Is grain-free food better for my dog?

We know gluten-free diets are popular for humans, but is grain-free food better for our dogs?

In humans, gluten-free is a multi-billion pound industry and it’s not surprising this trend is creeping into marketing for our dogs’ food too.

What’s right from wrong when it comes to gluten-free and grain-free diets for dogs? We asked Head Vet Sean to separate fact from wheaty fiction. Here’s his deep dive on where we find gluten, and what it does nutritionally for your dog, what to do if you think your dog has a sensitivity to grain or gluten, and the symptoms to look out for.

What are grains? 

Edible plant seeds like oats, barley, maize, rice and wheat. All are rich sources of carbohydrates, energy, B vitamins and fibre. 

Where does gluten come from?

Gluten is a type of protein found in grains. As a protein, it forms a sticky substance when mixed with water, holds its shape once cooked, and basically is what gives bread, pasta or cake (and our kibbles) structure and texture.

There are different types of gluten – wheat gluten is different to the gluten in maize or rice.

(Wheat gluten is most commonly associated with allergies or intolerances in humans.)

Can dogs eat grains?

First things first, dogs are omnivores, not carnivores. What separates our dogs from their wolf-type ancestors is they can digest plant starches like grains and cereals.

Grains are good for most dogs as part of a balanced diet. They’re an excellent source of:

  • Nutrients – wholegrains are richer than processed/milled grains
  • Complex carbohydrates – for slow-releasing energy
  • Essential amino acids – the building blocks of protein
  • Fibre – to aid digestion and help your dog feel full.
Serving slow-release energy

The energy dogs get from grains is the good, slow release kind – so it takes its time to enter the bloodstream and means your dog gets a steady supply of energy (rather than spikes and drops in blood sugar).

Grains are just filler, right?

Grains aren’t filler in the right proportions – and they can be a valuable part of your dog’s diet.

Can dogs be allergic to gluten?

In humans, coeliac disease is a genetic intolerance to gluten that affects around 1 in 100 people. Dogs’ digestive systems work differently.

For dogs, genetic gluten allergies or intolerances are much rarer – the ingredients most often associated with allergies or digestive upsets in dogs are animal proteins. Wheat allergies only account for 1% of all allergies in dogs. 

Are gluten allergies genetic in dogs?

Genetic gluten allergies can affect certain breeds like Irish Setters and can cause a cramping syndrome in Border Terriers. But even these are quite rare.

Allergy, sensitivity, or intolerance?

Symptoms of food allergies (including gluten allergies) include:

  • Chronically itchy, sore skin
  • Recurrent ear infections
  • Occasional digestive issues

Digestive issues such as diarrhoea, vomiting and loose poos are more commonly food sensitivities or an intolerance, not an allergy. Sean recommends a trip to the vet as the best way to find out what’s going on.

Related blog: Does my dog have a food allergy?

Trying gluten-free dog food

A small number of dogs need gluten-free dog food – and if your dog is one of them, look for foods made without wheat, barley and rye. If you think grain could be the cause of the issue, exclude wheat from your dog’s diet first. 

Remember:

  • Don’t exclude all grains – your dog still needs carbs for energy and fibre
  • Make sure the food has alternatives – there may be other beneficial grains (oats, rice and maize) that won’t cause problems
  • Treats and titbits count! There’s no point doing an exclusion diet unless everything they eat is taken care of
  • Remember, it can take up to 12 weeks for your dog’s reaction to subside!

Related blog: I think my dog might have a food allergy. What’s the best way to find out?

Grain-free dog food recipes

If you’ve tried excluding wheat, and there’s been no improvement in your dog’s health after 12 weeks, try going grain-free. 

At tails.com we tailor your dog’s diet to the very last bite. For dogs who can’t tolerate any grains, we can replace them with a nutrient dense combination of sweet potato, potato and beet pulp to make sure they get all the energy they need – and a healthy, happy digestive system.

If you’re not sure what’s behind your dog’s reaction, talk to us about a hypoallergenic diet – and we’ll make your dog’s recipe to avoid the top five culprits – beef, eggs, dairy, soya and wheat. We can go further and exclude other potential allergens, too – like getting your dog on a single animal protein, grain-free diet

Animal protein reactions are more common than you know!

Our veterinary and nutritionist team are on hand to help. Get in touch at hello@tails.com.

21 thoughts on “Is grain-free food better for my dog?”

  1. My Jack Russell has ‘turns’ very similar to those seen in Spikes Disease In border Terriers. Like many border terrier owners I put her on a grain free diet and the turns have more or less stopped, they only seem to happen when she’s snuck a wheat treat like sausage or biscuits.

    Reply
  2. My Jack Russell has ‘turns’ very similar to those seen in Spikes Disease In border Terriers. Like many border terrier owners I put her on a grain free diet and the turns have more or less stopped, they only seem to happen when she’s snuck a wheat treat like sausage or biscuits.

    Reply
  3. Hi Fen,

    Glad to hear you’ve figured out what might be the cause. As you know Spike’s disease has been linked to a genetic gluten sensitivity in Border Terriers only, but many with cramp and spasm episodes don’t improve even with a gluten-free diet. There are similar disorders in other breeds which don’t have any link to diet; episodic falling syndrome (EFS) in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels for example. Jack Russell Terriers and Labradors in the UK are seeing a rise in similar movement disorders recently, but whether this is purely genetic or there is a dietary link is unclear at present. Luckily tails customers can select wheat or grain as an exclusion on their dog’s profile if it appears to cause problems.

    Best wishes,
    The tails.com team

    Reply
  4. Hi Fen,

    Glad to hear you’ve figured out what might be the cause. As you know Spike’s disease has been linked to a genetic gluten sensitivity in Border Terriers only, but many with cramp and spasm episodes don’t improve even with a gluten-free diet. There are similar disorders in other breeds which don’t have any link to diet; episodic falling syndrome (EFS) in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels for example. Jack Russell Terriers and Labradors in the UK are seeing a rise in similar movement disorders recently, but whether this is purely genetic or there is a dietary link is unclear at present. Luckily tails customers can select wheat or grain as an exclusion on their dog’s profile if it appears to cause problems.

    Best wishes,
    The tails.com team

    Reply
  5. Hi Abbey. Shar Peis are prone to many skin conditions, some complicated by food allergies or intolerances. Many Shar Pei owners choose a diet that excludes the most common food allergens just in case there are skin problems. But the breed itself is not naturally allergic to grain. At tails.com if you choose a hypoallergenic blend we exclude beef, eggs, dairy, soya and wheat. You can also exclude grain and other ingredients if you wish. Each dog is an individual and their allergies or intolerances are too.

    Reply
  6. Hi Abbey. Shar Peis are prone to many skin conditions, some complicated by food allergies or intolerances. Many Shar Pei owners choose a diet that excludes the most common food allergens just in case there are skin problems. But the breed itself is not naturally allergic to grain. At tails.com if you choose a hypoallergenic blend we exclude beef, eggs, dairy, soya and wheat. You can also exclude grain and other ingredients if you wish. Each dog is an individual and their allergies or intolerances are too.

    Reply
    • Hi Ellen,

      We’re able to exclude a large number of ingredients from any potential blend, including grain. There are certain ingredients however, that we are unable to exclude together in the same blend. At this time we’re unable to provide a blend at this time that’s both fish flavoured and excludes grain.

      We’re always looking to expand our range of available kibbles so we hope we can provide your dog with a suitable blend in future.

      Best wishes,
      The tails.com team

      Reply
    • Hi Ellen,

      We’re able to exclude a large number of ingredients from any potential blend, including grain. There are certain ingredients however, that we are unable to exclude together in the same blend. At this time we’re unable to provide a blend at this time that’s both fish flavoured and excludes grain.

      We’re always looking to expand our range of available kibbles so we hope we can provide your dog with a suitable blend in future.

      Best wishes,
      The tails.com team

      Reply
  7. I’ve had 2 dog’s with a gluten/cereal intolerence! The first had constant ear infections and a vet diagnosed him, he was hyperactive as a puppy due to cereals in his food, once I cut these his energy became normal!
    My springer that was hyperactive as a puppy I cut cereals down when he was younger, then he was accidentally poisoned by weedkiller from my neighbour killing weeds and Harley eating poisoned grass!
    Since then he can’t really tolerate cereals, tiny amounts are ok! And poultry, especially chicken makes him very ill!
    Tails food has been great because I can get his food tailor made! He’s very difficult to shop for! Most foods have cereals or chicken in them!

    Reply
  8. My dog brings up bike most days.. Is this likely to be a problem with wheat or grains etc she is a Romanian rescue

    Reply
    • Hi Helen – absolutely, so it’s really important to keep an eye on your Border and take them for regular vet check ups to make sure they’re happy and healthy!

      Reply

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