November 6, 2018


Not All Grain-Free Pet Foods Are Created Equal

by Aili V. Heintz, DVM

It can truly be overwhelming! You walk into your local pet store, and you see hundreds of different types of pet food. Some foods say they are grain-free, and some say they are made with wholesome fresh ingredients. Certain foods are very expensive, and many are so inexpensive you wonder how they can even make money selling it. Some bags and cans have cute pictures of dogs and cats on them, while others look very plain.

So in a sea of so many different pet food options, how do you know which one is the “right” one?

Educate Yourself about Grain-Free Pet Foods

Being educated is the first step in choosing the right pet food. One of the largest growing options for pet foods is in the grain-free diet. While we see multiple health benefits from a grain-free diet, it is vital to remember that not all grain-free diets are created equal.

Over the years, as more and more companies try to keep up with the popularity of grain-free diets, they have eliminated corn, wheat, and soy. However, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the ingredients provide the nutrition that your pet needs. Just because a food is labeled “high protein,” doesn’t mean it is nutritious. The source of protein matters.

Consider the Protein Source

When looking for a quality grain-free diet, look for a high meat protein diet. This means that meat should be listed in the first ingredients. Meat protein contains important amino acids that are not found in plant-based protein like chickpeas and quinoa.

Amino acids are the building blocks of nutrition. They carry nutrients and oxygen throughout the body. They support muscle activity and tissue repair. Without them, your pet may be more predisposed to certain health problems, such as heart disease.

To reduce the cost of pet food, companies have chosen to use plant-based protein sources. These plant-based foods lack the vital amino acids. While the food may be grain-free, it is not a healthy option for your pet.

Consider the Processing Technique

Processing also plays a role in the loss of essential and important nutrition for your pet. As companies have worked to create a crunchy kibble, they have had to add more starch to their recipes. In addition, many companies have used meat by-products (parts unfit for human consumption) or plants as their protein sources. As a result, the kibble that is produced is grain-free but lacks important nutrients your pet food

Taurine is an amino acid that is important for metabolizing fat. Most dogs are able to create taurine on their own from the proteins in meat. Some dog food companies will supplement the food with taurine. Other companies may supplement the food with methionine and cysteine, which together helps dogs make their own taurine.  Just because these amino acids are not listed on the ingredient list does not mean they are not present in your pet’s food

If you have questions about your pet’s food, contact the food manufacturer. Ask them if your pet’s diet is a high meat-protein diet and whether or not the food provides the recommended amount of taurine and other essential amino acids. The manufacturer will be able to give you more about their ingredients and process techniques.

You Often Get What You Pay For

Being well-informed about your pet’s diet and proper nutrition is an important part of pet ownership. Pet food can be a complicated issue depending on your pet’s health and your budget. It is important to remember that you often get what you pay for. Inexpensive grain-free diets may not be providing all the meat-based protein essentials that your pet needs!


Dr. Heintz is a small and exotic animal veterinarian at Countrycare Animal Complex in Green Bay, WI. She earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from University of Illinois – Urbana/Champaign. Her passion is helping all animals, whether furry, scaly, or feathered, lead long and healthy lives.