The Truth About Grains

by Alyse Stark, Only Natural Pet Nutrition Consultant

Choosing the right food for your furry friend can be a daunting task, even when you’re only dealing with one seemingly simple question:  should your pet go grain free?  Although the “Grained versus Grain Free” debate has been in full swing for quite some time, the basic arguments remain the same.

Dog in a field of Wheat Grain

To Grain or Not to Grain?

Proponents of a grain based diet for dogs argue that grains increase protein content and are a good source of necessary nutrients.  In the case of working breeds or active sporting dogs that digest and assimilate grains well, they may benefit from the higher carbohydrate content of a grain based diet.

Always choose a premium brand that does not contain a grain as the first ingredient.  Grains should be used as a carbohydrate and not as a primary protein source.  It is important to note that while grains do contain protein and certain amino acids, dogs assimilate animal based nutrients more readily than plant based nutrients.

When considering wolves and wild dogs, the vast majority of their diet comes from consuming other animals.  Because of this, proponents of a grain free diet argue that grains are not a biologically appropriate addition to dog food and are added as an inexpensive “filler” ingredient.  Grains can also contribute to weight problems because of their high carbohydrate content.

Cats Are Carnivores!

Cat hunting in a treeObligate carnivores, meaning that they are carnivorous by necessity and cannot fully digest and utilize nutrients from plant material. Cats eating a predominantly plant based diet would need to have all necessary nutrients added to the diet artificially to avoid being severely deficient in almost all necessary vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Cats have all the chief characteristics of an obligate carnivore, including sharp claws, superior eyesight, soft pads for silently stalking prey, and sharp, pointed teeth.  Cats also have highly acid stomachs, as well as short digestive tracts which aid in the prevention of harmful bacterial colonization. Cats are biologically optimized for a meat diet!

Are There Better Grains For My Dog?

If you decide to go with grains for your dog, you should always select whole or whole ground grains such as rice, oats, barley or millet.  Avoid grain by-products such as corn gluten meal, soybean mill run, and brewer’s rice, among many others.  Corn and soy especially are a known cause of canine allergies.

Pancreas Under Pressure

Another argument against a grain or plant based diet can be summed up with one simple word:  amylase!  Salivary amylase is an enzyme that breaks down starchy carbohydrates in the mouth and is produced by most herbivores and omnivores.  Dogs and cats do not produce salivary amylase, leaving the production of amylase to the pancreas.

Proponents of a grain free diet argue that feeding a grain based diet to dogs and cats taxes the pancreas because it must work harder to produce amylase in order to break down the carbohydrates.  This straining of the pancreas may lead to health concerns such as pancreatitis and diabetes.


 Allergy Alert

Grains and BeansMany dogs are allergic or sensitive to grains, which contributes to the argument for a grain free diet. Symptoms of a food allergy come in many forms, including dry or itchy skin, paw biting, ear scratching, obsessive licking, digestive distress, vomiting and diarrhea – just to name a few!  Corn, wheat and rice are at the top of the list of most common causes of allergic reactions in dogs and cats, as well as common proteins including chicken, beef, and soy.

If you suspect that your dog or cat is suffering from a food allergy, the next step is finding out what is causing the allergic reaction.  Your veterinarian can perform a blood test for allergies, but the test can be expensive.  Limited ingredient and novel ingredient pet foods are an excellent resource when identifying your pet’s food allergies at home.

A limited ingredient food contains fewer components than a multi-protein, multi-carbohydrate food.  If your dog has been eating a chicken, fish and rice diet and is showing symptoms of a food allergy, try a limited ingredient duck and sweet potato diet.  If your dog’s symptoms diminish on the duck and sweet potato diet, it is safe to assume that duck and sweet potato are not allergens for your dog.

Your pet is most likely to develop an allergy after repeated exposure. A novel protein, such as pheasant or buffalo, is an ideal first choice for a limited ingredient diet since your pet is less likely to be allergic to a new protein. Determining an allergen through a limited ingredient/novel protein diet may take many months and lots of patience, but when the result is a happier healthier pet, it’s worth it!


Change Is Good!

Two Dogs One Bowl of FoodEven if you think you’ve finally found the perfect food for your dog or cat, be it grain free or not, unless your furry friend is severely allergic to multiple proteins or carbohydrates which leaves you with few choices, remember to change it up!

Simply put, dogs and cats get bored with their food just like us.  If that isn’t reason enough to change it up, consider that feeding the same food every day increases your pet’s chances of developing an allergy to that food.  Try buying a new high quality food every time you’re about to run out of food, and always remember to transition foods slowly over 10 days. Use 1 part new food to 9 parts old food the first day, 2 parts to 8 parts the second day, 3 parts to 7 parts the third day, and so on.  Eventually, your dog or cat may become used to eating new foods all the time, but in the beginning, slow and steady is best.

It’s normal for a dog or cat trying a new food to have minor digestive upsets over the first week or so, so don’t give up!  Adding a digestive enzyme to their food is a great way to manage tummy upsets.  Digestive enzymes not only help break down the food while it’s in the stomach, but help your pet assimilate all the nutrition in the food properly, making for an all-around healthier digestive system.  A healthy digestive system is the first defense to preventing first time and recurrent food allergies.


You Be The Judge

Smiling Woman and DogAs with any changes you make to your pet’s lifestyle, and as much as the debate regarding a grain free or grain based diet continues, always remember that YOU are the best judge of your pet’s well-being because you know your furry friend best!

If you’re trying a new food and it just seems like it isn’t working out, by all means change it—just remember that it often takes a few days to several weeks for a dog or cat to get used to their new food, and always remember that the outcome of any food changes you may decide to make should always be a happier, healthier four legged-best friend!

For Dogs:

Grain Free Food >

Limited Ingredient Food >

Novel Protein Food >

For Cats:

Grain Free Food >

Limited Ingredient Food >

Novel Protein Food >

Popular Digestive Enzymes >

About these ads

16 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    DJ said,

    I just placed an order for my cat and thought I’d browse around. Must say I’ve been looking for factual info like this for some time. Many thanks!

  2. 2

    Yankee Shelties said,

    I’ve read more than one article now telling us that rice (brown more so than white) has high level of arsenic in it due to it’s growing locations in fields previously used for cotton which used high levels of pesticides. That would apply to human consumption as well as canine. UGH! Nothing is safe anymore!

  3. 3

    Jill M said,

    Thanks for the balanced approach to this issue. My personal experience is that my dogs do fine with premium foods (with meat as1st ingredient) that have whole grains or other carbohydrate sources. If it is a dehydrated raw food, I cook it a bit to make the carbs more digestible, otherwise the dogs have a lot of gas. I regularly switch brands and protein sources and feed a different food at breakfast and dinner. Despite the dire warnings from the vet I never have any problems with switching foods and never bother to make the switch gradually. I have never had a dog develop food allergies- don’t know if I’m just lucky or if it’s because I try to vary the diet so much.

  4. 4

    Eileen Kerrigan said,

    Like Jill M., I frequently switch among high-quality (but grain-free) brands and formulas and protein sources without “transitioning,” and have never had any issues.

    Jill, just curious: You wrote, “If it is a dehydrated raw food, I cook it a bit to make the carbs more digestible.” What carbs are in dehydrated raw food?

  5. 7

    Patrick said,

    A true ancestoral diet for dogs would contain mostly raw meat and some predigested carbohydrates. The reason dogs don’t have the appropriate enzyme to break down carbohydrates is that the carbs they did eat were in the GI system of the animal they consumed. Having been predigested by that animal. I am not aware of any dog food on the market that takes this into account. Raw or otherwise.

    • 8

      Judy Miller said,

      Concerning Wolves inability to digest carbs, is not true. I had Wolves in the 70′s, and they ate table scraps, dog food, and other sources of not so good carbohydrate w/o a problem. People say a lot of things that are not true. I was one of very few people who tried to raise a Wolf in the house. Believe me, they would just as quickly steal a pancake as a piece of meat. They got meat everyday, so pancakes were looked at with more interest.
      Not saying it was good…..just sayin’!

      • 9

        Judy Miller said,

        Another thing, I can remember sitting in a blueberry patch with a young female Timber Wolf, the both of us picking blueberries, with her eating them right off the bush! I think Wolves and dogs’ systems have the ability to utilize unusual things as a safe-guard during times when hunting is not so good. Maybe cats can to a lesser extent, although they are classified as “obligate”.

  6. 10

    I use to be a grain-free fanaticist, until I noticed my dog had a severe case of pica (it seemed) he was hungry ALL THE TIME, but getting fat because I kept upping his food ration to try to help. (my dogs are fed twice daily every day). I have started going with foods that feature only rice and/or oatmeal, as I still do not believe in corn or wheat and his appetite is more stable now. I think he needed some slower burning carbs to help him get through till the next meal.

  7. 11

    DogMom said,

    We changed to an organic raw diet for our dogs years ago after having our first pack suffer numerous health problems and die at age 12 years. NO grains anymore for our dogs have resulted in super health and a longer life, too (19-22 years for our last two). We also no longer vaccinate them. We’re so grateful to our holistic vet for teaching us the truth about both things. One of our former dogs had pancreatitis that was resolved completely with a raw meat and vegetable diet; no grains.

    • 12

      Debbi said,

      Awesome!!! Thanks for sharing. I too do not vaccinate after 1 dose parvo/distemp/cav2. Freeze dried raw, RMB,cooked veggies.

  8. 13

    KDKH said,

    My dogs have less gas and have lost weight on a grain-free diet. They are pretty energetic, so I don’t think they lack for calories!

  9. 14

    Judy Miller said,

    There is so much hype about pet food, that one does not know what to believe. Is replacing grain with veggies any better than grain? Veggies can be irritating to the gut. The perfect food would be primarily meat with very little grain or veggies, unlike the foods which have tons of grain and veggies. Unfortunately, there has to be starch in kibble to hold it together properly for the convenience of dry food.

  10. 15

    Judy Miller said,

    People have said that corn is highly allergenic. How can that be true, when one of the biggest and most successful food manufacturers have always used a “good” quality corn, properly broken down. They could not do this if it was worse than other grains. Not only that but corn is the lowest in protein of the grains so contributes much less inappropriate protein when used. However, in today’s World, virtually ALL corn is GMO, so I would worry more about this when corn is used. I worry about Arsenic when Rice is used, so am now going to grain-free. However, grain-free in a dry diet, usually means high protein, and now I worry about the kidneys being able to handle all the protein in an artificially dry, diet. I am afraid to switch my 17 year old male from his “corn”/raw/canned diet to one of the high protein grain-free diets, for fear of rocking the boat.
    Always something to worry about!
    I can’t afford to feed all canned or raw food, and don’t have the time to be fussing in the kitchen trying to balance things for umpteen dogs and cats.

Comment RSS · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 53 other followers

%d bloggers like this: