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While evaluating your options to find the best food for your best friend, you’ve probably encountered conflicting opinions about grain free dog foods

While some sources indicate that a grain free diet is healthier than traditional dog food, the Grain Free Diet Alert released by the FDA in 2019 left many dog owners concerned about potential impacts of grain free foods on their pets’ health. The alert came after the FDA investigated reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) — essentially an enlarged heart — in dogs eating certain types of dog foods, many of them labeled “grain free.”

With the growing popularity of grain free dog food and many leading “healthy” commercial dog food brands involved in the study, dog owners who feed their dogs these foods (or are considering doing so) are faced with many uncertainties: How healthy is it to feed my dog grain free foods? Are there any benefits of grain free dog food? Are some dog foods or brands safer than others?

It can be complicated, but in short: the healthiest dog diet does not contain grains or the fillers that commonly replace grains. Only natural raw dog food diets avoid this problem completely. 

With all the confusion out there, we’ve put together key considerations from our expert animal nutritionist Dr. Richard Patton to help you decide which diet is best for your dog.

Grain Free Dog Food

What Is Grain Free Dog Food?

“Grain free” doesn’t mean low-carbohydrates or all meat.

“Grain free” has become a label that we tend to associate with “healthy” or “high quality.” Dog food that’s free of grains can be a healthy choice for your dog, but Dr. Patton says that “grain free” can be a deceptive term:

“When the grains are taken out of these foods, they’re just replaced with other ingredients — peas, lentils, sweet potatoes — which means they’ll often have more carbohydrates than foods that aren’t grain free. So, the problem with ‘grain free’ foods with these ingredients isn’t just about the risk of DCM, it’s about excess soluble carbohydrates.”

These excess soluble carbohydrates can lead to several problems in dogs. While your dog needs carbohydrates to produce energy, too many of them can contribute to obesity, the wrong bacteria in the gut and a lack of energy. So, if a dog food is labeled “grain free” but the grains are replaced with other ingredients, it’s not necessarily a healthier option for your dog.

Learn more about the impact of excess soluble carbohydrates on your dog’s health.


A raw dog food diet is a good way to reap the benefits of a healthy grain free diet without having to worry about risks that come from fillers or ingredients used to replace grains.


Is Grain Free Dog Food Good or Bad?

Gluten free and grain free diets for dogs have become increasingly popular in recent years due to concerns about food allergies or the high amounts of carbohydrates in traditional dog food. But, since this spike in popularity coincides with a rise in cases of canine dilated cardiomyopathy linked to grain free foods, many dog owners are at a loss about whether grain free diets are actually safe.

How concerned should dog owners be about the Grain Free Diet Alert?

The FDA investigated 515 reports of DCM in dogs received between January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2019, finding 560 dogs were affected. Out of the 560 dogs diagnosed with DCM, 119 of them died as a result of DCM.

“An enlarged heart is very common in humans,” says Dr. Patton, “but it’s uncommon in dogs, so these numbers do seem concerning. It’s absolutely something we should keep an open mind about and keep investigating.”

So, why would a grain free diet contribute to DCM? It might not be as simple as grain free or not grain free, according to Dr. Patton. The amount of other ingredients of concern complicate the issue.

A deeper look at the results of the 2019 study shows that these cases may have something to do with common ingredients in grain free dog food. The findings show high instances of cases reported in foods with ingredients such as peas, lentils and sweet potatoes.

To complicate the situation even more, some dog breeds had more cases reported than others, and some brands were reported more frequently than others. (Vital Essentials was not one of the grain free dog food brands identified in the study as possibly linked to DCM.)


If a dog food is labeled “grain free” but the grains are replaced with other ingredients, it’s not necessarily a healthier option for your dog.


With so many unknowns, it’s hard to pin down the exact cause of or contributor to these cases. But, as Dr. Patton shares, we should consider how these foods impact our dogs’ health, and we shouldn’t limit our concerns to the risk of DCM. There are other problems that can result from some dog foods that have been labeled “grain free” but actually just replace the grains with similar (or even unhealthier) ingredients.


What Is the Best Grain Free Dog Food?

How Raw Dog Food is Different 

dachshund with vital essentials

Rex loves the crunch of Vital Essentials freeze-dried mini nibs and his parents love the convenience. @rex_the__dino

Unlike most commercial grain free dog foods, raw dog food is naturally grain free rather than modified to exclude grains. As Dr. Patton notes, “Raw food isn’t grain free in the sense that grain free traditional kibble is. It’s grain free because the only ingredients are what nature intended: meat, vital organs, and bones, which means more protein and fewer soluble carbohydrates.”

Raw dog food products like those from Vital Essentials aren’t just grain free, but they’re also free of any of the other ingredients that could potentially cause problems

“Grain free is a non-issue in Vital Essentials foods,” Dr. Patton says. “Vital Essentials doesn’t have to use special recipes to exclude grains because the grains aren’t there in the first place. And that’s how nature intended it.”

happy dog with grain free food @lil.willowwWillow knows a nutritious Vital Essentials raw meat diet is all that’s needed to stay healthy — no corn required! @lil.willoww

So, should you choose grain free?

It all comes down to what “grain free” means in terms of the food and, of course, what’s best for your pet. Not all grain free dog foods are created equal; some grain free foods simply replace the grains with other carb-heavy fillers that are just as unhealthy for your dog and may even be linked to DCM.

A raw dog food diet, however, is a good way to reap the benefits of a healthy grain free diet without having to worry about risks that come from fillers or ingredients used to replace grains.

Learn more about Vital Essentials ingredients here or locate a store near you if you want to start giving your dog the benefits of a raw food diet.

Have cats too? Check out our other blog that answers whether you should feed your cat a grain free diet.

Last updated on 10/8/2021