Grain-Free Diets for Dogs – Good Idea or Health Risk?

Grain-Free Diets for Dogs – Good Idea or Health Risk?

I have a yearly ritual that I keep finding myself repeating: running out of dog food on the day of Thanksgiving, which puts me frantically running into the pet store on the morning of the shopping event of the year. While I don’t envy anyone else who has this predicament, constantly finding myself standing in front of the food aisle of my local pet store has made me realize certain trends in pet foods. Instead of a straight forward choice based on price point rather than protein source, pet parents are the target of an ever-widening variety of food choices.

Boar and sweet potato, salmon and quinoa, chicken with tapioca, the menu now rivals that of a hipster coffee joint that charges based on hair color. Unfortunately, this trend in exotic food choices for our pups has brought in some unsavory side-effects.

People are choosing food for their pets based not so much on the actual scientifically proven benefit it will bring, but on what they would prefer to be eating. With the explosion of gluten-free diets for ourselves (helped along with the dog food contamination scare from China in 2007), we have fully embraced the idea of zero grains in our pet food dishes. Unfortunately, after several years of gung-ho grain alternatives, the FDA recently released a report that this grain-free diet also may cause a heart disorder due to nutrition imbalance. As I started digging into the topic, it became clear that we might have gone a little too far in providing all the human comforts to our animal friends.

What is a Grain-Free Diet and Why Was It So Popular?

Along with medical advances in many fields, veterinarians became aware of just how important nutrition and dietary support was for the health of an animal. As a result, more complex diets were developed and recommended over some medications (or alongside medicinal support). Diabetic pets were discovered to be healthier on a high protein, carb-controlled diet, pets with mysterious skin issues were treated with a specialized diet to avoid an allergen, and standard ingredients like dyes were found to be causing a few issues of their own. Combine this new realization with people also becoming more food-conscious for themselves and you have the pet food industry responding with a dizzying array of diet types. Now you can find a bag of food claiming to help with many health issues, from incontinence to sleep issues.

Supporters of the grain-free diet in pets believed that removing grains from food (rice, corn, wheat and other grain crops) supported a more natural diet and was healthier for the pet, as reported in a PetMD articleon the subject. After all, pets could not grow crops so it was unlikely their bodies would develop to digest these food types. A gluten-free diet also became extremely popular for humans as gluten-intolerance and Crohn’s disease became more recognized. People wanted their pets to eat foods similar to them whenever possible. All this consumer pressure brought about dog foods which used potatoes, yams, tapioca, beans, peas and pumpkins, among other carbohydrate sources. Since dogs are omnivorous, their foods were more affected than cats, who are obligate carnivores and typically have very little carbohydrates in their food source.

Is A Grain-Free Diet Actually Healthier?

Like all health trends, a grain-free diet can be extremely healthy for the right situation. In pets who actually have an allergy to a type of grain, grain-free diet trends actually make finding an appropriate food source easier for their owners (yay!). In actuality, grain-free diets are more likely to offer no real health benefits than a grain-fed diet and may actually be causing active harm.

All dog foods are comprised of a basic ratio of ingredients, a certain amount must be a protein source, carbohydrate, micronutrients like minerals and vitamins, and fats. Grains and their alternatives are an important part of the food production process, as they bind together ingredients and provided needed energy. Alternatives to grains, while performing similar jobs, may also bring with them different micronutrient amounts. This difference, in particular, is to blame for the heart condition linked to grain-free diets.

A grain-free diet was found to be low in taurine, a mineral found in some ingredients and is especially important for muscle function. A group of researchers released a paper earlier this year that found dogs fed a grain-free diet were more likely to have a certain type of heart condition; dilated cardiomyopathy, due to the low levels of taurine in their food which, over time, caused issues in the heart muscle. While more studies need to be performed to confirm these results and the warning is only cautionary, it’s definitely worth considering.

That said, just because it has proved harmful in this case doesn’t mean you should throw your designer kibble out the window. Many pets who are fed grain-free foods by recommendation of a vet are diagnosed with other conditions that would be helped by avoiding grains. While pet allergies are much more likely to be due to beef, milk or even fish, a small number of pets are found to be allergic to grains such as corn. By using a diet that avoids these grains, these particular pets can skip the itchy rash and digestive troubles that grain may cause.  Other than in these specific cases of grain-allergies, there is no actual benefit as found by a scientific study to feeding a pet grain-free over grain-full. Despite that, the perceived benefit of a grain-free diet to pet owners may still tempt them to switching them over. Unless it causes active harm, veterinarians will be unlikely to recommend against grain-free feeding if it makes the pet parent happy.

Should You Feed Your Pet Grain-Free?

When hovering in the pet food isle, whether surrounded by Black Friday fanatics or not, it’s always best to do your research before going for a diet change. Proponents of the grain-free movement say that the benefits include fewer allergic reactions, smaller stools, less gas and more energy, but these claims are not actually backed up by a scientific study not funded by the pet food company selling the foods. In actuality, very few pets have a grain-linked allergy that would be helped by this food trend and there are actual indications that grain-free feed may actively cause muscle disorders in pets. When asking yourself if you should switch Fido over to a grain-free diet, the best answer to this question is to ask your vet. Most vet professionals will not recommend a switch in diet if your pet is happy and healthy.

While I’m sure I will continue my yearly tradition and will still find myself in the pet store on Black Friday, I am hoping the tradition stops including agonizing over whether to switch to the new trending pet food. While we always want the best for our pets, perceived healthiness can be overwhelming when making consumer choices. It’s important to keep in mind that your pet does like their current food and really does enjoy a nice blend of rice and corn on occasion. Moreover, it’s always important to do your research into these food trends before purchasing the fruits of good marketing.

By Lauren Pescarus