Picking the best food for your dog is one of the most important decisions that you’ll ever make for them. A well-balanced, high-quality diet can make the difference between top canine health and nutritional deficiency. So, it’s essential to get it right.
For some dogs, the best nutrition means a grain-free doggy diet. A grain-free diet is precisely what it sounds like, a diet containing zero grains.
Whether your dog does better on this type of diet, or perhaps it’s a choice that you’ve made after researching grain-free vs. grain-inclusive diets, this guide is a must-read.
At a Glance: Our Favorite Grain-Free Dog Foods
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- 1 The Grain-Free Dog Food Debate
- 2 Ingredients to Look For
- 3 Fruits & Vegetables
- 4 Glucosamine
- 5 Natural Preservatives
- 6 Top 10 Best Grain-Free Foods for Dogs
- 6.1 The Farmer's Dog
- 6.2 Taste of the Wild Grain-Free Formula
- 6.3 Blue Buffalo Grain-Free Canned Food
- 6.4 Wellness Core Grain-Free Large Breed Formula
- 6.5 Merrick Lil' Plates Grain-Free Small Breed Formula
- 6.6 Weruva Grain-Free Canned Food
- 6.7 Orijen Original Grain-Free Formula
- 6.8 Nature's Recipe Grain-Free Formula
- 6.9 Natural Balance Grain-Free Limited Ingredient Diet
- 6.10 American Journey Grain-Free Formula
- 7 Frequently Asked Questions
- 8 Final Thoughts
The Grain-Free Dog Food Debate
So, before we jump into our top grain-free choices, it’s important to talk you through the grain-free dog food debate. In the world of human nutrition, many of us choose to ditch grains to reduce bloating, improve skin texture, lower depression, and many other reasons. But what are the reasons for choosing a grain-free diet for our dogs?
There are many reasons why some dogs need a grain-free diet. It could be a definite intolerance to grains or certain types of grain. Or perhaps your dog is being tested for allergens, and your vet had suggested a temporary grain-free diet. Some dogs are less gassy without grains, and some parents simply think it’s a better option for their pup.
With the rise in popularity of grain-free, gluten-free, paleo, and other diets for humans, pet food brands are creating all kinds of similar options for our Fidos. However, in 2018, the FDA announced that they were looking into a potential link between grain-free diets and an increased rate of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a life-threatening heart condition. This investigation worried some owners, and rightly so. However, in 2020, the FDA confirmed that they had not found a causal link between grain-free diets and the rise of DCM.
The takeaways are very mixed among all concerned audiences. Despite this recent announcement, many vets, canine nutritionists, and owners remain wary of grain-free diets, while many feel reassured that it is okay to feed grain-free nutrition. Nonetheless, you must be armed with the latest facts when picking the proper diet for your canine. So, if your dog needs or prefers a grain-free diet, the FDA believes there is no reason not to choose one, but it is always wise to check with your vet as there may be other reasons to reconsider.
Ingredients to Look For
Whether your dog needs grain-free or grain-inclusive nutrition, all dogs need a well-balanced diet. Below we have listed the main food groups your dog needs and what ingredients to look out for in the ingredients list.
One of the greatest signs of high-quality dog food is when meat is the first ingredient, regardless of the diet. Whole meats and meat-specific meals (aka, beef meal, chicken meal, etc.) are rich in protein, and should be the main components of your dog’s meal plan. Meat provides essential amino acids needed to maintain healthy muscles and overall maintenance. It also supplies energy, fats, vitamins, minerals, and a yummy taste.
Meat meals are concentrated protein which is highly nutritious for dogs and can provide up to four times as much protein as whole meats. Some brands prefer to stick to whole meats only, but as long as it is listed as a specific animal-sourced meat meal, it is an excellent ingredient for Fido. Avoid ingredients such as “meat derivatives” or “poultry meal,” as you cannot determine what specific meat or animal by-product it contains.
Healthy carbohydrates are essential in a dog’s diet because it provides energy that meat alone cannot provide. Healthy carbs are natural ingredients such as grains, but these are ingredients that you want to avoid if you are looking for a grain-free diet. Instead, you need to look for ingredients such as potatoes, peas, and lentils that provide energy. They are also nutritious, providing extra fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other antioxidants. If your dog struggles to digest these items, you might benefit from reviewing these options as well.
Omega Fatty Acids
Fats have earned themselves a bad reputation, but a dog would become very sick without them. Healthy fats are essential during the developmental period, needed for brain and eye development. Plus, they support skin and coat health, offer bone and joint support, aid digestion, enhance nutrient absorption, and improve overall wellness. Great sources of healthy fats include meat meals, fish, fish oils, eggs, and plant oils.
Fruits & Vegetables
Fruit and vegetables are essential for dogs, as they provide necessary vitamins and minerals to keep their immune system healthy, which enables them to fight illness and disease. Fruits and veggies also provide fiber, which is vital for gut health. Plus, it helps them feel fuller for longer, meaning they can maintain a healthy weight.
Glucosamine is a crucial component of a dog’s diet as it supports joints. This is particularly important if you have a larger breed, very active pup, or senior pooch whose joints need extra support. Even if your pooch is a small breed or doesn’t have joint problems when they are young, you can set them up with healthier joints by choosing a diet with glucosamine.
Glucosamine is commonly found in high-quality products compared to lower-quality products. Glucosamine is provided through added supplements or sources, including meat meals, fish oil, eggs, and green-lipped mussels. Suppose the food you choose does not have a suitable level of glucosamine. In that case, you can add additional glucosamine supplements under the direction of your vet.
Natural is not necessary but is highly recommended as the healthiest dietary option for your dog. Natural food is essential if your dog chooses a grain-free diet because they have a sensitive digestive system. Artificial preservatives and other unnatural ingredients can irritate the doggy digestive system, so it’s essential to avoid them.
Preservatives are required to make sure that the food arrives in your dog’s bowl fresh and safe to eat. Natural preservatives include ascorbic acid (vitamin C), mixed tocopherols (vitamin E), and botanical oils such as peppermint and rosemary extract. If you find food coloring in the ingredients list, ditch the product straight away. The presence of food coloring is a sure-fire sign of a poor-quality product.
Top 10 Best Grain-Free Foods for Dogs
After much research, we have scoured the market to find the best grain-free dog foods. We have chosen a selection of options to cater to the unique needs of the doggy population. So whether you have a small or large breed, meat-obsessed or sensitive doggo, there is an option for you. Read through the reviews to find which grain-free product is the best option for your pup.
Each recommendation is high-quality, AAFCO compliant, and highly rated, meaning you can rest assured that your pup should love them. AAFCO is the Association of American Feed Control Officials, and they provide minimum health guidelines for brands and owners. So, in no particular order, let’s take a look.
The Farmer's Dog
- Cooked fresh, flash-frozen, and shipped to you.
- Personalized meal plans.
- 4 healthy, vet-designed options: beef, chicken, turkey, or pork.
- Made with human-grade ingredients (no fillers or preservatives).
- Manufactured in the United States.
- Calories and nutritional values vary based on recipe.
The Farmer’s Dog (TFD) is a subscription-based service that delivers fresh food straight to your door. TFD is a big hit with customers who seek the convenience of a prepackaged personalized nutrition plan. All it takes is a few minutes to set up a profile and answer a few questions about your pup and their lifestyle, and you’re good to go.
TFD only uses the finest, human-grade ingredients from USDA-approved suppliers. They flash-cook the food a few days before it arrives at your door, meaning it is super fresh and highly nutritious. Meat is always the primary ingredient, and there are four recipes to choose from. Instead of grains, they use sweet potatoes, lentils, and chickpeas.
We have chosen TFD as the best overall grain-free option because it provides the finest, human-grade, ingredients meaning optimum health for your pooch. Plus, it is delivered right to your door, so it’s convenient for you. And the prepared packs also mean that Fido gets what he needs rather than owners guessing how many spoons or scoops they need.
We love that this recipe is a premium, fresh, grain-free offering that delivers exceptionally high-quality nutrition. And since it is a subscription product, it is delivered to your doorstep, adding convenience to your life.
Taste of the Wild Grain-Free Formula
- Made with a variety of tasty prairie meats.
- Uses gut-friendly probiotics for gut health.
- Enriched with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
- Made in the USA.
- Uses sweet potatoes, peas, and protein.
Taste of the Wild provides your dog with precisely that, the taste of the wild. Meat sources include buffalo, lamb, chicken, eggs, bison, venison, beef, and fish, contributing to a protein content of 32%. Blueberries and raspberries are listed, which provide vitamins and antioxidant goodness on top of the added supplements for immunity strength.
Taste of the Wild lists sweet potatoes, peas, and potatoes as grain-alternative ingredients. These ingredients and dried chicory root provide a fiber content of 4%, which helps regulate digestive health. And yucca schidigera extract is listed, which is known to reduce gas and stool odor. This recipe is also enriched with probiotic ingredients — a top choice for dogs with sensitivities.
We have chosen Taste of the Wild as the best grain-free kibble option because it lists a wide variety of meats, a high protein content without being too rich, and vitamin and mineral enrichment. Plus, the prebiotic fiber and probiotic ingredients help with smooth digestion. It is one of the most popular, highly rated, grain-free options and great value for your money too.
We love that this recipe is enriched with a species-specific K9 proprietary strain of probiotics. These extra ingredients are ideal for dogs who need a little bit of extra help in the digestive department to enhance the friendly bacteria in their gut.
Blue Buffalo Grain-Free Canned Food
- Beef, chicken, and chicken liver provide high protein.
- Contains tasty chicken broth.
- Flaxseed and folic acid keep skin and coat healthy.
- Fortified in vitamin and mineral supplements.
- Uses potatoes.
This canned food is from Blue Buffalo’s high protein Wilderness range. Beef and chicken are the first two ingredients, with highly nutritious chicken liver listed fourth. These ingredients contribute to a protein content of 10% and a yummy taste for fussy tastebuds. Chicken broth keeps this wet food moist and juicy too.
This is a grain-free option that uses potatoes and flaxseed as grain alternatives, which are nutritious and supply lots of energy. Plus, flaxseed is rich in healthy omega fats, and along with folic acid, your dog’s coat and skin feel nourished from the inside out. It is fortified in vitamin and mineral supplements to keep your dog’s immune system robust.
We have chosen Blue Buffalo as the best grain-free canned food option because it offers top protein and great value for money. It uses a variety of meats and animal organs to provide amino acids for full muscle maintenance, rich nutrition, and lots of taste. It is a juicy option for fussy dogs who need more than just dried biscuits, and it makes a great meal topper.
We love that this recipe offers dogs that need grain-free food with a high-quality, affordable wet option. It is full of tasty protein and is enriched with vitamins and minerals.
Wellness Core Grain-Free Large Breed Formula
- Premium kibble offering 34% protein.
- Fruits, veggies, and probiotic ingredients ensure smooth digestion.
- High in fiber for forever-hungry dogs.
- Rich in glucosamine for large breed joints.
- Lists lentils, peas, and potatoes.
Wellness Core is Wellness’s high protein line that provides 34% protein thanks to the first three meat ingredients. Meaning your large dog breed gets all the goodness they need to maintain a healthy body and lifestyle. The fiber content is 6% which makes this a high fiber diet. This typically helps large greedy breeds manage their weight better by making them feel fuller between meals.
Wellness uses lentils, peas, ground potatoes, and flaxseed instead of grains to provide energy and other nutrition. They also list fruit and veggies such as spinach, broccoli, carrots, apples, and blueberries, ensuring that your dog’s immune system is supported with antioxidant goodness. The glucosamine content is a minimum of 750mg/kg, thanks to chicken and turkey meals.
We love that this recipe is a top grain-free pick for large breed dogs. The high glucosamine content means that your large breed dog’s joints are still supported while ensuring a grain-free diet.
Merrick Lil' Plates Grain-Free Small Breed Formula
- The first three ingredients are tasty meat.
- Small kibble size and crunchy texture appeal to small dogs.
- Prebiotic and probiotic ingredients for smooth digestion.
- High glucosamine content.
- Lists sweet potatoes, potatoes, and peas.
Merrick has created this formula with small breed dogs in mind, thanks to the optimized ingredients and small kibble pieces that small dogs need. Deboned chicken, chicken, and turkey meals are the first three ingredients contributing to a protein content of 38%. The glucosamine content is 1200mg/kg, ideal for active pups who need extra joint support.
Instead of grains, Merrick includes sweet potatoes, potatoes, and peas, as energy-providing and highly nutritious ingredients. They also provide prebiotic fiber and probiotic ingredients to ensure smooth and regular digestion. Whitefish meal, eggs, flaxseed, and salmon oil provide healthy fats to keep your small dog feeling its best.
We love that this recipe is the top grain-free choice for small breed dogs—especially active small breeds who need extra joint support thanks to the market-leading levels of glucosamine.
Weruva Grain-Free Canned Food
- Cage-free chicken is the first ingredient.
- Tasty gravy is thick, creamy, and luxurious.
- Made in human-grade-approved USDA kitchens.
- Free of gluten and peas.
- Fortified in vitamins and minerals.
Weruva offers a line of natural products only. This canned line is made with top-quality chicken in their human-grade BRC certified food facilities. Labeled paw-licking chicken for a reason. You can be sure your pup will love the taste of this wet food. The gravy has a consistency like jello, thick and creamy, making it a top choice for fussy dogs.
Weruva is a premium family-owned brand that prides itself on offering dogs the best nutrition. This recipe is also grain and gluten-free too, and it doesn’t contain the common grain-alternative ingredient, pea. The protein content is 10% (not comparable with the protein content in dried food), which is excellent for strong, healthy dogs. This food is fortified with essential vitamins and minerals.
We love that this recipe is a premium grain-free canned food option, made with cage-free, hormone-free, and antibiotic-free white chicken breast listed as the first ingredient.
Orijen Original Grain-Free Formula
- Biologically appropriate diet with 85% premium animal ingredients.
- Premium kibble using fresh and raw animal protein.
- High in fats and calories for active dogs.
- Many fruits and veggies are listed for robust immunity.
- Lists lentils, pinto beans, and chickpeas.
This grain and gluten-free premium kibble lists meat, fish, and eggs as the first 13 ingredients. This unparalleled recipe is 85% animal protein-based that provides 38% protein. Chicken, turkey, flounder, mackerel, herring, and animal organs offer an irresistible taste for meat-loving doggos. This recipe is high in fat and calories and is an excellent choice for active dogs.
This grain-free recipe uses lentils, pinto beans, and chickpeas instead, which are nutritious. Pumpkin, butternut squash, pears, and cranberries are just some of the fruits and veggies listed for a robust immune system. This recipe also lists many probiotic ingredients to help Fido’s gut digest this meat-rich recipe and stay regular. Each kibble piece is freeze-dried for a burst of raw flavor.
We love that this recipe is the premium grain-free kibble option. It is a biologically appropriate diet packed full of whole animal ingredients, including meat, organs, and bone which is highly nutritious and tasty.
Nature's Recipe Grain-Free Formula
- Salmon and chicken meal are the first two ingredients.
- Free from artificial flavors and preservatives.
- Pumpkin aids smoother digestion.
- Budget-friendly option.
- Uses sweet potatoes, garbanzo beans, and peas.
Salmon and chicken meal are the first two ingredients, which are excellent protein sources. Together, they contribute to a protein content of 25%. This formula is enriched with vitamin and mineral supplements to ensure that Fido’s immune system is supported and remains fighting fit. Pumpkin is listed, which is an excellent ingredient for achieving smoother digestion.
Instead of grains, Nature’s Recipe uses sweet potatoes, garbanzo beans, and peas which are high in energy and rich in fiber. Canola oil is a vegetable oil that is listed. It is an excellent source of the essential nutrient linoleic acid. Research shows that this ingredient, along with taurine, promotes cardiac health. It is also rich in healthy omega fats.
We love that this recipe is the best grain-free option on a budget and is highly rated as the rest of the recommendations in this list are.
Natural Balance Grain-Free Limited Ingredient Diet
- Salmon and Menhaden fish meal are the first two ingredients.
- Only five key ingredients for simple digestion.
- Many healthy omega fats are listed.
- Pea, lentil, legume, and chicken-free recipe.
- Lists sweet potatoes and potatoes.
Natural Balance is prized for their limited ingredient diets, and this is one of their most popular grain-free options. A restricted ingredient diet is excellent for dogs with sensitive stomachs who struggle to digest rich, complex formulas. Instead, this recipe uses five key ingredients only. Fish is the sole protein, with salmon and Menhaden fish meal being the first two ingredients.
Instead of grains, sweet potatoes, cassava flour, and potatoes are listed. The fish, fish oils, and flaxseed provide healthy omega fats to keep your dog’s skin and coat in top condition. Not only is this formula grain-free, but it is also free of peas, lentils, legumes, and chicken, which some dogs find tricky to digest. This product is a top option for most dogs with sensitive guts.
We love that this recipe is the best grain-free limited ingredient diet option. This recipe is also free from peas, lentils, and legumes. It’s a top choice for those looking for a grain-free diet that doesn’t rely on these common grain-alternative ingredients.
American Journey Grain-Free Formula
- Deboned lamb, chicken meal, and turkey meal are the first three ingredients.
- Menhaden fish meal and salmon oil provide healthy fats.
- Nutrient-dense ingredients for best health.
- Fortified in probiotics.
- Uses peas, chickpeas, and sweet potatoes.
American Journey might be one of the newest brands on our grain-free list, but it is Chewy’s home brand that is proving to be very popular with dogs. The first three ingredients are deboned lamb, chicken, and turkey meals, offering a trio of high-quality protein (32% protein content). Flaxseed, Menhaden fish meal, and salmon oil provide healthy omega fats for top skin and coat health.
American Journey uses peas, chickpeas, and sweet potatoes instead of grains, providing energy and essential nutrition for your pup. Blueberries, carrots, and dried kelp are nutrient-dense ingredients packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Prebiotic fiber and probiotic ingredients promote regular digestion and stool health too.
We love that this lamb-based recipe offers a high-quality, middle-of-the-road option for dogs who need more than a budget recipe but is not too rich and meaty—a top grain-free choice for many doggos.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are grain-free diets healthier than grain-inclusive diets?
Not necessarily, as it all depends on your dog and their individual dietary needs. If your dog is doing well on a grain-inclusive diet, there is no reason to change them to a grain-free diet. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, if your vet has suggested taking grains out of their diet, either for digestive or allergy reasons, it could be better for them. Be sure to discuss any concerns you have with your vet, who can offer you tailored nutritional advice.
Are grain allergies common in dogs?
Although many dogs are allergic to grains, grains are not the most common reason for doggy allergies. Research shows that specific protein allergies are more common in dogs than grain allergies. The most common allergies include beef, chicken, eggs, and dairy. Allergy symptoms include itchiness, ear infections, gastrointestinal problems, chronic gas or diarrhea, or sore feet. If you are thinking about switching to a grain-free diet because of these symptoms, you could do an at-home allergy test from EasyDNA but also speak to your vet first to rule out other potential concerns.
Are grain-free foods safe for my dog?
Yes, according to the most recent update from the FDA, grain-free foods are safe for your dog. There was initial concern that grain-free diets could be linked to the rise in DCM cases across the country. However, after much intense research, there is no causal link between the two. Research is still ongoing, but as long as the food you choose is AAFCO compliant and high-quality, grain-free foods are safe for your dog.
Why are grains used in dog food?
Contrary to what some people say, grains are not used as cheap fillers. Depending on the grains used, they are highly nutritious and beneficial for your dog’s health. They are a great source of vitamins, minerals, energy, and fiber. However, high-quality grain-free recipes deliver with nutritious, healthy, and tasty ingredients as well. Common grain alternatives are sweet potatoes, peas, and lentils.
What makes good-quality grain-free dog food?
There are a few signs of high-quality grain-free dog food to consider when choosing a grain-free product for your dog. The first is that the primary ingredient should always be real meat or meat meal. Protein is the most crucial component of doggy nutrition, regardless of whether they need a grain-free or grain-inclusive diet. A grain-free product should be AAFCO compliant, well-balanced, and contain healthy carbs, healthy omega fats, fruits, veggies, and natural preservatives.
Can I feed my puppy a grain-free diet?
There is no reason why you cannot feed your puppy a grain-free diet, just as long as the product is deemed to meet the needs of developing puppies. Developing puppies need higher protein, energy, and healthy omega fats to assist with brain and vision development. A product should state on the packaging in the nutritional guide whether it meets the needs of developing puppies according to AAFCO guidelines.
Over the last few decades, the popularity of grain-free dog diets has increased. And despite the FDA announcement mentioned above, they are still a top choice for many dog owners. But remember that whether you are looking to update your dog’s grain-free diet or you are making the switch between grain-inclusive and grain-free, it’s crucial to speak to your vet about nutritional changes.
The most recent studies led the FDA to announce no causal links between grain-free diets and DCM. So, we are happy to recommend the grain-free products above, if your vet feels it is the best choice for your pet. Each recommendation is high-quality, AAFCO compliant, and provides a well-balanced diet, meaning that they are the best grain-free options available for your dog. Whichever product you pick, you can ensure that it is highly rated and loved by other grain-free loving doggos.