Is A Grain-Free Diet Better For My Dog?

Grain-free seems to be all the rage at the moment, with many diets advertising the fact as a healthier option to standard dog food.  But what is the truth?

Why are grains used in dog food?

Field of wheatGrains used in dog food include:

  • wheat
  • barley
  • buckwheat
  • corn
  • oats
  • rice

Many advocates of grain-free diets say that these are cheap ‘fillers’ which have no nutritional benefit to the dog.  While it is true that wolves have a limited capacity to digest grains, in the domestication process 10 key genes involved in the digestion of grains changed, so that our domestic dogs are perfectly capable of digesting and getting nutrients from grains.

What are the disadvantages of grain-free diets?

Grain-free diets have been implicated in a surge of cases of Dilated Cardiomyopathy in dogs.  The exact cause of this is unknown but a relative taurine deficiency (an essential amino acid found in meat) has been implicated.  This may be due to the legumes used as a carbohydrate source in place of grain preventing the taurine from being absorbed properly, or possibly even a direct toxicity effect from some of the ingredients.

Long-term feeding of high-protein grain-free diets in dogs can lead to an increase in kidney problems due to the extra work the kidneys have to perform.

Grain-free diets are also generally more expensive as the alternative ingredients used are not as plentiful in supply as many grains.

I think my dog may be allergic to grains

Dog with bald patchesFood allergies are not uncommon in dogs and can cause digestive problems and/or skin conditions.  However, they are much more likely to be due to the protein source in the diet, rather than the carbohydrate (e.g. chicken, beef, pork).  Food allergies can develop at any age and any time, they do not have to be related to a recent diet change.  Blood tests to test for a food allergy are not at all reliable, the only way to diagnose one is a properly carried out diet trial.  Click here for information on how to perform this.

Even if your dog was one of the very rare ones to be allergic to one type of grain, this does not mean that they are allergic to all grains.

There are a few cases where a gluten-free diet may be recommended:

  • Border terrier lying on grassBorder Terriers with ‘Spike’s disease’ – also known as epileptoid cramping syndrome
  • a certain blood-line of Irish Setters which have a severe intestinal reaction to gluten (this line seems to have been bred out now)

In these cases, you should consult your vet for advice before changing the diet.

So should I feed a grain-free diet?

In conclusion, then, unless you have been specifically advised by your vet that your dog needs a gluten or grain-free diet, there is absolutely no need to feed this and, in fact, they can cause disease.  The best diet to feed your dog is one that is balanced and certified as ‘complete’, and which has undergone long-term diet trials to ensure that the nutrients contained in the food are absorbed properly by the body.

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