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Should you Buy Dog Food with Grains or go Grain-Free? Join the debate

Updated on March 25, 2015
Feeding dog grains or grain-free diet?
Feeding dog grains or grain-free diet? | Source

Should you feed your dog a diet with grains or should you go grain-free? The Internet is sure full of websites with oodles of information, and things can be a tad bit complicated and overwhelming when we try to sort through pages and pages. At the same time, we must ask ourselves, who are the people behind these articles tackling dog nutrition? Is it an expert in the field, a pet owner or an astute marketer, just trying to promote a product? Is it a pet food company trying to sell you their food? Is it a vet who has been lectured by a sales rep to sell certain types of food? These are important questions we should ask ourselves when we're looking for information for our canine companions. It's very easy to be misled or fall into the trap of believing everything we read just because it's on a website that looks professional or the flashy marketing claims look trustworthy.

So who are really the experts in the field when it comes to nutrition? In a previous article, we found that the experts in the field when it comes to nutrition are veterinary nutritionists. These are veterinarians who have made training in nutritional science their primary specialization. They're diplomats of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition (ACVN) and therefore, their names are often followed by the DVM acronym with stands for Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and the DACVN acronym which stands for Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition. Yet in this article, I will be sharing some interesting and intriguing findings these experts report about grains and that left me quite surprised. At the same time, though it's fair to look at both sides of the story when it comes to the use of grains in dog food. And even here, I was surprised again as well. So should dogs eat grains or should they entirely go grain-free? We will see what to experts have to say on the subject, and how, for a good part, this remains a great subject of controversy, but first, let's take a closer look at a dog's diet from an evolutionary standpoint, shall we?

Did you know?

Celiac disease, also known as gluten-induced enteropathy can affects dogs too. An analogous disorder was found in some lines of Irish Setters. Affected dogs developed diarrhea and weight loss after being fed foods with gluten, a protein substance found in some grains. The condition was found to be genetic and feeding a gluten-free diet made of potato, rice, soy, amaranth, quinoa or buckwheat seemed to solve the issue.

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The Evolution of Dogs and the Role of Grains

The whole domestication process and origins of the dog remain subject of ongoing research and speculation, and there are several theories in regards to how it all happened. In several of my previous hubs, I discussed about the theory hypothesized by biologist Ray Coppinger about wolves domesticating themselves about 15,000 years ago when humans started living in villages and these proto-dogs started frequenting their dump sites. Today, there's belief that the dog was domesticated about 19,000 to 32,000 years ago, a time-frame that coincided with the the era when humans were hunter-gathers, and therefore, much earlier to the adoption of extensive agriculture. According to National Geographic, researchers found that a dog's DNA closely matched the DNA of the ancient wolves from Europe that are now extinct. This means that likely the domestication of dogs started in Europe; whereas, before it was believed to have happened in Eurasia and Eastern Asia. There are chances these canines scavenged on the mammoth remains and other carcasses hunter-gatherers left behind. As they were tamed, these canines may have helped in hunting and guarding from predatory animals and therefore co-evolved along with humans.

Yet, a more recent study now is telling us a whole different story! Most likely, dogs were domesticated 15,000 years ago, and not 30,000 years ago in the Paleolithic Era as believed. This means that they were NOT evolving with the hunter-gatherers, but rather joined humans when the practice of farming and agriculture took place. Which story is true?

Regardless of how dogs evolved, it can't be denied that before being domesticated, canines were eating a diet made of raw meat. After all, raw meat was as well the evolutionary diet of humans too! Things get a bit murky though here as proponents of raw diets will say that dogs were meant to eat raw meat, while others may say that dogs after all, evolved and therefore adjusted to scraps and a man-made diet.

If dogs met humans when they were hunters and gatherers, they likely ate the remains of hunted meat. Then later on, as the years went by, with the advent of agriculture, grains were introduced to a dog's diet. While dogs certainly love steak, their digestive system appears to be capable of also digesting starch. A study has shown that when dog and wolf DNA is compared, dog DNA demonstrated significant genetic variances. Genetic differences involved the development of the dog's nervous system, which explains the behavioral changes necessary to aid the dog's transition from wild animal into man's best friend, and along with that, a greater ability to digest starch under the presence of amylase, a protein known for breaking down starch, the main nutrient found in grains. So, depending on how we look at things, we may assume that dogs were originally meant to eat meat, and therefore, that should be their main diet, but it also makes sense that those genetic changes happened for a reason and therefore grains, fiber and starch in a dog's diet are natural additions as well. After all, dogs are no longer wolves, just as humans are no longer chimps.

Interestingly, the same diet related controversies have been occurring in the human world. We have people stating that we should eat the caveman-like, Paleo diet also known as hunter gatherer diet, which consists of lean meat, nuts and berries. Proponents of this diet claim that our metabolism had a hard time catching up with the foods available with the advent of agriculture and therefore our bodies struggled to adapt. According to Science Magazine, it was found that certain people are genetically more capable of digesting starches such as the Japanese and Americans of European descent because of their history of cultivating grains. This may perhaps explain why many people have difficulties digesting gluten, legumes or are lactose intolerant. Could the same be happening to dogs? Can it be that a dog's metabolism may be struggling as well to catch up with eating grains? Can dogs really digest grains well?

Critics of the Paleo diet, on the other hand, claim that Paleolothic humans actually ate grains and legumes and that we're more nutritionally flexible than previously thought. In a similar fashion, veterinarian Pathy Khuly claims that the dog’s wild ancestors as well ate plenty of grains. Whether they indulged in the occasional berry or they ate the prey's stomach, which was full of grains, they received their portion of grains back then. Yet, Dr Hendricks claims that after a kill, wolves will leave the stomach contents behind and foraging played a minimal role in their food intake. Additionally, he observes that despite the genetic changes in the digestion of starch, these changes alone aren't capable of altering the entire digestive evolution of a species. He concludes saying that dogs feature plenty of traits that are 100 percent carnivorous, and therefore, dogs are undeniably carnivores that "just happen to have an adaptive metabolism as a result of living with humans for millennia, and that’s why the dog is perfectly capable of eating a grain-based diet, as most commercially fed dogs do." Quite interesting observations indeed! Next, let's see the effects of grains on dogs and what the experts have to say.

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Should you Feed Grains to Dogs or go Grain Free? What Some Vet Nutritionists Have to Say

Grains are basically carbohydrates which are further categorized as starches or fibers. According to the Whole Dog Journal, starches are contained in grains and some veggies such as potatoes and peas. In order to be digested and utilized, starches must be broken down by enzymes, produced by the pancreas and intestinal wall. Fiber, commonly found in plants such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains, unlike starch, is not digested by enzymes, but it's fermented by intestinal microbes. Common carbohydrate sources added to dog foods include grains, fruits and vegetables. How do dogs react to eating grains? Are they harmful to dogs or do they provide some benefits? Let's see what some veterinarians specialized in nutrition have to say.

Dogs Can Digest Grains

Many people still claim that dogs aren't capable of digesting carbs because they lack the necessary enzymes, but as we have seen, dogs adapted to grains as they co-evolved with humans and studies showed they do have the necessary enzymes to digest them. Turns out that starch is highly digestible for dogs when prepared appropriately along with other sources of carbohydrates. Since carbs found in kibble or canned food are cooked, they're readily digestible. For those who like to prepare home-made foods for their dogs, it's important that the grains are cooked well, and some may need overnight soaking. Yet, not all dogs digest grains in the same way. The dog's stools may offer a glimpse at how well dogs digest.

Grains are NOT Simply Fillers

A common subject of controversy is the role grains play in commercial food. Many claim they are used as fillers and are "empty calories" as they have no nutritional value when added to dog food. According to veterinary nutritionist Cailin R. Heinze, when cooked properly, grains contain protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and fiber. While fiber may appear to provide "empty carbs" consider that sources of fiber like soybean hulls, wheat, rice, oat bran and beet pulp help regulate the transit time of the bowel contents and form stools. Veterinarian Susan G. Wynn, which completed a residency in nutrition at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine claims: “Grains contain certain fibers that are beneficial for the growth of probiotic bacteria in the gut, and they also contain various required vitamins and minerals.”

While grains like oats, rice, and barley are sources of nutrients and sources of energy, it's still wise though to look for dog foods that list a high-quality animal product among the first 3 ingredients, further suggests veterinary nutritionist Lisa M. Freeman. Some pet food companies may sometimes take things to the extreme and formulate diets that contain way too many carbs for the purpose of cutting costs. Veterinary nutritionists Sean Delaney and Sally Perea, DVM point out though that when it comes to an ideal number of carbs, it ultimately depends on the individual dog as some dogs may thrive on lower carbohydrate foods while others do not.

Grains Don't Trigger Allergies as Thought

Dog owners often report that grains are sources of allergies, but it turns out things aren't really as dramatic as thought. In most cases, food intolerances, which involve the digestive system, are much more common than food allergies, but even in these, grains are not commonly a culprit. Food allergies, which involve the immune system causing the all-too-familiar itching and scratching, are mostly triggered by animal-based proteins such as beef, dairy, chicken, soy and egg and sometimes wheat. Dr Wynn points out that grains aren't part of the majority of allergy offenders. Veterinary nutritionist, Cailin Heinze agrees on this and adds "If it says a grain-free diet will help a dog with allergies, that would be a company I would be suspicious of, as only a dog that has an allergy to a specific grain would improve on a grain-free diet, and grain allergies are quite rare."

Grain-Free Doesn't Mean Carb Free

Many times, people purchase premium dog foods thinking that they are better because they are grain-free. Yet, they're not aware that while these foods don't contain grains, they still contain carbs! This is because you can't make kibble without some type of carbohydrate to shape it in its actual form. For instance, many of these grain-free diets, don't add grains, but they'll substitute them with other carb sources such as potatoes and tapioca. Yet, turns out that when compared to grains, potatoes and tapioca have less protein and more sugars which technically makes these diets less nutrient-packed than some diets that contain grains!

The bottom line, is that in some cases, grain-free diets may actually be less nutritious than foods containing grains, so it's important to carefully assess the overall quality of the food rather than focusing on individual ingredients; however, it's also true that when it comes to the overall nutritional profile of a food, labels contain minimal information which is why it's best to look for diets formulated by nutrition specialists or consult with a nutrition specialist for guidelines for the most appropriate diet for your dog.

Some Dogs do Better on Carbs

Veterinary nutritionists often warn that there's no such thing as a diet that's good for all dogs as every dog is ultimately an individual. This is why several don't recommend feeding foods for all life stages in a one-size-fits-all fashion. Also, when it comes to health, there are certain dogs with certain health conditions that do better on foods with carbs. According to veterinary nutritionists, Susan G. Wynn, Sean Delaney and Sally Perea, an example are dogs suffering from pancreatitis or e hypertriglyceridemia, which don't do well on low carb diets as they often have a high fat content. These dogs do better on foods with higher carbs and lower fats. High fiber diets are also beneficial for dogs with large bowel diseases and some small bowel diseases. Additionally, according to the Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, pregnancy and lactation are times when dams need glucose, and inadequate carbohydrates, during these times can lead to problems.

Some Dogs do Better Grain-Free

Yet, we return to the philosophy that no diet is a one-size fits all. While dogs have the ability to digest carbs and therefore, grains, some dogs may do much better on a low-carb or grain-free diet. Some examples? Dogs with diabetes or cancer. A clinical trial found that a diet low carbohydrates and high in fat along with fish oil and arginine accelerated the time to remission in dogs with lymphoma. However, Dr. Wynn points out in her blog that the high fat and low in carbs diet may help dogs with cancer only, and obviously will make a dog cancer patient with pancreatitis much worse. This is why, once again, a one-diet- fits-all is not suitable for every cancer patient.

Let's Sum it Up

As seen, experts in nutrition are showing that grains are not that bad as thought. Veterinary nutritionist Deborah Linder claims that there is no evidence suggesting that a healthy dog would be better off on a high protein, grain-free diet just as there's no evidence that a grain-free diet would prove harmful to a healthy dog . So are grains really so bad? If we think about it, in the old days when commercial food was yet to be invented, humans were feeding table scraps, and back in time, owners likely weren't that eager to give 100 percent meat, so for a good part, dogs were already eating carbs. While grains in a diet don't necessarily mean bad news, it's important though to recognize that some food companies exaggerate and use too many carbs to cut on costs. Also, some dogs with certain health conditions benefit from low-carb diets, while others may do better on higher carb diets. Consider though that grain-free diets are likely not free of carbs. In order to be made, kibble needs some type of carb and grain-free diets often contain potatoes or tapioca to accomplish that. On top of that, consider that there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet that's suitable for all dogs.

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Should you Feed Grains to Dogs or go Grain Free? The Other Side of the Story

It's always a good idea to hear two sides of the story, so we can make informed decisions. In this case, we will be looking at professionals who do not think that carbs and therefore grains are metabolically appropriate for dogs and cats. When board-certified veterinary nutritionist, Lisa P. Weeth, claimed on The Pet Radio Show that corn and grains are easy to digest, contain good protein and pose no health risks, these claims sure got some reactions from general practice and holistic veterinarians. Let's see what these other experts have to say.

Veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker on her Healthy Pet website, explains that dogs and cats weren't meant to eat all those grain-based, carbohydrate-rich foods. Not only these diets are not biologically appropriate for these species, they are metabolically unnecessary and are creating the same degenerative disease processes as seen in humans. She explains how the purpose is to increase profits so to use less meat which costs significantly more.

In her words: " It's interesting that veterinarians have started marketing some of these carbohydrates as a good source of energy. But absolutely, we know that dogs and cats are not requiring any of these grains – they break down into sugar." This would explain why we are seeing a surge in diabetic dogs and cats and obesity with its ripple effect on muscle, bones and organs. Dr. Becker also points out that most courses offered at vet schools aren't taught by nutritionists, but by representatives of major pet food brands who obviously will promote their products. As a result, conflict of interest is quite widespread in the industry.

She also discusses how dogs ate raw meats for thousands of years and that's what they're ultimately designed for. She claims ""Canis lupus, the wolf, is 99.9 percent genetically identical to the domestic dog. There really is no genetic differentiation between a wild wolf and a domestic dog… That gives us some idea how we should be nourishing our pets." Dr. Becker further adds that most dogs improve on grain-free diets, mostly because dogs have no biological need for grains as they don't graze on grain like horses and cows do. The only exception are the predigested grains that come from the stomach contents of prey. So dogs may and do survive eating grain-based diets, but the big question is do they really thrive?

On top of that, Dr. Becker claims raw food offers about 70 percent moisture; whereas, commercial kibble only offers about 12 percent. Yet, she cautions that in order to feed these diets you must be careful to meet the dog's nutritional requirements. Dr Becker finally concludes that she passionately disagrees with what veterinary nutritionists claimed in a Veterinary Practice News article and that in her opinion it appears quite obvious that there seems to be an obvious endorsement by these professionals for products made by the world's largest pet food manufacturers.

She also claims in another article that she suspects that major pet food manufacturers are growing concerned about consumers learning more about nutrition, and therefore, are likely encouraging veterinary nutritionists to defend their pet food formulas. After all, this is quite similar to what is happening in the medical field as well. Many doctors often are fast to prescribe a certain medication simply because sale reps have recommended them over and over. Same goes with recommending chemo, a multi-billion industry, that many claim does only damage than anything else.

Let's Sum Things Up

Dogs ultimately remain carnivores at heart and biologically their bodies are meant to consume meats not grains. The great variety of health issues we see in pets today is likely due to the dietary changes and processed foods we have been feeding for so many years. Low quality grains may harbor hazardous molds that can have devastating effects. Even though the professionals in the field may say that grains are easy to digest and good for dogs, we must sadly critically evaluate if these pros are endorsing certain foods.

The Bottom Line

So how should pet owners proceed? Pet owners searching for the best nutrition should not blindly trust marketing claims and should evaluate how the dog feels and acts on a specific diet and keep in mind the dog's individuality. Critical thinking and questioning information is not a bad idea. Just because something is commonly accepted doesn't necessarily means that it's good. We have now seen two sides of the story when it comes to grains and the debate is now on. Vote in the poll below or share your thoughts in the comments section.

Disclaimer: this article is fruit of my research and not meant to be a substitute for professional veterinary or nutrition advice. By reading this article, you accept this disclaimer.

Alexadry© all rights reserved, do not copy

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