Guest Post: Grain-Free Dog Food - The Facts Behind the Trend

I constantly worry about my pets and what they put in their mouths. We’re all familiar with the echoes of “Puppy, what are you eating?! Spit it out!” that ring throughout pet owner homes from time to time. As their caretakers, it’s our job to know what’s what so our furry companions can run and play and have the best lifestyles we can give them.A recent trend I’ve stayed on top of is the grain-free dog food that’s been hitting the market. You can find it in most pet stores and supermarkets and it began as largely as a “boutique” pet food-- specialty food for the owners who could afford it. Although it’s become popular in the past couple of years, there’s a lot of information to sift through to figure out whether switching dogs to grain-free food is what’s best for our pets.Julie Austin Photography, 2018

What is “Grain-Free” Food?

Grain-free food is food created without filler grains, such as rice, barley, and corn. Grain-free food sprouted from a theory similar to that of the Paleo Diet: that the canine digestive system has evolved little since they were first domesticated, and that their eating habits should mimic that of their wolf ancestors. Theorists believe fibers and grains can be difficult for your friendly neighborhood Fido to digest, which could cause food allergies and digestive issues.

How Did Grain-Free Food Become Popular?

No one knows when grain-free food began to gain prominence on the market, though Donna Solomon, DVM over at the Animal Medical Center of Chicago believes it may have resulted from a 2007 pet food contamination incident. A harmful chemical contaminated the wheat gluten in certain pet foods, causing hundreds of illnesses in the pets who ate it. Since then, different brands of pet food have introduced grain-free foods to the market, with aggressive marketing campaigns touting the benefits.

What Are the Benefits of Going Grain-Free?

Like humans, dogs can be allergic or intolerant to certain grains, although like humans they won’t often be sensitive to all grains at once. However, if you’re looking to keep your sensitive puppy healthy without worrying about contamination and quadruple-checking every label of dog food, grain-free food is an option. If your pet seems to have issues with its current food, it’s best to check more than just the grains. The top food allergens for dogs are beef, dairy, wheat, egg, chicken, lamb, soy, pork, rabbit, and fish. And of course, consult your vet before making any drastic changes or if the problem persists.Julie Austin Photography, 2018

Are There Downsides?

The long-term effects of grain-free food in dogs are still being investigated. Furthermore, grains in grain-free pet foods are often replaced with peas, lentils, other legumes and potatoes as their main ingredients which may be affecting dogs. Recently, the FDA began investigating reports of canine heart disease that appeared in dogs who ate certain pet foods containing the above ingredients in high quantities. Reports of the disease are especially alarming in that the condition has appeared in dog breeds that usually aren't predisposed to it. Although no conclusions have been drawn, the potential link is worrisome, and it’s worth keeping a close eye on the label of grain-free foods you plan to feed your pet.

Should My Healthy Dog Switch to Grain-Free Food or Not?

It depends on your dog’s individual needs. Just like not all humans are gluten-intolerant or allergic to grains, not all dogs are sensitive to grains in their diet. Highly processed foods can be just as taxing on doggy digestive systems as they are on humans, so the Animal Medical Center of Chicago recommends food with a single meat source and a few identifiable ingredients. Other experts recommend whole, raw foods to make sure your canine friend is getting all the moisture, enzymes, and vitamin and nutrients they need.Always do your research, consult your vet, and pay close attention to your pet’s behavior and needs, and they'll be sure to reward you with happy, healthy cuddles.Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly linked to an incorrect source about the top allergies in dogs. The link has been updated to the correct source.