillers, or artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives in this food.
The first ingredient in this recipe is real, sustainably sourced salmon that is 100% free of hormones and antibiotics. The ancient grains in this formula include chia, buckwheat, quinoa, and oatmeal. Some other great ingredients are pumpkin for digestive support, flaxseed as a source of Omega fatty acids, along with superfoods like blueberries, cranberries, apples, kale, broccoli, spinach, and carrots.
In addition to healthy ingredients vitamins and minerals are added to this recipe for full-body health, including taurine for a heart support. This formula contains at least 24% protein and 17% fat. Earthborn Holistic makes their food in family-owned kitchens located in the USA. Owners of picky dogs and those with sensitive stomachs have reported good results with this food.
Are grains bad for dogs?
No. Grains are not bad for dogs unless they have a grain allergy or sensitivity. Some dogs struggle to digest grains, but healthy grains in moderation should be fine for most dogs.
Dogs do not require grain in their diet but it is not harmful. Dogs are not strict carnivores like cats, and can actually benefit from having healthy grains in their food.
When is a grain-free diet a good idea?
Because of the link between grain-free diets and DCM, it is recommended that you feed your dog a grain-inclusive diet unless they have an allergy, sensitive stomachs, or are struggling to lose weight.
In these situations, you may want to discuss with your vet whether it is a good idea to switch your dog to a food that is grain-free.
What are BEG diets?
You may have read that a class of foods called BEG diets may be linked to DCM and the current FDA investigation. BEG stands for Boutique Brands, Exotic Protein, and Grain-free.
Until we have more answers from the FDA you may want to avoid unfamiliar dog food brands, foods that use exotic proteins like kangaroo or alligator, and diets that are grain-free.
Of all the foods reviewed, our top pick is Merrick Classic Healthy Grains Chicken + Brown Rice. This food contains plenty of healthy ingredients with none of the things that are linked to DCM, like peas and lentils.
The recipe features balanced protein and fat levels, along with everything your dog needs to live a healthy, happy life. Plus, if you aren’t satisfied you can get your money back!
Of course, the food you choose will depend on many individual factors like the flavors/textures your dog enjoys, allergies they may have, your budget, etc. The goal of this guide is to arm you with all of the information you need to make an informed choice and help make the process of sorting through your options a little easier.
We’d love to hear about the grain-inclusive dog foods you've fed your dog, have you tried any of these or would you have any recommendations? Tell us all about them in the comments below.