Plants & Pets
Have you ever thought of your dog as a wolf? He isn’t. Really, dogs are not carnivores or just meat eaters. Dogs are omnivores. This means dogs can eat and digest meat as well as grains (i.e., starches). In fact, a recent study published in the journal Nature announced a discovery that explained dogs’ genetics and the implication it holds for their nutritional needs. Dogs have been omnivores for centuries and their bodies have evolved to easily digest starches.
As a dog owner, you strive to provide the best for your pet, treating them as a member of the family. This also means you are consistently evaluating and seeking to add beneficial products and practices to your dog’s routine. A recent trend you may have become aware of is grain-free diets for dogs. Grains, once widely seen as good for dogs, have recently been called into question. Perhaps because gluten allergies and intolerance are on the rise for people, dog owners are now wondering if grains are bad for their dogs. But is this actually true? Veterinarian Dr Kurt Venator helps explain. Grains don’t cause allergies. They can, however, be the target of allergies, and some foods are more allergenic than others. Those foods are specific ones, such as wheat, not general categories, such as grains. The top five allergy-provoking ingredients for dogs are (in order): beef, dairy, wheat, chicken and egg.
A walk down the pet food aisle shows high-end (and high-priced) kibbles boasting “grain-free” formulas. Grain may have gotten a really bad name from the 2007 pet-food contamination tragedy in which wheat gluten imported from China had been contaminated with industrial chemicals used to falsely boost protein-level readings and caused kidney damage when ingested. Thousands of pets got ill and many died. Of course, it wasn’t the grain itself that was the culprit, but that’s what many people remember. Combine that incident with the human gluten-free food trend, and it’s only natural that health-conscious pet owners would consider the same for their dogs. It is not that wheat gluten is evil. Some people have the auto-immune disorder Celiac Disease, some have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and some may have a wheat allergy. The rest of us are just fine with it and can eat it or be exposed to it with no adverse effects. We don’t know what percentage of dogs may have a similar condition, but chances are it’s not all of them.
Unless your dog has a grain allergy, grains are not harmful. Dr Venator explains that, “there’s a myth out there not supported by veterinary medicine that grains cause allergies. That is not the case. The reality is that true food allergies are extremely low in dogs and cats, and the offending substances usually are not grains.” In fact, grains are a good source of sub nutrients and are beneficial for most dogs. That means the chance of your dog having a grain allergy is small. Less than 1% of dogs are sensitive to grains and need to avoid consuming them in their food, while 99% of dogs are able to reap the nutritional benefits dog food with grain has. Even though grain allergies are rare in dogs, you may feel more comfortable feeding grain-free food. This is a personal decision for every owner to make. There are some considerations you can take into account as you decide what to feed your dog.
Dr Venator says: “Grains are actually an excellent nutrient source.” Grains are packed with nutrients and provide carbohydrate, fat, and antioxidants. That means, the grains in dog food can support healthy, skin, and hair, plus support healthy immune systems and more. Also, there are many different kinds of grain: wheat, barley, corn etc. Each has its own combination of nutrients, and many are easily digested by dogs. Dog foods containing grain balance the grain’s nutrients with nutrients provided by other ingredients to create a nutritionally complete dog food.
Choosing the best food for your dog can be a challenge. There are many foods available for dogs--some are recipes that are balanced with grains and animal sourced protein, others that are grain-free. When you’re in the pet food aisle, you will see many selections that contain grain or that are grain-free, but not all choices are created equal. One way to choose a good food is to use a dog food selector. The tool helps filter the many types of foods by ingredient—to make the shopping experience more straightforward. Another way to decide is to evaluate the nutrition content located on each bag. Whether the food is grain-free or not, looking at labels can indicate if it is appropriate for your dog. When studying labels, Dr Venator advises to be on the lookout for foods that are formulated as complete and balanced and together all ingredients should provide the recommended levels of protein, fat and essential nutrients in the appropriate ratios and concentrations.
Dr Venator explains your veterinarian’s advice will consider that a dog’s nutritional needs change as he grows from a puppy to an adult dog to an older dog. He will also consider weight management issues, sensitive skin or stomach, breed size i.e., large, small or toy breeds and other factors may impact nutritional needs for dogs. If a grain-free diet is appropriate, be sure to choose a dog food without grains that is complete and balanced. As Dr Venator states: “Make a decision as a pet owner that is based on facts. And not based on information that may not be true out in the marketplace.”
There is also the perception that dogs should be eating a diet similar to their wild ancestors’. When was the last time you saw a wolf nibbling the kernels off a corncob? However, dogs are actually different from wolves in this regard; in fact, scientists believe that one of the physiological changes that helped dogs evolve alongside humans was the ability to digest starch. Dogs have differences in 10 key genes compared to wolves that enable them to better utilize grains than wolves can. Furthermore, grain-free foods don’t mean plant-free foods. Grains are seeds, like wheat, rice, oats, corn, barley, millet, oatmeal, and quinoa. Grain-free diets use other plant sources such as potato, sweet potato, pumpkin, tapioca, peas, butternut squash, parsnips, carrots, spinach greens, and various fruits. These are also not foods wolves are known to eat. In fact, some of these ingredients provide less nutrition than grains. If you are feeding them for one of the above reasons, and your dog was otherwise doing well on a grain-based diet, probably yes. If your dog prefers a grain-free diet, is doing well on it, and you can afford it, then go for it. But if your dog is doing fine on a non–grain free diet, and your wallet is hurting, stow the guilt and buy the grains! If your dog has signs of allergies, this type of food might be worth a try, but so might switching to non-beef or non-chicken foods. If your dog has signs of food intolerance such as repeated diarrhoea, a food change might be a good idea, but getting him checked by a veterinarian is an even better option.