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Going Against The Grain (Grain-Free Pet Food)

The grain-free trend in pet food emerged as scientists began studying the diets of dogs and cats in the wild and the diets of their ancestors. They discovered that dogs’ and cats’ bodies have a limited ability to extract nutrients from non-meat sources.

Although many animals do well on grain-free diets, some animals do better on diets that do include grains. Veterinarians sometimes recommend grain-free diets because removing grains from their diet often improves skin problems, allergies, digestive problems (such as inflammatory bowel disease/syndrome), and frequently impacted anal glands.

Grains are not necessarily bad ingredients in pet foods. The key is choosing the grains that have the most nutritional value to dogs and cats, cooking grains properly, and using grains in proper proportions to meat.

What are grains?

Grains are seeds from grasses that contain fiber, vitamins and minerals, high amounts of carbohydrates, small amounts of protein, and a handful of other useful nutrients.

Most raw grains are difficult or impossible for dogs and cats to digest. However, when grains are ground and adequately cooked they’re more digestible and their nutrients are more easily absorbed. Of all the grains used in pet foods, the ones that are better for our companion animals are whole or whole ground rice, oats, barley, and millet.

Why are grains used in pet food?

High quality pet food companies include grain ingredients for nutritional benefits and because grains are ideal for binding ingredients together to form kibble, pate, and other food consistencies. It’s the same reason why people use bread crumbs in meatloaf: to hold the ingredients in the loaf shape.

Some pet food companies use grains as a protein source because veterinarians sometimes recommend that certain individual animals have reduced animal-derived proteins in their diets. Corn gluten meal is often used in pet food as a source of non-meat protein.

Dogs require some carbohydrates and non-meat nutrients. Dogs can only use a limited amount of protein per day, so when their bodies require a high amount of calories per day, they can get quick, usable energy from carbohydrates.

Unfortunately, many lower quality pet food companies use grains simply as a filler because grain ingredients are much cheaper than meat ingredients. Filler grains – usually wheat and corn – help animals feel full but contain little (or no) nutritional value.

Are grain-free pet foods better than foods that include grains?

Obviously animals with allergies or sensitivities to grains should be on grain-free diets.

Many elderly pets do better on grain-free foods, too. As pets age, their digestive systems have a harder time processing carbohydrate ingredients. Dogs and cats can develop food sensitivities to grains, usually due to grain glutens, when their diets include a disproportionate amount of grain ingredients. These animals are healthier when their food contains only hypoallergenic ingredients and non-grain carbohydrate sources, such as potatoes and tapioca.

When veterinarians recommend high-protein diets, grain-free foods are a good option because they tend to be higher in protein than other diets. However, grain-free diets are not the same as low-carbohydrate diets.

Going grain-free is not always the ideal diet for dogs and cats. For example, senior pets and those with certain health problems (such as those with kidney failure) may need diets that are lower in protein or higher in fiber.

To find out the ideal diet for an individual animal, consider working with a veterinary nutritionist who has received special training in the nutritional management of both healthy animals and those with diseases. There are many professional organizations that can help you find a veterinary nutrition specialist in your area, such as the American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition (http://aavn.org).

(Note: Nonexclusive use of this article has been granted to other pet industry organizations but Kari Kells retains copyright.)

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