What is Grain Free Pet Food, Really?
By Lorie Huston, DVM
Grain free pet foods are currently very popular. But are they really healthier for your pet than other types of pet foods? Let’s take a closer look at that question.
While it is true that many pets do well on grain free diets, it is also true that these diets were developed more in response to consumer (i.e., human) preference than to the actual nutritional needs of our pets.
Nutritionally, the most important aspect of a pet food is whether the food provides complete and balanced nutrition. If the food contains excesses or deficiencies of specific nutrients, the pet will suffer as a result. This concept is true regardless of whether the food contains grains or not.
Each ingredient in the diet provides a unique set of nutrients to the overall makeup of the food. Together, the ingredients need to combine to provide a complete nutrient profile for your pet, without any excesses or deficiencies that can cause illness for your pet. It is certainly possible for grain free diets to provide this type of complete nutrition for your pet. However, these diets are not the only option, or even necessarily the best option, for each individual pet. There is no one diet or type of diet that is perfect for all pets. In other words, no pet food is a one-size-fits-all nutritional solution.
Does Grain Free Mean Carb Free?
Another 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.
Is Grain Free Pet Food More 'Natural'?
Proponents of grain free diets sometimes claim that grains are an unnatural source of nutrition for our pets. They argue that ancestors of our current-day dogs and cats did not eat grains. However, it could be argued that potatoes and other forms of carbohydrates are no more “natural” for our pets than are grains. Fortunately, our pets (dogs and cats alike) have evolved to be able to digest grains as well as many other sources of carbohydrates (including potatoes).
What About Cat and Dog Food Allergies?
Another popular misconception that many pet owners fall victim to is the assumption that grain free diets are the best diets for pets with 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 review1, 278 dogs with food allergy were evaluated and the problem ingredient was clearly identified for each dog. Beef was the most common allergen, being responsible for 95 of the cases reported. Dairy was responsible for 55 cases, making it the second most frequent cause. Corn was identified as the offender in only 7 cases. In cats, the situation is similar. Fifty-six cats were evaluated in this study2. Forty-five of the food allergies resulted from eating beef, dairy, and/or fish. Corn, meanwhile, was responsible for only 4 cases.
Feeding a grain free diet is a legitimate option for your pet. However, feeding a grain free diet still requires choosing a diet that includes complete and balanced nutrition for your pet. Choose ingredients with which you, as a pet owner, are comfortable. But remember that in the long run, it is the nutrient profile that is important, not the individual ingredients in the pet food.
As with all things related to your pet’s health, your veterinarian is your best source of information regarding pet foods. Your veterinarian is knowledgeable about all types of pet food and can help you determine the type of diet that is best for your pet.
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.
Chesney CJ. Food sensitivity in the dog: a quantitative study. J Sm Anim Pract 2002;43:203-207.
Elwood CM, Rutgers HC, Batt RM. Gastroscopic food sensitivity testing in 17 dogs. J Sm Anim Pract 1994;35:199-203.
Harvey RG. Food allergy and dietary intolerance in dogs: a report of 25 cases. J Sm Anim Pract 1993;34:175-179.
Ishida R, Masuda K, Sakaguchi M, et al. Antigen-specific histamine release in dogs with food hypersensitivity. J Vet Med Sci 2003;65:435-438.
Ishida R, Masuda K, Kurata K, et al. Lymphocyte blastogenic responses to inciting food allergens in dogs with food hypersensitivity. J Vet Intern Med 2004;18:25-30.
Jeffers JG, Shanley KJ, Meyer EK. Diagnostic testing of dogs for food hypersensitivity. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1991;189:245-250.
Jeffers JG, Meyer EK, Sosis EJ. Responses of dogs with food allergies to single-ingredient dietary provocation. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1996;209:608-611.
Kunkle G, Horner S. Validity of skin testing for diagnosis of food allergy in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1992;200:677-680.
Mueller RS, Tsohalis J. Evaluation of serum allergen-specific IgE for the diagnosis of food adverse reactions in the dog. Vet Dermatol 1998;9:167-171.
Mueller RS, Friend S, Shipstone MA, et al. Diagnosis of canine claw disease – a prospective study of 24 dogs. Vet Dermatol 2000;11:133-141.
Nichols PR, Morris DO, Beale KM. A retrospective study of canine and feline cutaneous vasculitis. Vet Dermatol 2001;12:255-264.
Paterson S. Food hypersensitivity in 20 dogs with skin and gastrointestinal signs. J Sm Anim Pract 1995;36:529-534.
Tapp T, Griffin C, Rosenkrantz W, et al. Comparison of a commercial limited-antigen diet versus home-prepared diets in the diagnosis of canine adverse food
reactions. Vet Therapeutics 2002;3:244-251.
Walton GS. Skin responses in the dog and cat to ingested allergens. Vet Rec 1967;81:709-713
2 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
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
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.
More to Explore
6 Nutrients in Pet Food That Can Harm Your Cat
5 Dos and Don'ts for Mixing Your Pet's Food
Help us make PetMD better
Was this article helpful?