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Grain-Free Diets: What Every Pet Owner Should Know

April 25, 2019
Grain-Free Diets: What Every Pet Owner Should Know

In recent years, it seems that grains have gotten a bad rap. Baseless claims and misleading marketing have led dog and cat owners to believe that grains can cause a number of diseases and allergies. In fact, grains are highly unlikely to be responsible for pet diseases. And, although dogs and cats can have allergies to food ingredients, they are much more likely to be allergic to protein sources, such as beef and fish. On the other hand, it appears that a lack of grains in pet foods may be causing health problems for our animal companions.

Grain-free diets for pets

As gluten-free and low-carbohydrate diets for humans have become more popular, some pet food manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon and marketing grain-free foods for animals. Many pet owners believe that these foods are better for their pets because carbohydrates aren’t healthy. But, carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy, balanced diet for every pet. And, grain-free diets are not free of carbohydrates. Instead, they contain a carbohydrate source other than grains, which may include:

  • Lentils
  • Peas
  • Fava beans
  • Tapioca
  • Barley
  • Chickpeas

All pets need foods that contains the appropriate amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

The link between grain-free diets and heart disease in pets

Veterinarians have begun to notice a concerning trend: a recent increase in cases of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in pets who are fed grain-free diets, as well as homemade diets, those that include exotic ingredients, and those made by small companies. DCM is a condition that causes the muscular heart wall to become thin and weak, leading to ineffective contractions that pump an insufficient amount of blood. Eventually, animals with DCM develop a large, dilated heart and congestive heart failure—fluid builds up within the lungs and eventually leads to death.

DCM was commonly diagnosed in cats until 1987, when it was discovered that affected cats were deficient in the amino acid taurine. Once taurine was added to cat foods, DCM in cats became much rarer. Veterinarians still occasionally diagnose taurine deficiency in cats that eat homemade diets or food from a manufacturer that does not have sufficient nutritional education or adequate quality control to verify nutrient content.

The link between current cases of DCM in pets fed grain-free diets and taurine is unclear. Many of the pets affected have normal taurine levels, but DCM improved when they were given taurine supplementation. It’s theorized that grain may be needed to produce taurine or may play a part in the body’s ability to use it. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: Feeding your pet a grain-free diet is not a good idea.

Choosing a pet food

If you are currently feeding a grain-free diet, switch your pet to a different food now. But with all the fad and exotic diets available, how do you choose the right pet food? Follow these tips for selecting an appropriate food for your canine companion or feline friend:

  1. Although it may seem like a labor of love to cook homemade food for your pet, your efforts may be wasted if you are not providing sufficient nutrients. Decades of research have enabled pet food companies—many of which have boarded veterinary nutritionists on staff—to formulate foods with the balanced levels of species-specific nutrients your pet needs. Concocting your own food, or even following a recipe published online, is no comparison to this research.
  2. Choose a food produced by a large, reputable company that can back up their products with research and feeding trials. Stay away from new, small, or boutique companies that have not built a reliable reputation.
  3. Steer clear of foods that contain exotic ingredients, such as kangaroo, lamb, buffalo, tapioca, salmon, venison, or barley. Exotic ingredients are digested differently and may impact the metabolism of other ingredients. Stick with tried-and-true ingredients that you are used to seeing in pet foods, like chicken, beef, wheat, corn, and rice.  
  4. Aisles of pet food choices can be overwhelming. If you are having a hard time choosing an appropriate diet, schedule an appointment to speak with our veterinary team. We can recommend a properly balanced, healthy food made by a reputable company that will be just right for your pet’s age, activity level, and health status.

Questions about grain-free diets or choosing the right food for your pet? Contact us today.