Dr. Laura Duclos leads the Research and Development team at Puppo. She has over 16 years of experience in developing nutritional pet food that supports animal health and wellbeing. Her clinical research has been featured in prominent publications and scientific journals. She has been an invited speaker at numerous international veterinary conferences on pet nutrition and innovation.
If Grains Are Healthy, What Started the Grain-Free Dog Food Trend?
There are likely several factors at play, but the popularity of grain-free dog food gained traction around the same time as human grain-free dietary trends hit the market. Pet parents naturally wanted to ensure that their dogs were eating just as healthily.
Another possible contributing factor was the melamine pet food recall in 2007. Some kibble manufacturers used grain fractions (e.g. wheat gluten) contaminated with melamine from China. This caused kidney disease in a lot of pets. Pet parents turned to grain-free dog food believing it to be a safer, healthier option for their pups.
More recently, the FDA began looking into potential links between canine heart disease and grain-free dog food. DCM (a type of canine heart disease that affects the heart muscle) is not considered rare in dogs. But the condition was occurring in breeds not typically prone to it.
Though a relationship between grain-free dog food and heart disease has not yet been found, it’s still important to consider the benefits and risks of switching your pup to grain-free dog food.
Reasons to Go Grain-Free?
There are a few common health-related reasons pet parents switch to grain-free dog food, including a dog food allergy, weight management, and chronic health concerns. If you’re considering the switch, first consult your vet to decide if it’s the healthiest choice for your dog. There are some misconceptions about the benefits of going grain-free.
- Allergies: Grain-free dog food won’t likely solve your pup’s dry skin, itchiness, flatulence, and digestive issues—though some companies make that claim. While a true dog food allergy can occur, it’s uncommon. It’s far more likely your pup has a sensitivity to specific foods (a gastrointestinal reaction), rather than allergies. Grains are rarely allergens; it’s the proteins found in meat and dairy that usually set off your pup’s system. To determine if your pup has allergies or sensitivities to grains, you’d need to work with your vet or pet nutritionist to begin an elimination trial (limited ingredient diet) to pinpoint the problematic foods.
- Weight Management: While some dogs with weight control issues can benefit from a diet lower in grains, it’s not the answer for all pups. Their body will indeed burn the fat (and protein) for energy without carbs to burn first. But any protein (or fat) not used to build new muscle will still be converted into fat and stored. Plus, grain-free diets have less fiber. A high-fiber diet helps to keep pups feeling full. So, a diet low in fiber may leave them feeling hungry, in turn causing their parents to overfeed them.
- Chronic Health Concerns: Your dog might benefit from grain-free dog food if they have chronic health concerns like diabetes, cancer, and inflamed gut. Some grains will have higher glucose levels, which challenge insulin levels in diabetic pups. And the gluten and lectins in some grains can cause inflammation. But not all grains trigger inflammation or interfere with insulin levels, so making the switch to grain-free won’t necessarily support their health issues. A better choice for pups with health issues would be a personalized dog food formulated to support their specific dietary needs.
The Role Grains Play in a Dog’s Diet
Grains may not be right for every pup, but they do possess a variety of beneficial properties.
- Healthy Bowel: A diet rich in fibrous foods, like whole grains, can help in managing large and small bowel diseases. They can delay gastric emptying, slowing small bowel transit time, bind toxins and irritating bile acids, and normalize gut motility. Plus, the slower transit of fiber helps pets feel full longer, which aids in controlling their appetite.
- Nutritious: Whole grains are a nutritious source of protein, B vitamins, and minerals such as iron, selenium, and magnesium.
- Healthy Gut: Certain fibers support the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
- Low Fat: Grains also have lower fat content than meat. The right balance of healthy, whole grains can be beneficial for dogs on a reduced-calorie, low-fat diet.
- Lean Protein Source: The gluten in grain can provide quality protein to your dog’s diet. Although it’s not as bioavailable (intestinally absorbable) as animal-based protein, high-quality whole grains can help fortify the other protein sources in your dog’s diet.
While healthy, whole grains like brown rice and oats are packed with loads of good stuff, over-processed and low-quality grains like white rice and white flour provide very little nutrition. These lesser value grains no longer have the bran, germ, dietary fiber, iron, and B vitamins. But they still contain the same amount of calories, and dogs process them quickly. This results in a rapid blood sugar spike, which is challenging for diabetic pups.
And grains are cheaper than meat-based ingredients, so some dog food manufacturers will use more in their recipes than is beneficial for pups. It’s an issue based on poor quality and wrong quantity.
Regardless of whether you decide to keep grains in your pup’s diet or switch to grain-free dog food, a balanced diet, and healthy dog food is what’s important. This will vary from dog to dog based on weight, age, breed, health, activity level, and more; even pups of the same age can have very different needs.
One of the simplest ways to take the guesswork out of choosing the best dog food for your pup is to have it formulated for them. Customized dog food companies work with pet nutritionists to design food that will meet the unique dietary needs of your dog. It’s an option worth exploring; a balanced diet is one of the most important steps you can take to ensure your dog has a healthy, happy life.
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