Grain free dog food is a must-have for a lot of pet owners. Many dogs suffer from food allergies or intolerances to grains, starches and soy and these can cause everything from gastrointestinal (GI) upset, to skin problems, to recurring infections when fed these trigger foods.
These sensitivities make a lot of sense. Our dogs’ ancestors didn’t eat foods like wheat, corn, rice, potatoes or soy so why should our own dogs be eating them? They shouldn’t!
Enter grain free dog food … specifically raw food, which most of us assume is grain free. Free of allergens, processed ingredients and starchy fillers, a grain free, raw diet is the best way to ensure your dog is getting nothing but the freshest, most nutritious foods. His energy’s up and his muscle tone has improved … and you’re confident your choice leads to a healthier pup.
But wait …
… Does your dog still have smelly, yeasty ears after eating this raw diet? Does he lick or chew at his paws? Is his coat dull? Maybe he has inconsistent bouts of diarrhea or leaky gut syndrome or watery eyes?
Believe it or not, there are a few ways that grains and other starches can still be sneaking into your “grain free” raw diet.
So how are grains sneaking Into your grain free raw food?
1. Your Raw Meat
Even if you feed a raw or home-cooked diet, the source of your meat matters. More importantly: what that animal ate matters.
Many animals raised for meat, including chicken or beef, consume diets high in grains, antibiotics, and hormones so they grow plumper, faster.
Veterinarian Dr. Jean Dodds reports that dogs with extreme food sensitivities can suffer if their beef or chicken was fed corn. Even if your dog is on a grain free diet, the chicken, beef or other animal you’re getting the meat from might not have been.
When animals eat these foods they’re transferred up the food chain to your dog. This exposure to grain can cause flare-ups in your dog’s skin, eyes, ears and GI system and you may find that your dog continues to itch, lick and scratch, even when on a raw or grain free dog food diet because of what’s in his meat.
Understanding your dog’s meat sources is the first line of defense against grain intolerances.
Source your meat organically, look for specific grass-fed and non-genetically modified (GMO) labels. Grass-fed beef is raised on grass, without added grains in their diets. If you buy your meats from a local butcher or a farmer, ask the farmer what he feeds his livestock.
“Pastured poultry” is the poultry version of grass-fed beef. These are truly free-range birds whose diets aren’t supplemented with extra grains, antibiotics or hormones. These birds don’t get plumped up with corn and grain, but instead roam free-range in pastures, eating bugs and other naturally available foods.
Beware of poultry labeled “free-range” as producers are tricky with terminology … it may just mean the birds aren’t in cages, but don’t truly have the ability to roam outdoors in grassy areas or eat natural foods.
Dogs with grain intolerances can benefit from being fed grass-fed beef or pasture-raised poultry.
2. Your Supplements
If you choose to add joint, behavioral or dietary supplements to your dog’s diet – as many raw feeders do – read the labels carefully. Many of these ingredients with the hard-to-pronounce names actually come from grain or soy and are found in even the most popular supplements.
Mixed Tocopherols And Emulsifiers
What on earth are these products and why should you care? They’re common “mystery” ingredients found in many joint, skin and reproductive “health” supplements. The problem is that these are entirely derived from wheat, corn and soy:
- Mixed tocopherols are preservatives that come from sunflower, corn and soy products.
- Emulsifiers are things that make liquid thicker. Wheat, corn, potato and soy are common additives in supplements, used to help as thickeners or flavor enhancers.
Watch out for these emulsifiers since some of them (like hydrolyzed plant protein) are also hidden sources of monosodium glutamate (MSG).
- Hydrolyzed plant protein
- Maltodextrin, malt
- Modified food starch
- Soy lecithin
- Starches (corn starch, potato starch, tapioca starch)
- Vegetable Gum
Did you know MSG in dog food can cause brain damage? [Read more on that here]
- Xanthan gum is another popular thickening agent. Not to be confused with xylitol (which is deadly to dogs), xanthan gum has been deemed by the USDA as safe for your dog to consume. However, xanthan gum is made from corn, wheat flour and soy and therefore isn’t recommended for dogs with a grain or legume intolerance.
- “Meals” like salmon meal, corn meal, chicken meal, beef meal, etc are blends of meat by-products and wheat proteins, wheat germ oil, soy, starch and/or sugar (glucose). These are over-processed and, more importantly, grain-based additives often found in supplements.
- Yeast is actually a fungus, but when used as a fermenting agent, it’s often used with grains. This includes the ever-popular Brewer’s yeast. Some dogs benefit from yeast in their diets, while others experience skin complications and GI upsets. This will vary according to each individual dog’s needs but be aware whether yeast is a trigger for your dog.
- “Vegetable”- Anything: While vegetables themselves don’t contain grains, processed vegetables can. Processed vegetables often contain stabilizers, so if you see ingredients such as vegetable oil, vegetable broth, vegetable protein, vegetable shortening, hydrolyzed protein and vegetable gum – know that these thickening agents are processed with wheat, yeast and corn.
Corn Has Many Forms…
- Citric acid is an additive that’s almost always derived from corn, beet sugar, wheat or molasses. Xanthan gum, dextrin, dextrose and fructose are all corn-based sweeteners.
- “Natural Flavors”: This common ingredient is an undisclosed, mysterious term that can simply be a strain of sugar, wheat or animal by-products. Potato products, flaxseed and tapioca are all starches that can cause skin, allergy and GI problems in dogs with these intolerances.
Instead of feeding treats or supplements with liver flavor or beef flavor, try feeding wholesome, fresh liver or beef. This cuts out the processed food exposure, possible grain exposure and is a nutritious option.
3. Soy-Based Sneaks
Up there with wheat and corn, soy is a common trigger for dogs and many dogs with food intolerances to wheat, rice and grain also are intolerant of soy products.
Soy is a legume, in the same family as peanuts and beans. While not technically a grain, many dogs who have grain intolerances shouldn’t be fed soy. Soy crops are often genetically modified, which likely aggravates any health issues caused by soy in the diet.
These soy-based ingredients are commonly found in supplements and may be harming your dog:
- Lecithin—a fat found in soybeans and egg yolks. This is used in commercial feeds and supplements to make things into pellets or thicken liquids
- Soy is used in vegetable broth, canned chicken broth, and bouillon cubes
- Potassium sorbate
- Sodium benzoate
If your dog has a soy intolerance, consuming these ingredients can contribute to skin, joint, and GI problems. GMO soys are harmful to your dog’s overall health, so it’s best to avoid these when possible.
Is your dog eating GMO food? [Find out here]
Popular Isn’t Always Better
Supplements themselves can be beneficial additions to a raw diet. Unfortunately, even the most common supplements are big offenders when it comes to grain-based ingredients.
A search on Amazon’s most popular pet joint and vitamin supplements revealed these recurring grain- or soy-based ingredients: citric acid, dextrose, flaxseed meal, flour (rice flour), lecithin, maltodextrin, mixed tocopherols, oat meal, potato product, pea starch, rice bran, sorbic acid, sweet potato, tapioca starch, vegetable oil, wheat germ, xanthan gum, and the ubiquitous “natural flavors.”
When fed over time, these ingredients can agitate your dog’s immune system (itchy skin, GI upset) – but even more, synthetic GMO ingredients can also cause reproductive, liver, kidney and lung toxicity.
It’s important to understand the many forms of grains and how they can still be harming your grain free dog.
Here are some popular supplements on Amazon that sneak grains into your dog:
- Nutramax Cosequin DS
- Doggie Dailies Advanced Hip & Joint Supplement
- Genuine Naturals MSM & Organic Turmeric Chews
- Grizzly Joint Aid
- Purina Fortiflora
- Terramax Hip & Joint
- Vetriscience GlycoFlex
- Zesty Paws Calming Chews
4. Commercial Grain Free Dog Food Offenders: Dehydrated Bases
Sold as raw food “bases,” commercial dehydrated or freeze-dried vegetable blends can help owners supplement a raw diet.
However, even under grain free dog food labels, these “base mixes” can sneak in starches.
In pre-made, dehydrated raw food bases, check for lentils, legumes, oats, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and tapioca.
- Honest Kitchen Dehydrated Base Mix
- Halo Spot’s Stew Healthy Weight Grain-Free recipe (dehydrated)
- Sojos Pre-Mix Grain-Free Recipe Freeze-Dried Dog Food Mix
- Harvey’s Veg-To-Bowl Grain-Free Dog Food Pre-Mix
A note about kibble: Commercial dry dog food (kibble) isn’t discussed in this article because all kibbles contain a lot of starch. Kibble is always high in starch because that’s what holds it together … so the manufacturers use other starches to replace grains in their grain-free foods. Read more about starches in kibble here: Grain-Free Dog Foods: Solving Yeast And Skin Issues
Ingredients To Beware Of
Wheat, rice (brown or white), flour, bran, oats, corn, corn meal, barley, oatmeal, and cereals
Root vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, carrots
Lentils & legumes: peas, peanuts, soy, beans
Feed Species-Appropriate, Feed Individual-Appropriate
Even the most scrutinized home-fed diet can be sneaking in grains and starches under the radar. Be cautious about where your meat is sourced and read the ingredient label carefully on any supplements you add to your dog’s diet.
It’s a good idea to consider whether your dog’s food is contributing to health problems like itchy skin, allergic reactions, watery eyes, or GI upset. Not all dogs suffer from food intolerances, but grains and starches aren’t healthy options for your dog, anyway.
If you’re worried about what’s in your dog’s diet, try reducing all the possible offending variables, then slowly re-introducing them (one ingredient at a time, three days apart). If he begins to scratch, itch, or seems to be uncomfortable, you can identify “trigger” foods that he should avoid.
Most importantly: consider what’s best for your dog. When feeding a species-appropriate diet, be aware of the many forms of starch that can sneak into “grain free” food.