Grain-Free Dog Food Vs. Regular Dog Food

Grain-Free Dog Food Vs. Regular Dog Food

A bowl of dry dog food.A bowl of dry dog food.
A bowl of dry dog food.A bowl of dry dog food.

Table of Contents:

  1. Categories of Dog Foods
  2. Grain-Free Dog Food vs. Regular Dog Food
  3. What Are Consequences of Feeding an Unbalanced Diet?

Good nutrition is critical to good health in pets. There are many types of dog foods on the market, ranging from foods formulated to meet various life stages, prescription foods, grain-free, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, organic, preservative-free, dairy-free, limited ingredient, and even foods for different breeds and sizes of dog. On top of that, you have several formulations to choose from, including dry kibble, canned, semi-moist, raw, and home cooked.

Why are there so many options? Basically, the pet food business is big business, and pet food sales are estimated at over $40 billion dollars yearly worldwide and more than $30 billion dollars in the United States. Everyday, there seem to be new diets and companies popping up. It is important to investigate each diet and determine which is best for your pet.

Categories of Dog Foods

As you compare diets, it is important to understand specific categories. For example, foods can be classified by:

  • Life Stage Foods. These are dog foods specifically formulated to meet various life stages, including puppies, adults, seniors, breeding, high energy, or working dogs. Different life stages require different amounts of nutrients and calories.
  • Formulations. There are many formulations of dog food. They include dry kibble, canned, semi-moist, raw, freeze dried, and home cooked.
  • Attributes. Common attributes promoted in dogs foods include foods that are grain-free, gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian, raw, organic, limited ingredient foods, preservative-free, all natural, and many more.
  • Dog Size. Some dog food companies create foods for small, medium, and large/giant-sized dog breeds. The caloric density, nutrient, and protein content, and/or kibble size may vary depending on the brand.
  • Breed Specific. Some dog food companies produce foods precisely formulated for specific breeds such as Labrador Retrievers, Pomeranians, or Chihuahuas. The kibble size and nutritional components are specific to the breed.
  • Prescription Foods. Veterinarians often recommend dog foods created to benefit the medical needs or requirements of dogs with various diseases or conditions.
    • Here’s a list of prescription foods by disease or ailment type:
      • Kidney disease (Hill’s Science Diet K/D [kidney diet], Purina Proplan NF, Royal Canin renal support)
      • Liver disease (Hill’s Science Diet L/D [liver diet])
      • Arthritis or joint problems (Hill’s Science Diet J/D [joint diet] or Purina ProPlan JM)
      • Stomach or intestinal conditions (Hill’s Science Diet I/D [intestinal diet] or Purina ProPlan EN, Royal Canin Gastrointestinal Low Fat)
      • Cognitive dysfunction (Hill’s Science Diet B/D [brain diet] or Purina ProPlan NC)
      • Bladder stones (Hill’s Science Diet C/D, K/D, S/D, U/D etc. or Purina ProPlan UR, OX, ST)
      • Heart disease (Hill’s Science Diet H/D [heart diet])
      • Obesity (Hill’s Science Diet R/D [reducing diet] or M/D [metabolic diet] or Purina ProPlan OM)
      • Skin allergies (Hill’s Science Derm Defense, Z/D or D/D [dermatology diet] or Purina ProPlan HA or Royal Canin Limited Hydrolyzed protein)
      • Diabetes (Purina ProPlan DM)
      • Dental problems (Hill’s Science Diet T/D [tooth diet] or Purina ProPlan DH)
      • Geriatric patient (Hill’s Science Diet G/D [geriatric diet])
      • Special needs (Hill’s Science Diet A/D [anorexia diet] or Purina ProPlan CN)

All of these attributes and brands make it complicated when choosing a dog food. In addition to these categories, companies may add marketing terms such as “preservative free,” “organic,” “natural,” “containing essential prebiotics or probiotics,” and “no artificial colors or flavors.”

Grain-Free Dog Food vs. Regular Dog Food

Should you feed regular or grain-free dog food? The answer is complicated, but most veterinarians would recommend being cautious about feeding a grain-free diet. Recent literature from the FDA has shown a trend towards cardiac disease in dogs being fed primarily grain-free diets. The exact link is still under evaluation and the veterinary community suspects that more concrete data will be available in the next 12-16 months. Further information on the FDA report can be found here.

If you’re concerned about grain allergies, be aware that these types of conditions are very rare in dogs and celiac disease has not yet been recognized in dogs and cats. If you suspect that your dog has an allergy to grains, then having a discussion with your veterinarian about the pros and cons of a particular diet would be recommended. Most common food allergies in dogs are associated with the protein in the diet and not the grains. Signs of food allergies in dogs include skin infections, ear infections, itching, dry skin, and/or digestive issues, such as diarrhea. Learn more about the diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment of Food Allergy in Dogs.

Try this Tip for Changing Your Dog’s Food

Your dog is used to the taste of their food. So, if you change your dog’s food, do it slowly and gradually over the course of about a week. Also, any abrupt food change (even a change to the best possible diet) can cause gastrointestinal upset in some dogs. Start by mixing in a small amount of the new food to your dog’s regular food for a day or two, then work up to a 50/50 mix over the following few days, until you are gradually feeding all new food by the end of the week.

What are BEG Diets?

The term “BEG” is used to describe pet foods that feature boutique, exotic ingredients (similar to grain-free diets). These diets have been gaining popularity over the past 5-10 years, and have gained notoriety due to a link with dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs. Per Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVN, “The apparent link between BEG diets and DCM may be due to ingredients used to replace grains in grain-free diets, such as lentils or chickpeas, or more exotic ingredients commonly found in BEG diets, like unusual meats, vegetables, and fruits.” Due to these concerns, veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists have asked pet owners to be leery about feeding these diets until further research has been done to isolate the exact link to development of heart disease.

What Are Consequences of Feeding an Unbalanced Diet?

All commercial diets have a label that states they are “complete and balanced” for a particular life stage. Feeding diets that haven’t been balanced for your pet can lead to unfortunate health issues.

The most common nutrition-related health problems include:

  • Thiamine Deficiency
    • Thiamine (vitamin B1) is a water-soluble vitamin and is an essential dietary nutrient for dogs and cats. Dogs and cats can not synthesize thiamine, therefore need it supplemented in their diets. Cats need approximately 2-4 times more thiamine in their diets than dogs.
    • Clinical signs of thiamine deficiency in dogs and cats initially start as gastrointestinal signs, such as vomiting, lethargy and inappetence. In advanced stages, neurological signs may be observed.
    • Thiamine deficiency can be reversed in most cases if diagnosed before severe neurological signs. Treatment involves supplementation of Thiamine and determining and correcting the underlying cause of Thiamine deficiency.
  • Taurine Deficiency
    • Taurine is an amino acid that is needed for normal vision, digestion, and heart function.
    • Most mammals are able to synthesize their own taurine and it is not considered essential. Cats are unable to synthesize their own taurine and therefore it is essential in their diets.
    • Large-breed dogs are at a higher risk of developing taurine deficiency as their taurine biosynthesis rate is lower than small breeds of dogs.
    • Signs of taurine deficiency in dogs and cats often present as heart failure and heart dysfunction.
    • Treatment involves taurine supplementation and correcting the underlying reason for taurine deficiency.
  • Calcium Deficiency
    • Calcium is a mineral needed in diets for all animals.
    • Deficiencies in dogs and cats often result in remodeling of bones and can result in bone fractures.
    • Signs of calcium deficiency in dogs and cats can often be corrected with calcium supplementation and correction of underlying dietary issues.

Many of these deficiencies are caused by unbalanced diets. These diets can be meat-only diets, vegan/vegetarian diets, homemade diets, or diets consisting of exotic ingredients. Recently, some of these deficiencies have been observed with grain-free diets that use legumes or pulses as their top ingredients. Homemade diets that are not formulated diets can also lead to nutritional deficiencies.

Resources for Choosing the Best Diet:

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