Specialty pet foods are the fastest growing segment of the pet food industry. The demand for grain-free, soy-free, wheat-free, and corn-free pet foods is far greater than demand for regular pet foods. Breed specific foods with the same omissions are also selling well. But it appears that pet food consumers are getting wiser about pet food fads.


The luster of gluten-free pet foods seems to have dulled for pet owners since its recent blockbuster entrance to the market. It is not clear why pet owners are no longer clamoring for gluten free diets. Speculation is that consumers are realizing that gluten is not a problem for dogs like it is for humans, or they are uncertain what gluten-free means. Both are good reasons not to spend 21% more for these diets.


Gluten-Free Pet Food Sales


Deena Shanker, a food and consumer goods reporter for Quartz (a digital news outlet), recently posted an article on gluten-free pet food sales. She cites research from data specialists GfK, who reported that sales for gluten-free pet food rose over 88% after its introduction three years ago. Last year sales were still strong and showed almost a 70% increase.


This year, however (April 2014-March 2015), sales for gluten-free pet food grew only about 19%. This is still not small potatoes, considering that total pet food sales only increased by 3%. But growth is only a fourth of its meteoric debut. So, why is there this sudden change of heart by consumers?


Dogs Don’t Have Gluten Intolerance


Gluten-free diets in humans are a response to the often diagnosed celiac disease. About 3 million people in the United States experience severe cramping, bloating, gas, and diarrhea if they eat products with wheat, barley, or rye gluten. These gluten proteins set off a reaction causing the body’s immune system to attack the cells of the intestinal lining. It is this “autoimmune” response that is responsible for the severe symptoms. If undiagnosed or untreated, the persistent intestinal inflammation inhibits the absorption of important nutrients leading to malnutrition and the development of other conditions like osteoporosis and neurological conditions.


Thank goodness this is not the case in pets. With the exception of one particular line of Irish Setters, the microscopic intestinal changes seen in humans with celiac disease has not been documented in pets with intestinal problems. Ms. Shankar quotes Dr. Kathryn Michael, professor of nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School and my fellow colleague on the American Animal Hospital Association task force for pet obesity: “Gluten intolerance as it’s recognized in people is not recognized in companion animals. It doesn’t exist.” This message may be resonating with pet owners.


What Does Gluten-free Mean?


For human foods, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has established that foods labeled “gluten-free” must contain less than 20 parts per million of wheat, barley, or rye gluten. This is the lowest level that can presently be detected by the analytical methods available and is considered by the U.S. and other countries as a tolerable amount of gluten, even for an afflicted individual.


There are no such standards for pet food. None of the pet food regulatory agencies, the Association of Food Control Officials (AAFCO), the FDA or the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) have established any criteria for “gluten-free” pet food. Pet food companies are free to label a food “gluten-free” without any proof that it is indeed gluten-free. The same lack of standards is also true for “grain-free,” “soy-free,” or “corn-free,” but that is the subject for a future post.


Perhaps this lack of “truth in advertising” in the pet food industry is not fooling the pet owner, and “gluten-free” is only the first pet food fad to fall casualty to a more informed consumer.


Dr. Ken Tudor



Image: Andy Dean Photography /  Shutterstock