Grain-free dog food. All-natural. Raw. Organic. Human-grade. Wait, what?
Take a stroll through the pet foods aisle and you’ll be assaulted by the variety of options hoping to replace the standard kibbles, including grain-free dog food. As humans have begun choosing different types of food for their families, they’ve started looking more closely at what the furry members are eating, too. Pet food brands have noticed — after all, in 2015 Americans are expected to spend more than $60 billion on pet food alone. They’ve begun offering a variety of foods, all designed to ensure Fido and Fluffy look and feel their best.
But as much as we love them, our animals — and we’ll focus on dogs here — are not humans. So do they really need to eat the way we do? And does your pet’s nutrition really need an upgrade like moving to grain-free dog food? Let’s dig in.
What’s the Deal with Grain-Free Dog Food?
It seems pretty straightforward: Buy dog food for your animal’s size and breed, maybe something your vet recommended, serve and let the dog chow down. But, like humans, what our dogs eat affect their health, moods and behavior. (1)
And because our dogs can’t tell us when they’re in pain or something is bothering them, it’s up to us as owners to monitor our pets’ well-being and look for signs that they’re in distress. Things like itchiness, bad breath, a dull coat, itchy paws, aggressive behavior, and digestive issues like diarrhea or constipation can all be affected by nutrition. (2)
Because of this, many people have been experimenting with what they feed their dogs. After all, we all want happy, healthy pets. But the trouble with many of these expensive alternatives to your dog’s normal food is that they might not actually be better or make a difference.
One of the dog food trends right now is grain-free dog food. As humans go gluten-free or start following Paleo diets, it seems like a natural step for our dogs. After all, their ancestors ate protein-rich raw meats caught in the wild.
In fact, it wasn’t until post-World War II that pet food was mass-produced and fillers like corn and wheat were introduced into dog food. Grain-free dog food, enthusiasts say, make eating easier on a digestive system that wasn’t meant to process grains.
The reality is a little more complicated than that. Because dogs did not eat grains, it’s true that ancient dogs didn’t have the digestive systems to break down complex carbs and grains. However, dogs have evolved enough to be able to digest these foods, just as humans have. While some pets might do well on a grain-free diet, it’s not necessarily the cure-all diet for every canine.
In fact, the average dog’s diet should consist of 50 percent vegetables, 40 percent meat and 10 percent grain. (3) While vets suggest avoiding corn, cornmeal, soy and wheat (sound familiar?!), they do recommend healthier, easier-to-digest grains like rolled oats, quinoa, brown rice and millet.
And if you’re trying to get your dog on a high protein, low-carb diet, grain-free dog food isn’t always the answer. Many dog food brands replace the grains with other carbohydrates, like potatoes or sweet potatoes, which can actually translate to a higher percentage of carbs.
Another common argument for grain-free dog food is that it’s better for dogs with allergies. If you think it could help, try it. It’s important to note, however, that most dogs aren’t allergic to grains. Beef is actually the No. 1 food allergy among dogs, while dairy is second. (4)
How to Choose the Right Food for Your Pet
If you’re scratching your head right now, don’t worry. While grain-free dog food might not be the one-size-fits-all solution for all canines, there are some steps you can take to ensure that your dog is getting the most out of its food.
1. Talk with Your Vet
Don’t switch your dog’s diet without consulting with your vet. Remember that puppies require different nutrients than adult dogs and that certain breeds are more prone to allergies and diseases.
Before seeing your vet, it’s a good idea to observe your dog for a few weeks and make two lists, one of health problems and another for health assets. Any conditions for which your dog takes medication or sees the vet should go in the health problems section, along with issues like smelly ears, ongoing bad breath and trouble going to the bathroom.
In the health assets, note the “good” things about your dog, like normal energy levels, a shiny coat or lack of getting sick. If there aren’t very many problems, your dog’s current diet just might be working fine.
Finally, choose a vet who has the same approach to your dog’s health as you do and is willing to try tackling any health problems with diet management rather than just prescribing medications.
2. Read the Ingredients
Did you know that the label “natural” on dog food isn’t regulated? Neither is the term “human-grade” or “gluten-free.” (5) For that reason, the only part of the packaging that’s useful is the ingredients list. You want to see real ingredients and minimal fillers.
Remember that ingredients are listed in order of how prevalent they are in food (this goes for human food, too). If you want to switch to high-quality grains, you might opt to skip any dog food with corn, wheat or soy, or at least ensure that they’re not one of the first few ingredients. Choosing a food with a protein as one of the first ingredients also can help you gradually introduce a higher-protein food to your dog.
3. Introduce Changes Slowly and Monitor Your Pet
Dogs, like people, don’t like big, sweeping changes. Avoid freaking your pet out by making gradual changes to your pet’s diet. Add grain-free dog food or high-protein foods to your dog’s current dish, mixing it in little by little and gradually increasing the amounts over several weeks. This gives your pup’s digestive system a chance to get used to the new food while ensuring it’s still getting the nutrients it needs.
Throughout the process, monitor your pet’s progress. Are any of those health problems clearing up? Is your dog going to the bathroom regularly and normally? Yes, you are now on poop patrol.
We all want what’s best for our pets. While a grain-free diet might work for your dog, it’s OK if it doesn’t! The most important thing is that your dog gets the mix of food groups and nutrients it needs to enjoy a long, healthy life.
Grain-Free Dog Food Takeaways
- Americans are expected to spend more than $60 billion on pet food alone.
- What our dogs eat affect their health, moods and behavior.
- Dogs have evolved enough to be able to digest complex cabs, just as humans have.
- Grain-free dog food is good for some pets, but it’s not necessarily the cure-all diet for every canine.
- The average dog’s diet should consist of 50 percent vegetables, 40 percent meat and 10 percent grain.
- Many grain-free dog food brands replace the grains with other carbohydrates, which can actually translate to a higher percentage of carbs.
- Beef is the No. 1 food allergy among dogs — not grain — while dairy is second.
- To choose the right dog food, talk with your vet, read the ingredients, introduce changes slowly and monitor your pet.
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