Grain Free - Is It Really The Answer?

Written by:

Ken Tudor, DVM
Published: August 09, 2012

Because gluten induced celiac disease is so common in humans, the pet owning public thinks the same is true in pets. And guess what? The pet food industry is more than willing to cater to the hysteria. The sadness is that this is one of the worst frivolities I have ever experienced in my veterinary career. Give grain a break.

The Facts on Food Ingredients

The gluten in grain provides quality protein to the pet diet. Although it is not as bioavailable (intestinally absorbable) as the egg (the gold standard), it rivals many meat and legume products. It is an inexpensive way of fortifying the protein in pet diets. It significantly reduces the meat protein in my homemade diets and helps reduce the cost of feeding homemade diets.

Gluten induced celiac disease in humans is a very painful and debilitating condition. Over 3 million Americans suffer this condition and it is suspected that the incidence is much greater. Fortunately, gluten-like celiac disease has only been proven in one genetic line of Irish Setters. There is presently no scientific evidence that this condition exists in any other dog or cat breed. Soft stool and diarrhea in pets can be caused by many things. To assume that it is gluten induced allergic celiac disease is an oversimplification of the complexity of gastrointestinal disease.

Pets consume many more things than just their food on a daily basis. Think about it. They lick their paws. How sick would you get if you licked the soles of your shoes on a daily basis? They lick their fur after exploring the yard. How would your gut react after you licked the plants in your yard? They catch critters. Do you think you might have vomiting or diarrhea after ingesting a stink bug?

Pet foods contain many low quality products. There are only quantity, and not quality standards for pet food. That is why carcasses in any stage of decomposition are acceptable for pet foods. Animals in any stage of dying (down, disabled, and dying for whatever reason) are acceptable. Tissue levels of any drug, including euthanasia solution, are acceptable for pet food. There are even acceptable limits for sawdust, nut shells, beaks, claws, scales, bones, rodent contamination, and plastic bag particles for pet food. So why quickly blame grain gluten for digestive problems?

Why do We See Better Results on Grain Free Food?

Pet owners often notice an improvement in their pet’s gastrointestinal health when changing to a grain free diet. These diets are generally premium foods that contain higher qualities of ingredients in general. Changing food also means changing formulations that include many different amounts of different ingredients. This means that not only has the amount of gluten changed, but the amounts of other ingredients that may have caused the problem have also changed. A responsive pet may actually be responding to the decrease in an allergen other than the grain gluten. But because the food is grain free, the obvious conclusion for owners is that it must be the gluten. This is not logical.

How to Really Find Out if a Pet is Sensitive to Gluten

Put your pet on a "grain free" diet. After it has stabilized, add small amounts of pasta to the food. If your pets do not experience gastrointestinal problems, they are not allergic to glutens. They were allergic to something else in the old diet, or the diet had nothing to do with their problem. Please do not embrace "pop" nutritional trends. The costs may not be necessary.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Thomas Groberg / via Shutterstock

Note: The original published column misspelled celiac disease as iliac disease. The two conditions are very different from each other and this has been corrected.