The Truth About Grain-Free Foods for Your Pet
You may have heard a lot of buzzwords in the pet food world with words such as “grain-free”, “gluten free”, “no by-products”, and more. But, what exactly do these terms mean for you and for your dog or cat? Is one better than the other? Grain-free is just one of those terms used in the pet industry, but it may be one of the most important ones. Here’s a bit more about grain-free and what it means for your household.
What is Grain-Free?
Grain-free foods are foods that are formulated without the use of grains. In traditional pet foods (and many human foods), grains are used as the main carbohydrate, or energy source. They are often cheap to produce, filling, and can sometimes offer additional benefits such as preservative or flavor byproducts (think corn syrup).
The most commonly used grains in pet foods are:
Grain-free foods utilize non-grain carbohydrate sources in place of grains, usually to avoid allergies or other food-based issues. Common grain-free replacements include:
- sweet potato
- other legumes
What Are the Benefits of Grain-Free?
There is a lot of controversy surrounding the benefits of grain-free. Most veterinarians will only recommend a grain-free diet if a pet is having troubles digesting grains. Pets can have allergies to almost any ingredient, but there is more anecdotal evidence pointing toward grains as the cause. Whether this is due to true allergy or just low-quality ingredients, it’s hard to tell. Some owners that have grain allergies themselves may also want to switch their pet to a grain-free diet to avoid cross-contamination from pets licking them or handling the food.
Do You Feed Your Pet Grain-Free?
There is also the issue of cats being obligate carnivores. While dogs are considered omnivores, able to eat meat and non-meat sources, cats are obligate carnivores meaning they must derive most or all of their nutrition from a meat source. Grains can be problematic for cats and may tax the organs more than a grain-free diet. However, in the case of kidney issues, an all-meat diet may also cause problems for pets.
The most common signs of a food-based allergy include itching over the entire body, rash, hair loss, blisters or bumps forming around the face or mouth, and vomiting or diarrhea. Symptoms will vary depending on how your pet reacts.
What Are the Cons of Grain-Free?
While it likely won’t hurt your pet if you switch to a grain-free balanced diet in a healthy pet, there can be some problems if you formulate your own diet, or if your pet special needs. Grains are a great source of energy for pets, so actively working dogs may need the added boost from a higher grain content. Pets that are allergic to alternate carbohydrate sources, or that have special medical conditions may also need a grain-filled diet in order to maintain balanced health. Owners feeding a raw or grain-free home formulated diet may run into nutrient issues such as vitamin deficiencies if an alternate source isn’t used.
Should I Switch My Pet to Grain-Free?
Switching your pet to a grain-free diet may be beneficial, but the choice is up to you. It is always best to work with your veterinarian to determine if there are food allergies that may benefit from a diet change or other health issues that may be harmed by it. Once you’ve gotten the OK from your vet, choosing the right grain-free diet becomes the hard part! There are a lot on the market, so doing some research before the switch is best.
Remember, if you do make the switch, to do it gradually. Change your pet’s food over a period of 7-9 days to allow the intestinal flora to adjust without major digestive upset. Switching too quickly could cause diarrhea or vomiting, leading you to think they’re allergic to something new!
The Right Choice
Grain-free can be a beneficial change to your pet and may help with allergies or other problems. Whether or not you choose to make the change, being informed about your choices is always a great way to pick what’s right for you and your pets.