The Truth About Grain-Free Diets for Dogs

. 2 min read

Want to lose a few lbs? Axe the carbs out of your diet. Feeling bloated? It must be the carbs. You’ve probably been hearing that bread and its doughy counterparts are your diet’s enemy for some time now. So when it comes to your pup, you may reach for the grain-free recipe without batting an eyelash. But is it really healthier? We turned to Ernie Ward, veterinarian and author of Chow Hounds to get the deets on grains and your dog.

How much grain is in dog food?

Commercial pet food is often loaded with grains like rice, barley and cornmeal because they are inexpensive compared with protein. It’s also consider ‘safe’ to include because it’s unlikely that most dogs will have a negative reaction to grains: In a significant study by Veterinary Dermatology of 278 cases of dog food allergies, wheat was only the source of 42 of the reactions.

Are grains good for dogs?
They contain high levels of omega 6 fatty acids, Ward says. Omega 3s are anti-inflammatory, but some omega 6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory so it’s important that grains not make up the majority of your dog’s diet. “What I tell pet owners is that if you’re interested in reducing grains, it would be healthy,” he says. “Does your dog have to be grain-free to be healthy? No, but it doesn’t hurt.”

Which dogs should avoid grains?
“There are dogs with documented grain allergies,” Ward says. “They’re rare, but they absolutely do exist.” Dogs with GI and inflammatory diseases should consume less grains (especially if the grains are highly processed, because they can cause adverse reactions) along with dogs with cancer—if their bodies don't have enough of the right proteins, it can lead to further complications.

What are some signs that my dog needs to be grain-free?
If a dog is having chronic diarrhea, runny stools, vomiting, losing or gaining weight without explanation, these are signs that they may have an allergic or adverse reaction to grains, Ward says. Typically, he asks his patients about the amount (or lack) of protein in their dog's diets if they’re showing any signs of GI problems. “The root of the movement is to boost protein,” he says. “Chances are, the diet that meets those needs is one that has fewer grains.” Once dogs switch to a high protein diet, Ward finds that they tend to have more energy, fewer GI problems and are healthier overall.

What tests do you do to see if a dog is allergic to grains?
We do a food elimination trial, cutting out foods to see if the dog reacts better once they’re gone, Ward says. It takes about two to three months. "We want to see that the dog has more energy, that they are maintaining a healthy weight."

How do I know if it's a grain or a gluten issue?
While many people may confuse going grain-free with going gluten-free, they're two different diets. Gluten is a type of protein found in specific grains including wheat, barley and rye. Grain is a larger food group that includes rice, wheat and more.

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