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Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

Is Gluten-Free Dog Food Better?

November 16, 2012 / (3) comments

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

Comments  3

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  • Gluten-Free
    11/16/2012 11:48am

    There was a news article a couple of weeks ago that talked about the rise of availability of gluten-free products for humans. The subject of the article was addressing if it was truly healthier for a human diet to be gluten-free or if it is a current diet fad.

    Although the article did not cite scientific studies, it indicated there are not many humans that have a gluten intolerance and concluded it's a more of a "lifestyle choice".

  • It's not just the gluten
    11/17/2012 02:59pm

    Gluten is not the only thing to fear in wheat. Today's wheat, in general, is a culprit. It has been genetically modified, not to make it better to eat, but to make it easier to grow and harvest. A cardiologist, Dr. William Davis, wrote the book "Wheat Belly" about this once nutritious food which has become a destructive genetic monster.

    The hazards of modern-day wheat and corn are not just something people should avoid, so too should dogs and cats. But, the pet food industry relies heavily upon corn, wheat, and other now genetically modified grains so much, that their sycophants, so-called "board certified veterinary nutritionists", intentionally mislead dog and cat owners to believe these grains are better than fresh meat and vegetables for their pets.

  • Gluten free dog food
    04/05/2013 07:26pm

    Yes...It's all down to the quality of the ingredients in pet food and how they are produced.The major problems with commercial pet food are:
    ....poor quality of the ingredients
    ....the methods of preparation
    ....the use of chemical preservatives.
    Agreed, gluten free diet could help a dog that is sensitive to