Gluten Free Dog Food: Smart Choice or Crazy Fad?

By Chelsea Hunt-Rivera / August 27, 2018

The internet can be a wonderful thing. Nonstop information at your fingertips, a platform for advice, and a tool to share knowledge…right? While the internet can be an incredible source for quick tips and info, a lot of what you’re reading, be it on blogs or social media, is merely opinions. Sure, many of these opinions are likely rooted in some form of study to back them up. Yet, they are opinions nonetheless.

A handful of years ago, one of these “opinions” started spreading throughout nutritional blogs and health food guides.


The rumor, more or less, spread like wildfire. People everywhere were adopting a gluten-free diet for what many described as health reasons. Additionally, many of these individuals wanted the same dietary restrictions for their beloved four-legged friend and thus, dog food companies began producing gluten-free dog food.

Now, we are certainly not saying that there aren’t people and dogs who need to be gluten-free. There are. However, so many individuals (and by default their furry companions) jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon without really knowing why. In fact, for the vast majority of people and an even greater number of dogs, gluten isn’t “bad” at all!

In this article, we hope to shed light on the misunderstood mystery substance known as gluten and inform our readers on the pros and cons of adopting such a diet. Furthermore, if your dog does, in fact, benefit from a gluten-free diet, we’ll expand on how to make the switch and what to look for in a nutritionally balanced gluten-free meal.

gluten free dog food

What is Gluten?

Let’s start with the basics. A surprisingly large number of people are unfamiliar with exactly what gluten is. They just believe that it’s best to avoid it. (Here’s where the misunderstandings begin)

Gluten is a family of proteins that are found in grains, namely wheat, rye, spelt, and barley. It is made up of a protein mixture classified into two groups, known as prolamines and glutelins. Gluten helps foods maintain their shape. In a sense, gluten acts as a kind of glue that holds food together.

what is gluten

What is Celiac Disease

Here’s where gluten can cause problems.

Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder in which the ingestion of gluten leads to damage of the small intestine. An estimated 1 in 100 people worldwide have celiac disease. The troubling part is that approximately 2.5 million Americans are left undiagnosed and when celiac disease isn’t treated properly it can lead to severe, long-term health complications.

When people with celiac disease consume gluten, their releases an immune response that attacks the small intestine. This immune response damages the villi, tiny hair-like projections in the small intestine that are responsible for absorbing nutrients from food. The damage to the villi inhibits its ability to absorb essential, basic nutrients including proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and, in some cases, water and bile salts. As you can see, gluten consumption for an individual with celiac disease can lead to a slew of issues. For this reason, gluten-free diets exist and are extremely important.

However, for living creatures who do not have celiac disease or any form of gluten intolerance, having gluten in appropriate amounts is a completely safe part of a balanced diet.

Furthermore, dogs do not have celiac disease. Celiac disease is a condition in people. It is possible for dogs to have genetic gluten intolerances, however very uncommon.

Gluten Free Vs Grain-Free Dog Food

Another important difference to note is that between gluten free and grain free. Grain free is another popular trend that has been making its rounds over the last several years. Many people use the terms gluten free and grain free interchangeably, but in fact, they aren’t the same.

Grain-free diets, as the name implies, are free of all grains. Gluten-free diets may or may not contain grain. This is because not all grains contain gluten. Therefore, grain free dog food will always be gluten-free, but gluten-free diets may very well contain grain as an ingredient.

gluten free vs grain free

Is Gluten Bad for My Dog?

Extensive research and countless studies have proved that most dogs do not need a gluten free (or grain free) diet because gluten intolerances and gluten sensitivities in dogs are very uncommon. In fact, studies show that gluten is so uncommon that disease has only truly been diagnosed in a small number of Irish Setters in the UK. So then why have so many pet owners chosen to switch to a gluten-free diet? Let’s take a look.

Unnatural for the Species

Individuals who advocate for gluten-free and grain-free diets for dogs may argue that grains and gluten were not a part of the diet of our dog’s ancestors. While there is truth to this, it goes without saying that our present-day, domesticated dogs have done quite a bit of evolving to get where they are today. This evolution includes internal changes that now allow dogs to consume and digest grains without any problems. In fact, dogs have several genes that have been altered throughout the course of their evolution and allow them to easily and efficiently digest carbohydrates. These carbohydrates include grains and gluten.

With all that said, while dogs may be perfectly fine on a gluten-free diet, for the vast majority of them, it is entirely unnecessary in terms of overall health and wellbeing.

Food Allergies

Another common misconception regarding both grains and gluten is their connection to food allergies in dogs. Now, food allergies absolutely exist in dogs and it is possible that your dog is facing a reaction to something in their meal. However, corn and other grains are not among the most prevalent allergens that are found in pet foods. It may surprise you to learn that according to a recent, in-depth study, beef is actually the most common allergen. Dairy ranks second when it comes to food allergens and corn is actually one of the least likely sources when it comes to allergies.

There are, of course, rare occasions where the dog is, in fact, allergic to grains. In these cases, adopting a grain-free will be necessary. Again, grain-free and gluten-free are not one in the same. If your dog is allergic to gluten then a gluten-free diet will be required in order to ensure the health and function of their gastrointestinal system.

Allergy Symptoms

Since we’re on the topic, you may be wondering the signs to look out for in terms of food allergies in dogs.

These symptoms include:

  • Itchiness
  • Excessive hair loss
  • Bald patches
  • Inflamed, irritated skin
  • Sore and scabs
  • Hot spots

If your dog is showing symptoms of allergies, it is possible that they do in fact have a sensitivity to gluten. However, it is far more common for the sensitivity to be caused by another factor. Environmental allergens are prominent causes of allergies in dogs. Everything from pollen in the air to pesticides can cause Fido to experience some form of allergic reaction. Before assuming that your dog has a gluten allergy, consider if there have been any changes in their normal day-to-day routine. Even changes in your life, i.e. new laundry detergent or a new perfume, can trigger an allergic reaction in your pup.

Additionally, if your pup does have a food allergy or sensitivity, you’ll want to get to the root of the problem. While gluten sensitivities are uncommon, food sensitives as a whole are not. Figuring out what Fido is allergic to can be an extensive, time-consuming process. Typically veterinarians recommend an elimination diet where pet owners begin with an extremely bland diet and slowly reintroduce food sources until they find what is causing the reaction. While this can take several weeks to months, trust us when we say it’s worth getting to the bottom of.

dog allergy symptoms

Personal Preference

Ultimately, deciding to switch to gluten-free food for your dog is the pet parent’s choice. It is very uncommon for dogs to have gluten intolerances and typically, the decision to go gluten-free is not based on necessity but rather a want based on personal preferences. If you do choose to make the switch, it is important to discuss the decision with your veterinarian in order to ensure your dog is getting the necessary nutrients in their new diet. Some dogs, for instance, dogs with diabetes, require a diet that includes complex carbohydrates. Be sure that your dog’s health won’t be in jeopardy by switching to a gluten-free diet.

Symptoms of a Gluten Intolerance

While gluten sensitivities are uncommon in dogs it is still in the realm of possibilities that your dog may be allergic to gluten.

GI Upset

If your dog has a gluten intolerance you’ll likely see signs in the form of chronic gastrointestinal upset. The body’s inability to properly digest the protein will typically lead to intermittent or regular diarrhea and/or constipation. Mucousy stools are also common when it comes to gluten sensitivities. In some cases, vomiting also occurs.


As we previously mentioned, chronic dry and flaky skin, hair loss, redness, irritation, bumps, rashes and constant scratching are telltale signs that Fido may be suffering from a food intolerance. However, dermatitis is a symptom of many food intolerances, not just gluten.

Chronic Ear Infections

An overconsumption of grain, whether or not a sensitivity is involved, can lead to chronic ear infections. Of course, when there is a grain sensitivity, the chance of chronic ear infections developing significantly increases. This is due to the fact that too much grain leads to a build-up of excess sugars in the dog’s body. The build-up of sugars leads to an overgrowth of yeast. You’ll be able to identify an ear infection pretty easily. Look for dark, waxy, smelly build-up in the dog’s ear. It is often accompanied by constant head shaking and scratching. If your dog has chronic ear infections, talk to your vet about whether they may have a grain allergy and how a dietary change to grain-free food may help.

ear infection in dogs

Additional Problems with Grains (and Gluten)

It’s no secret that many pet food companies overload their products with grains. Even if your dog doesn’t have a gluten or grain intolerance, there have been many issues associated with the overconsumption of grains. Some of these issues include:

  • Arthritis
  • Epilepsy
  • Abnormal behavior
  • Allergic and inflammatory reactions
  • Pancreatitis
  • Hepatitis
  • Weakened immune system
  • Cushing’s disease
  • Addison’s disease
  • Thyroid problems

This is not to say that consuming grains will directly lead to the development of these conditions. However, the amount of grains in modern commercial pet food is generally excessive. Over time, this can deplete the animal’s natural state of good health and lead to additional problems developing. While we aren’t suggesting to immediately switch to grain-free food, it’s a fact that pet owners should be aware of.

Switching to Gluten Free Dog Food

If your dog does, in fact, have a gluten sensitivity, you’ll want to take the necessary steps to transition them into a gluten-free diet. As we mentioned, continuing to eat gluten if you have a gluten sensitivity can lead to long-term problems down the road.

As with everything, we encourage our readers to do their homework when it comes to making major life changes in their pet’s life. We also recommend considering a species appropriate raw food diet. A raw food diet closely mimics what your dog’s ancestors consumed and provides all of the nutrients that your dog needs. Of course, check the labels and ensure that there are no added grains or gluten to the food source (there shouldn’t be but it’s always better to be safe than sorry).

Additionally, go slowly. Transitioning your dog to a gluten-free diet should be just like anything else: a gradual process. Switching your dog’s food too quickly can lead to severe gastrointestinal upset, something pet owners will want to avoid. Experts suggest beginning with substituting 10% of the dog’s normal food with gluten-free food for the first couple of days and slowly adding more and replacing the previous food until the dog’s diet is completely gluten-free.

What Does Gluten Free Dog Food Contain

The number one ingredient in gluten-free dog food should be a high-quality protein source. There should be no grains, wheat, soy, corn, preservatives, or artificial colors or flavors. Again, finding gluten-free dog food in the commercially grain loving world can be a bit of a challenge which is why we recommend considering a raw food diet. With that being said, gluten-free dog food does exist, you just have to know what to look for.

CBD for Dogs

If you do decide to switch to a gluten-free or grain-free diet for Fido, you’ll still need to make sure that they are getting all of the nutrients they need in a healthy, balanced meal. Furthermore, you’ll need to ensure that any additional supplements are also gluten-free.

Introducing CBD.

By now, you’ve likely heard of the remarkable herb known as CBD. CBD may help relieve joint stiffness associated with normal daily exercise and activity. The best part? CBD oil is both gluten-free and grain-free.

The CBD oil comes in tincture form with an easy-to-use dropper. The dropper allows pet owners to have total control over just how much of the product their dog receives. The CBD oil is safe enough to administer directly into Fido’s mouth or can be mixed into their gluten-free food bowl.

Gluten-Free Dog Food: The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, we know that you want the very best for your beloved four-legged friend. That’s why it makes sense that you would jump on the health food bandwagon. Keeping Fido healthy and happy? Sign us up!

With that said, it is important to remember that not every trend actually makes sense or is rooted in necessity or facts. This is particularly the case when it comes to gluten-free dog food. The number of dogs with a gluten allergy is so incredibly small. If you are switching to gluten-free to try to ease a food allergy, it is likely that the change won’t actually fix the root of the problem.

We also understand that some pet parents are making the switch due to a personal preference. If this is the case, make sure that your dog doesn’t have any preexisting condition that requires a complex carbohydrate in their diet. The last thing you want to do is cause your dog harm in the process of making a positive change.

All in all, stay informed! There will always be new health trends popping up.  Try not to make any decisions before knowing how it may affect Fido.


Gluten Free Dog Food

Top 5 Gluten-Free Dog Foods › Dog Care: What’s New? › Nutrition & Feeding

About the author

Chelsea Hunt-Rivera

Chelsea Rivera is a Dedicated Pet Parent who loves to create amazing content for pet owners and is helping change pet wellness as the Head of Content for