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Grain-Free Diets for Pets: Separating Facts from Fiction

grain free diets

Selecting a diet for your pet based on trends versus facts can be detrimental to their health and your pocketbook. Let's sort through some well-known facts and myths about grain-free diets and other pet food ingredients.

Why is picking a pet food so difficult?

Picture this: You’ve just stopped at your favorite pet store to buy some food. You thought it would be a quick visit, but there are isles and isles of food. The choice is bewildering, so you ask an assistant for help. They tell you that the most popular pet foods these days are grain-free.

Passing by is another shopper that tells you her cat died of kidney disease because it was on dry food. So, you decide to go looking for canned food that is grain-free…and there are plenty to choose from! But as you go to make your purchase, you see another brand advertising a hypoallergenic, organic, grain-free diet. This seems better, but it’s dry kibble, not a canned diet. Confusion and frustration set in, and you leave without buying a thing! Sound familiar?

Here are some pet food facts:

  • Grain-free is not carbohydrate-free. Grain-free can still include things like potatoes as a carbohydrate source.
  • The terms organic, hypoallergenic, premium, and grain-free are not regulated with regards to pet food. Any manufacturer can claim this on a bag of food without undergoing any inspection of ingredients.
  • Dogs are omnivores - they evolved as companions to humans and mostly ate a similar diet.
  • Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they must have some protein in their diet.
  • Food needs to contain energy sources. The 3 energy sources in food are Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats.
  • If food is low in carbohydrates, it needs to be higher in protein and fat to provide the same amount of energy. High-fat diets are linked to obesity… Obesity is linked to a long list of diseases such as diabetes, musculoskeletal disease, and liver disease to name a few.
  • Carbohydrates are a good energy source. Protein is an expensive ingredient while carbohydrates are cheap. Foods that are lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein are typically more expensive and offer no real advantage.
  • In the US last year, we spent 38.4 billion dollars on pet food. This is a huge industry and all the manufacturers want to grab your attention and get you hooked on their products.
  • Well-manufactured pet food will employ Pet Nutritionists and Vets to advise on the correct balance of ingredients. This ensures an optimal mix of protein/fat/carbohydrates. The precise requirements will depend on your pet’s activity and growth levels which is why good pet food manufacturers have diets for small puppies, large-breed puppies, adult, neutered, and senior pets, to name a few.

Are there any diseases linked to a high- carbohydrate diet?

There is no scientific evidence that grain-free or carbohydrate-free is better for your pet or will stop them from developing a disease. There is one instance where a low carbohydrate diet is better and that is for diabetic cats. This diet should be prescribed by your vet after the cat has been properly diagnosed with diabetes. Please note again that a diet containing normal carbohydrate content will not predispose your cat to diabetes. It’s only useful once the diagnosis has been made. Additionally, this is never a treatment or cause for dogs with diabetes.

Dry food/kibble diets have not been proven to cause kidney disease. However, after diagnosis, it’s recommended that water be added to the pet’s diet because these patients will become increasingly thirsty. Additionally, pets with kidney disease need a restricted protein diet - this is one example when a high protein diet is detrimental. Given that up to ⅓ of geriatric cats may have some element of kidney disease, it seems sensible to feed them a balanced diet designed for seniors, which is lower in protein.

Are there any diseases linked to grain-free diets?

At present a heart condition called Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is under investigation due to links with grain-free diets. Traditionally, this was only seen in a few breeds of dogs. However, over the past few years, many breeds have developed DCM. There seems to be a link with being fed grain-free food, more specifically foods that are grain-free and have high legume content. This is still being analyzed further and conclusions haven’t been made. However, there is enough suspicion to make some feel that these diets should be avoided, especially when here is no scientific evidence that grain-free or carbohydrate-free diets are better for your pet or will stop them from developing a disease.

What is the right diet choice for my pet?

Food is an extremely emotional subject. Our pets are very important, and ensuring they and other family members are well-nourished is a basic instinct.

Your pet’s requirements are very different from your own, so applying principles of human nutrition can cause illness in your pet. Animal nutritionists work hard to ensure foods are palatable and optimal for your particular pet. Choose a pet food brand that has a team of vets and nutritionists and a variety of foods based on different ages and stages of life. Trust them to get it right and relax. These science-based brands tend not to have the most glamorous bags of food but take a sensible and long-term approach to diets. These manufacturers often don’t have the latest diet “fad”, so in the case of “grain-free”, you won’t find it offered by most of the established brands.

Read more:

How to Choose the Right Diet for Your Cat

What You Need to Know About Feeding Your Dog a Raw Diet

Gastrointestinal Diets for Dogs and Cats

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