With such a wealth of choice when it comes to dog foods these days, dog owners can be left feeling overwhelmed and confused. We all want to do what’s best for our canine friends, but with so much conflicting information it can be hard to tell which advice is backed up by science. In this guide, I’ll review the pros and cons of grain-free dog food, and look at the facts surrounding this food fad.
Grain-free dog food is food that excludes all grains as their carbohydrate source. This means no ingredients such as wheat, barley, corn, oats, or rice. Instead, the carbohydrate source does not include grains, such as sweet potato.
No, gluten is a protein found in some grains, such as wheat and barley. But not all grains contain gluten. For example, rice is a grain, but is gluten-free. So, all grain-free diets will also be gluten-free, but gluten-free diets may contain other grains.
There is a common misconception that grain is used as a ‘filler’ in dog foods, and that dogs struggle to digest grains. This has possibly in part been fuelled by the increasing popularity of ‘free-from’ foods in the human market.
Grains are actually a good source of energy and are rich in essential nutrients, including fibre, vitamins, and minerals. So, they certainly aren’t just ‘fillers’!
Dogs can thrive on a diet containing grains, and are certainly able to digest them. Dogs have evolved alongside humans, and their digestive tracts have evolved accordingly. There is currently no scientific evidence that a diet containing grains has adverse effects on a dog’s health, nor that grain-free food has any benefits.
In the majority of dogs, there are no benefits to a grain-free diet over a diet containing grains. In a small proportion of dogs, a grain-free diet may be beneficial. Some dogs may have allergies or intolerances to certain grains. However, it would be very rare for a dog to be allergic to all grains. So, by excluding all grains rather than just wheat, for example, you may be unnecessarily restricting your dog’s diet.
If you are concerned that your dog may be allergic or intolerant to some foods, it’s important to discuss this with your vet. They will be able to advise you on the best diet for your dog’s individual needs and to discuss diagnosing any allergies, if necessary.
Sadly, allergies are fairly common in dogs. Canine allergies can be to substances in the environment, such as pollens, to insects, such as fleas, or to food. The symptoms of an allergy include ongoing itchy skin, red skin, weeping sores, and ear infections. Food allergies can also manifest as diarrhoea, sickness, and excessive gas.
Grain allergies are rare in dogs. The most common allergies are beef and dairy, followed by wheat. So, grain-free diets may help with itchy skin or diarrhoea if your dog is intolerant or allergic to any grains. However, it is rare that you would need to cut out all grains, and simply moving to a wheat-free diet may be fine.
Most vets generally do not recommend grain-free food, since grains are a rich source of nutrients and there is no evidence that a grain-free diet is better. There are some situations where a vet would recommend a grain-free food, but this would be advice tailored to your individual dog’s needs.
Good quality grain-free dog food may be fine for your dog. However, cutting out all grains runs the risk of the diet lacking in some essential nutrients. In particular, there are concerns about a possible link between grain-free diets and heart problems.
Relatively recent research has pointed to a link between grain-free foods and DCM, a heart condition, also known as dilated cardiomyopathy. In DCM the heart enlarges (dilates) and weakens, causing tiredness, coughing, weakness and collapse.
DCM is more common in certain breeds, such as Doberman Pinschers. However, there has been an increase in cases in all breeds. These dogs developing DCM have been shown to have low levels of taurine, an amino acid, and this has been linked to grain-free or exotic, boutique diets. However, more research is needed to determine what exactly is causing the problem: the lack of grains, the ingredients used to replace them, or something else. However, until the evidence is clear, it is sensible not to feed your dog a restricted diet, unless under the instruction of your vet.
When choosing a diet for your dog, it’s important to choose one that is labelled as nutritionally complete for your dog’s age, or life-stage. Digestibility of the diet is also very important. So, it’s important to choose a reputable brand using high quality ingredients. If you do wish to try a home-prepared diet, it is essential that you involve a veterinary nutritionist, to avoid nutritional deficiencies.
Most dog owners need not be concerned about grain allergies. So, in terms of grain-free diets, these are only necessary if advised by your veterinarian. If you are unsure if your dog may have a food allergy or intolerance, or aren’t sure which diet is best for your dog, ask for your vet’s advice.
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