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Grain or Not in a Dog's Diet?

From the desk of Mogens Eliasen - first published: October 22, 2006 (update of previous article from 2003)

Mogens Eliasen - the author of this article
on 'grain'

Commercial dog foods are made primarily of grain. More than 2/3 of them are grain. Grains are cheap and abundant. Generally, grains contain about 90-95% carbohydrates, though….

Wild carnivores have no access to carbohydrates in such amounts and have never had, for the entire period of evolution.

Anyone with respect for Nature should have a serious problem with that!

Carnivore or omnivore?

These classifications are man-made. They can cause a lot of confusion if you try to apply them rigidly, and you are outright into logic inconsistency if you think you can use those classifications to draw any kinds of conclusions whatsoever about what dogs should be fed!

It will suffice for you to acknowledge that there are some huge differences between the dog's gastrointestinal system and the human system. Whether both are within the spectrum of "omnivores" or the dog truly is a "carnivore" does not matter.

There is only one authority we can rely on: Canis Lupus, the wolf - as he would be fed in a natural environment. The genetic differences between dogs and wolves are no greater than the differences between black and white people.

For this reason, the only feeding philosophy that makes sense will be an attempt to get as close as you can to what Mother Nature has been feeding her wolves throughout evolution. The bad news is that we do not know with certainty what that exactly would be, except that it is not a precise copy of what wolves nowadays feed on in the wild, where they have much more prey available than ever before!

Another unpleasant fact is that, no matter what the exact details might be, we know enough about them to conclude that you cannot reproduce them perfectly - most people simply don't have the supplies of whole, live prey animals... and you don't want to give your dog its natural incentive to eat all the veggies it might need: starvation....

But this does not mean that we cannot use our brains. In fact, we do have enough information available in order to make some very diligent choices in regards to feeding our dogs. Let's discuss the feeding of grains in lieu of this.

Using grain in commercial food

There are many powerful reasons for feeding grain:

  1. Grain products are by far the cheapest source of energy you can get.

  2. Grain products and their large contents of complex carbohydrates are generally considered healthy for humans, and it is easy (but completely incorrect) to conclude from this that they are also good for your dog.

  3. Some dogs will gain weight (desirable for some people) when fed grain.

  4. Many dogs happen to like grain products as much as kids like candy....

  5. Many dogs appear to do well with substantial amounts of grain in their diet, at least for 7-10 years.... It is impossible to document in an individual case that it was grain that stopped the liver or the kidneys from letting it live another 3-4 years...

  6. No adverse effects have been demonstrated by feeding smaller amounts of grain, as a minor supplement, and no large-scale study has ever been done to show that even substantial amounts of grain in the dog's diet can be directly related to any specific problems for any specific dog.

  7. No systematic, long-term scientific studies have ever been conducted in order to demonstrate the effects of grains on longevity and "overall health". And you can rest assured that no commercial pet food manufacturer will support such a study financially...

However, here are some good reasons for not feeding grain:

  1. No canines in nature have access to grain as a significant food source, except for the small half-digested amounts they get through eating rodents whole.

  2. Grains contain mostly complex carbohydrates - a group of nutrients dogs simply do not need at all. However, dogs can turn those carbohydrates into energy to replace the fat they are much better at utilizing.

  3. Significant concentrations of carbohydrates in a single meal can severely hamper the chemistry of the digestion processes by increasing the pH to levels that make the digestion of raw food ineffective. This will be the case if the carbohydrate concentration in a meal reaches 10% or more.

  4. Many dogs will lose excess weight when fed no grains - and some will lose weight when fed some grains.

  5. Grain products, particularly when baked or cooked, will leave a layer of plaque on the teeth. Dogs do not have any enzymes in their saliva that can clean the teeth for those carbohydrates (as human saliva does). There are thousands of testimonials available on the Internet about people having seen this plaque disappear in a matter of a few months, when they shift their dog food to raw meat and bones….

  6. Dogs fed kibble instead of a raw natural diet will have their life expectancy reduced by 30%. Kibble typically contains 65-70% grain products…

  7. Most dogs do much better, health-wise, without any grain in their diet. No adverse effects have ever been documented for dogs that get no grain at all… But the Australian Veterinary Association has confirmed that an estimate of minimum 85% of all dogs in Australia, puppies included, have such serious problems with plaque on their teeth (which comes only from carbohydrate rich foods, should I add…) that they should be clinically treated for it.

  8. Canine Diabetes was practically completely unheard of 60 years ago. Now, it is a common disease among dogs. It could not exist if all dogs were fed a diet with far fewer carbohydrates…

  9. There is new research indicating that feeding excess carbohydrates to puppies is one of the major contributors to Hip Dysplasia and other growth related diseases, with "excess" meaning "20% of the diet, or more".

Where grain would fit into the picture of a natural diet

The tricky thing is that dogs could actually do quite well, at least short-term, on a meal that was almost exclusively made of grain products!

This can have value for dogs that need to go gently on their stomach (keeping the pH around neutral is far less stressful than lowering it down to strong acidic levels). For sick dogs, this can sometimes makes good sense. And finally, for working dogs that need a fast energy boost for a specific performance that calls for a short burst of energy.

And, sure, no healthy dogs are going to take any serious harm from the odd cookie…

But as a standard component of a regular diet for a dog, there should be no room for grains


Mogens Eliasen


Mogens Eliasen holds a mag. scient. degree (comparable to a US Ph. D.) in Chemistry from Århus University, Denmark, has a extensive education also as military officer and in business management. He has been working with dogs, dog owners, dog trainers, and veterinarians since 1970. A large part of his dog work has been in the area of education and education planning, and as consultant for dog owners and dog training associations. He is a strong advocate of treating the dog with respect for its nature as domesticated wolf, and has published several books and videos on topics related to dogs, dog training, dog behavior, and responsible care of dogs. He publishes a newsletter "The Peeing Post" containing lots of tips and advice on all matters pertaining to dogs.

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Titles available from K9joy®:

Anders Hallgren:
"The ABC's of Dog Language" (140 page book - 1996)
Understand what your dog is telling you - and communicate with it on its own terms. A must have for all dog lovers. Easy to read. Easy to use as reference.

Mogens Eliasen:
"The Dog's Social Behavior" (2.5 hr. video - 1998, updated on DVD 2006, with support materials on a CD)
How the dog's behavior is linked to its instincts and needs. What you can change and what is "for life". How you use this information to dramatically improve your relationship with your dog.

Mogens Eliasen:
"BrainWork for Smart Dogs" (380 page e-book - 2003)
How you get a happy and well-behaved dog, stimulating its brain with 15 minutes of fun per day. Dogs need to work and use their instinct in order to be in mental balance. Everyone can do it with these instructions. More than 40 exercises to choose from!

Mogens Eliasen:
"Don't Pull on the Leash!" (40 page e-book - 2005)
The 5 simple steps in this complete training manual will effectively stop any dog from pulling on the leash, with no pain or abuse and no special equipment - and make the start of a much better relationship with the dog.

Mogens Eliasen:
"Is Your Dog's Drinking Water Safe?" (30 page e-book - 2005, updated 2006)
A layman's overview of how and why drinking water gets contaminated - and what you can do about it.

Mogens Eliasen:
"Feeding Your Dog - the Natural Way" (1 hr. video - 1998)
The fastest introduction to get you started on feeding your dog a natural diet. It explains the dog's physiology in simple terms, so you also understand why you should do this.

Mogens Eliasen:
"Canine Choice - by Nature" (80 page e-book - 1999, updated 2005)
The simple "how-to" about feeding a natural diet for optimal health.

Mogens Eliasen:
"Raw Food for Dogs - the Ultimate Reference for Dog Owners"
(340 page e-book - revised/expanded 2006)
Everything you need for making your own informed decisions about what to feed your dog, and why and how. Includes numerous examples of feeding plans plus two chapters on how to work with your vet, also if he/she does not approve of your feeding...

Mogens Eliasen:
"The Wolf's Natural Diet - a Feeding Guide for Your Dog?"
(125 page e-book - 2004 updated/revised 2006)
What we know and don't know about the wolf and its natural feeding, and about the dog and its domestication, and what we can and cannot conclude from wolf to dog... this is the big "why?" behind any responsible approach to feeding your dog.

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