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Grain free diet for dogs: Healthy alternative or marketing hype?

Is a grain free diet healthy for dogs? Some people swear by it, others aren’t convinced. Here’s a first-hand account of making the switch and what dog health experts say about going grain free.

Perhaps it’s only natural that as awareness of food allergies and gluten intolerances in humans have increased, we are also looking at the role that grains play in our dogs’ diets.

Of course, many grain products we eat – breads, cakes, biscuits etc – are made with ingredients that are toxic to dogs: including chocolate, sultanas, garlic and macadamias. So, your dog shouldn’t be given them anyway.

But many dog owners believe that grains in their dog’s diet cause unwanted side effects.

Problem 1: Eating poo

I have seen first-hand what grains in a dog’s diet can do, both physically and behaviourally.

Some years ago, my two Labradors developed a rather unpleasant habit – eating their own poo. All the time!

At first, I couldn’t understand what was making them do this. A quick search online revealed that other people claimed to have successfully stopped this behaviour by removing grains from their dog’s diet.

The theory was that grains have been introduced to domesticated dogs by humans; they aren’t a part of their natural diet. As such, their digestive tracts don’t fully process grains, meaning they simply poop the grains out again.

And being undigested, these grains still smell – to a dog at least – like food. Hence, they are just going back for a second helping!

I wasn’t necessarily convinced about this theory (which vets have disproved: see below), but it was worth a try to see if it really did affect their behaviour. So, I trialled my dogs on a grain free diet. And like magic, their taste for poo quickly evaporated.

Problem 2: Yukky discharge

Fast forward a few years and I became the proud dad of a Havanese dog (yes, that’s a real breed, and they’re really cute too!)

By this time, the grain-free rule in our house had morphed into a lower grain diet for all our dogs (i.e., they could have kibble with some grains and the occasional doggy cookie).

But it quickly became apparent that the little man couldn’t tolerate grains at all. Most disconcerting was the thick brown goo that constantly oozed from his eyes and stained his silky fur. But he also seemed to have other issues too.

Another Havanese owner suggested that I transition him to a strictly grain-free diet. Again, the results were profound. In fact, as I found out reading online, many owners of this breed had faced exactly the same scenario.

What do vets say about a grain free diet for dogs?

Food manufacturers don’t necessarily have our dog’s best interests at heart.

In fact, vets suggest that a grain-free diet for dogs is little more than overzealous marketing by food makers. Meaning you’re simply paying a premium to feed your dog, since grain free foods generally cost a lot more.

“There is no scientific evidence to prove that grain-free diets are better for our pets,” Vet Voice – the publication produced by the Australian Veterinary Association – wrote in 2019.

“Unfortunately, the growing number of these products on the market is giving the misperception that grain is bad for pets.”

It continued by saying that there are many myths about grains in pet foods, including that grains cause food allergies (they are rare in pets, and more commonly associated with animal proteins than grains) and that grains are just fillers in dog foods (they are a valuable source of protein and energy).

The article also debunked the theory that dogs can’t digest grains properly, stating they “may be easier for the pet to digest than some proteins from meat” and that “most dogs and cats (greater than 90 per cent) can easily utilise and digest nutrients from grains normally found in pet foods”.

Grain free dog food not necessarily healthy

You’d think that grain free dog food is more natural and therefore healthier for your pup, right? Not necessarily.

Substituting grains for other ingredients can increase their salt and fat content – particularly concerning for older dogs and those on pancreatic diets.

Additionally, concerns have emerged in recent years that exclusively grain free diets in dogs could contribute to a heart condition known as DCM (dilated cardiomyopathy). The potential link was flagged by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018 and is still under investigation.

The link may relate to specific brands of grain free dog foods which have potato and legumes as their main or only ingredients. You can read the most recent update (June 2019) from the FDA here.

No dog is the same

According to RSCPA Pet Insurance, there is no one-size-fits-all diet for dogs. Their dietary requirements are dependent on a ranging on a range of factors, including their breed, age and unique health circumstances.

What does matter is that anything you feed your dog should:

  • use human-grade meat, to avoid nasty preservatives often found in processed pet meats
  • not contain cooked bones
  • be prepared with proper food hygiene to avoid bacteria such as salmonella, which can make your dog very sick

If you are concerned about what you should be feeding your dog, consult your vet. They can offer tailored advice on your dog’s dietary needs depending on their breed, age and unique health circumstances.

Sources:

Dogs Naturally

https://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com/truth-grain-free-dog-foods-dcm/

FDA (US)

https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/outbreaks-and-advisories/fda-investigation-potential-link-between-certain-diets-and-canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy

RSCPA Pet Insurance

https://www.rspcapetinsurance.org.au/pet-care/dog-care/what-should-feed-dog

Vet Voice (Australian Veterinary Association)

https://www.vetvoice.com.au/articles/grain-free-pet-diets/

https://www.vetvoice.com.au/articles/potential-link-between-diet-and-canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy/

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