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Last updated on Sep 04, 2019

The Best Grain-Free Dog Food

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Why go grain-free? The consumption of grains, like wheat, corn, oats, and rice, by dogs is a (relatively) recent phenomenon. While they’ve since evolved to easily digest most carbohydrates, grains included, veterinarian Dr. Gary Richter told us, “while dogs are equipped to handle a certain amount of carbohydrates in their diet, they should not be a majority ingredient.” Since there are plenty of grain-free sources of carbs, like potatoes and other vegetables, to be found in dog foods, there’s no need to worry about compromising your pup’s nutrition by skipping grains.

For some dogs, a grain-free diet won’t make a huge difference to their general well being, but for others, such as those with allergies, a grain-free diet is the key to a happier, healthier canine. If your dog has a known grain allergy or intolerance, grain-free food is definitely the way to go.

If you’re not sure about grains, and your dog has never had a reaction to them, we recommend checking out our review of the Best Dog Food to give you and your furry best friend a few more choices.

The Best Grain-Free Dog Food

Our 3 Favorite Grain-Free Dry Dog Foods:

  1. Holistic Health Extension
  2. Horizon Amicus/Horizon Legacy
  3. Ziwi Peak: Air-Dried

Our 15 Favorite Grain-Free Wet Dog Foods:

  1. AvoDerm: Revolving Menu
  2. Canidae: Grain-Free Pure
  3. Evanger’s: Organics
  4. Holistic Select
  5. Hound & Gatos
  6. Kasiks
  7. Natural Planet: Organics
  8. Nature’s Logic
  9. NutriSource: Grain-Free
  10. Nutro: Limited Ingredient
  11. Party Animal: Cocolicious
  12. Wellness Core: 95%/Wellness Core: Pate
  13. Wild Calling
  14. Zignature
  15. Ziwi Peak: Moist

Our 3 Favorite Dog Food Meal Delivery Services

A fairly new option, meal delivery services offer a compromise between the minimal processing of raw food diets and the convenience of store-bought kibble. We explore them in-depth in a separate review, but our favorites — all with grain-free options — are:

  1. NomNomNow
  2. The Farmer’s Dog
  3. Pure Dog Food

How We Found the Best Grain-Free Dog Food

We started with 1,602 grain-free dog food formulas.

We began by collecting every grain-free dog food currently sold in the US, with two exceptions: We excluded products that failed to list their ingredients and any manufacturer without a working website. This left us with 1,602 wet and dry grain-free formulas.

We cut formulas with ingredients that are toxic to dogs.

Most dog owners know that certain ingredients we love can be toxic to dogs, including walnuts, grapes, and chocolate. Far fewer know that many dog food formulas on the market regularly use garlic and onion in their recipes, two ingredients that can also be harmful to your pet.

Although dogs are sure to love the flavors these ingredients add, garlic and onion — along with leeks, scallions, chives, and shallots — are members of the Allium plant species, which is toxic to both dogs and cats. These can immediately make dogs sick if consumed in large quantities, and even when eaten in small amounts over time (e.g. as flavoring in your dog’s food), they can damage red blood cells, causing anemia. We figured a little extra flavor wasn’t worth risking your dog’s health, so we cut any formulas that include these ingredients.

Another common toxic ingredient for dogs is avocado, but it’s important to note that the toxin, persin, is primarily found in the avocado pit, not the flesh or oil. One of our top picks for grain-free wet food, AvoDerm Revolving Menu, contains avocado oil, but since the oil won’t harm your dog, we kept these formulas on our list.

Next, we did away with mystery “meats” and “meals.”

Ideally, all of our contenders would use fresh meats as their primary ingredient but the reality is that whole meats are expensive and many manufacturers use meat meal as a supplement in their formulas.

Meat meal is essentially concentrated meat, so it shouldn’t scare you if you see it on a label. Created using a high-pressure, high-temperature process known as rendering, meat meal involves separating fat and moisture from dried, solid protein and steam cooking it all at extremely high temperatures. The dried solids that result make up the meal, which the FDA notes can contain higher concentrations of protein, nutrients, and minerals than whole meats.

But that doesn’t mean it’s good for your dog. The nutritional quality of meat meal can vary with the way it’s rendered. This is because natural enzymes and proteins can be destroyed during such high-temperature processes, and there are currently no requirements for manufacturers to be transparent about how their meal is made.

Additionally, meat meal is often made using animal parts that are low quality to begin with. The Association of American Feed Control Officials allows ingredients labeled as “meat meal” to be sourced from “mammals other than cattle, pigs, sheep or goats without further description.” This means the meat meal in your dog’s favorite food can contain anything from restaurant grease to diseased livestock and expired meat. We think our dogs deserve better than unknown, unwanted meat, so we made two more cuts:

We made sure that the lead spot on the ingredient list went to a whole protein.

Following FDA guidelines, ingredients on labels are listed according to weight, with the heaviest ingredients at the top of the list. The first ingredient is ultimately the main source of your dog’s protein intake, and a healthy diet should have plenty of whole proteins, like salmon, beef, or lamb. We eliminated all formulas without a named, whole protein up front.

We got rid of formulas with unnamed meats of any kind.

These are often listed simply as “meat meal,” “meat and bone meal,” or “byproduct meal,” which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. However, cutting every formula that uses meat meal anywhere in the ingredient list would’ve left only high-end, expensive options, and as we previously mentioned, meat meal isn’t inherently bad. So we cut brands with unnamed meat meal, but kept those with identifiable meals, like “duck meal” or “salmon meal.”

We also cut formulas that depend on plant-based proteins as filler.

Beyond grains, many dry dog food formulas rely on other carb-heavy, plant-based proteins, such as peas and corn, to act as binding agents. Meat-based proteins provide necessary nutrients with fewer carbohydrates, and since dogs rely on these proteins to stay fit, formulas that are primarily plant-based are often a red flag that the manufacturer is cutting corners. For this same reason, we avoided vegetarian or vegan formulas, since we couldn’t be sure they would provide your dog with the proper protein at every meal. These plant-based proteins aren’t necessarily bad for your dog, but they shouldn’t constitute a majority ingredient in your dog’s diet.

Determining the amount of protein from meat versus plant sources is complicated by labeling laws that don’t require extensive ingredient breakdowns, and most dog foods will contain plant-based ingredients of some kind. So we cut any formulas that used other non-meat fillers as the second ingredient so that you can be sure your dog is getting the bulk of their nutrition from animal protein, not plants.

Potentially harmful artificial additives were also on the chopping block.

Many of the formulas we examined use artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of consensus on the effects of these ingredients in different amounts. For example, an ingredient like propylene glycol — a synthetic compound used to add moisture — can cause irritation and sometimes even organ toxicity in large doses but might still be approved by the FDA in small doses. Similarly, artificial food colorings that can cause hyperactivity, irritation, and even cancer in human food are often used in dog foods to make them look more enticing for owners.

“If the recipe is made with lots of meat and fruits/vegetables, why would there be a need for added flavor?”

Steve Pelletier Pet food expert at PetNet.io

Like plant-based fillers, artificial additives won’t make your dog sick immediately, but the cumulative effect of eating such additives at every meal can cause long-term health issues. And with no nutritional value, we had no qualms cutting formulas that use these artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.

After that, we got rid of anything with “natural flavor.”

“Natural flavor” sounds like it would be just that — natural, unprocessed flavors. But in reality, natural flavor often refers to the use of “digests,” concentrated natural flavors created by treating unknown materials with heat, enzymes, and acids.

According to Pelletier, “Natural flavoring isn’t a great ingredient. According to current labeling rules, dog food companies are allowed to consider these natural flavors proprietary, and are not required to disclose exactly what is used to make the flavoring nor what chemical processes are involved.” While natural flavors might be fine in small amounts, we decided that the best grain-free dog food wouldn’t need them.

“Gravy” was out too, along with extra water.

According to FDA rules, wet dog foods can have a maximum moisture percentage of 78%. But if the formula name uses the words “stew,” “in sauce,” or “in gravy,” that number can go up to 87.5%. If you’re not sure what exactly those words entail, you’re not alone: the FDA notes that there is “no common definition or formula for generic terms such as gravy, sauce, or broth.” That means you might be paying extra for more water. (In our research, we also found that some formulas still exceeded that 78% moisture level, even without the “stew,” “sauce,” or “gravy” label.)

Of course, water isn’t going to hurt your dog. But moisture generally dilutes a formula’s nutrient content, meaning it may not actually provide the complete and balanced nutrition your dog requires. As a result, the higher the moisture percentage, the more nutrient-dense the dry matter needs to be. Since we can’t be sure that wet formulas actually compensate for diluted protein values with their dry matter, we cut any formula that went over the 78% moisture mark, including the ones that touted sauce, gravy, or stew.

We cut a product line if it contained a single formula that didn’t pass our cuts.

Not all of the brands we recommend are completely foolproof: some of our brand picks have specific formulas that meant we ended up cutting some of their product lines, such as AvoDerm’s “Vegetarian” canned food. But we made sure all of the formulas within each product line (such as AvoDerm’s “Revolving Menu” canned food line) passed our criteria.

Finally, we made sure our picks were easy to buy.

We wanted our top picks to be easily accessible. Some brands that we looked at passed our quality requirements but weren’t widely available: TimberWolf, for example, could only be found in select local pet stores; others were only available on the manufacturer’s website. While we included these hard-to-find brands in our Runners-Up list — after all, they’re still just as good as our top picks, ingredients-wise — our favorite formulas were readily available at common dog food retailers like Chewy, PetCo, or Amazon.

Our Top Picks for Best Grain-Free Dry Dog Food

Brand Lines Number of Formulas Main Protein Sources $/lb
Holistic Health Extension n/a 6 chicken, venison, buffalo, duck, salmon $2.25 – $2.67
Horizon Amicus 2 turkey $3
Horizon Legacy 2 chicken, salmon $2.55 – $2.80
Ziwi Peak Air-Dried 5 mackerel, beef, venison, lamb, tripe $13.25 – $23.19

*Compiled from manufacturer websites and retailers Amazon, Chewy, and Petco.

Runners-Up for Best Grain-Free Dry Dog Food

Born Free: Unavailable on Amazon, Chewy, PetSmart, PetCo, or Born Free’s own website. Currently only found at specialty pet food stores in the Midwest. Approved formula: Garrison’s Glen.

Only Natural Pet: Only found on their website. Unavailable on Amazon, Chewy, or PetCo (the formulas carried by PetSmart were eliminated due to natural flavoring). Approved formula: MaxMeat Air Dried.

Timberwolf: Can be found at specialty pet stores, but unavailable on Amazon, Chewy, or PetCo. Following a temporary production freeze, Timberwolf’s grain-free dog food formulas will be available to order through its website beginning in mid-December 2017. Approved formulas: any.

Our Top Picks for Best Grain-Free Wet Dog Food

Brand Line Formulas Main Protein Sources $/oz
AvoDerm Revolving Menu 3 lamb, beef, turkey $0.21
Canidae Grain-Free Pure 4 duck, lamb, salmon $0.14 – $0.20
Evanger’s Organics 2 chicken, turkey $0.20
Holistic Select n/a 6 chicken, beef, lamb, duck, turkey, whitefish $0.21
Hound & Gatos n/a 12 chicken, salmon, rabbit, beef, duck, lamb, pork, turkey $0.17 – $0.36
Kasiks n/a 4 salmon, chicken, turkey $0.25
Natural Planet Organics 2 chicken, turkey $0.24 – $0.25
Nature’s Logic n/a 8 beef, chicken, duck, lamb, rabbit, sardine, turkey, venison $0.19 – $0.39
NutriSource Grain-Free 4 chicken, lamb, salmon $0.19 – $0.27
Nutro Limited Ingredient 3 fish, turkey, lamb $0.18 – $0.19
Party Animal Cocolicious 10 beef, chicken, turkey, salmon, venison, duck, lamb, pork $0.17
Wellness Core: 95% 3 chicken, turkey, beef $0.25
Wellness Core: Pate 5 chicken, whitefish, beef, turkey $0.22
Wild Calling n/a 9 chicken, rabbit, duck, beef, salmon, turkey, lamb, pork $0.20 – $0.28
Zignature n/a 11 catfish, pork, salmon, venison, kangaroo, whitefish, duck, lamb, trout, turkey $0.23 – $0.31
Ziwi Peak Moist 6 mackerel, venison, lamb, rabbit, beef $0.36 – $0.52

*Compiled from manufacturer websites and retailers Amazon, Chewy, and Petco.

Runners-Up for Best Grain-Free Wet Dog Food

Blackwood: Limited availability on Amazon and Chewy — Amazon carries one canned formula. Unavailable at PetCo. Approved formulas: Chicken and Chicken Liver with Pumpkin, Chicken and Salmon with Pumpkin, Turkey and Turkey Liver with Pumpkin, Lamb and Lamb Liver with Pumpkin.

Koha: Available on Koha’s website, but unavailable on Amazon, Chewy, or Petco. Approved formulas: Salmon Entree, Turkey Entree, Wild Kangaroo Entree, Grass Fed Lamb Entree, Venison Entree.

Performatrin: Available on PetSolutions.com, but not on Amazon, Chewy, PetCo, or Performatrin’s website. Approved formulas: Duck and Pea Recipe, Fish and Sweet Potato Recipe, Venison and Potato Recipe.

Pinnacle: Limited availability on Amazon (dry formulas only). Unavailable on Chewy orPetCo. Currently available in specialty pet food stores on the West Coast. Approved formulas: any.

PureVita: Limited availability on Amazon and in select specialty pet food stores. Unavailable on Chewy or PetCo. Approved formulas: Beef Entree, Chicken Entree, Pork Entree, Salmon Entree, Turkey Entree.

RAWZ: Limited availability on Amazon with wider in-store and online availability at local specialty pet food stores. Unavailable on Chewy or PetCo. Approved formulas: 96% Beef and Beef Liver, 96% Chicken and Chicken Liver, 96% Duck, Turkey, and Quail, 96% Salmon.

Did You Know?

Allergies come from more than just grain.

Food allergies only make up 10% of all dogs’ allergies, and grain ingredients cause far fewer of those allergies than many owners realize. In fact, animal-based protein sources such as beef or dairy products account for over 50% of dog food allergens. If you’re concerned about your dog’s susceptibility to food allergens, vary his or her diet to prevent overexposure to a single protein source.

Food allergies are often confused with food intolerances. If your dog has symptoms that are skin or immune system-related, such as itchy skin or infected ears, it may be an allergy. If, however, your dog has digestive issues such as vomiting or diarrhea, it’s probably a food intolerance. If you suspect your dog has either condition, consult your veterinarian before making abrupt changes to his or her diet. There are several factors that may contribute to a dog’s symptoms, including lifestage and breed, and your vet can discuss your options for a limited ingredient diet.

Grain-free isn’t carb-free.

Many dog owners choose grain-free diets for their pets in order to avoid carbs, without realizing that the ingredients replacing those grains, such as potatoes or tapioca, may be just as high (or higher) in carbs. In order to ensure that the formula you’re considering is low-carb, check the guaranteed analysis label on the packaging (if you’re not sure what to look for on the guaranteed analysis label, read on!)

Dietary changes should occur gradually.

Unlike humans, most dogs eat the same things for every meal. When their diets change, many develop upset stomachs or simply refuse to eat the food because of its unfamiliarity. If you plan on changing your dog’s diet, make the transition gradually by mixing the new food in with the old over the course of five to seven days to minimize the chances of any adverse reactions.

Wet or dry?

Dog food packages come with a guaranteed analysis label that lists the minimum percentage of protein and fat, and maximum percentage of fiber and moisture in the formula. This analysis doesn’t include carbohydrate percentages, but since it lists everything else, the percentage of carbohydrates can be easily calculated by adding up the listed percentages and subtracting the total from 100.

100 – all percentages listed = carbohydrates %

Comparing the guaranteed analyses of wet and dry dog foods, you’ll probably notice some big differences in protein percentages: dry foods generally contain between 30-50% protein, while wet foods list just 8-17%. But that doesn’t necessarily mean dry food will give your dog more protein. The lower protein percentage in wet food can be accounted for by the water used in the formula, and wet food actually tends to have more protein and fewer carbs than a dry alternative.

All of our top picks for wet and dry dog food are high in protein and low in carbs so you can feel confident that whichever one you pick will provide great nutrition for your pup. But if your dog has specific nutritional needs, you can always calculate the dry matter basis between different formulas (we’ll show you how below).

When should you feed your dog?

Dog food labels provide feeding suggestions for recommended daily food amounts based on your dog’s weight. Generally, dogs should be fed twice a day in 8-12 hour intervals, paying careful attention not to overfeed. Dogs that require a higher food intake, such as puppies and nursing mothers, may benefit from eating meal more frequently or free feeding (only with dry food.) If you’re liberal with treats (you know, because he’s a good boy), make sure they don’t comprise more than 10% of your dog’s daily caloric intake.

What if your dog leaves food in the bowl, or eats too quickly?

If your dog leaves food behind, consider reducing the size of each meal or switching to a timed feeding method. Allow your dog a set amount of time to eat, such as 20-30 minutes, then discard whatever’s left after time is up. Eventually, your dog will learn that meal time doesn’t last forever and will stop leaving leftovers in the bowl. If you’re using wet food, Dr. Lindsey Bullen warns that it should never be left out for longer than 20-30 minutes anyway, as “water creates the perfect environment for microbial contamination.”

If, on the other hand, your dog eats too quickly, he or she may be at risk of choking or developing digestive issues. Dogs with a history of competition around food may believe they won’t get enough to eat if they don’t eat quickly; you can reduce this anxiety by moving your dog’s food bowl to a quiet, stress-free environment. If anxiety isn’t the issue, try giving your dog smaller meals more frequently, or placing a ball or other toy in the bowl to slow down the eating pace. Some owners also recommend placing a smaller bowl within a larger bowl and pouring the food into the space between them, or purchasing a bowl specially designed to reduce your dog’s consumption speed.

If your dog insists they’re still hungry after eating, consider talking to your vet to see if your dog is suffering from parasites or other illnesses that may account for the feeding frenzy, or to discuss a diet higher in protein and fiber that will help keep your dog fuller for longer.

About the Authors

The Reviews.com staff is dedicated to providing you with all the deep-dive details. Our writers, researchers, and editors came together from Charlotte, Seattle, San Juan, Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, San Diego, and Chicago to put this review together.