What’s your gut (no pun intended) reaction when you hear the word "gluten"? Mine is mildly negative, which I find funny since I actually eat a lot of gluten with no ill effects. For very different reasons (mine being mostly ethical, his being health-related) my dog and I are both vegetarians. Therefore, we get our protein from plant-based rather than animal-based sources. Gluten is simply the word that describes the protein portion of a carbohydrate. It is found in grains like wheat, rye and barley, but not in rice, oats, potatoes, and some other carbohydrate sources.
Apollo’s food, on the other hand, is gluten-free. He is a food allergy/sensitivity nightmare. I can’t say with certainty that he’s gluten intolerant, but the one food I’ve found that allows his digestive system to function normally uses rice as its carbohydrate source, and rice is gluten free. I suppose I could perform a dietary trial and add a little of my pasta to his food and see what happens, but since I’m happy with what he currently eats, I don’t see the point (and don’t want to deal with the potential mess). For the sake of argument here, let’s just say that Apollo is gluten-intolerant.
I bring this up because I think the dietary idiosyncrasies of my household perfectly illustrate what’s wrong with the debate that surrounds gluten in pet foods. Like almost all ingredients, gluten is neither inherently good nor bad. Gluten is an excellent source of protein, unless an individual (human or canine) is allergic or has some other type of adverse food reaction to it. I have not found gluten sensitivity to be all that common, despite what many pet food manufacturers would have you believe, and research backs me up on that.
In a study of 278 cases of food allergy in dogs where the problem ingredient was clearly identified, beef, dairy, chicken, egg, lamb, soy, pork, and fish (none of which contain gluten) were responsible for 231 combined cases. Wheat, which contains a lot of gluten, was only involved in 42 cases.
If your dog has normal gastrointestinal, or GI, function and isn’t itchy while eating a diet that contains gluten, he is not gluten intolerant and there is no need for you to spend the extra money on a gluten-free dog food. Spend it on upgrading the overall quality of his diet instead. If, however, your dog has a poor appetite, excessive gassiness, vomiting, diarrhea, weight-loss, or chronic skin problems and itchiness while eating a food that contains gluten, switch to a gluten-free dog food and see what happens.
If the gluten-free diet change leads to a resolution of your dog’s symptoms, then he may be allergic or intolerant to gluten. I say "may" because I’m sure other aspects of his diet also changed (e.g., the meat source, preservatives used, etc.) and those may be the real reason for his improvement. But do you really care as long as he’s feeling better? If you’ve just got to know, toss a little pasta on top for a few days and see what happens.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Image: Hasloo Group Production Studio / via Shutterstock