Grain-free has become a bit of a buzzword in the pet food industry in recent years, but what does it mean and why might some owners switch their dog to a grain-free diet?
Dogs are categorised as carnivorous omnivores, meaning that while they thrive best on a diet of mainly meat, they can eat most other things, including vegetables, fruit and grains.
When the first commercially produced dog foods were developed after the Second World War, ingredients such as corn, wheat and barley were included as convenient and cheap fillers to bulk them out. Using more grain and less meat in their recipes was a good way for manufacturers to help keep costs down.
Since then, the science behind pet food development has moved on, with a greater understanding of canine nutrition. While whole grains such as whole wheat or brown rice are beneficial in a canine diet, the reality is the grains included in much of the commercially produced dog food is highly processed, therefore greatly reducing its nutritional content.
Many dried kibble brands on the market still contain high levels of processed grain as a way of keeping costs down – meaning a reduction in the meat content of the food. Grains often found in dog food include wheat, soy, corn, rice, oats and barley. Consuming large amounts of processed grain over time can lead to bowel inflammation and damage to the lining of the digestive system in some dogs. While many dogs are perfectly happy on grain-based diets, the more sensitive ones can suffer from itchy skin, flatulence, ear infections, tear stains and more.
What is grain-free food?
Grain-free food does not mean carbohydrate-free or gluten-free. It means that alternative sources of carbohydrate are used in place of grain – like potato, sweet potato, peas or lentils – which are less likely to result in health problems in sensitive dogs. Complete diets, such as the Country Dog grain-free range, have been specially formulated without difficult to digest processed grain fillers and include a higher meat content for optimum health.
When is a switch to grain-free recommended?
A change of diet should always be made in consultation with somebody trained in canine nutrition. Vets will often recommend grain-free food to any dogs suspected of allergies or digestive problems as a first step to tackling the problem, but as with any change of diet, this needs to be done gradually over several days. It can take a few weeks to see the impact of a diet change on a dog’s health.
Even if a dog does not suffer from digestive upset or allergies, there are many other benefits to a diet that is free from processed grains. Here are just a few:
- Grain-free food contains more vegetables, fibre and protein, making it a much more balanced diet for a dog.
- The higher protein level in most grain-free food means more omega-3 fatty acids. This promotes healthy skin resulting in a glossier coat and reduced shedding.
- More protein means more balanced energy so you could find your lethargic dog has more ‘get up and go’ on a grain-free diet. When grains are highly processed, they lose fibre, which means the energy is used up very quickly. It also results in a dog’s blood sugar fluctuating in greater peaks and troughs than with a grain-free diet where sugar levels are more consistent.
- Grain-free food is often a good weight-loss tool for obese dogs. Potatoes – and especially sweet potatoes – will help a dog feel full for longer.
- Excessive carbohydrate consumption associated with high levels of grain can lead to poor oral health. Carbohydrate left on the teeth causes increased bacteria which can lead to bad breath and gum disease. Dogs fed on grain-free diets generally have much sweeter-smelling breath.
- There is less waste produced with a grain-free diet, which means less poo to pick up! As most of the grain a dog consumes is indigestible, it will pass straight through, but on a grain-free diet, you will find a dog passes fewer and smaller stools. Less gas is also produced in the process so if you have a ‘windy’ dog, a move to grain-free could help.