Grain Free Diets and Food Allergies?
Grain-free diets are one of the largest growing segments of the pet food market. More and more pet owners are reaching for these diets, which are sometimes billed as more natural for pets, with:
- Less fillers
- Less carbs
- Less likely to cause allergies
So, is this true? Are grain-free diets better for pets?
Firstly, what is a filler?
A filler is considered an ingredient with little or no nutritional value.
Is it legitimate to label grains as fillers?
Grains contribute valuable nutrients to the diet including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, essential fatty acids and fibre, all essential for health.
Grains are definitely not fillers.
Are grain-free diets more ‘natural’?
Do they help feed our pets like their wild ancestors?
The domestic dog of today is vastly different in appearance and genetics from its ancestral wolf.
In fact, dogs and cats have evolved alongside humans to be able to digest grains as well as many other sources of carbohydrates.
What’s more, grains used in pet foods undergo processing, such as grinding, cooking and extrusion, making them highly digestible.
Substituting grains with highly refined starches like potatoes, tapioca (cassava), peas or lentils, does not make the diet anywhere near to what wolves eat in the wild.
- These foods may contain as much (and sometimes more) carbohydrate as grain-containing diets
- What’s more, these ingredients often provide fewer nutrients and less fibre than whole grains
Another confusion is that both wolves and dogs belong to the Order Carnivora, which often gets confused with thinking dogs are carnivorous.
While these animals all share a dental structure that originally evolved for shearing meat, most of the species in Carnivora are now omnivores (meat and plant eaters e.g. skunks, raccoons, bears, etc.) and a few are completely or almost completely vegetarian like the Giant Panda which only consumes bamboo!
Cats on the other hand, are considered 100% carnivores, in that they have a requirement for nutrients present only in animal tissue within their diet. That said, while cats do require part of their protein to come from animals, their systems are also very good at digesting and absorbing nutrients from high-quality, plant-based ingredients.
What about food allergies and sensitivities? Are grains the culprits for these?
While food allergies in pets are uncommon, accounting for less than 10% of allergic skin disease, allergies to grains are even rarer.
Because allergies are caused by reactions of the immune system against a normal protein, they can form to any protein or protein-containing food or ingredient.
However, the small numbers of pets that do have food allergies are most likely to be allergic to animal proteins rather than cereal proteins.
The most common proteins that cause food allergies are:
- Dogs: beef, dairy and chicken
- Cats: beef, dairy and fish
As grains contain protein, allergies to grains such as wheat can occur.
However, reactions to other grains and carbohydrate sources, such as rice, corn, and potato are very uncommon.
Treating Food Allergies
If a dog or cat has a diagnosed food allergy, treatment involves feeding either a hydrolysed diet (where the protein has been made so small it can’t cause an allergic reaction) or a food containing a single protein and carbohydrate source which they have not been previously exposed to e.g. kangaroo and potatoes.
These are called novel protein and carbohydrate diets.
Take care when choosing a food claiming to be hypoallergenic or novel.
While they may only have one protein and carbohydrate source
mentioned on the front of the pack, on closer examination of
the ingredient list you may find several other sources of both
Gluten Sensitivity in Pets?
Some pet owners cite the potential for gluten sensitivity as the reason for avoiding grains in their pet’s food.
Celiac disease in humans is a heritable immune-based disease associated with hypersensitivity to gluten proteins in wheat and other related grains such as barley and rye.
Corn gluten and rice gluten, on the other hand, are quite different from wheat gluten, and can be consumed by most celiac patients without concern.
Gluten intolerance is exceedingly rare in pets, with gastrointestinal signs from consuming gluten having only been observed in a small number of dogs, including some Irish Setters.
So back to our original question, are grains unhealthy for pets?
The answer is no, there is no evidence that grains are nutritionally harmful to pets. There are many good quality commercial pet foods available both with, and without grains.
The most important things to look for in a food is that the food is
- High quality
- Highly digestible
- Has complete and balanced nutrition
- It is formulated for the correct life-stage
For example, if a food is formulated for ‘growth and maintenance’ it means that the food must meet the nutrient requirements for the most demanding life stage, a growing puppy or kitten. Such diets are unlikely to be ideal for an adult dog or cat and definitely not for a senior pet.
Which Food Company?
Consideration should be given to the longevity and history of the manufacturing company and their commitment to continual research and development when deciding to feed a particular food, not just whether the food contains grain or not.
That’s why we recommend and sell Hill’s cat and dog foods.