Should a German Shepherd Eat Grain-Free?

If you’ve ever bought food for a German Shepherd, then you’ve seen the countless options available, including grain-free. In recent years grain-free dog food has become popular for a variety of reasons and it can have many benefits. So, should a German Shepherd eat grain-free?

German Shepherds should eat grain-free as they are prone to having a sensitive stomach or they may be allergic to grains. They need a high-quality protein-rich diet consisting of between 18-22% protein and 5-8% fat depending on their life-stage (e.g. puppy or adult), activity level, and health.

Although grains aren’t necessarily bad for some German Shepherds, many low-quality dog food brands use grains with little nutritional value as filler, (such as corn or cereal by-products) instead of using premium proteins such as lamb, beef, chicken, turkey, pork, and fish.

Your German Shepherd needs the right mix of protein, fat, essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber to ensure optimum health and longevity. Learning more about your dog’s food is never a bad idea and there’s a lot to learn about grain-free dog food.

A German Shepherd with different foods, Should a German Shepherd Eat Grain-Free?

So, let’s dive into whether a German Shepherd should eat grain-free food and if this is the best choice for your dog.

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 a higher-quality dog food to match the heightened interest that people had for food in general.

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

Most people believe that grain-free dog food is better for German Shepherds because it doesn’t have grains in it, which they can’t eat, but this is only partially true. Although grains weren’t originally part of a dog’s diet, canines have adapted since domestication, and they’re able to digest most grains.

Many grains have been introduced throughout the domestication process, and the digestive systems of our pets 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 the animal protein and use inexpensive grains that have little or no nutritional value. Examples of these are:

  • Cereal by-products
  • Corn
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Rye
  • Rice
  • Oats
  • Barley

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 that have grains.

Another advantage is that most grain-free dog foods use higher-quality ingredients as well, so you’re giving your German Shepherd better food at the same time. 

While people agree the grain-free dog food generally contains better ingredients than other dog foods, there is still a lot of controversy 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 is getting all of their nutrients in the right quantities.

Are All Grain-Free Foods Good For My German Shepherd?

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.

Do German Shepherds Need Grains in Their Food?

However, as mentioned, there are some grain-free dog foods that are sold that isn’t up to par with the competition. Because of how the food became to be sold, some companies tried to optimize on the excitement surrounding grain-free foods by creating cheap food that can sell at a higher price.

Similar to how foods with grains can be bad because of their overuse of 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 – it’s the quantity of potato or other grain-free ingredients that you need to keep an eye on.

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; you can find it here.

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.

My 5 Favorite German Shepherd Products to Make Life Easier:

  1. Walk Your Dog With Love. I love this no-pull harness as there’s just no way your dog can pull. Easy to fit and inexpensive.
  2. Midwest Homes for Pets iCrate. A crate is a must-have product. This cool all-inclusive one has a ton of features and there’s nothing extra to buy.
  3. FURminator Undercoat deShedding Tool. This grooming tool is by far the best – it gets right through to the undercoat.
  4. KONG Classic Dog Toys. I love KONG toys as they’re super tough and made for your German Shepherd’s teeth!
  5. Big Barker Orthopedic Dog Bed. Scientifically proven to prevent and reduce joint pain in big dogs. The 10-year guarantee is also pretty cool.

My full list of recommendations can be found here.

What Are Some Ingredients I Should (or Shouldn’t) See in My German Shepherd’s Grain-Free Dog Food?

To begin with, 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 that have too many carbs like potatoes. 

While some carbohydrates are right for your dog’s diet, they should never be the majority of the ingredients. Watch out for dog foods that list multiple different types of carbs, such as multiple ingredients that are 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 like an appealing pair for 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: helps the digestive system
  • Antioxidants: immunity booster

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

Do German Shepherds Need Grains in Their Food? 

Although grains have become part of a German Shepherds 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 a recipe that focuses on making sure dogs meet all their nutritional needs.

Can Grain-Free Food Help My German Shepherd’s Digestive Problems?

German Shepherds are known to be prone to having a sensitive stomach. You can find 13 causes that I have listed in this article. If your GSD is struggling to digest foods properly, then 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 is showing 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 source of the allergy needs to be identified first.

If you are interested in finding out more about German Shepherd allergies, you can check out my top article here which includes causes, symptoms, and treatments for all four types of German Shepherd allergies along with some useful prevention advice.

If your German Shepherd is having stomach problems, it could also be due to low-quality ingredients in the food you’re currently using. If this is the case, then 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 which are 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 German Shepherd immediately digest the food. They also help with your dog’s digestive system as a whole.

5 Best Grain-Free Foods for German Shepherds

Trying to improve your German Shepherd’s diet can be difficult, and there are a ton of options when it comes to 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 5 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 the reviews of each product.

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 are a range of other flavors to choose from such as wild boar, salmon, trout, beef, turkey, or lamb.

This company is also family-owned and operated, and they make sure to 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 included for optimal digestive health
  • Made in the USA

ORIJEN Grain-Free Dry Dog Food

ORIJEN stands out from its competition by not only having a grain-free recipe but also using meat that’s a cut above the rest. Their dog food keeps meat as a first ingredient, and that meat includes free-run turkey and chicken and wild-caught fish. This is better for dogs in the same way that 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

Purina Beneful Grain-Free Dry Dog Food

Purina is a huge name in the dog food market, and they’ve also got a few different grain-free options for your German Shepherd. Purina focuses on eliminating fillers completely so that your dog is getting the most of daily feeding times while enjoying the crunchy texture that appeals to your dog’s senses. It’s also a gluten-free recipe that uses farm-raised chickens.

Here are some benefits of Purina Beneful Grain-Free Dry Dog Food:

  • Crunchy texture that’s savoring to dogs
  • Grain-free and gluten-free recipe
  • Farm-raised chicken is the number one ingredient
  • Focuses on eliminating all fillers
  • Made in the USA
  • Safety checks at every stage in the production process
  • 23 vitamins and minerals

Merrick Grain-Free Dry Dog Food

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

I like this brand as they also have a specific large breed option which is recommended for both puppies and adult German Shepherds. You can check out my article, Do German Shepherds Need Large Breed Food? for more information on this.

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

Diamond Naturals Grain-Free Premium Dry Dog Food

Diamond is known for its premium dog foods, and their grain-free recipe is no exception. With cage-free chickens as the main ingredient, this dog food focuses on giving your pet the nutrients they need to thrive.

It is specifically made for large breed dogs that have added benefits including more protein and lower amounts of calcium and phosphorous. There are additional ingredients that boost your dog’s skin, coat, digestive system, and immune system.

Here are some of the benefits of Diamond Naturals Grain-Free Premium Large Breed Dog Food:

  • Cage-free as the main ingredient
  • Gluten-free
  • Ideal for large breed dogs, including puppies
  • No artificial coloring or flavors, and no preservatives
  • Made in the USA
  • Perfect for dogs with digestive problems
  • No filler

Best Grain-Free Food for German Shepherds in the UK & Europe

As I am based in the UK I thought I’d share with you the grain-free food that I feed my German Shepherd.

“Willow” has been fed on a brand of “Cold-Pressed” dog food from being an 8-week old puppy. However, this relatively new food is currently only available in the UK and Europe where it is growing increasingly popular day by day. You can find out more about Guru Pet Food here.

Guru Pet Food’s “Full on Feast” Cold-Pressed Dog Food

Should a German Shepherd Eat Grain-Free? Guru Pet Food Full on Feast Grain-Free
My German Shepherd “Willow” posing with Guru Pet Food’s Full on Feast (Grain-Free)

So, what exactly is “Cold-Pressed” dog food? 

Cold-Pressing is a unique cooking method of producing complete dog food at low temperatures, unlike regular extruded kibble which is cooked at up to 200 degrees. This ensures that the high-quality ingredients retain all their nutritional value and vitamins which are essential for growth, digestion, and overall good health.

“Full on Feast” is their grain-free variety which contains duck, sea-fish, and vegetables. It is suitable for all dogs, small or large, and can be fed from weaning puppies to senior adult dogs.

If you’re interested in finding out a ton more about this food, you can check out my in-depth review here which includes what’s good about it, what’s bad about it, and all about the Guru Cold-Pressed story.

Here is a quick rundown of the main benefits of Guru Pet Food:

  • Duck is the primary ingredient
  • Every ingredient carefully selected
  • Improved general health, coat, skin, and teeth
  • Breaks down quickly for easy digestion
  • Ideal for fussy eaters or dogs with sensitive stomachs
  • Nutritionally dense – use up to a third less than kibble 
  • Helps prevent bloat in dogs at risk
  • No chemical additives, colors, or preservatives

Grain-Free and DCM

If you made it this far, you may 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 are those containing legumes such as peas or lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes that are 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 very small 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 the 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. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer of the 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 but also suspects 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.

I wanted to share the below video from Dr. Alex Avery from “Our Pets Health.” It is quite long at 12-minutes, but Dr. Alex explains this whole issue really well and gives an unbiased view about grain-free diets in general.

Grain-Free Dog Food: Does it Cause Heart Failure?

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

Final Thoughts

There are many myths and misconceptions about grain-free dog food, however, I hope I’ve given you enough “food for thought” to help you decide whether or not to feed your German Shepherd grain-free.

When making your decision, remember to consult with your vet. We all want what’s best for our German Shepherds so ensure you thoroughly check the ingredients in the product you choose, especially the protein quality and content.

Don’t fall foul of a poor-quality product from a company that has jumped on the “grain-free bandwagon” that cares more about profits than the health of your dog.

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Sharon Waddington

I am the owner of World of Dogz. I have a 5-year-old female German Shepherd named "Willow" and I've worked with dogs for almost 30 years. I love spending time with my dog and I enjoy sharing my knowledge and expertise of all things dogs on this site!

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