Exploring Grain Free Dog Food
What is considered a grain free diet?
Put simply, a grain free diet is a diet free from all grains, including ingredients such as wheat, corn, rice, oats and barley.
Grain free diets have become increasingly popular in the pet food industry, mirroring trends in the world of human nutrition. But is feeding a grain free diet really better for your pet?
Let's firstly talk about the nutritional benefits of grains.
Grains contribute valuable nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and fibre to the diet. At the same time, they help to keep the fat and calorie content lower than if animal products were used in their place.
If we decide to feed a grain free diet, we need to ensure we can still provide these key nutrients or 'building blocks' that make up a complete and balanced diet.
Let's explore the grain free theories...
Grain free diets more closely replicate a natural diet
One big argument put forward by fans of the grain free movement is that as carnivorous animals, grains hold no place in the natural diet for dogs and cats. While cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat meat, technically domestic dogs are omnivores. Dogs have lived alongside humans for tens of thousands of years eating our scraps and cast offs, including meats, vegetables and you guessed it - grains! If we compare the genome of a dog to a wolf, it's been shown that dogs do have the ability to digest the starches found in grains. In fact, a microbiology researcher in 2012 found that dogs have multiple copies of the gene coding for the digestive enzyme, amylase, which is synthesised by the pancreas. While dogs can have anywhere from 4 to 30 copies of this gene, wolves only have 2 indicating a reduced ability to digest starch. While their distant relative may be the wolf, the domestic dog's digestive system has undoubtedly changed a lot since then.
This comes down to the distinction between nutrients and ingredients. Cooked grains such as rice and corn contain valuable nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and fibre which, believe it or not, are very beneficial and able to be absorbed and utilised by both cats and dogs. So it's not all about the ingredient, for example wheat, but instead the nutritional benefit that that ingredient provides.
While the quality and type of ingredients used in your pet's food certainly matter, it's the nutrients contained within these ingredients that your pet will use to fuel their bodies.
Grain free diets are beneficial for food allergies
The second argument put forward in favour of grain free diets is that they often manufactured with a holistic focus and can include nutraceutical ingredients and superfoods that could offer additional beneficial nutrients. Although not suitable for use as a blanket hypoallergenic diet, grain free diets may be suitable for dogs with allergies to grain based proteins such as wheat and corn.
Keep in mind that grain allergies in pets are extremely uncommon, and it's far more likely for dogs and cats to be allergic to the protein source within the food. While many parents do report that their pets skin and/or digestive symptoms improved when they were switched onto a grain free diet, we don't know whether this was because the diet was free of grains, or simply because the protein source was different. It's common for manufacturers of grain free diets to select exotic and 'novel' protein sources such as bison, lamb and kangaroo. Because it's relatively unlikely for pets to be allergic to these new and exotic protein sources, switching pets to one of these grain free diets may lead us to believe that the grains were the culprit.
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So is grain-based nutrition ideal and biologically appropriate for dogs and cats? Not necessarily, but on the flip side it doesn't automatically mean that it is harmful.
What are the drawbacks of a grain free diet?
- More expensive - less cost effective carbohydrate source such as sweet potato or tapioca flour need to be used to replace the grain
- Carbohydrate alternatives can offer less in the way of beneficial nutrients - brown rice is an excellent source of fibre and slow release energy while tapioca flour is highly starchy and contains virtually no fibre
- More energy dense - must pay close attention to feeding amounts to avoid weight gain and obesity
What should you look for in a grain free food?
While many grain free foods are nutritious and balanced, they are not all created equal. When looking for a grain free food for your pet it is important to critically evaluate the ingredients and nutrients that it provides.
A final word about grains as 'fillers'
Don't be tricked into the marketing of grains as 'filler' ingredients. We talked about the key nutrients that grains provide and that scientific studies have shown us that dogs are actually very efficient at both digesting and utilizing these nutrients found in grains. In reality, there is no such thing as a 'filler' ingredient in pet food, unless we're talking about air, water and perhaps unfermentable fibre. Now that's food for thought!
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Dr. Kim is one of our resident Pet Circle Veterinarians. When Kim isn't sharing her pet care knowledge at Pet Circle, she enjoys travelling, spending time at the beach, and teaching her Border Collie, Louisiana "Lou" new tricks!
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