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Should German Shepherds Eat Grain-Free? What You Should Know

Last Updated: December 27, 2023

If you’re a German Shepherd owner, you’ve likely been overwhelmed by the myriad of dog food choices on the market, particularly the increasingly popular grain-free options.

This trend towards grain-free canine diets has gained momentum for several reasons, offering a range of potential benefits. But the question remains: is a grain-free diet the right choice for your German Shepherd?

German Shepherds can benefit from eating grain-free, especially those with sensitive stomachs or grain allergies. Ideally, they require a high-quality diet with 18-22% protein and 5-8% fat, tailored to their life stage, activity level, and health.

While grains aren’t inherently harmful to some German Shepherds, many low-quality dog foods use nutritionally poor grains as fillers instead of high-quality proteins like lamb, beef, chicken, turkey, pork, and fish.

Your German Shepherd’s diet should balance protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and fiber for optimal health. Understanding your dog’s food, especially grain-free options, is crucial.

Let’s explore if grain-free food is the best choice for your German Shepherd.

A GSD with lots of different foods.

Why is Grain-Free Food Better for German Shepherds?

Grain-free dog food started appearing around the same time that different diets started to trend for both you and me.

In the past decade, diets like the keto diet, paleo diet, and gluten-free diet saw a rise in popularity for what seemed like a healthier alternative. 

Grain-free dog food also saw a rise in demand, and many dog food companies saw a chance to offer higher-quality dog food to match the heightened interest that people had for food in general.

Since its early days, grain-free dog food has evolved and has now become something that can be very beneficial for your pet.

Many people assume that grain-free dog food is superior for German Shepherds, primarily due to the absence of grains, which are often believed to be unsuitable for these dogs. However, this belief is only partially accurate.

Although grains weren’t originally part of a dog’s diet, canines have adapted since domestication, and they can digest most grains.

Many grains have been introduced throughout the domestication process, and our pets’ digestive systems have adjusted to the new ingredients.

What this means in simple terms is that dogs are now different from wolves and no longer need to eat a diet primarily consisting of meat due to evolution and their co-existence with humans.

Unfortunately, many regular dog foods that include grains are of lower quality than grain-free food, but not all.

This is because most grains are cheap, so many companies will skimp out on the more expensive ingredients that your German Shepherd needs, like real protein (such as chicken, fish, or beef).

They will substitute animal protein and use inexpensive grains with little or no nutritional value. Examples of these are:

  • Cereal by-products
  • Corn
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Rye
  • Rice
  • Oats
  • Barley
Two GSDs sitting next to each other

On the opposite end of the spectrum, high-quality traditional dog food will contain healthy grains such as maize germ, millet, brown rice, or whole-grain brown rice, so look for these ingredients if you feed regular dog food.

Remember, grains themselves, or the lack of them in grain-free foods, aren’t the enemy; it’s the type of grain used and the combination of other ingredients.

One advantage of grain-free dog food is that it helps you know that your lovable pet’s food is more than likely balanced compared to most other dog foods with grains.

Another advantage is that most grain-free dog foods also use higher-quality ingredients, so you’re giving your German Shepherd better food simultaneously. 

While people agree that grain-free dog food generally contains better ingredients than other dog foods, there are still a lot of controversies over which type of food is better.

There have been speculations that grain-free foods can be bad for your pet. This argument stems from the idea that early grain-free dog food just substituted grains with things like starches, which caused dangerous nutrition levels in dogs that ate it.

Today, most grain-free dog foods focus on finding a well-balanced recipe to ensure that your German Shepherd gets all of his nutrients in the right quantities.

Are All Grain-Free Foods Good?

Most grain-free foods are going to benefit your German Shepherd’s diet. Grain-free dog foods are meant to provide a healthier alternative for your pet’s diet without you having to worry about what ingredients are in the food.

However, as mentioned, some grain-free dog foods that aren’t up to par with the competition are sold.

Because of how the food came to be sold, some companies tried to maximize the excitement surrounding grain-free foods by creating cheap food that could sell at a higher price.

Like foods with grains can be bad because they overuse cheap, low-quality grains, some grain-free dog foods use other fillers excessively, such as potatoes.

These kinds of grain-free foods aren’t helpful for your pet at all and, along with foods with cheap grains, are equally as bad. 

A key point to note here is that many high-quality grain-free dog foods contain potatoes, and there is nothing wrong with that – you need to keep an eye on the number of potatoes or other grain-free ingredients.

Your German Shepherd needs a balanced diet, just like you do. The ASPCA has a great guide that explains the six essential nutrients your dog needs.

Before purchasing a grain-free dog food, make sure it’s a reputable brand and that the main ingredient is protein; this is what your German Shepherd needs most in his food.

Key Ingredients to Look for (and Avoid) in Your Dog’s Grain-Free Food

First, you should always see meat as the number one ingredient on the dog food label.

Your GSD needs meat primarily, so this is an important thing to pay attention to. Most grain-free recipes have this but be wary of those with too many carbs, like potatoes. 

While some carbohydrates are suitable for your dog’s diet, they should never be the majority of the ingredients.

Watch out for dog foods that list multiple carbs, such as various ingredients related to potatoes, like sweet potatoes. This can also create a weight problem for your German Shepherd.

Try to stay away from complex or exotic foods. Grain-free dog foods are best when they’re simple, as most dogs have issues breaking down things that aren’t basic foods.

Chicken and cranberry may sound appealing to your pup but buy the simpler chicken-only recipe instead.

Here is a list of some appropriate vitamins and additional ingredients for your dog’s food:

  • DHA: helps in brain development
  • Omega-3: good for skin and coat
  • Probiotics: help the digestive system
  • Antioxidants: immunity booster

All of the above are perfect for any dog, whether they’re puppies, adults, mature, or pregnant.

Are Grains Necessary in a German Shepherd’s Diet? 

Although grains have become part of a German Shepherd’s diet through centuries of domestication, your dog doesn’t really need grains to survive.

Dogs were not used to digesting grains in the wild, but their digestive system improved at processing them throughout the years. However, this doesn’t mean that grains became an irreplaceable part of their diet.

In other words, your German Shepherd isn’t missing anything by not having grains in his food.

Dogs can easily get all of their nutrients from other sources that are present in most grain-free foods. Most grain-free foods focus on creating recipes that ensure dogs meet all their nutritional needs.

German Shepherd Eating Meat

Does Grain-Free Food Aid German Shepherd Digestive Issues?

German Shepherds are known to be prone to having a sensitive stomach. If your GSD struggles to digest foods properly, grain-free dog food might be your best option.

While grains themself don’t cause digestive issues, they can be difficult for dogs to break down. There are a few different reasons your pet could be suffering.

Your dog could have an allergy to grains. However, this is rare, less than 1%. A food allergy in dogs only accounts for 10% of all dog allergens, and most dogs are allergic to the protein source, not the grain.

What surprises many pet owners is that grains are actually uncommon causes of food allergies – most pets are allergic to animal proteins!” – Cummings Veterinary Medical Center

Unfortunately, this information doesn’t prevent many dog food companies from marketing their grain-free food as being good for pets with allergies.

However, any number is still too high if your dog shows signs of a food allergy, such as dry, itchy skin and stomach problems. It’s best to work with your vet before switching your pet’s food, as the allergy source needs to be identified first.

If you are interested in finding out more about German Shepherd allergies, you can check out this article, Why Does My German Shepherd Itch So Much?

If your German Shepherd has stomach problems, it could also be due to low-quality ingredients in the food you’re currently using.

If this is true, grain-free foods are also helpful since they typically use higher-quality ingredients than other dog foods. Again, a check with your vet is always recommended.

In most cases, grain-free dog foods also include probiotics, living organisms that plant themselves in your dog’s digestive tract and promote healthy digestion.

They help your dog digest their food in two ways. First, they help your GSD immediately digest the food. They also help with your dog’s digestive system as a whole.

Best Grain-Free Food for German Shepherds

Trying to improve your German Shepherd’s diet can be difficult, and there are many options for grain-free dog foods. I’ve spent hours researching the best grain-free foods on the market, especially those suitable for large breeds such as the German Shepherd.

All of these grain-free options have a high protein source as the number one ingredient. They are in no particular order of preference, as I’m happy to recommend them all.

You can find them at most good pet stores or on Amazon, where you can also check out each product’s reviews.

Prices pulled from the Amazon Product Advertising API on:

Note: Clicking the above link(s) will take you to Amazon or an online store where we have an affiliate relationship. If you make a purchase, we may earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

Taste of the Wild Grain-Free Dry Dog Food

Taste of the Wild offers a unique pet experience by offering dry foods based on your dog’s ancestral diet.

I have chosen the venison variety as the first ingredient, although there is a range of other flavors to choose from, such as wild boar, salmon, trout, beef, turkey, or lamb.

This company is family-owned and operated, and they follow the most advanced food safety protocols at all times.

Here are a few benefits of Taste of the Wild Grain-Free High Protein Dry Dog Food:

  • Venison as a first ingredient – 28% protein.
  • Gluten-free recipe.
  • Added fruits, vegetables, vitamins, and minerals.
  • No artificial flavors.
  • All-natural recipe.
  • Probiotic blends are included for optimal digestive health.
  • Made in the USA.

ORIJEN Grain-Free Dry Dog Food

ORIJEN stands out from its competition by having a grain-free recipe and using meat that’s a cut above the rest.

Their dog food keeps meat as a first ingredient, including free-run turkey, chicken, and wild-caught fish. This is better for dogs in the same way it’s better for humans: fewer growth hormones.

Here are a few benefits of ORIJEN Grain-Free Dry Dog Food:

  • Free-run turkey and chicken and wild-caught fish are the main ingredients.
  • Uses raw and fresh ingredients.
  • Made in the USA.
  • Focus on finding the perfect balance of meats and other nutrients.
  • No outsourced production processes.
  • Perfect ratio of meat, bones, cartilage, and/or organs that mirror hunting habits for dogs.

Merrick Grain-Free Dry Dog Food

This impressive chicken grain-free recipe is also free of wheat, soy, and gluten, making this food perfect for dogs with digestive issues. Every single batch of food is individually tested for safety and quality.

I like this brand as it has a specific large breed option recommended for puppies and adult German Shepherds.

Here are some of the benefits of Merrick Large Breed Grain-Free Dry Dog Food:

  • Chicken is always the first ingredient.
  • Grain-free, gluten-free, and soy-free.
  • No artificial colors or flavors.
  • Contains glucosamine and chondroitin to maintain your large breed dog’s hips and joints.
  • Zero preservatives.
  • Made in the USA.
  • 100% money-back guarantee.

Grain-Free and DCM

If you made it this far, you might have heard of ongoing investigations by the FDA into a potential link between certain grain-free dog foods and a type of heart disease, canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

The foods of concern contain legumes such as peas or lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes listed as primary ingredients. 

More than 90 percent of foods reported in these cases were grain-free. 93 percent of reported foods contained peas and/or lentils, and 42 percent contained potatoes/sweet potatoes.

It’s important to note that there were a tiny number of cases (524 reports from an estimated 77 million dogs in the US), and investigations remain ongoing.

There is no conclusive evidence that these ingredients caused heart disease in the dogs, as stated by The American Kennel Club:

At this time, there is no proof that these ingredients are the cause of DCM in a broader range of dogs, but dog owners should be aware of this alert from the FDA.” – Dr. J Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer A.K.C

To confuse matters even further, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association emphasized the issue is not just grain-free diets.

They also suspect other common ingredients found in what’s known as “BEG” diets (boutique companies, exotic ingredients, or grain-free diets), such as exotic meats like crocodile or ostrich and exotic vegetables and fruits, could be just as concerning.

Learn More About Grain-Free and DCM In This Video…

In conclusion, nothing has been proven, and the DCM cause remains unclear, although I encourage you to do your own research.


How can a grain-free diet benefit a German Shepherd’s coat?

A grain-free diet can benefit your German Shepherd’s coat by providing healthy fats and oils that nourish their skin and fur. Look for grain-free foods containing salmon, herring, or flaxseed oils to give their coat extra shine and softness.

How much should a German Shepherd eat on a grain-free diet?

When feeding a grain-free diet, follow the guidelines on the bag just as you would for any other dog food. The portion size may vary depending on your dog’s age, size, and activity level. Adjust amounts up or down over a few weeks based on whether your German Shepherd seems too thin or plump.

Final Thoughts

Numerous myths and misconceptions surround grain-free dog food. Always consult with your veterinarian when making your decision to provide grain-free food.

Prioritizing your German Shepherd’s well-being means scrutinizing the ingredients list of your chosen product, particularly the quality and amount of protein.

Be wary of low-quality products from companies capitalizing on the grain-free trend, focusing more on profits than your dog’s health.

Sharon Waddington
Sharon Waddington is the founder of World of Dogz. With over 30 years of experience working with dogs, this former Police Officer has seen it all. But it’s her trusty German Shepherd, Willow, who steals the show as the inspiration behind this website. As Sharon’s constant companion Willow has played a pivotal role in shaping her passion for dogs. Recently, Sharon has become deeply passionate about the plight of rescue dogs and is an active advocate for dog rescue, striving to make a difference in the lives of dogs in need.

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