Grain-free dog foods are a fairly new trend that’s quickly gained popularity among many dog owners. They’re often marketed as being better for your dog, but recent concerns have been raised about their safety.
So are grain-free dog foods safe? What are the risks? And what should you be feeding?
What are Grains?
Grains are a major ingredient in many dog foods, whether raw dog food or processed dog food. They include ingredients like wheat, corn, barley, oats and rye, all of which are high in vitamins and minerals as well as complex carbohydrates to provide energy.
These sound like good things, right? So why are grain-free foods so readily available?
The grain-free dog food trend can be traced back to the rise in popularity of gluten-free food for people. With more and more people are self-diagnosing as coeliac or gluten-intolerant, the pet food market rushed to keep up with the trend, quickly marketing lots of pet foods made with no grains and claiming to be gluten-free.
The same trend can be seen with the rise in ‘paleo’ diets in humans; pet food manufacturers scrambled to create foods that recreated the ‘wild’ diet of the wolf.
Most nutritionists agree, though, that all animals need nutrients – not ingredients. It doesn’t matter whether the protein is from a ‘prey’ source such as pheasant or something that wild dogs would rarely eat such as salmon, the important part is that they get the right amount of protein.
Can Dogs Eat Grain?
So, can dogs eat grain? The answer, on the whole, is yes. Whilst it’s true that our modern dogs are descended from something similar to a wolf, they have undergone thousands of years of domestication and this has produced biological changes such as the ability to eat and digest grain. Since grain has been a major part of the human diet since farming began, it makes sense that our modern dogs evolved to be able to digest any such scraps we gave them.
Of course, just as some humans can’t digest grain, there are a small number of dogs who are allergic to grains. About 1 in 10 dogs has allergies, and only 1 in 10 of those is allergic to food rather than something in the environment. Of these, the data as to which allergens are most prevalent is a little difficult to interpret, but approximately only 1 in 10 is allergic to wheat, and even fewer are allergic to the other grains. So, of all dogs, that’s 1 in 1000 that’s allergic to wheat. The other 999 can digest wheat without any problems at all.
What are the concerns with grain-free foods?
Maybe your dog is happy on a grain-free food and you don’t want to switch. Or perhaps you suspect your dog is the 0.1% of the population that is allergic to grain. Is there any harm in just sticking with a grain-free food rather than risking a switch?
Unfortunately, yes. We think. Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a serious and often fatal heart disease. Previously the disease was mostly limited to certain lines of large breeds of dogs, but vets have seen a dramatic rise in cases in the last couple of years, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have opened up an investigation into the cause. So far, they’ve identified that the cases are split into three types.
- Breed-related DCM unrelated to diet
- Diet-associated DCM in dogs with normal taurine levels
- Diet-associated DCM in dogs with low taurine levels
The second category is the most concerning. The first is the normal low-level case of DCM we’ve seen for years. And the third makes sense: we’ve known for a long time that low levels of taurine can cause heart disease in cats (they can’t make their own taurine like dogs can) so it stands to reason that if your dog has a low taurine intake and cannot make their own taurine (for whatever reason) they might get DCM.
But there are dogs out there with a normal taurine level that are still getting DCM. And these dogs have one thing in common so far – they’re being fed ‘BEG’ diets- diets from ‘Boutique’ brands, diets that contain ‘Exotic’ protein sources, and ‘Grain Free’ diets.
In the FDA investigation, 91% of dogs reported to have suffered with DCM were eating a grain-free diet. Many were also eating a diet high in peas or lentils instead, and this makes it unclear whether it’s the lack of grain, or what it’s being replaced with, that causes the symptoms of disease.
How can I find a good diet for my dog?
Every dog is different and finding the right diet for them (and you!) can be really tricky. With the current concern over BEG diets, we’d recommend avoiding them until the FDA have finished their investigations and made a recommendation to ensure your pets are safe. In the meantime, finding a well-recognised diet brand that fits your dog’s needs is important. Many vets recommend using the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) checklist to help you to find a diet that you can trust
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