The Best Grain-Free Dog Food
Grain-free dog food has become synonymous with best dog food. What we found: Better ingredients overall matter most. We dug through the hype, talked with veterinarians, and analyzed food labels from the top dog food brands to find the what’s what on ingredients. Corn, wheat, and soy were obvious no-nos, as were added fillers like sugar and sauces. But we prioritized a high-quality meat source as the first ingredient and carbohydrates from nutrient-rich sources like veggies over grains.
Grain-free dog food doesn’t necessarily mean superior dog food. While grain-free options often contain more wholesome ingredients like meat, fish, eggs, fruits, and vegetables, switching to a grain-free formula doesn’t necessarily mean your dog will be healthier. Some foods simply swap grains with high-starch carbohydrates like potatoes, which provide little nutritional value. Grains like oats, quinoa, or brown rice would be better options.
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets minimum standards for nutrition for dog food, while the FDA ensures the safety of the ingredients used. For adult dog food, some of the minimum requirements are at least 18 percent protein, 5 percent fat, and necessary vitamins and minerals like calcium and phosphorus. So, you can rest assured that any grain-free dog food is going to sustain life.
From there, it’s all about ingredients. Look for a formula that is rich with healthy ingredients rather than fillers and the right balance of fats, carbs, and protein. If you think your pet is suffering from food allergies or other health conditions, it’s best to check with your veterinarian before switching foods.
How We Found the Best Grain-Free Dog Food
We preferred foods with a whole animal protein as the first ingredient.
Our recommended brands use meat or fish as the first ingredient. Look for real chicken, fish, beef, or other whole protein sources to feature first on an ingredient list. Dr. Katie Kangas, pet nutrition expert and integrative veterinarian, recommends looking for “specifically named meat with one-word descriptions.” She adds, “Many commercial pet foods also contain meat-meal, which is acceptable as a secondary ingredient to a whole food protein source. But this meal should have a specifically named meat as well.“
We looked for foods with healthy carbohydrate sources.
Dogs do need carbohydrates for energy, and have evolved to be able to eat them. That said, not all carbs are healthy for dogs. Complex carbs are best; dog food shouldn’t rely on starchy carbs with minimal nutritional value. Dr. Mona Radheshwar, a Seattle veterinarian, points out that some grain-free foods contain starchy, unhealthy carbs. She explains, “Grain-free diets may still contain refined starches often in the form of potatoes, lentils, chickpeas, or tapioca, providing fewer nutrients and less fiber at a higher cost.” Our grain-free picks provide carbs from wholesome, nutrient-dense sources like veggies, and don’t rely too much on starchy fillers.
We avoided foods with unhealthy additives, dyes, or artificial flavors.
Even grain-free foods can contain unnecessary additives that should be avoided. These include chemical spray-on flavors that sometimes appear on the label of foods advertised as having a “gravy” or “sauce.” We also eliminated any foods with added sweeteners or colors. Dr. Kangas explains, “artificial colors, flavors, sugars, sweeteners, or propylene glycol have been commonly used in many pet foods, but none of these are good for our pets.”
We made sure to research a brand’s history with recalls.
Canned dog food goes bad more quickly after opening than dry dog food, which is typically more shelf-stable. However, even conscientious pet owners can’t avoid contamination if the problem lies in the source of the ingredients or in the manufacturing. All of our recommendations have been either free of recalls, or responded quickly and adequately to any food safety scares.
Our Top Picks for Best Grain-Free Dog Food
Orijen Adult Grain-Free Dry Dog Food Guaranteed analysis: Crude protein (38% min.), Crude fat (18% min.), Crude fiber (4% min.), Moisture (12% max.) First 10 ingredients: Deboned chicken, deboned turkey, yellowtail ﬂounder, whole eggs, whole Atlantic mackerel, chicken liver, turkey liver, chicken heart, turkey heart, and whole Atlantic herring
ACANA Wild Prairie Regional Formula Grain-Free Dry Dog Food Guaranteed analysis: Crude protein (35% min.), Crude fat (17% min), Crude fiber (6% max.), Moisture (12% max) First 10 ingredients: Fresh chicken meat, fresh turkey meat, fresh chicken giblets, chicken meal, turkey meal, whole herring meal, whole green peas, whole red lentils, whole chickpeas, and fresh whole eggs
Earthborn Holistic Primitive Natural Grain-Free Natural Dry Dog Food Guaranteed analysis: Crude protein (38% min.), Crude fat (20% min.), Crude fiber (2.5% max.), Moisture (10% max.) First 10 ingredients: Turkey meal, chicken meal, potatoes, chicken fat, whitefish meal, dried egg product, tomato pomace, peas, blueberries, and cranberries
ZiwiPeak Daily-Dog Lamb Cuisine Air-Dried Dog Food Guaranteed analysis: Crude protein (33% min.), Crude fat (27% min.), Crude fiber (1.5% max.), Moisture (15% max.) First 10 ingredients: Lamb meat, lamb or sheep heart, lamb liver, lamb lung, lamb tripe, lamb or sheep kidney, New Zealand green mussel, lecithin, inulin from chicory, and dried kelp
Did You Know?
Grain-free doesn’t mean carb-free.
Grain-free foods do contain carbohydrates, and in fact, some of them contain the same levels of carbs as dog foods made with grains. Potatoes, for example, are commonly used in place of grains in these foods, and they are high in carbs. If you are looking for a high-protein, low-carb diet for your dog, check the ingredients for the percentage of protein, rather than simply relying on the “grain-free” label.
Too much protein can be hard on dogs.
Protein packs more calories than other nutrients, so high-protein diets can lead to weight gain for dogs. Pet obesity is reaching epidemic levels in the US, and comes with a host of health issues, including a shorter life span. Consider your dog’s age and lifestyle when choosing a high-protein food. A healthy, working farm dog expends plenty of calories, while a senior apartment dweller may not. Consult your vet if you have concerns about your pet’s weight to get specific diet recommendations.
Dogs can be allergic to proteins as well as grains.
Proteins actually cause more food allergies in dogs than grains. In fact, one study showed that beef was the most common allergen in dogs, followed by dairy. Dr. Radheshwar says, “An individual is just as likely, if not more likely, to be allergic to the protein source in the food versus a grain.” If your dog has signs of allergy such as dry skin or upset stomach, consider the protein source first. Limited or single-ingredient protein sources will help you narrow down any potential sensitivities.
Pay attention to your dog. When switching to any new food, watch for specific cues to decide if it’s the right fit. “If your dog likes the food, has great hair and skin, regular bowel movements, and an appropriate body score, then you know it’s a good food,” says Dr. Radheshwar. Dr. Kangas concurs, adding, “In general, pets on fresh, healthy, and species-appropriate diets show better signs of health and vitality compared to those eating heavily processed diets.” If your dog doesn’t exhibit some or all of these criteria, then it’s time to talk to your vet about switching foods.