For thousands of years, grains have been a staple in the diet of humans. Animals, on the other, hand, weren’t raised on grains—and you’d actually be hard pressed to find animals in the wild who naturally include grains as a part of their diet!
As most pet owners know, though, dogs are happy to chow down on just about anything. This includes things that are good or them and things that aren’t so good for them. And since dogs aren’t always able to discern what benefits them and what can cause harm, it’s up to pet parents to know the difference.
So we come back to grains. Can dogs eat grains? And beyond that, are grains good or bad for dogs? This has been a fairly controversial topic over the past decade, so we’re going to break it all down.
Can dogs eat grains?
While most traditional pet food companies would have you think otherwise, grains aren’t the ideal food for your dog. Dogs, by nature, are scavenging carnivores, not omnivores—and there’s no better evidence to support this than their teeth. Dogs lack the flat molars that allow animals to grind down plant matter. Instead, they have sharp, pointed teeth ideal for tearing into meat. Bottom line: dogs were born to eat meat as part of a high-protein diet, not plants and grains. And since they weren’t born to eat (and digest) grains, grains aren’t really good for them.
There’s another question that arises out of this, though: are grains bad for dogs? Generally speaking, the answer is no. Dogs are incredibly resilient in terms of the diet their bodies can handle, and they can survive eating grains. Surviving, of course, if different from thriving—and to thrive, dogs require a biologically appropriate diet.
Can grains be bad for dogs?
There is a subset of the dog population for which grains can be particularly bad. Dogs with allergies to corn, soy, wheat, and the like should eat grain-free diets. According to the American Kennel Club, grains are one of the top allergens for dogs—surpassed only by beef and dairy (chicken and eggs round out the top five).
Dogs with allergies to grains can experience symptoms such as dry and/or itchy skin that can cause excessive scratching or licking around the face and paws, bald patches, higher frequency of hot spots, ear infections, skin infections, diarrhea, and vomiting.
The risks of feeding grains
Dog foods contain grains as fillers—they really don’t offer much in the way of nutrition for carnivorous dogs. Grains are often genetically modified, which is one of the main reasons pet parents avoid feeding grains to their dogs. While there are few, if any, scientific studies that concretely demonstrate the risks of GMOs in dog food, those seeking the best for their pups typically try to avoid them anyway.
The key risk that comes with feeding grains is carbohydrate overload. Too many carbs can contribute to obesity, the wrong bacteria in the gut (which can lead to future health issues), and a lack of energy. Most grain-based foods are also highly processed, which can contribute to inflammation and degenerative disease in the body. A biologically appropriate diet for dogs should consist of no more than 10% filler (starch). The remainder of a dog’s diet should be high-quality protein and fat. Fresh vegetables and fruit are also species appropriate.
It’s important to note that grain-free dog food, which has come to light as a ‘healthier’ option, simply replaces grains with other carbs, such as peas, lentils, and sweet potatoes. So while it removes grains from the dog’s diet, grain-free kibble is still a high-carb, lower-nutrient option compared to biologically appropriate raw or gently cooked feeding. Some grain-free kibble has also been linked to an increased risk of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs.
How to prepare grains for dogs
Unfortunately, grain-based dog foods are highly processed—and this is not the right way to prepare grains for your dog (if you want to feed grains at all). Soaking grains makes them easier for dogs—and humans, in fact—to digest. It removes much of the starch and releases enzymes that make them more nutritionally available.
To soak grains, simply put 1 cup of the grain into a glass jar with a lid. Add 2 tablespoons of an acid (ideally kefir, buttermilk, vinegar, or fresh lemon juice). Add 2 cups of water, then stir. Cover and let soak for at least 8 hours or overnight at room temperature. Once finished, drain in a colander and rinse with cool water. From there, you can cook the grain. Soaked, uncooked grains can be stored in the fridge for 1–2 days.
Learn more about foods dogs can and can't eat