Grains are not Public Enemy No. 1, but many people design their diets around avoiding grains and gluten for anti-inflammatory, weight loss and healthy gut reasons. Going grain-free for humans can have positive health benefits, but…what about dogs? Browse the pet food aisle in any grocery store and you’re bound to see several enthusiastic grain-free options. Is this a good thing? Or are pet parents falling for human-centric advertising? We called in an expert for this one. Dr. Katja Lang, DVM, of Heart of Chelsea Veterinary Group in New York, had tons to say on the matter.
Is it healthy for dogs to eat grain-free?
Right away Dr. Lang answered our primary question: No, dogs don’t need to eat grain-free. “Grains are a digestible source of carbohydrates and can offer important nutrients, such as fiber and essential fatty acids,” Dr. Lang told us.
Grain-free diets are only beneficial to dogs with wheat allergies. Similar to people with celiac disease, some dogs aren’t able to properly digest grain products. According to the Cummings Veterinary Center at Tufts University, Irish setters and border terriers are some of the only dog breeds susceptible to gluten allergies.
Why you should check your dog food with your vet
In fact, without grains in their diets, some dogs could develop serious health issues. There’s a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)—basically, doggie heart disease—that has been closely linked to grain-free diets in canines. While some larger breeds like Great Danes and Irish Wolfhounds are genetically predisposed for DCM, the Food and Drug Administration reported an alarming number of recent cases in breeds highly unlikely to develop DCM. Within these unusual cases, the FDA found a striking correlation between heart disease and diets high in peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes, ingredients often replacing grains in dog food.
Dr. Lang pointed out pet owners might read grain-free but hear “higher protein, which would keep their pet lean.” What really happens is food manufacturers supplement the missing grain carbohydrates with carbs from different—and often unhealthier—sources. Your dog needs more than straight protein and carb fillers to thrive.
What you should look for in dog food
The American Kennel Club states “wheat, rice, oats, corn, barley, millet, oatmeal and quinoa” are all acceptable grains for a dog’s diet, which is a good place to start. However, make sure you consult your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist to make sure your dog is getting the nutrients he needs.
Dr. Lang warned there’s no single diet made for all dogs. “Every pet is different and their nutritional requirements will vary greatly,” she said. “Some grain-free diets may be nutritionally balanced but, in my opinion, do not offer any benefits over non-grain-free diets when not medically indicated.”
Finally, Dr. Lang insists dog parents check for the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement on every bag or can of pet food. This indicates the food inside is nutritionally balanced and appropriate for the life stage of your animal.
It’s also worth looking into companies that provide human-grade, home-cooked meals for canines, which, let’s be honest, can look almost good enough to share with your pup.