Do Pets Really Need A Grain-Free Diet?

Grains can actually be good.

Many humans are trying to cut down on carbs in their diets — and some are going so far as cutting their pets' carbs, too. 

The reasoning is a notion that grains can cause allergies or inflammation in pets, but some experts say that sparing Fido from grainy fare may not only be unnecessary — it may even cause more harm than good. The grain-free trend is even being called a marketing scheme aimed more at selling pet food than keeping your dog or cat healthy.

"In our pets we say 'grains are good,'" Dr. Robert Proietto, a veterinarian in New York City, told The Dodo. "Especially for dogs who are omnivores, grains are an important part of a balanced diet."

As for allergies, Dr. Proietto says that gluten or grain allergies are incredibly rare in pets. "Dogs and cats are actually most commonly allergic to the proteins in the food," he said.

So allergies may not be a concern, but what about weight gain? 

Dr. Susan Wynn, a veterinarian at BluePearl who is also board-certified in veterinary nutrition, said there's no proof that grains cause weight gain in pets — in fact, one clinical trial showed the opposite effect in cats. "It's simply too many calories from any macronutrient that causes weight gain," Wynn told The Dodo. 

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While it's true that some pet food might be packed with corn and rice to save costs on more expensive meat proteins, this doesn't mean that grains are actually bad for your pet. It just means that you have to keep in mind a balanced diet. While the basis of a healthy diet for dogs or cats should generally be proteins, some grains can actually help supplement a protein-heavy diet.  

According to Wynn, some animals do better when switched to a low-carb diet not because carbs are bad, but because the animal has a particular reaction to starch, which is used to make most dry foods.

"Carbohydrates are essentially fibers, sugars and starches," Dr. Wynn explained in a longer post on the topic. "Grains like barley, wheat, corn and oats contain digestible and indigestible carbohydrates in addition to fatty acids and proteins — they are more complex than a simple carbohydrate such as starch."
 

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Indeed, switching your pet to a low-carb diet might even be depriving him of nutrients he needs.

"Whole grains contain valuable dietary nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and fiber," Cailin Heinze, a veterinary nutritionist at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, wrote recently. "The vast majority of dogs and cats are very efficient at digesting and using more than 90 percent of the nutrients from grains in the amounts typically found in pet foods."

So while we humans may try to deprive ourselves of the carby foods we love, our pets probably don't have to. And why should they? They already get pretty much whatever they want anyway.

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To make sure your furry family member is getting the right kind of nutrition, it's always best to check with your veterinarian about his or her particular needs.