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Are Grain-Free Dog Treats Right for Your Dog?

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There is a lot of conflicting information out there concerning whether grain-free dog food is the best way to go when it comes to feeding your pet. Though most dogs are not required to go on a grain-free diet, it has become increasingly popular for pet parents to feed their furry friends grain-free food. 

Some dogs go on a grain-free diet due to digestive issues or medical conditions like allergies, but in 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced an ongoing investigation into a possible link between grain-free diets and heart disease in dogs.

Does this mean you should forgo all dog food and treats labeled “grain-free”? Not at all. But you should proceed with caution and consult your vet first. The FDA has not yet identified whether there is a specific dietary link to the development of canine heart disease (also known as canine dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM) and will provide updates to the public as information develops. 

In the meantime, DVM Laurie Huston of PetMD recommends ruling out a grain allergy in your fur-friend to be sure a grain-free diet is necessary.

Let’s take a deeper look into the details of the FDA investigation, consider why some dogs require grain-free or gluten-free dog food, and learn about some easy grain-free, homemade dog treat recipes and snacks you can try at home.  

What Dog Parents Need to Know About the FDA Investigation

Grain-free dog treats: a bowl of dog food

What does “grain-free” dog food mean, exactly? The FDA defines it as dog food and dog treats that do not contain any corn, soy, wheat, rice, oats, barley, or other grains. To make up for the omitted grains, many of these foods are heavy in peas, lentils, chickpeas, and potatoes. 

These might be linked in DCM in canines. DCM is a condition that causes the four chambers of the heart to stretch, changing the normal blood flow through the heart and potentially leading to congestive heart failure.

The FDA report states that more than 90% of foods reported in DCM cases were grain-free. Of these reported foods, 93% contained peas or lentils, and 42% contained potatoes or sweet potatoes. A significant number of dogs with DCM who were on grain-free diets were breeds that are not generally predisposed to heart conditions, which was the “red flag” that got the FDA looking into the situation.

Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer of the American Kennel Club, provided some insight about grain-free dog food concerns: “At this time, there is no proof that these ingredients are the cause of DCM in a broader range of dogs, but dog owners should be aware of this alert from the FDA. The FDA continues to work with veterinary cardiologists and veterinary nutritionists to better understand the effect, if any, of grain-free diets on dogs.”

That being said, there are grain-free diets that do not contain potatoes, peas, lentils, or other types of legumes as main ingredients. 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.

The 10 most commonly-reported brands listed on the FDA website are Acana, Zignature, Taste of the Wild, 4health, Earthborn Holistic, Blue Buffalo, Nature’s Domain, Fromm, Merrick, and California Naturals. 

Regarding grain-free diets, the Pet Poison Helpline recommends speaking with your veterinarian “about transitioning your dog to a balanced diet that has undergone feeding trials and meets AAFCO standards.”

Moving forward, use caution when feeding your pet grain-free dog food or treats until the FDA is able to conclude its investigation. 

Easy and Safe Grain-Free Dog Treats

Grain-free dog treats: A dog looks up, begging

If your fur babies have a food or environmental allergy, there are safe chews, crunchy training treats, jerky treats, and chewy dog biscuits out there that are free of wheat, GMOs, and steroids. 

You can’t go wrong with all-natural nutrition that’s free of ingredients you can’t pronounce and contains no fillers like glycerin and gelatin, which have no nutritional value. If you want to replace your grain-free dog treats, seek out whole grains like oats and brown rice that are high in fiber but still free of wheat gluten.

There are also safe, natural, grain-free treats for your pooch that can be found right in your kitchen cabinet from peanut butter and coconut oil to applesauce and pumpkin puree. As an added bonus, these snacks don’t require prep time or kitchen equipment, so there’s no need to worry about scrubbing that baking sheet or washing the rolling pin and cookie cutter (unless your little four-legged kitchen helper volunteers to lick the dishes clean).

Coconut oil, for example, has antiviral and antibacterial properties that help prevent infection and disease as well as promote normal thyroid function. It’s great for your dog’s gut too: Coconut can help your dog absorb essential nutrients. It also has a soothing effect on your dog’s digestive tract and helps relieve the symptoms of some inflammatory bowel disorders. Coconut oil and coconut flour are often used in gluten-free dog treat recipes as an alternative to the potentially harmful ingredients the FDA is investigating like legumes. 

Peanut butter is a solid go-to dog treat that has no gluten. Plain, unsalted, natural peanut butter is a versatile, high-protein treat. You can serve it in a KONG to create long-lasting snack or you can use it to hide your dog’s medication. Just make sure the peanut butter you use doesn’t have any added salt, seasoning, or xylitol.

Preservative-Free Doggie Nutrition

Grain-free dog treats: A dog licks his lips

In addition to having basic grain-free dog treats on hand that are not reliant on ingredients like peas, chickpeas, and potatoes, there are many healthy dog foods and supplements out there that don’t contain wheat or nutrition-less filler ingredients.

Wheat (especially from processed white flour) and gelatin are considered filler ingredients and take up room without adding much nutritional content. As mentioned above, some dogs may have sensitivities to gluten, so looking for wheat-free food and treats may be enough to help your dog. 

Gluten or grain sensitivities can emerge in the form of digestive or skin issues. In particular, gassy dogs (like bulldogs, boxers, and pugs, for example) tend to be a little less flatulent on a higher quality diet that doesn’t include wheat or fillers.

It is also important to feed your dog a well-balanced diet. Grain-free treats here-and-there are safe for your dog to eat, but give them to your pooch sparingly. Take extra caution and be conservative if your dog’s main meals are grain-free. Until the FDA learns more about the increase of DCM and it’s potential link to certain diets or ingredients, consult your veterinarian. 

As with any food in a dog’s diet, moderation is very important. Overfeeding your dog in general puts them at risk for obesity and heart disease. Even peanut butter has a lot of calories, so be careful not to feed your dog too much. 

Your dog’s treats come on top of the calories they get from their daily meals, so be conservative. According to WebMD, dog treats should make up around 5-10% of your dog’s daily diet — maximum. Everything adds up, so keep track of when you’re giving your dog treats or sharing other human food with them throughout the day.

Grain-Free Dog Treats and Supplements

At the end of the day, make sure your pup is getting effective, quality, premium ingredients whose benefits are backed by nutritional science. Remember to always check with your veterinarian before switching up your dog’s diet. Talk to a professional if you have any questions about your dog’s health or dietary needs, or if you need advice on which high-quality dog food is best.

Want to learn more about how you can supplement your dog’s diet with