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Should Dogs Eat Grain Free Diets?

Posted 05.17.17 by Drew McWatters, DVM

American pet owners are increasingly concerned with their pet’s nutrition which is wonderful news for pets. However, owners in search of the “best” diet for their pet are increasingly met with misinformation and misconceptions about diets and pet nutrition. While there are many well-meaning people giving advice about pet nutrition, most are ill-equipped and under qualified to tackle such a complex issue as nutrition. Because both human and pet nutrition are such complex subjects, it is easier to simplify them into fads and trends that we can more easily understand (Atkin’s Diet, South Beach Diet, Paleo Diet, Keto Diet, Gluten-Free Diet, etc.). While these diets can sometimes produce weight loss and other desired effects, there is little to any science to show they are healthier, more nutritious, or at all better than an alternative. So where can pet owners turn and what is the truth? I encourage all pet owners to turn to the one person they know who is uniquely qualified to answer questions about both nutrition and their pet’s health: their veterinarian. All veterinarians have had nutrition training and no one understands your pet’s individual medical needs like your veterinarian.

Grain-free diets have a become a growing trend in pet nutrition and many consider them a “healthier” alternative to standard commercial pet foods. The trend has become so popular that many large pet food companies have reformulated their diets to move grains down the list of ingredients or remove them altogether not because they are better, but because they are in demand.

So are grain-free foods really better? Let’s look at some of the misconceptions about grains to help get our answer:

1) Dogs are carnivores and therefore don’t need grains in their diets.

This common misconception falls apart in 2 ways. First, dogs are omnivores and not carnivores. Second, even carnivores (like cats) need carbohydrates and some grains in their diets. Wild carnivores may not eat live vegetation like a herbivore would, but they will feed on the GI tracts of their prey which often contain plant material and grains.

2) Whole grains are just a filler in pet diets.

The Association of American Feed Control Officals (AAFCO) defines a filler as an ingredient that has no nutritional value so to classify whole grains as “fillers” is categorically false. Grains provide vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and some grains are sources of protein (quinoa, spelt, kamut, sorghum). Grains are also a great source of carbohydrates which are important sources of energy for the body. Greater than 90% of dogs and cats can digest and utilize the nutrients found in most grains.

3) Grain free = carbohydrate free

Some pet owners choose grain-free options because they want to feed a carbohydrate-free option to their pet. Grain-free diets are rarely free of carbs. Instead, they use non-grain carb sources such as potatoes or cassava. Even if these diets are low in carbohydrates, this is not necessarily better. Many low carb diets are high in fat and calories, to make up for the lost energy potential of the carbs, and they may be too high fat for certain medical conditions or too high calorie for obese pets.

4) Grains cause allergies

While some pets do suffer from food allergies and sensitivities, food allergies are fairly rare. Less then 1% of skin disease and less than 10% of all allergies are to food ingredients. Furthermore, grains are a small percentage of those allergies. Beef, chicken, and dairy allergies are the most common food allergies as they are historically the most common proteins found in pet foods.

The most important take away is that ingredients are not important, the nutrients that come from those ingredients are. There are 6 basic nutrients that all mammals need to live: water, protein, fat, carbohydrates, and vitamins. Grains can provide 2-3 of those nutrients, depending on the specific grain.

So what should your pet eat? Talk to your vet about options that are right for you and your pet. If grain-free, or another specific type of diet (organic, raw, home-made), is important to you and your family, your vet can help point you to specific diets they recommend. If you are at the food store and don’t have access to your vet, look at the AAFCO statement on the bag. If a diet does not have an AAFCO statement you should never feed it long-term to your pet. If it does have an AAFCO statement, make sure it matches the life-stage of your pet: puppy/growth/lactation, adult, or all-life stages. All-life stage diets must meet the energy requirements of both puppyhood and adulthood which means they are puppy foods since the energy requirements for growing puppies are much higher than that of adults. In general, they are not appropriate for adult dogs and are certainly not appropriate for geriatric dogs. The AAFCO statement can also tell you if your pet’s food passed stringent feeding trials or if they are merely nutritious “on paper”. With rare exception, I only recommend diets to my patients that have proven to be nutritious and safe in an AAFCO feeding trial. Also, companies that do AAFCO feeding trials tend to have stricter quality control measures in place than those that do not.


Dr. Drew McWatters

The Pet Hospitals- Germantown

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