Grain-Free Pet Food vs. Grain Inclusive Pet Food

The market for pet food has grown exponentially over the past few years. There are now hundreds of pet food brands with thousands of products to choose from. The sheer variety of pet food available for our furry friends is mind-boggling enough, the new trend of grain-free — and gluten-free — pet food and discussions around it have only added to this confusion. Expert advertising and promotions by pet food companies of new dietary trends in pet food do not help either. In this blog article, we explain the differences between grain-free and grain inclusive pet food and will help you decide what is best for your pet.

Pet Food History

Pet food was not very prevalent in the early part of the 20th century. Up until the 1960s dogs and cats were fed table scraps, leftover food, animal parts that humans did not consume. Some canned foods were available but were not very popular. Then came what is known as kibbles (Dry food pellets made from ground up ingredients containing meats, grain and other edibles) which were made for pets, were easy to store and use. This dry pet food suddenly made keeping and feeding pets far easier; more and more people started adopting pets resulting in the booming pet care industry we see today.

What we did not know then

In the early days of pet food introduction, there were no rules governing what ingredients and nutrients that went into pet food. Made from leftover meat and grains like wheat and corn which were used as binders and fillers these products were not safe for human consumption. The concept of balanced diets for pets was little known and not much attention was paid to the nutritional requirements of pets. 

Matters were worse for pet owners whose dogs and cats were allergic, with no alternates these owners were forced to feed their special needs pets with home-cooked meat and rice combinations. In the 1980s when rampant reports of cats dying of dilated cardiomyopathy on account of shortcomings in packaged pet food did researchers understand the requirement of balanced diets for pets. It then became known that food devoid of all the necessary nutrients vitamins, proteins carbs and amino acids could have unpleasant consequences for pets.  

How it was fixed

Armed with better knowledge thanks to loving cats dying literarily, from a “broken heart”, pet food companies invested in fixing the problem resulting in healthier more nutritional pet foods that are available today on store shelves worldwide.

What is grain-free pet food?

In order to understand grain-free dog foods, one must look at the common ingredients used to make regular dog food. Regular pet food comprises primarily of a protein source, mostly in the form of some meat like chicken, beef, turkey, fish etc. and secondarily of a carbohydrate source. It is the carbohydrates that are generally obtained from grains. Common grains in pet foods include wheat, soy, corn, barley, rye, oat, rice and millets. 

The grains in dog food became the source of contention. Some people believed that grains were included as a cost-saving measure to act as binders and fillers. The truth, however, is that grains are a ready source of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates in the form of macronutrients provide the much-needed calories and energy to fuel daily activities in pets and maintain optimum body function. 

Carbohydrates also contain fibres that are necessary for digestive health in pets. While wolves — ancestors to modern dogs — and feral cats did not generally consume carbohydrates, domesticated dogs and cats have undergone thousands of years of evolution and gene modifications and can now consume at least some carbohydrates. Cats need between 2% – 5% carbohydrates in their food while dogs typically require 12% to 15% carbohydrates in their food.

In the early days of the dog food industry; some dogs and cats showed allergic reactions to certain ingredients in pet foods. Owners of such pets were forced to exclude regular pet food and resort to home-cooked meals for their pets. At this point a new set of pet food makers arrived on the scene, these were small independent pet food makers and BEG (Boutique Exotic Grain-free) pet food companies that introduced grain-free pet foods. 

The BEG industry soon grew to include not only grain-free dog food but also grain-free cat food, grain-free puppy food, grain-free kitten food and was soon followed by gluten-free dog food and gluten-free cat food. While grain-free pet foods are devoid of grains they still substitute with other sources of carbohydrates like lentils, peas, potatoes and sweet potatoes. 

Is grain-free dog food better than regular dog food?

While BEG introduced grain-free pet food for pets that displayed an allergic reaction to grains, they were quickly associated with better, healthier pet food. BEG pet food makers did use better quality ingredients and that helped with the perception. Grain-free pet food gained further traction after reports of melamine contamination and subsequent recall of some pet foods in the year 2007. Grain-free pet food also gained popularity as more pet owners became aware of gluten intolerance in cats and dogs. This does not make grain-free necessarily better than regular pet food and it finally boils down to which type of pet food your pet prefers or in some instances does not show problems with.

Pet food and gluten

We have all heard of gluten intolerance in humans; surprisingly gluten intolerance and at times gluten allergy — a different condition — is also a problem with some dogs and in rarer instances, with cats too. Gluten is a family of proteins found in grains like wheat, barley, rye, oats etc. with wheat being the most common source of gluten. 

Pets with gluten intolerance will suffer from various symptoms on account of their immunes system viewing the protein as a harmful substance and acting quickly to eliminate it from the body. Dogs that are gluten intolerant will show symptoms very soon after consuming food with gluten. Common symptoms include diarrhoea, weight loss, hair loss and may develop rashes and itchiness. Gluten intolerant and gluten allergic cats will show similar symptoms like diarrhoea, weight loss, feline asthma, vomiting, hair loss and may also develop rashes and itchiness

The use of grains like wheat by common pet food brands renders them unsuitable for pets with gluten intolerance or gluten allergy and grain-free pet food is the way to go in such instances. 

Pet food and heart disease

DCM or dilated cardiomyopathy is a heart condition that occurs due to the lack of an amino acid named taurine. It turns out that humans, cats and dogs do not produce taurine in their bodies naturally and have to obtain it from their food. This was accidentally discovered in the 1980s when a bunch of cats died on account of DCM. Some time ago a claim was made by researchers that certain ingredients in grain-free pet foods inhibited taurine absorption, hence leading to DCM, this claim created quite a stir among pet owners. Subsequent research, however, has since disproved this claim establishing no direct link between grain-free pet foods and taurine absorption or DCM.

Does your pet need grain-free pet food?

While the debate regarding grain-free and grain inclusive pet food will continue the decision finally boils down to what your pet prefers. It is recommended to continue feeding whatever food you have been feeding your pet if your pet is comfortable and shows no signs of food-related ailments. Just make sure that the foods you are giving to your pets are ideal. The ideal pet food should have all the necessary nutrients like proteins, vitamins, fats and amino acids in the recommended proportions. 

Grain-free pet foods were created out of necessity as some pets were allergic to the ingredients in regular pet food. If your pet does not have any allergies it is not necessary to make the switch to grain-free pet food. If you feel that your pet needs to shift to a grain-free pet food it is advisable to consult with your veterinarian first. The same is true if your pet is on a grain-free diet and you feel the need to introduce gains. 

Whether you decide on grain-free or grain inclusive pet food it is prudent that you check all information, reviews and recommendations about brands of pet food you select and consumer reviews the particular type of food provided by them. Make sure they have all the right approvals from various authorities and credible veterinarian associations and research organisations.

The bottom line

It is encouraging to see that off late pet parents are better aware of the nutritional needs of their pets and pay special attention to healthy pet diets. Nutrition, after all, is the most important factor in the health and wellbeing of pets and should be accorded the necessary priority. 

The pet food market is growing rapidly, and with new research and growing scientific knowledge and awareness; better, higher quality pet food with better, more wholesome ingredients are more accessible now than ever before. This makes it easier for us to select better options for our pets. Our pets are ultimately reliant on us to make the best dietary choices for them and a sincere effort in that department is the least we could do for them.


This article has been
medically reviewed
by Dr Mayank Lamba


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