Pet parents have access to more information than ever and one of the things they care deeply about is feeding the best diet for their dog. Grain free dog foods are currently very popular and are often touted as a way to help your dog’s chronic skin problems. But will they help your dog’s skin disease? Are grain free diets generally healthier for your dog than other available pet foods? Let’s take a closer look at these questions.
WHAT IS A GRAIN FREE DIET?
A grain-free diet is simply one that does not contain any cereal grains (either whole or refined grains).
DO DOGS SUFFER GLUTEN INTOLERANCE?
While it is true that many dogs do well with grain free diets, the recent popularity and push for grain free diets has come from consumer preference and not from veterinary specialists (veterinary nutritionists, internists, dermatologists) to address medical concerns in dogs.
With increased knowledge about celiac disease (gluten intolerance) in people, pet parents are often intrigued about feeding their dogs a grain free diet. Gluten is a protein found in many grass-related grains, most notably in wheat, barley and rye and is problematic in the small percentage of people who have gluten-intolerance (celiac disease). In celiac patients gluten causes the intestine to become severely inflamed and there is interference with nutrient absorption resulting in chronic maldigestion and diarrhea. The only treatment is a diet completely free of ingredients derived from gluten. Celiac disease (gluten intolerance) and food allergies to grains are RARE in dogs and cats. Therefore, aside from these issues a gluten-free/grain free diet really offers no added health benefit to pets.
DOES GRAIN FREE MEAN CARB FREE?
NO- grain free and carb free are not synonymous. Eating a low carb diet is a popular way for people to eat. However, is this good for our pets? High protein, low carbohydrate diets do have their place, particularly in the feeding of diabetic cats.
It is important not to assume that a grain free diet is a low carbohydrate diet. In fact, some grain free pet foods contain carbohydrate levels similar to or even higher than diets containing grains. In many grain free diets, ingredients such as potatoes replace the grains in the food and often these ingredients have more carbohydrates than the common grains used in pet food. As a result, grain free and low carbohydrate pet foods are not always synonymous with one another.
DOES GRAIN FREE MEAN ALLERGY-FREE?
This is the question that veterinary dermatologists are most concerned with on a daily basis since food allergies frequently cause itching and recurrent ear and skin infections. A popular misconception that many pet parents fall victim to is the assumption that grain free diets are the best diets for pets with food allergies.
The most common food allergens are animal based protein sources (beef, dairy, chicken…) while corn and other grains are an uncommon cause of food allergy. In fact, according to some of the available research, corn is actually one of the least likely sources of food allergy. In one literature review, 278 dogs with food allergy were evaluated and the problem ingredient was clearly identified for each dog. Beef was the most common allergen, being responsible for 95 of the cases reported. Dairy was responsible for 55 cases, making it the second most frequent cause. Corn was identified as the offender in only 7 cases. In cats, the situation is similar. Fifty-six cats were evaluated in this study. Forty-five of the food allergies resulted from eating beef, dairy, and/or fish. Corn, meanwhile, was responsible for only 4 cases.
WHAT IS THE BEST DIET TO FEED?
The most important question to ask about any diet is does it provide complete and balanced nutrition. In addition (if needed), does it meet a specific medical need for your dog (Avoidance of food allergy? Benefits for pets with diabetes, kidney or liver disease?). If the food contains excesses or deficiencies of specific nutrients, the dog will suffer as a result. This concept is true regardless of whether the food contains grains or not.
It is certainly possible for grain free diets to provide this type of complete nutrition for your dog. However, these diets are not the only option, or even necessarily the best option, for each individual pet. Remember, there is no one diet or type of diet that is perfect for all dogs.
Choose ingredients with which you, as a pet owner, are comfortable. But remember that in the long run, it is the nutrient profile that is important, not the individual ingredients in the pet food.
As with all things related to your pet’s health, your veterinarian is your best source of information regarding pet foods. Your veterinarian is knowledgeable about all types of pet food and can help you determine the type of diet that is best for your pet.