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In recent years we’ve seen a growing trend for owners to switch their dogs to a grain-free diet. The internet is awash with conflicting information of varying quality which can make it very difficult for us as owners to know what is the best thing to do for our pets. I’d like to take the time to have a look at why people feel they want to change to grain-free and whether it’s actually a good idea.
Why do owners want a grain-free food for their dog?
One of the underlying reasons that pet owners are interested in grain-free food is that they see dogs like their wolfy-ancestors and truly believe that we should feed them as such. There are many problems with this assumption. You will often hear that dogs are carnivores therefore they should only eat meat. This is incorrect. Dogs are classed as carnivores anatomically but they are dietary omnivores like bears and are perfectly capable of eating both plants and meat. Let’s not forget that the beautiful, iconic giant panda is classed as a carnivore that is 100% vegetarian in eating habits!
Dogs evolved alongside us over 20-40,000 years. In this time they started to eat our scraps and leftovers and we know from genetic research that dogs are over 99% able to digest carbohydrates such as grains. There are literally millions of stray dogs round the world surviving on scraps and very little meat. Wolves do not have the same genetic makeup.
Another crucial difference is volume of food and calorie needs. Wolves need about 3-4 times the calories of an average sized dog so they eat very large volumes of food. This ensures adequate levels of vitamins and minerals. If we fed dogs in this way they would either be morbidly obese or drastically deficient in certain nutrients.
Many owners have also heard scary sounding things about grains like that they are simply used as cheap fillers. Do we see cereals and wholegrains that we encourage ourselves and our children to eat in this way? The fact is that for dogs and humans alike, grains are a great source of vitamins and fibre. They also supply what we call prebiotic fibre. This is the type of fibre that feeds your ‘healthy’ gut bacteria which in turn keep your gut cells healthy and active.
What about grain allergy?
One reason that some owners want a grain-free food is because they are worried about allergies. True food allergies are rare in dogs and allergies to proteins in plants are not very common. A small number of dogs are allergic to certain foods, however, and the most common ones in dogs are beef, chicken, dairy and wheat.
Some owners worry about gluten in pet foods. Gluten sensitivity is incredibly rare in dogs and has only been found in a small number of Irish Setters as an inherited disease.
So is grain-free necessarily bad?
As with all food and dietary decisions this depends on the diet you use. Dogs can certainly do well on a grain-free diet but it is essential that it is balanced and complete. This means that it still meets all their dietary needs in the right proportions. Some owners have heard about a certain heart disease (called dilated cardiomyopathy or DCM for short) being caused by grain-free foods. At the time of writing this is not proven and you can read more from the PFMA (Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association) about the ongoing research.
The most important thing when it comes to feeding dogs is that they have a balanced and complete pet food that is suitable for their lifestage. Simply removing one ingredient or trying to balance meals at home is fraught with danger and can lead to severe nutritional excesses as well as deficiencies. Dogs are perfectly adapted to a diet with meat and plants and are entirely capable of digesting carbohydrates.
Many veterinarians and pet owners have healthy and happy dogs eating foods with grains. Unless there is a medical reason, high quality complete and balanced pet foods with grains are fine for dogs. Grains are a good source of nutrients and help make a balanced diet. If you feel you really do want a grain-free pet food, talk to your vet about the most reputable ones to choose from and always make the change slowly over a number of days to avoid digestive upsets.
Dr Emma Milne qualified as a vet in 1996. She worked in small animal practice for 12 years and as a clinical nutrition advisor for seven years. She is well known for her animal welfare work and has written ten books on pet animals.