Dog eating bread

Grain-Free Diets for Pets: Helpful or Harmful?

Grain-free, or not grain-free – that is the question.


With the abundance of information surrounding grain-free pet food, it can seem difficult to discern the best option when it comes to your pet’s nutrition and, ultimately, their health.


Here we aim to demystify the grain-free diet and explain why Grand Valley Animal Hospital doesn’t endorse feeding grain-free, boutique, or exotic meat diets to dogs or cats at this time unless it is medically proven necessary by your veterinarian.


Changes in the Pet Food Industry


In 2007, grains acquired a bad reputation when tainted pet food made with imported wheat gluten containing melamine, which caused kidney failure in pets, was sold in pet stores. In 2008 and 2010, grains were impacted again as price volatility hit the market. The residual effect of these incidents was that grain-free diets were both a trendy and highly economical choice for those looking to avoid the high cost of wheat in pet foods.


Mainstream human dietary changes have shone a spotlight on the quality and type of ingredients in the food that fuels us. Changes we see in pet food have mirrored these shifts in human nutrition. As a result, three distinct choices – grain-free, boutique, and exotic meat diets – are now a familiar sight on pet store shelves.


Dog being fed a treat from a human hand


What is a Grain-Free Pet Food Diet?


A grain-free pet food diet replaces typical grains in pet foods, such as wheat or corn, with ingredients like potatoes, legumes, lentils, carrots, green peas, or chickpeas.


Boutique and exotic meat pet foods typically alter their protein sources by switching out traditional beef with venison, duck, ostrich, or even alligator.


While exotic choices and removal of grains may seem like a small change, for animals the potential risks outweigh the rewards.


Piles of beans, rice, and lentils on a table


Are Grains Really Problematic?


Many pet owners switch their pets to a grain-free diet believing that it is healthier or will cure food allergies. Grain, however, is not the most common cause of allergic reactions in pets. Dogs and cats are more frequently allergic to the type of meat used in a formula. To date, Grand Valley Animal Hospital has not diagnosed a single true wheat or corn allergy.


Putting your pet on a grain-free diet can put them at risk for:


Heart Issues


Diet-associated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a serious disease that affects the heart, causing it to become enlarged and have issues beating. It can be the precursor to congestive heart failure and abnormal rhythms, and can lead to death if left untreated. This disease mainly targets dogs, but some cats are affected.


The following dog breeds are genetically predisposed to DCM: Doberman Pinschers, Portuguese Water Dogs, Dalmatians, Great Danes, Boxers, American and English Cocker Spaniels


Additionally, there are breeds that are predisposed to developing DCM related to a taurine deficiency. Taurine is a beta amino acid that is required for a functioning heart.


Breeds predisposed to developing DCM related to a taurine deficiency are: Golden Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Newfoundlands, English Setters, Saint Bernards, Irish Wolfhounds


Taurine is most notably found in animal tissues. Exotic and grain-free diets tend to have less meat in them, because bison and other alternative meats are expensive and difficult to source. Less protein combined with more lentils and peas makes for a more severe possibility of taurine deficiency, leading to decreased heart strength and DCM.


The FDA has released a report detailing an investigation of the connection between grain-free diets and increased cases of atypical DCM affecting pets that aren’t usually prone to this disease. The alarming trend of pets who have been fed a grain-free diet coming in with heart issues should be enough to give someone pause when deciding to switch to a grain-free diet.


Poor Quality Food


Despite their poor reputations, wheat and corn are good sources of protein for dogs and cats. Trading out these important food building blocks for sub-par or cheaper alternatives means your pet may not receive all the nutrition it needs.


Not all pet food manufacturers operate under the same strict nutritional guidelines and don’t adhere to the same quality control. Newer or smaller brands may not have the resources to test their products to make sure they meet the needs of the pets they’re intended for. Always pay attention to any pet food recalls when switching to a different brand.


Popular products can also be a result of good marketing, not necessarily quality ingredients. It can be difficult to determine which food is more than just a pretty package.


"Pet food marketing has outpaced the science, and owners are not always making healthy, science-based decisions even though they want to do the best for their pets." - Lisa Freeman DVM, PHD (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association)


A Lack of Sufficient Nutrients


Danger exists in the belief that animals can sustain their health using the same diet as humans do. The fact is, nutritional needs for dogs and cats aren’t always simple.


Dogs and cats require balanced nutrition to live and thrive. Every pet is different – the requirements for a Pug won’t be the same for a German Shepherd – and age also plays a factor in food choices. Cats are slightly different, as they are considered true carnivores. While it would seem that a grain-free diet would be beneficial for felines due to their nature, most typical diets already meet their protein needs. Only a very small percentage of cats are allergic to the grains that would spur a switch to a grain-free recipe.


Whether you have a cat or dog, make it a point to check the ingredient list to see what comes first. If mostly simple carbs like potatoes and other grain alternatives are sitting at the top, your pet may not be getting all they need for a well-balanced diet.


The World Small Animal Veterinary Association has a list of questions your veterinarian can ask to ensure that any company that makes your pet’s food is doing all they can to create nutritionally sound and high-quality pet food.


A Goldendoodle and black lab stare up happily at the camera


What does it all mean for your pet?

Your animals look to you to fulfill all of their basic needs. Exercise caution and stick with a food that has been proven to be healthy and effective for your animal.


Introducing a new diet if there’s no indication that your pet needs a change can do much more harm than good. If there is no medical necessity for your pet to be on a grain-free diet, why risk your pet’s health?


For pet owners who still wish to feed their pet a grain-free diet, we recommend regularly checking your pet’s bloodwork and performing tests such as nutritional assessments or taurine level and heart health checks to make sure your pet isn’t negatively affected by their diet.


As with all things related to your pet’s health, your veterinarian is the most reliable partner in helping to determine the best course of action. Consult with your vet if you believe your pet is in need of allergy tests or an alternative diet. Nutritional screening and food trials can help determine the optimal diet for your pet.


We want you to be an educated pet parent, and will make time to discuss any concerns or questions you have. We’d love to talk with you about the health of your animals and the potential results of a grain-free diet – give us a call today at 757.3500.

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