Is grain free dog food good for dogs?

The simple answer to this question is that this is a controversial matter. 

Grain free diets are often recommended for dogs because they tend to be healthier than those containing grains.

There are several different reasons why people choose to feed their pets a grain free diet. One reason is that some animals react negatively to certain grains, such as dietary allergies. Another reason is that some people believe that grains cause digestive issues in their pets. Therefore grain free dog food is easier on the digestive system.

However, there is some evidence that grain free dog food may take a toll on your pet’s health. Grain free dog food is thought to induce heart disease in dogs called dilated cardiomyopathy or DCM which may lead to a life-threatening heart failure condition.

Is grain-free food causing heart problems in dogs?

Some grain-free dog foods are considered healthy because they include natural ingredients. However, the FDA issued warnings against feeding them to pets because they may lack specific nutrients, occasioning deficiencies that could cause heart disease, particularly DCM.

After receiving reports of many dogs of different breeds (including mixed) with DCM, the FDA issued the first warning. Some dogs are genetically predisposed to DCM, but the alarm came after learning grain-free food apparently produced heart disease even in dog breeds with no hereditary records of this condition.

The FDA pointed out that the consumption of grain-free formulas from many dog-food companies may produce DCM.  The common factor in all these diets was:

  • Grain-free
  • Most contained peas or lentils (for protein supply)
  • The source of protein was diverse

In a particular research, scientists found that dogs previously eating grain free diets and with taurine deficiency seemed to improve after a diet change and taurine supplementation.

However, current knowledge on the grain free dog food connection with heart disease is inconclusive because there are some experimental flows in current research.

Let’s examine some of the evidence to help you make informed decisions about what to feed your dogs.

But, what is in grain free dog food?

Grain-free dog foods substitute grains such as corn and wheat with legumes (peas, beans, and lentils) and other ingredients as a source of carbohydrates.

In other words, grain-free dog food does not contain cereals.

Variety of grains used to make dog food
Courtesy of Disiana Caballero from Unsplash

There are several different types of grain free dog foods available. These include dry food, canned food, and raw food.

Dry food is usually made up of ground beef, chicken, fish, vegetables, fruits, and some type of protein (legumes, lentils, or peas). Sometimes potatoes are added. Canned food is similar to dry food except that it’s cooked before being packaged. Raw food is just what it sounds like; it’s uncooked or lightly cooked.

Dog food with grains will probably show some of the following grains in the ingredient list: wheat, barley, oats, rye, triticale, Kamut, millet, quinoa, buckwheat, rice, sorghum, and corn.

Do dogs need grains?

Some people wonder how to add grain to a grain free dog food. The only reason one should include grains in a portion of dog food would be to add calories (energy). However, most commercial dog foods are correctly balanced for all nutrients and have enough amount of energy to meet your dog’s daily requirements.

Does grain-free dog food really cause heart problems?

As we mentioned before, present evidence of a link between specific diets and DCM in dogs is not yet conclusive. This is mainly because studying the link may be tricky. Some scientists agree that the FDA’s sampling techniques had certain limitations, such as:

  • A higher number of dogs should be included in the studies (they checked near 500)
  • Some dog owners, give treats to their dogs in addition to commercial diets
  • Some dogs eat less than the recommended amounts of food and therefore may have deficiencies of amino acids critical for cardiac function

In the end, the scientific community proposes to conduct new studies with a much larger population of dogs and to study only one thing at a time. In the meantime, we should be cautious about giving grain free food to dogs.

What specific heart disease may come from dog food?

Dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs (DCM) is the most common primary heart disease in dogs. This disease can lead to cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat) and the death of dogs from heart failure. There has been an association of this disease with certain breeds of dogs such as Boxers and Doberman pinchers.
Recently there has been increasing concern that this disease may also be linked to consuming some types of diets such as grain-free diets, legume diets, and new protein diets. The suspicion comes because of an increase in dogs dying from heart failure that have been consuming these diets but do not necessarily have a genetic background for the disease.

Dogs may also have heart disease potentially leading to life-threatening conditions. Heart failure may be induced by certain grain free dog foods

What ingredients in grain free dog food cause heart disease?

The problem is not what the grain-free dog food has as ingredients but more what it lacks.

We currently know that DCM in dogs may be associated with:

  • Diets low in the amino acid taurine (comment: this amino acid is vital for heart function)
  • Diets with low protein (comment: they provide insufficient amounts of amino acids, including taurine’s precursors, the sulfur amino acids methionine, cysteine, and lysine)
  • Diets excessively high in fiber (comment: high fiber contents can affect the absorption of amino acids such as taurine and its precursors in the gut, potentially leading to heart disease in dogs)

Deficiencies of some other nutrients may also affect cardiac function. Besides taurine, L-carnitine and its precursor amino acids (methionine, cysteine, and lysine), vitamins B1 and E, and minerals such as selenium, copper, and potassium are also important for the heart function. Thus, diets that are deficient in these nutrients may generate or aggravate existing cardiac problems in dogs.

What to supplement to a dog to avoid heart disease?

Recap: Taurine is a key compound for heart-healthy functioning
Your dog will need a diet including:

  • Taurine
  • Taurine building blocks (sulfur-containing amino acids, i.e., methionine and cysteine)
  • Good protein levels (proteins have amino acids, including sulfur-containing)
  • Appropriate levels of bioavailable vitamins and minerals

If a diet is low in protein, taurine, and sulfur-containing amino acid precursors of taurine your dog will have a higher chance of getting DCM.

L-carnitine is also crucial for the normal functioning of the heart.

Diets that are low in protein (like those used for dogs with renal problems) are low in amino acid precursors for L-carnitine and taurine. In this situation, we know from scientific research that supplementation with taurine and L-carnitine can reverse DCM clinical signs and prolong dog survival times.

Some important facts about taurine:

  • Taurine is a sulfur-containing amino acid not taking part in the normal composition of proteins
  • Taurine is made in the dogs liver from the amino acid cysteine, but dogs need external intake
  • Taurine is biologically important for the normal function of the heart, skeletal muscle, and nervous system

Some important facts about L-carnitine:

Carnitine is another key nutritional compound for heart health. lysine and methionine are the aminoacids precursors of carnitine. Any decrease in the availability of lysine or methionine will lead to a deficit of carnitine and therefore heart disease.

  • Carnitine is a water-soluble molecule made in a dog’s liver to some extent
  • Carnitine has a role in the production of energy by the cell, and to a great extent in the heart
  • In some case reports, dogs improved DCM symptoms when supplemented with L-carnitine
  • L-Carnitine supplementation under the form of propionyl-L-carnitine is highly recommended because of its great effect on heart metabolism

What are the pros and cons of grain free dog food?


  • May be used when dogs are allergic to specific grains
  • Grains may cause digestive issues in pets
  • Better breath
  • If based on meat, it is the natural stuff dogs normally eat from ancient times (remember they are domesticated wolves)


  • Many grain-free dog foods are high in fat and low in protein
  • May lead to undernutrition or overnutrition (obesity) as measured by the body condition score
  • May not provide enough nutrition for growing puppies and adult dogs
  • Don’t have the advantages of grains (fiber content helping bowel movement, good energy, protein, vitamin, and mineral balance)
  • Has been linked to dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM which may lead to the life-threatening heart failure condition

Final remarks

Is grain free dog food good for dogs? In conclusion, answering the question is an ongoing issue, and we would like to address if current commercial diets have the deficiencies pointed out above and to what extent. ….so if for any reason you need to give your dog grain-free food, consider supplementation with taurine and l-carnitine.

Your veterinarian can advise you on how to exactly do this supplementation. If your dog has heart disease symptoms your veterinarian will indicate a proper diagnosis of DCM and recommend a diet change or possibly supplementation with taurine and L-carnitine
Alternatively, consider giving your dog raw food or lightly cooked meat. Meat products and viscera contain enough amounts of taurine and L-carnitine and other vitamins and minerals in bioavailable forms to keep your dog safe from heart disease.


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