Celiac disease is an immune reaction secondary to eating gluten that causes damage to the small intestines in humans. Gluten is found in products that contain wheat, barley, and rye. The disease is highly prevalent in humans and is suspected to affect 1% of the global population. This disease is not noted in dogs and cats, with the exception of a gluten sensitivity that has been documented in some Irish Setters. Grain-free cat foods have been more prevalent in the last 5 – 10 years due to the increased knowledge of celiac disease in humans and the increasing availability of gluten-free options.
Are Grain-Free Diets Beneficial for Cats?
So, this begs the question, is there a reason or advantage to feeding cats grain-free diets? The veterinary nutritional team from Tufts University published a paper in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery that compared grain-free cat diets to commercial cat diets that contained grain. A few interesting conclusions were noted:
- Some grain-free diets actually contain barley, meaning that they’re not gluten-free.
- The calorie content between both types of diets are very similar. There was not a caloric benefit to feeding a grain-free diet.
- A few grain-free diets had the same amount or a higher amount of carbohydrates than their grain-containing counterparts. Therefore, if aiming to feed a low-carb diet, grain-free may not be a good choice.
- The most common protein sources for both grain-free and grain-containing diets were the same: poultry, eggs, and fish.
Food allergies are a common reason why cats are switched from a grain-containing food to a grain-free diet, in hopes of eliminating the antigenic exposure. Cats and dogs get food allergies secondary to the proteins that are in their diets and not the grain components. Because grain-free diets and grain-containing diets commonly share the same protein sources, grain-free diets are not useful in combating food allergies. In cats with food allergies, working with a veterinarian to choose a novel protein food or hydrolyzed protein diet is most effective in eliminating their clinical signs.
Ultimately, there is not a large amount of literature or research to support cats needing grain-free diets. There has been increased awareness of heart disease noted in pets that are on unbalanced home-cooked diets, raw food diets, and diets that contain exotic protein sources, some of which are grain-free. Working with your veterinarian to choose the best diet for your cat is always recommended.