Grain-free diets are rising in popularity, with many pet owners believing them to be the ‘best’ or ‘healthiest’ food for their pets. So, how beneficial are grain-free foods for our pets or are they just a fad? To help you decide here is the low-down on what’s what in the world of grain-free foods.
Grains such as rice, wheat, bran, maize (corn), barley and sorghum are commonly used in commercial pet foods. They contain carbohydrates and are often, rather unfairly, thought of as ‘fillers’ by many pet owners and a hallmark of an inferior quality food.
Although, carbohydrates are not strictly essential to our pets, they do a lot more than just ‘fill’ your pet up and provide valuable nutrients such as energy and fibre, which are needed to fuel your pet as well as help keep their digestive tract healthy.
The inclusion of carbohydrates also means that valuable fats and proteins, which would otherwise be used up for energy, are available for use by your pet’s skin, coat and immune system. This all helps to keep your pet’s skin and coat looking healthy and glossy and their defence system in good order.
Since their descent from carnivorous wolves, dogs have evolved to scavenge different types of food and have become omnivores, just like us. This means that they are now genetically adapted1 to eating a diverse diet, including carbohydrates such as cooked grains, potatoes fruits and vegetables, which their wolf ancestors cannot.
Cats are strict carnivores and although they are less well adapted to eating carbohydrates compared to dogs, they too can digest them. However, they do benefit from being fed on a diet high in animal protein and low in carbohydrates – the exception being during lactation when carbohydrates provide the best source of energy for milk production3.
Also, there is the often the assumption that grain–free also means carbohydrate–free, which is not the strictly true. Potatoes and sweet potatoes as well as fruits and vegetables will often be used in place of grains in these foods.
With more and more of us self-diagnosing ourselves with gluten and wheat allergies or intolerances, there is a tendency to believe our pets have the same problem too.
The chances of your pet having a food allergy is actually relatively low, with only 0.1% of the cat and dog population reportedly affected by a true food intolerance2. The most common allergies are to animal proteins such as beef, chicken and dairy, whereas grain allergies affect only a small minority of pets2. For those pets diagnosed with a true grain allergy, then feeding a grain-free diet will be essential to their health.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, buckwheat and oat flour and can affect dogs. However, gluten sensitivity is relatively rare and largely confined to some Irish setters. The other condition that gluten is linked to in dogs is canine epileptoid cramping syndrome, which can affect border terriers. Both these conditions can be managed by feeding a gluten-free diet.
So, whether you do or don’t decide to feed your pet on a grain-free diet, the most important factor when choosing any food for your pet is to make sure that it is complete and balanced and will meet all your pet’s nutritional needs.
Why not check out our range of tasty pet foods (including grain-free options) on www.dogtor.vet.
Anna Cherry BSc (Hons) BVSc MRCVS
(veterinary surgeon at dogtor.vet)