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Is a Grain Free, Gluten Free Diet Better for Dogs?

Almost two million Americans suffer intestinal pain, bloating and diarrhea caused by an allergic reaction to the gluten in grains like wheat, barley and some oats. This condition is called celiac disease. Many owners of dogs that suffer from similar symptoms wrongly assume their dogs may also have celiac disease and blame the grain or corn in the dog’s diet. This has led to huge demand for grain free and gluten free dog food. Following this trend is not necessary for most dog owners.

What Is Gluten

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, some oats and other grains. Gluten provides the quality that allows dough to rise and helps breads and pasta maintain their shapes. It also gives these foods that “chewy” quality. Gluten extracted from grains is often used to make the imitation meat cuts found in vegetarian dishes and canned dog food.

People with celiac disease have an abnormal allergic response to gluten protein that causes damage to the intestinal lining and results in the uncomfortable symptoms described above. Avoidance of gluten is curative in these individuals.

Celiac Disease in Dogs

With one exception, celiac disease does not occur in dogs. Only one genetic line of Irish Setters suffering chronic intestinal symptoms has shown the same microscopic cell changes found in human patients with celiac disease. Other breeds of dogs with the same symptoms do not have these characteristic intestinal changes. Celiac disease has yet to be confirmed in dog breeds other than Irish Setters.


Corn is a grain but it does not contain gluten. It has unfortunately been lumped with wheat as a “bad” grain. Corn contains a starch similar to that found in potatoes, rice and tapioca. In fact, corn is used in gluten free diets for those suffering from celiac disease.

It is popularly believed that many dogs have allergic sensitivity to corn and that it contributes to itching and skin conditions in dogs. The research does not support this belief. In several studies corn was low on the list of common food allergens for both dogs and cats.

Why Switch?

The evidence does not support that grains are bad for all dogs and grain free is better. By limiting carbohydrate choices, diet selection becomes unnecessarily restrictive. Commercial grain free diets are generally much more expensive than those containing grain so switching unnecessarily increases dog food costs. Grain free dog foods rely on carbohydrate sources that are high in fiber and increase the stool production of dogs fed these diets.

It is easy to test for gluten or corn sensitivity. Simply add some wheat bread or pasta to your dog’s food for few days and judge the stool quality. Do the same with corn meal or corn bread. If there is no change in stool quality, your dog is not sensitive to gluten or corn. It does not need a gluten free, grain free diet.

Dr. Ken Tudor is an expert in the field of pet nutrition and fitness. He founded Hearthstone Homemade for Dogs. This integrated program was developed to provide owners a healthier alternative to commercial dog food. To learn more about homemade dog food, visit his website at

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