You hear a lot about grain free dog food nowadays, so what is it? Why are people changing their dogs to the grain free diet? How can you follow suit?
Well, put the kettle on, get comfortable and let’s get into it.
What was an ancient dog food diet like?
Dogs are natural carnivores, when they roamed the earth in packs, they hunted other animals. Rabbits, rodents, anything within their size range they could chase and capture they killed, similar to wolves today. Their diet consisted almost exclusively of meat, bone barrow and animal organs.
In fact, scientists recently discovered that domesticated dogs underwent a specific change in their genome around 2,000 years ago that wolves did not. They developed their starch and sugar processing genes giving them the ability to digest carbohydrates and other starchy foods.
Scientists believe this is one of the huge hidden reasons why dogs and humans could co-exist so well, they could share the same food. As humans began to rely more and more on agricultural food sources, they could keep their dogs around because they could eat the same food too. The study found they both ate root plants, porridge, meat, marrow, and possibly even bread.
Dogs’ ancient protein rich diet required the pack to be hunting quite often in order to keep themselves alive. Living in packs meant each member had to get their fair share of food. This was a constant struggle for survival in the same way many wild animals live today.
When did grains come in?
In modern dog diets, wheat and corn began to be used as common fillers in mass produced kibble in harder times around WWII. They were cheap to produce and offered relatively good nutritional value for dogs, and the tradition has stuck until this day.
What is a grain free dog food diet?
A basic, run of the mill dog food diet is made up of some kind of grains and a protein source. Vegetables are sometimes added too, but not always. A basic grain free diet normally replaces the grains with vegetables such as potato, sweet potato, peas, and chickpeas.
Where did it come from? Humans do, but is there any issue for dogs?
The grain free dog food diet has risen in popularity over the past 5-10 years due to growing claims that wheat (specifically gluten) is bad for everyone. The majority of these claims stem from a book called Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis that claimed cutting wheat from your diet can give you a healthier life. The reality is that it is really a small group of people that have any pathological response to gluten, and the majority of people can eat it and digest it just fine.
That’s not to say celiac disease is not real and harmful, it can be dangerous for humans to consume any food they are allergic to. Dogs can have food allergies too. The point is there may be no real need to feed your dog a grain free diet just because you think it might be better for them, if they are doing just fine the way they are.
So what is a grain free dog food diet and how do I start?
If your dog has an illness, weight issue or allergic reaction then a change in diet is usually a good place to start to get to the root of the problem, instead of giving them drugs that mask the symptoms.
A grain free diet is an option you may like to try, so here’s how to get started. First, you need to recognise the types of food your dog is currently eating. Then you can begin to make adjustments you thin will help.
When looking at labels on dog food, the first ingredients listed are the most abundant by weight in the food. Be careful of that are the same thing but split into different groups (ground corn, corn gluten, corn bran) are all grain sources, specifically corn.
It is a good idea to look for natural and/or organic ingredients. A dog food package with “Natural” stamped on it means nothing – there are no regulations in place to define this. So sifting through the ingredients is vital.
Good grains vs. Bad grains
Not all grains are as bad as others, some are more digestible for dogs. Obviously avoid all grains if you are trying to cut them out completely, but it may be an option to reintroduce them into your dog’s diet at some stage. Choose your grains from the easily digested ones such barley, rolled oats, millet, quinoa, and brown rice.
You should also check the digestibility of the protein source. Fish for instance is more digestible than muscle and organ meats. It also contains healthy Omega-3 fatty acids that are good for your dog’s coat. Look for Vitamin E and C; they are natural, healthful preservatives.
You should look to avoid corn, cornmeal, soy and wheat in your grain free dog food diet. These are difficult for dogs to digest. Also animal-by-products which may contain heads, feet, and other animal parts.
Finally, avoid artificial preservatives and additives – they have been shown to cause health problems in dogs.
Benefits & Common Misconceptions
So why would anyone want to put their dog on a grain free dog food diet then? Well it can be helpful for dogs in certain situations.
It is common enough for dogs to be allergic to certain food groups, however when scientists tested the food groups that cause allergies in dogs, grains actually ranked quite low on the scale. Beef was the biggest culprit, followed by dairy.
That’s not to say some dogs don’t get allergies to grains, but you should always check with your vet if you notice any symptoms. You dog may have loose/runny or hard stool, gas, lethargy or scratching/biting of the paws.
You can’t assume that your dog is having any health issues related to grains in his diet. What you of course can do is test things and see if you find the culprit, it may be beef. If you start filling him full of beef and take away grains because your friend said grain free is the way to go, you’ll just make it worse!
On overweight dog is another issue that should be addressed with changes to diet. It is recommended dogs get 50% vegetables, 40% protein, 10% grain in order to have a healthy diet for weight loss. This should involve calorie restriction and extra exercise for your dog too.
Removing grains is not the first step, restricting calories is. Most grain free diets contain more protein and animal fats and fewer carbs, making them more digestible. The lower amount of carbs will help with weight loss as your dog’s body will burn fat as fuel instead of carbohydrates.
However, some grain free dog food diets contain the same amount or even more carbohydrates from ingredients such as potatoes. Replacing grains with potatoes will increase your dog’s carbohydrate intake and actually may make them fatter. The lesson to take away is that you shouldn’t jump to a grain free diet if you don’t know exactly what the benefits will be and how you intend to achieve them.
Changing your dog’s diet may do wonders for their health and wellbeing, but it may not be the grains that was the problem in the first place, maybe just their diet in general. I’m sure you know people who look bad and feel bad, because they eat bad. It’s the same with dogs too.
Canine arthritis is very common among older dogs, and symptoms can begin to show earlier in its life. These can include limping, stiffness getting up or sitting down, slowing down on walks etc.
The most common treatments are NSAID’s when a dog develops arthritis, but a raw, grain free diet supplemented with glucosamine and chondroitin may also help. Whereas drugs reduce the symptoms of arthritis these supplements actually repair and protect the joint by rebuilding the cartilage around the bone and increase synovial (joint) fluid.
Switching to a grain free diet may help reduce symptoms to the point where drugs are no longer needed. However, foods of the nightshade family, potatoes (not sweet potatoes), tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant may aggravate arthritis. Avoiding these in a grain free diet is very difficult unless you cook your own dog food at home.
Certain foods may also help with arthritis such as celery, ginger and tropical fruits such as mango or papaya. Just remember to cook, blend or puree vegetables and only give overripe fruits for easier doggy digestion.
Be vigilant if your dog’s breed is more susceptible to arthritis already. A low carb-high protein diet has a better nutritional value for dogs with arthritis as it gives the same calories but with less carbohydrates compared to a grain diet, reducing the risk of weight gain.
I hope you see that a grain free dog food diet may be the answer to your prayers, but also it may not. It is important to test out this diet on your dog to see if it has any benefits. If it does, then great, but just be sure you can test what the issue was after you change their diet because it’s not always grains that caused the problems.
It is critical to consult vet before making any changes to your dog’s diet or lifestyle. As well as that, change your dog’s diet gradually to give them time to adjust and prevent any drops in energy or other related issues.
If your dog is perfectly healthy, their diet is probably fine, unless you suspect they may be susceptible to illnesses related to their diet or display symptoms then you can probably leave them the way they are. As with anything in life, it’s not easy to pinpoint anything without testing and seeing the results. A healthy diet is always better than an unhealthy one though.