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23 July 2019


Is Grain-Free Dog Food Bad? Facts to Consider When Deciding Whether Or Not To Go Grain-Free

With grain-free diets being under scrutiny right now, we answer the most important questions.

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As a pet parent, one of the biggest decisions you will have to make is what food should your dog eat? Picking a food that is nutritious, delicious and helps keep your pup at a healthy weight is a big decision.

There are so many things to consider when deciding what your dog should eat. Dog food can be fresh, freeze-dried, raw, wet or dry. You also read claims of all-natural, real meat, limited ingredient and more recently, grain-free. But what do they really mean? With grain-free diets for dogs, in particular, being under scrutiny right now, due to reported cases of Dilated Cardiomyopathy we wanted to share some food facts that any pet owner should consider before deciding whether or not to go against the grain.

What are grains?

A grain is a small, hard, dry seed, with or without an attached hull or fruit layer, harvested for human or animal consumption.

According to the Whole Grains Council, “All grains start life as whole grains. In their natural state growing in the fields, whole grains are the entire seed of a plant. This seed (also called a “kernel”) is made up of three edible parts – the bran, the germ, and the endosperm – protected by an inedible husk that protects the kernel from assaults by sunlight, pests, water, and disease.” While whole grains are unprocessed, there are some grains that are processed before we eat them, an example of this is white rice.

From Amaranth to Wild Rice, there are many types of grains that can be a suitable part of a human or canine diet (assuming one tolerates them). The most common grains you might see in dog food are rice, corn, or wheat.

A common misconception is that grain allergies and gluten intolerances are one and the same. Grain allergies refer to adverse reactions to the larger food group of grains, including corn, rice, and wheat. Gluten intolerance, on the other hand, is the inability to process gluten, a protein found in specific grains like wheat, barley, and rye. While gluten is only found in grains, not all grains contain gluten.

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Why are pet owners suddenly concerned about a grain-free diet?

Outside of a diagnosed allergy, why the war on grains?

In July 2018, the FDA announced that it had begun investigating reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating certain pet foods, many labeled as "grain-free”. Many of the foods under investigation contained a high proportion of peas, lentils, other legume seeds (pulses), and/or potatoes in various forms (whole, flour, protein, etc.) as the main ingredients. This means those ingredients were listed within the first 10 ingredients and before essential vitamins and minerals. Many of the cases reported included breeds of dogs not previously known to have a genetic predisposition to DCM.

In a June 2019 update, the FDA reported: “Between January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2019, the FDA received 524 reports of DCM (515 canine reports, 9 feline reports). Approximately 222 of these were reported between December 1, 2018 and April 30, 2019 (219 canine reports, 3 feline reports). Some of these reports involved more than one affected animal from the same household. The breakdown of reported illnesses below reflects the number of individual animals affected. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that there are 77 million pet dogs in the United States. Most dogs in the U.S. have been eating pet food without apparently developing DCM. It’s not known how commonly dogs develop DCM, but the increase in reports to FDA signal a potential increase in cases of DCM in dogs not genetically predisposed.”

While 515 cases may not sound like a lot when there are millions of dogs in the United States, to the owners of those 515 cases, this must have been devastating. To other pet parents, it may also signal a cause for concern, While the FDA is continuing to do research to learn everything they can about why the increase in DCM cases you as a pet parent may be anxious to keep your dog safe.

The FDA encourages pet owners to report cases of dogs and cats with DCM that they suspect to be linked to diet by using the Safety Reporting Portal.

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Tips for picking the right food for your pup

Consider your dog’s breed, age, weight, and activity level. This will help you determine their caloric and protein needs. Puppies, especially large breed pups need a food that is specially formulated for them. They can grow too quickly causing issues with their bones.

If you have concerns about allergies, consult your vet. They will be able to help you determine the best type of food to feed your specific dog based on the factors listed above as well as your pet’s overall health.

Keep in mind that many dogs are allergic to chicken. This is why many dog food companies, including Ollie, make food that does not contain chicken. Ollie offers delicious formulas in beef, turkey, and lamb in addition to chicken. You can rotate proteins and avoid the protein sources that don’t work for your dog.

A final consideration, while there are lists of brands and the corresponding data around DCM cases from those brands, the FDA has found that most of the brands on those lists are what are considered BEG diets. BEG stands for Boutique, Exotic, Grain-free. What they have found in many cases is that the issue may lie with the ingredients in the foods that are used to replace grains which include lentils, chickpeas, exotic meats, as well as some fruit and vegetables.


The bottom line: Should I feed grain-free?

It depends. Many grain-free foods are still deemed safe to feed. The best things you can do are consult your vet, do your research, avoid brands linked to cases of DCM and consider your pet’s health and needs. While it can be an overwhelming decision due to the amount of pet food types and brands and the information that is coming from the FDA and other sources the best thing you can do is work with your pet’s doctor and consider their needs. The other thing you can do to ensure your pup stays healthy is to keep up with annual wellness exams! This will allow your vet to build a relationship with your dog and catch any small health concerns before they turn into bigger problems!

The Ollie blog is devoted to helping pet parents lead healthier lives with their pups. If you want to learn more about our fresh, human-grade food, check out

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