Over three years ago I wrote an article titled “The Real Problem with Corn for Dogs”. I wrote the article out of frustration regarding the current trend of some pet foods declaring that grain-free foods were without question the best foods to feed pets if you truly wanted the best for them. They proudly declared that if you really loved your dog or cat, stay away from grains in the food. In the article, I clearly stated that based on no scientific research, but just 25 years of being a veterinarian and feeding my own pets, I thought this whole grain-free trend was nothing more than a marketing ploy to sucker in pet owners. It isn’t that grain-free foods are bad necessarily, but pet foods that contain grain can be just as good for pets and sometimes even better.
Recently, I came across and article written by Kara M. Burns, MS, Med, LVT, VTS that reinforced that my suspicion regarding the grain-free pet food fad is correct. I trust her opinion for a few reasons. First, she has a crazy number of initials after her name. Anyone with that many initials obviously knows some stuff. Second, she is the President of the Academy of Veterinary Nutrition for Veterinary Technicians. And finally, her article has scientific facts with references for those facts. If you don’t want to listen to an old veterinarian who just thinks he knows stuff, pay attention to what Kara mentions in her article “Grain-Free Pet Foods: Fact vs. Fiction”. The second sentence in her article very clearly states, “No credible evidence has been found showing grain-free diets are better for pets, nor do any nutritional foundations support this claim.”
The first myth she discusses is that whole grains are just fillers in food with no nutritional value. Whole grains contribute vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids to pet foods. More shocking is the fact that these grains are also a valuable source of protein for pets and can even be easier to digest than some meat proteins. This completely debunks a huge reason the “grain-free” proponents give for avoiding grains. Animal based protein is not the only source of protein for our pets.
The next myth she tackles is the thought that grain-free pet foods are carbohydrate-free, because we all know carbohydrates are bad. Grain-free foods often contain carbohydrates, they are just from other sources such as sweet potatoes, which contain more carbohydrates than corn. Grains are carbohydrates and these carbohydrates are important sources of the 6 basic nutrients – water, protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Additionally, grain-free diets that are low in carbohydrates often have a much higher amount of fat and calories. I have found this to be true just by noticing the weight gained by pets on grain-free foods. Obesity is a much bigger problem in pets than worrying about grain in the food. Lastly, some grain-free diets substitute grain with highly refined starches that often deliver fewer nutrients and less fiber than the whole grains so that it can be made cheaper, but still be called grain-free.
Next, I have many people who tell me they put their pet on grain-free foods because they thought their pet had a food allergy. The article that food allergies in pets are not very common and make up less than 10% of all allergies, and grain allergies make up only a very small percentage of these allergic pets. The few pets that are diagnosed with food allergies are much more likely to be allergic to the protein in the food. I have told pet owners this constantly, but it still doesn’t seem to make a difference and grain-free foods are still tried for allergies.
And finally, people feel a grain-free food must be good for pets because of all the concern for people with gluten intolerance. This certainly can be a really big deal for people with a gluten intolerance, but in pets this is extremely rare in dogs and nonexistent in cats. Only one inbred family of Irish Setters has been known to have GI signs related to gluten in diet.
In conclusion, if you don’t believe an “old school” veterinarian’s unscientific opinions regarding diets, please listen to Kara Burns, MS, Med, LVT, VTS who is an expert on nutrition. She must be an expert, just look at all those initials after her name! I really need more initials after my name.
Chad Higgins, DVM, OSCV (Old School Crotchety Vet), PBLV (Purdue Boilermaker Loving Vet) has owned Amanda Animal Hospital for the last 20 years. He sees dogs, cats, ferrets, and other furry little critters.