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In Part 1 of “Is there a grain of truth behind the health claims of grain-free pet foods?” we waded into the debate over a popular trend in the pet food marketplace. We discussed what grains are good for and why grain-free pet foods have become favored among pet owners. We reviewed your pet’s 6 basic nutritional needs. And we defined gluten as a mixture of proteins found in grains such as wheat, barley, brewer’s yeast, and rye.

Now, we’ll go a bit deeper, and answer the question, “Should you change your pet’s food?”

First big question: Do pets experience gluten intolerance? Cats – never. Dogs – almost never (it’s only been proven in one particular line of Irish Setters!)

Second big question: Don’t grains cause food allergies? Perhaps, but those instances are far less common than allergies to animal-sourced proteins. The most common culprits in food allergies are chicken, beef, and dairy proteins.

The bottom line, according to Kara Burns, an expert in pet nutrition, is that grain-free pet foods are no more beneficial than a pet food with grains.

Bonus big question: Should you switch your pet back to a grainy diet? Not necessarily. Consider whether your pet’s nutritional needs are otherwise being met by the diet of your choice.

Are your pet’s skin and furcoat healthy? Poor health can look like this:

  • red, inflamed skin
  • skin sores
  • large, flaky dandruff
  • odor
  • fur loss
  • itchy skin
  • chronically irritated or infected ears

Does your pet maintain a healthy weight? Poor health can look like this: 

  • obesity (cannot feel ribs; no definition of waist from above, or between chest and belly when viewed from the side
  • underweight (prominent ribs, spine, and hip bones)

Does your pet have a healthy gut? Poor health can look like this: 

  • flatulence (gas)
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea or chronically soft stools

The symptoms listed above may indicate that your pet’s food is not providing the proper nutrients, or perhaps your pet is unable to digest and utilize the nutrients provided. Of course, other disease processes can cause the same symptoms; your pet’s veterinarian is the best source of information.

So while feeding a grain-free diet may not be necessary to maintain your pet’s good health, it can be adequate as long as your pet’s nutritional needs are being met. If your pet digests the food well and is healthy, there is not a pressing need to change diets. The biggest change you might notice, however, is that grain-free diets can cost more than traditional pet food.

*This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, or recommend treatment for any condition or disease. Your veterinarian is the best source of information about your pet’s health.

This article is based on the peer-reviewed article researched and written by Kara M. Burns, MS, MEd, LVT, VTS — “Grain-Free Pet Foods: Fact vs. Fiction” published in Veterinary Team Brief, Vol. 5, No. 2.

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Like many pet owners, you may have spent hours researching the best food for your pets, as well as the variety of brands available. You may have discovered that pet food manufacturers have become experts at marketing — they have to, in order to stand out in a packed market. Sometimes, those marketing efforts become confusing to the consumer.

Today, we’re going to wade into the deep waters of pet nutrition and discuss grains and grain-free pet food.

Fact: Whole grains are a healthy source of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, and protein.

Fact: Grains help keep calories and fat at lower levels in pets foods, according to the Pet Nutrition Alliance (PNA).

Fact: According to the PNA, “Grains provide a good source of fiber, which promotes normal bowel function, maintains the health of the [gastrointestinal] tract, and helps in the management of certain diseases [such as diabetes mellitus and colitis.] 

Let’s review your pet’s basic nutritional needs. Dogs and cats need the following six nutrients in some form:  

  • water
  • vitamins
  • minerals
  • carbohydrates
  • fat
  • protein

Notice that carbohydrates are on the list of basic nutritional needs. Since “carbs” are a necessary part of your pet’s diet (they provide energy), pet food must contain an ingredient which provides this important nutrient. When a pet food manufacturer removes grains as the source of carbohydrates, it must be replaced with something else. Sometimes, the substitution is potatoes, sweet potatoes, or cassava. Other substitutions are beans, peas, or lentils. None of the substitutions are substantially better for your pet than grains, and some may provide less fiber, fewer nutrients, or even cause gastrointestinal problems (vomiting, diarrhea, flatulence.)

Definition: Gluten is a mixture of proteins found in wheat, barley, brewer’s yeast, and rye. (Source)

So how did the grain-free / gluten-free idea show up in pet food? As with other trends in animal health (antioxidants, glucosamine supplements, probiotics), grain-free diets are a carry-over from human health needs. The grain-free diet follows on the heels of an effective celiac disease / gluten intolerance awareness campaign. Relatively few people actually have celiac disease, requiring them to abstain from grains, yet many people (who are unaffected) have applied this diet restriction to themselves. Since pet owners are more conscientious than ever about what they feed their pets, the grain-free trend has shown up in pet food.

Pet food manufacturers are constantly monitoring trends to give the consumer what he or she wants. Does this mean the pet is getting something it needs? Not necessarily. The pet food companies are in the business of selling food. These days, that means hopping on hot topics in order to differentiate themselves in a crowded market. And although pets have been shown to benefit from antioxidants, glucosamine, and probiotics, there is “no credible evidence…showing grain-free diets are better for pets, nor do any nutritional foundations support this claim,” according to veterinary nutrition expert Kara M. Burns.

[End of part 1]

Coming up next: Part 2 – Is there a grain of truth behind the health claims of grain-free pet foods? And should you change your pet’s diet?

This article is based on the peer-reviewed article researched and written by Kara M. Burns, MS, MEd, LVT, VTS — “Grain-Free Pet Foods: Fact vs. Fiction” published in Veterinary Team Brief, Vol. 5, No. 2.

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