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Does Your Pet Need a Grain-free Diet?

For both cats and dogs, the health benefits of a grain-free diet is a big debate. The current veterinary consensus seems to be that grain-free foods may do more harm than good for your pet. In particular, for dogs, a grain-free diet may lead to a dangerous heart condition, which we discuss in this post. Before we get to that, let’s review essential information regarding how and why people might choose grain-free pet food, and what you should know before you put your pet on a grain-free diet.

What is grain-free pet food?

Any pet food made without wheat, corn, rice and other grains is considered “grain-free.” This does not make it gluten-free! Gluten-free and grain-free are not synonymous.

To provide the carbohydrates that a pet needs for energy and other physiological functions, a grain-free food contains alternative sources of carbs such as potatoes, oatmeal, and pea flour. This ensures that the grain-free food is equal to, or even greater, in amount of carbs.

The Origins of a Pet Food Trend

Going back to the early 2000’s, people were putting pets on gluten-free and grain-free diets because it was a popular health trend for many people--a trend sparked by such diets being a medical necessity for other folks, such as those with digestive disorders. The logic here being that these diets -- despite a glaring lack of scientific evidence -- would be just as healthy for their pet.

Then, in 2007, the FDA started receiving reports about a contaminated source of gluten found in a kibble produced in China. (The contaminant was melamine.) This event spiraled into keeping dogs off wheat/gluten and other grains. Special-diet dog foods hit the market and the promotion of grain and gluten-free cat food followed suit.

Where's the Science?

We are years past the contaminated kibble event, which has been addressed with recalls and advisories, yet pet owners are still choosing to put their pets on a grain-free diet for reasons that had very little science behind them back...and still lacks scientific evidence now, including:

  • lack of industry-independent data

  • lack of robust scientific studies or nutritional consensus by vets or food scientists

  • pet owner’s inability to afford an individualized pet nutritional assessment to determine the medical necessity for a special diet

  • pet ower’s defaulting to what they learned from friends or family

When does a cat or dog require a grain-free food?

The veterinary consensus, to date, is that there are rare medical instances in which a dog or cat will require a costly grain-free diet.

Why is this?

For thousands of years, dogs evolved from their wolf ancestry eating grains as a part of their natural diet. If anything might make a dog unwell, it is more likely to be the preservatives, fillers, and even the source of the protein used in dog food production. Dogs and cats evolved to adapt to the diets fed to them by humans...and for hundreds of years those diets remained natural, wild, and seasonal. Your pets diet today should reflect those instinctual preferences.

However, If a dog or cat is suspected to have a food allergy or sensitivity, then a vet would start the animal (with your supervision) on an elimination diet to assess the source of the problem in the diet. If--and it’s a rare if-- the issue lies with grains or gluten, then your vet will advise you how to feed your pet so that they are still getting the nourishing sources of protein, fiber, carbohydrates, and nutrients that will sustain their health.

Health Risks Associated Grain-free Pet Food

Eliminating grains completely from a dog or cat’s diet has led to a significant cardiovascular health problem known as non-hereditary dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). This heart condition results in an enlarged heart and thinning of the heart muscle. The deterioration of the heart can lead to the death of your pet.

DCM was first identified by reports of adverse events (i.e., dog deaths) submitted to the FDA by vets and dog owners over a period of years. The FDA investigation is still ongoing, but the data has been compelling enough for the Agency to issue a warning regarding grain-free food and risk for DCM: Feed at risk to your pet’s health.

Choose Nutrient Dense Pet Food for Your Cat or Dog

When it comes to choosing pet food, the best guidance suggests that you

  • research the brand and the source of all ingredients

  • carefully read ingredient labels -- look for nutrient dense foods in the first 10 items listed

  • Ingredients should have limited additives, sugars, fillers, and preservatives

Resources for evaluating pet foods include the “pet food score card” and the WholeDog Journal resource about pet food ingredients).

Your pet’s health is a partnership between you and your veterinarian. If you suspect a food intolerance or potentially life-threatening food allergy but have never had your pet tested, ask your veterinarians if they offer a food testing panel to confirm allergies or other health issues. Always discuss with your veterinarian the reasons why you are changing your pet’s food so that you can understand any potential health risks for the animal.

** Watch our blog for more articles on best practices for pet nutrition, coming in October.

Resources “How Americans Decided Dogs Can’t Eat Grains” retrieved September 13 2021

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