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:


Pet Food Fact and Fiction

posted on March 01, 2016 by Dr. Jamie Hartman

There are many choices available for pet food these days.  A walk into a pet store or the pet food aisle can prove to be overwhelming, when really we just want to feed what is best for our pet.  There are many myths about pet food and pet nutrition as well, which can make things even more confusing.  Below I discuss a few of the more prevalent food myths.

First of all, when looking at foods, there are a few things you should always look for.  Somewhere on the packaging (usually in very tiny print on a side), there should be a statement which says the food has been tested to meet or formulated to meet AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control) standards.  Most major brands available have this, and it means it has been tested or formulated to be nutritionally balanced and have the appropriate amounts of nutrients for your pet.  The second thing you should always look at is to make sure that the food is approved for the appropriate pet and lifestage-for example, puppies should not be fed an adult food or senior food, they should be fed a food for puppies, growth, or all life stages.

One of the first myths seen is that pets should be fed grain free food.  Most commonly this is because people feel grains are contributing to allergies.  Allergies in pets are usually environmental in nature.  It is estimated that only about 10% of allergies are food related.  In fact, less than 1% of dogs have a grain allergy.  Food allergies are formed to proteins molecules in foods, and while there can be allergies to grain proteins, beef and dairy proteins are far bigger culprits.

People also feel that grains are not a nutrient dogs need.  Dogs are omnivores, meaning they need both meat proteins and plant nutrients.  Grains provide carbohydrates for energy, fiber for GI tract health, essential fatty acids for skin and haircoat health, and essential amino acids.  There are rare cases where a grain free food may be advised, but the majority of pets do not need grain free food.

Another myth that is very common in the pet food industry is that corn is a filler.  People feel that corn is a cheap additive for the food and that it may cause allergies.  As we already discussed, most allergies are not food related.  Of foods that cause allergies, the top ingredients for dogs are beef, dairy, and much less likely lamb, egg, soy, and wheat.  Corn does not even make the list.  The same is true for cats, whose biggest allergies are beef, dairy, and fish.

Fillers by definition are foods that provide no nutritional value.  Corn provides nutrients such as protein, essential amino acids, carbohydrates for energy, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, Vitamin E, and beta carotene.  Corn gluten meal is also very easily digested, which allows these nutrients to be easily utilized.  Therefore, corn does have nutritional value and should not been viewed as a filler.

Still another myth seen is the concern of by-products in foods.  By-products are simply products left over from the production of other products.  In human food broths, molasses, pectin, and gelatin are some very common examples.  By definition, by-products can include the liver, kidney, and spleen.  More importantly, it cannot include feathers, skin, hair, hooves, or intestinal contents.  Muscle meat by itself is actually lacking quite a few nutrients such as calcium, minerals, and vitamins.  The organs provide minerals, vitamins, protein, and amino acids.  While by-product sounds like it is a waste product being added to the food, it is actually a very important part of pet nutrition.

Lastly, just a few words on the labelling of pet foods.  Some label words have legal definitions and can only be used when these are met.  Other label words have absolutely no meaning and are merely marketing tactics.  For example, take the word holistic.  Holistic means relating to the whole rather than dissection into parts.  There is not a legal meaning behind this word however, and pet foods may use it however they wish.  By definition, any food that is formulated to meet or is tested to meet AAFCO standards is holistic in that it has all the nutrients needed for the entire pet, not just specific organ systems.

Organic as a term is similar.  It refers to how ingredients are grown, harvested, and processed.  The USDA has defined what organic means as follows:  The organic seal may be displayed if the food is at least 95% organic by weight.  Made with organic means that at least 70% of the content is organic.  If less than 70% of the food is organic, only the individual ingredients may be listed as organic, and only in the ingredient list, the word organic may not be displayed elsewhere on the package.

Natural is another food term that is defined.  It means that a feed or ingredient is derived solely from plant, animal or mineral sources that have not been produced by a chemically synthetic process.  Chemically synthesized vitamins, minerals, and other trace nutrients are acceptable however.  Being aware of which words have definitions and which are just marketing tools can help greatly when determining which food to feed your pet.

Many pet food companies strive to meet rigorous standards.  They must meet AAFCO standards for their foods.  Often they are buying ingredients from plants that are inspected by the USDA, and many buy foods that are considered human grade.  Researching your pet’s individual food can help you find the answers to these questions.  Please speak to your veterinarian if you have further questions or concerns regarding what food may be best for your pets.

Here are some quick answers regarding common pet food myths from Purina.  Or watch this informational video from Royal Canin here.