The good, the bad, and the ugly: A Focus on Grain Free Foods

posted on October 01, 2018 by Dr. Jamie Hartman

There seems to be an increase in marketing and media attention these days on every aspect of our lives, including dog foods.  One popular trend we are seeing is grain free foods.  What are grains?  Are they bad for dogs?  And are grain free foods the answer?

There are many sources of grains that can be used in foods.  Grains are seeds of plants that are used as a source of nutrients.  Things like wheat, oats, barley, corn, rye, sorghum, millet, and rice are all considered grains.

One reason people think grains may be bad for dogs is allergies.  In humans, grain and gluten sensitivity is becoming more noticed, and so many people are wondering if their dogs are also allergic.  In truth, only about 10% of dog allergies are to foods, and of these, the majority of the allergens are to beef and dairy.  It is estimated that less than 1% of dogs are sensitive to grains.

Are grains fillers?  Absolutely not!  Grains provide a number of nutritional benefits.  Grains are easily digested, and are utilized just like other carbohydrate sources.  In fact, they can be higher in protein and lower in sugar than alternative carbohydrate sources such as potatoes, which makes them healthier!  They also provide healthy fats and antioxidants.  Grains support healthy skin and hair, as well as helping support the immune system.

Many people are concerned that dogs are carnivores.  Dogs are actually omnivores, meaning they require both plant and meat sources for their nutritional needs.  Grains do not cause obesity-excess calories cause obesity.  Since fat has twice the calories of carbohydrates, foods that are higher in fat tend to be more likely to cause obesity-and many grain free foods have higher meat sources which are higher in fat!  Likewise, grains do not cause diabetes.  Diabetes in dogs is similar to type I diabetes in humans, meaning something has destroyed the pancreas cells, and it is not caused by diet.  Cats are more likely to get type II diabetes, which can be related to diet, but related to diet because of obesity.

So are grain free foods bad for pets?  Unfortunately, recently there have been some new worries arising.  Dilated cardiomyopathy is a type of heart disease that until recently was found in higher incidence in some dog breeds such as Doberman’s, boxers, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and in pets that were deficient in an amino acid called taurine.  Veterinarians started noticing a rise in the disease in atypical dog breeds including golden retrievers, labradors, miniature schnauzers, and French bulldogs, as well as mixed breed dogs.  While looking into these atypical cases, a correlation has been found in that these dogs were being fed grain free or boutique foods.  The FDA has gotten involved and is looking into this further.  Some of these dogs were taurine deficient, while others were not.  Some of these dogs are improving with a diet change.

At this time, we are not sure that the diet is the cause of the disease.  However, given the correlation, we are concerned that there may be an issue feeding grain free foods.  At this time, we are alerting owners to the possibility, and are discussing whether a grain free food is right option for your pet and their situation.  If you are currently feeding grain free foods, please discuss with us what options may be best for your scenario.  Options may include finding a diet with grains, a limited grain diet, or a hydrolyzed diet if there are allergies/sensitivities.  We know you were probably feeding the grain free because you want what’s best for your pet, and we do too!

Please see these links for additional information:

https://www.fda.gov/animalveterinary/newsevents/cvmupdates/ucm613305.htm

http://vet.tufts.edu/wp-content/uploads/DecipheringFactFromFictionGrainFree.pdf

http://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2018/06/a-broken-heart-risk-of-heart-disease-in-boutique-or-grain-free-diets-and-exotic-ingredients/