Grain-Free Dog Food: Hype or Healthy?
The grain-free pet food market takes in about $2.2 billion in U.S. sales every year. Based on its popularity it seems only reasonable to assume it’s healthy.
But is grain-free dog food really a healthier choice?
It’s a question many pet parents are asking in the wake of an FDA investigation into any potential links between canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and grain-free dog food. While the disease isn’t uncommon in certain breeds, cases have been reported in pups not ordinarily at risk for DCM.
The inquiry focuses on the ingredients used as a substitution for grains including lentils, potatoes, and peas–not the actual lack of grains. As well as the ratio between these ingredients and healthy sources of protein, fats, and nutrients.
Event though the agency hasn’t yet confirmed the link, and considers it a complex issue involving multiple factors, it’s smart to familiarize yourself with the subject.
Let’s take a look at some common debates around the topic of grain-free dog food.
Can Dogs Digest Grains Properly?
Most dogs have the ability to digest grains (and other carbohydrates) quite well. Through their long (14,000 year) evolutionary process from wolf to loyal companion, they’ve gained the ability to digest and utilize starch 28 times more effectively than their ancestors.
Although they lack salivary amylase digestive enzyme in saliva, they tend to gulp down their food without bothering to chew—bypassing the need for this oral enzyme. Their digestion of grains happens through the production of potent pancreatic amylase enzymes and brush border enzymes in the upper area of the small intestine.
Are Dogs Allergic to Grains?
Cases of ‘true’ food allergies in dogs are very uncommon, but they do happen. When their system misidentifies a protein source as an invader, histamine is produced in response resulting in a range of symptoms including itching, chewing, skin irritation, and gastrointestinal issues.
When dogs have an allergic reaction to grains, it isn’t the grain itself; it’s the protein in the grain. Animal proteins found in beef, dairy, and chicken have been proven a more common culprit behind reactions to food.
And most food-related reactions are far more likely to be a food sensitivity (aka intolerance) to one or more ingredients in a pup’s diet. This gastrointestinal response can exhibit many of the same symptoms as a dog food allergy, but usually it results in tummy issues like gas, diarrhea, and vomiting.
Are All Grains Unhealthy for Dogs?
Even though dogs can digest grains, and they are a healthy source of energy for most pets, some low quality pet food manufacturers can overdo it. Grains are cheaper than meat-based ingredients, so they use more in their recipes than is beneficial for pups. This becomes an even bigger issue when the grains used are a low-quality, highly-processed source. Over-processing strips the grains of beneficial nutraceutical, phytonutrients properties.
Whole grains, as opposed to cheap, over-processed fillers, can contribute valuable nutrients to canine diets, including vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and fiber that are naturally present in high-quality grains like brown rice, oats, and teff.
It comes down to an issue of wrong quality and wrong quantity.
Switching to a grain-free dog food shouldn’t be based on the idea that grains are an unnatural source of nutrition for dogs. A balanced diet, formulated for your dog’s specific dietary requirements, is what’s important. And these requirements vary from dog to dog.
Before making big changes to pup’s diet, whether it’s grain-free or not, work with your veterinarian or a pet nutritionist to select the best dog food for their nutritional needs. And if your pup has special dietary considerations, consider a personalized dog food that takes the guesswork out of mealtime. A balanced and nutritious meal will help your dog live a healthier and happier life.
Dr. Laura Duclos leads the Research and Development team at Puppo. She has over 16 years of experience in developing nutritional pet food that supports animal health and wellbeing. Her clinical research has been featured in prominent publications and scientific journals. She has been an invited speaker at numerous international veterinary conferences on pet nutrition and innovation.