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.
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!
Obligate 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.
Many 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!
Even 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
As 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!