Grain-free dog food is everywhere right now so it must be the best food for our dogs, right? Not exactly. In this post, we’ll examine the pros and cons of grain free dog food to help you determine which dog food is best for your furry friend.
The rise of clean eating
As human eating trends change and evolve, so too do our pets’. In recent years, we’ve seen a huge increase in gluten-free and paleo diets among humans. Typically, it follows that these trends flow through to our perceptions to what’s right for cats and dogs, and some pet food companies have certainly placed big bets on this being the case. The trend of gluten-free has evolved in pet food to exclude all grains with entire aisles now dedicated to grain-free options for our pets. That’s not to say that grain-free pet food is simply a marketing ploy.
Grain-free dog foods play a role for dogs who have grain intolerances and those that use high quality, natural ingredients offer additional choice as every dog is different and has their own taste preferences. A number of grain-free dog foods are packed with high-quality ingredients that can work wonders for your pooch’s digestion. However, it is the use of good ingredients at appropriate ratios that make these good dog foods, rather than the exclusion of grains.
The elimination of an ingredient often leads people to believe that that ingredient is bad. In turn, they think that all recipes excluding that ingredient are good for you – or your dog. This simply isn’t the case. If you’re considering feeding grain-free dog food (or cat food) here are some considerations to help you make the right decision by your pet.
Are dogs carnivores or omnivores?
While most agree that cats are carnivores, dogs are an area of contention with debate around whether dogs are omnivores or carnivores. If our dogs have evolved hunting and eating meat, they must be carnivores, right? Not quite…
Arguments for dogs being omnivores include their ability and evolution to digest carbohydrates including grains, the length of their intestine compared to what’s observed in carnivores and the fact that they produce amylase in their salivary glands – the digestive enzymes that allow them to digest plant-based sources.
Those that argue that dogs are carnivores, refer to their wolf ancestors being carnivores and their carnivorous teeth. They argue that grains therefore are an unnatural source of nutrition for dogs given that their ancestors certainly didn’t consume grains. However, most mammals, including herbivores, have canine teeth – just look at the very scary herbivore that is a hippo. Essentially, this argument doesn’t have any teeth (I couldn’t resist!).
On top of that, wolves have been observed to both graze on grass and regularly consume non-meat content from their prey’s stomachs, so they are not strictly carnivorous, but – probably most importantly – dogs and wolves are not the same.
So that settles it right? Dogs are omnivores. I’m afraid the jury is still out on this one. The evidence is not clear cut either way, although what is clear is that dogs are fully capable of drawing nutrients from grains and that they benefit from meat in their diets.
So, are grains bad for dogs?
Now that we’ve established that dogs can digest grains, should they? And do grains offer any benefits for dogs?
As we’ve seen, grain-free dog food arose from the gluten-free trend in human food. A lot of people believe that grain causes allergies for dogs, but this isn’t supported with evidence. The more common food intolerances for dogs are reported to be beef, dairy, wheat, chicken and egg.
So, opting for a grain-free dog food is unlikely to protect against allergies unless your dog is specifically intolerant to grains. It’s more common for a dog to be gluten intolerant than intolerant to grains and these words are not interchangeable.
What’s the difference between gluten-free and grain-free?
One misconception is that grain-free means the same thing as gluten-free. Some grains – wheat, barley and rye – do indeed contain gluten and if your dog (or cat) has a wheat intolerance, which as we’ve discussed is one of the more common food intolerances, opting for a gluten-free dog food will help you avoid this.
Dogs requiring a gluten-free diet don’t need a grain-free diet. There are grains which don’t contain gluten and offer various benefits for your dog. It’s always best to check the full ingredient list on the back of pack, rather than simply shopping by labels such as gluten-free or grain-free to ensure that the food delivers on the nutrition that your dog needs.
What are the health benefits of whole grains for your dog?
Dogs can enjoy the taste and nutritional benefit of a number of grains, just like us. But, like everything else we feed our dogs, it’s important to make healthy choices and not just opt for the same grains you or I would enjoy. Dogs are different. For example human toothpaste is a no no when it comes to brushing your dogs teeth.
Whole grains are our favourite type of grain for your pooch, providing the most nutrients and goodness. By definition, these are grains that are 100% of the natural kernel, meaning nothing has been removed during production. Whole grains that avoid gluten include brown rice and oats and offer an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Whole grains are high in fibre
Whole grains, particularly brown rice, are full of fibre and a great source of magnesium and selenium, helping to ease digestion and keep your dog’s gut healthy.
Whole grains are antioxidant rich
Many whole grains are packed with antioxidants – the superhero of nutrients! They can help your dog in a number of ways, including aiding weight loss, stabilising blood sugar and promoting good heart health.
Does grain-free dog food help with allergies?
If your dog is suffering from allergy symptoms, it might be tempting to immediately rush out to buy a variety of new dog foods including grain-free options. Before you rush off to the nearest shop it’s worth first assessing whether food is the culprit.
First things first, it’s important to consult with your vet before making any changes at home. Environmental triggers are far more common than food intolerances. Shampoos, washing powders, dust and cleaning products are all common dog allergies that will display similar symptoms to food allergies. Consult with your vet to make sure your dog’s symptoms aren’t due to environmental causes before you make any unnecessary changes to your dog’s diet.
If you do find that your dog’s allergies are food related, it’s a process of elimination to discover the true culprit. We’ve already discussed that it’s much more likely that your pooch will have an allergy to beef, eggs, chicken, dairy or wheat rather than grains so opting for a grain-free food which contains the ingredient your dog is sensitive to isn’t going to help. Whilst it can be tempting to opt for a fast saliva or blood test, rather than going down the lengthy elimination diet process, we’d recommend avoiding these tests. They not only put your dog under stress but also yield inaccurate results as high as 50-60% false positives.
In short, grain-free dog food will help your dog’s allergies if they’re intolerant to grains but for other food sensitivities, it’s not going to offer anything to help ease their symptoms. So, instead of heading straight to the local shops and stocking up on grain-free dog food, take the time to figure out exactly what’s causing your pooch problems.
Is grain-free dog food bad?
We’ve established that gluten free doesn’t mean grain-free. Equally grain-free doesn’t mean healthy dog food. Quality is beyond the grain with some grain-free foods substituting grains for potatoes or legumes potentially causing more problems…
Does grain free dog food cause weight gain?
Grain-free doesn’t mean low carb. Some pawrents decide to make the switch from standard to grain-free dog food as they want to put their pooch on a low-carb or carb-free diet. Whether it’s for weight management, health concerns or simply their own preference, reduced carb diets are popular for both pets and humans nowadays.
Dry food needs a binding ingredient to create the kibble. In a lot of grain-free dog foods, the grains are substituted out with alternative starchy ingredients including legumes and potatoes. So, in reality, you’re not actually cutting carbs at all and could actually be increasing it. As always, it’s important to look at the full ingredient make up to assess the quality of the food and ensure you’re delivering on what your dog needs.
Grain free pet food cancer risk
As well as an obesity epidemic, the media report an increase in cancer rates for pets (and humans). We know from our own diets that food can either protect against or make us vulnerable to cancer. One watch-out ingredient is potato, commonly found in grain-free dry dog food. Potatoes are incredibly starchy, which as well as being difficult to digest for some dogs, also means it has a significantly high acrylamide risk. Studies in rodents have linked acrylamide exposure to cancer. Acrylamide forms during high temperatures, above 120 degrees. To be safe opt for foods that are gently cooked and have low levels of potato or avoid it completely.
Does grain free dog food cause heart disease?
Recent news stories report a link between legume and potato levels in dog food and heart disease. As a result, some pet parents are choosing to avoid grain-free recipes. Once again, grain-free doesn’t mean a food necessarily has legume or potato levels – look at the ingredient make up to determine if it’s a food you’re comfortable feeding.
Is grain-free dog food right for you?
So, there you have it, lots of myths debunked and considerations to help you assess if grain-free dog food is best for your dog. Not all grains are equal and hopefully we’ve drummed in the mantra of “check the ingredients” as your go to for assessing pet food.
If you have consulted a vet, gone through the process of elimination and discovered that your pooch is one of the unfortunate few with a grain intolerance, grain-free dog food is certainly what you need. If, however, you’re looking for the best dog food for your pooch, assess the ingredients fully, and most importantly see how your dog gets along with the food of your choice.
When making any changes to your pooch’s diet, it’s important to remember that all dogs are different, and their nutritional needs differ throughout their lives. It’s best to take things slowly and make the change gradually for your dog’s digestive system.
Our top tip on what to look for is a dog food that’s gut friendly.
Good health begins with the gut
When it comes to choosing a diet for your dog, the health of their gut should be at the forefront of every decision. They only get one digestive system in their lives, and any damage can unfortunately be long lasting and irreversible. Do your research, understand your pooch and make choices based on their preferences and health.
Of course, all dogs need a healthy supply of animal protein to get all essential amino acids. Meat should be the number one ingredient on every dog food recipe. Percentages are important, but they can also be misleading as some brands may include fresh and dried meat in the same category, so be sure to take a closer look at the ingredients list. And for those that have vague terms and are not transparent – run a mile!
Can we help?
If your dog has multiple food sensitivities and you’re struggling to find something, we might be able to help. Our latest range of wet dog food contains single source protein, a limited ingredient recipe with one meat protein source, two vegetables and gut friendly slippery elm. Made in the UK with British meat, choose from 70% chicken, salmon or turkey.
All our natural pet food products are made from gut-friendly, natural ingredients, which are clearly listed on our packaging. However, if you have any questions about our products and ingredients – and what’s best for your dog – be sure to get in touch with our team on [email protected]