How to Know if Your Pet Needs Gluten or Grain Free Cat Food
By Lorie Huston, DVM
Choosing a diet for your cat is a task that should not be taken lightly. Grain free and gluten free pet diets have become extremely popular. This popularity has mirrored the appearance of similar products for people. These diets are particularly helpful for people that have celiac disease, intolerance to glutens in general, or allergies to wheat.
Many pet owners choose to mimic their own food choices when choosing a food for their pet. With the increase in the number of people choosing to consume a grain free diet, pet food manufacturers have recognized that similar pet diets are attractive to pet owners. The popularity of these diets has led to an increase in the number of grain free and gluten free diets available for pets.
Are these diets the best choice for your cat? How do you know if your cat needs a grain free or gluten free diet?
Grain Free Versus Gluten Free Cat Food
Let’s start by discussing the difference between a grain free and a gluten free diet. Grain free cat foods are, as the name implies, diets that do not contain grain. Gluten free cat food, on the other hand, may or may not contain grain as an ingredient. Gluten is the protein that is found in specific types of grain, namely wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten free cat food is, of course, free of these proteins. However, not all grains contain gluten. Therefore, gluten free cat food may or may not be grain free, while grain free cat food will always be gluten free.
Does My Cat Need a Grain Free Diet?
Most cats do not actually require a grain free or a gluten free diet. But how do you know if your cat does require one of these diets? To answer that question, let’s take a look at some of the common reasons pet owners choose to feed their cat a grain free or a gluten free diet.
A particularly popular feeding concept that often seems to go hand in hand with feeding grain free pet food is the feeding of a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. High protein, low carbohydrate diets do have their place, particularly in the feeding of diabetic cats. However, it is important not to assume that a grain free diet is a low carbohydrate diet. In fact, some grain free pet foods contain carbohydrate levels similar to or even higher than diets containing grains. In many grain free diets, ingredients such as potatoes replace the grains in the food and often these ingredients have more carbohydrates than the common grains used in pet food. As a result, grain free and low carbohydrate pet foods are not always synonymous with one another.
Another reason that many cat owners choose to feed grain free or gluten free cat foods is a mistaken belief that these diets are the best choice for cats that have food allergies. While food allergies do occur in pets, corn and other grains are not among the most common allergens found in foods. In fact, according to some of the available research, corn is actually one of the least likely sources of food allergy. In one literature review, 56 cats with food allergies were evaluated. Forty-five of the food allergies resulted from eating beef, dairy, and/or fish. Corn, meanwhile, was responsible for only 4 cases.1
For cats that truly do have allergies to protein in grains, a grain free diet would be an appropriate choice. The following are symptoms that would be expected in cats that have food allergies (or other types of allergies).
- Excessive hair loss
- Bald patches
- Inflamed skin
- Sore and scabs
- “Hot spots”
A food trial with a grain free food would be necessary to determine whether the food is beneficial for your cat.
Does My Cat Need a Gluten Free Diet?
For most cats, a gluten free diet is not a requirement. The exception would be the rare cat that has an allergy to gluten. This, however, is very uncommon.
Some gluten in the diet can, in fact, be beneficial for providing some of your cat’s protein needs. However, it is important to know that cats are carnivores and they do need animal-derived protein in their diet. So, gluten or other plant-based protein cannot be the sole protein source in your cat’s food.
1. Carlotti DN, Remy I, Prost C. Food allergy in dogs and cats. A review and report of 43 cases. Vet Dermatol 1990;1:55-62.
Guaguere E. Food intolerance in cats with cutaneous manifestations: a review of 17 cases. Eur J Companion Anim Pract 1995;5:27-35.
Guilford WG, Jones BR, Harte JG, et al. Prevalence of food sensitivity in cats with chronic vomiting, diarrhea or pruritus (abstract). J Vet Intern Med;1996;10:156.
Guilford WG, Jones BR, Markwell PJ, et al. Food sensitivity in cats with chronic idiopathic gastrointestinal problems. J Vet Intern Med 2001;15:7-13.
Ishida R, Masuda K, Kurata K, et al. Lymphocyte blastogenic responses to food antigens in cats with food hypersensitivity. Unpublished data. University of Tokyo, 2002.
Reedy RM. Food hypersensitivity to lamb in a cat. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1994;204:1039-1040.
Stogdale L, Bomzon L, Bland van den Berg P. Food allergy in cats. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 1982;18:188-194.
Walton GS. Skin responses in the dog and cat to ingested allergens. Vet Rec 1967;81:709-713.
Walton GS, Parish WE, Coombs RRA. Spontaneous allergic dermatitis and enteritis in a cat. Vet Rec 1968;83:35-41.
White SD, Sequoia D. Food hypersensitivity in cats: 14 cases (1982-1987). J Am Vet Med Assoc 1989;194:692-695.