In the UK, many people are changing their eating patterns for health, environmental and animal welfare reasons; for example, 8.5 million of us are choosing to eat a gluten free diet. And it seems we’re keen to pass on more selective eating habits to our dogs too. Dogs have been living with humans and sharing their food for thousands of years. That was, up until a few decades ago, with the advent of the pet food industry.
It is paradoxical that while we tend to humanise our pets as fully paid up family members, pet food trends are going the opposite way. Humans are reverting towards to a more traditional style of eating – more whole grains and reduced intake of meat and other animal products. Yet current pet food trends are towards grain-free and high-meat content diets.
If you look at any dog food brand available on the market today, chances are that there will be a grain free range ready to cater to this growing demand. The problem is, is this demand generated out of need or is it simply a trend? And could rushing to feed dogs grain-free alternatives actually be doing more harm than good?
John Burns, veterinary surgeon and founder of Burns Pet Nutrition, looks at six reasons why feeding your dog a grain free diet may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
For more than 40 years in my career as a veterinary surgeon I have championed the valuable role that whole grains can play in managing health problems in dogs. Brown rice, oats and maize are excellent whole grains that can help a variety of ailments including skin disorders, digestive problems and even behaviour issues. Regardless of whether these ingredients are home cooked or commercially produced, they can play an important role in supporting pet health, meaning fewer trips to the vets and a happier pup all round. Natural, wholesome grain-based food has stood the test of time!
When grain-free first became fashionable, I hesitated because of my concerns about the nutritional and health consequences of alternative ingredients. This caution has been justified. There is growing evidence from the USA that grain-free diets are linked to canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a type of heart disease. Analysis of data by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into hundreds of cases including deaths caused by DCM has found a potential link with grain free food, although, so far, no definite cause has yet been established. A particular concern is that DCM is being seen in breeds not associated with the disease. Some of the US pet food brands linked to the condition are being sold in the UK.
As a result, both American and British vets are encouraging pet owners to think carefully before choosing a grain free diet. Even if you put aside the potential risks associated with this diet, there is no evidence to support any claim for health benefits that can be gained from feeding a grain free diet.
In my opinion, a grain free diet has little to do with pet health and well-being; rather, it’s an opportunity for pet food manufacturers to market a trendy, new product and carve out a share of the pet food industry.
Grain free products are promoted on the basis that (i) dogs cannot digest grains properly, and (ii) that grains are responsible for causing allergic reactions. Neither of these claims is true. In fact, veterinary academics speaking at the North American Veterinary Conference several years ago said that “grain-free pet food was the greatest hoax played on the American pet-owning public” – that’s something to think about if you’re considering a pet food change.
Apart from wheat, grains are unlikely to cause adverse reaction in pets– it is animal proteins that are more likely to cause an adverse reaction. Given these common myths, it may surprise you to hear that cooked grains are actually more than 90% digestible by dogs.
The rush by pet food manufacturers to capitalise on the grain-free trend has not properly addressed the issue of how nutrition affects the health of the pet. For example, many grain-free foods use sweet potato as a major ingredient. This sounds good, especially as sweet potato is becoming increasingly popular in the human diet, but the reality is that sweet potato used in pet food is not the same as the human form; instead it is often the dried and pelleted husk of the fruit, which does not have the same nutritional value as the whole sweet potato. Therefore, if you do choose to feed your dog a grain-free diet, it’s important to find a pet food that includes nutritious alternative ingredients.
Here at Burns Pet Nutrition, we’ve launched an innovative Free-From Range which is grain-free but does address the question of healthy nutrition. We use buckwheat [despite the name, not linked to wheat] because it’s rich in antioxidants and highly digestible, so there is no compromise on key health benefits associated with grains. All of our foods are made to promote pet health through natural, healthy eating.
This is exactly why I launched Burns 26 years ago – because I knew pet health could be transformed through a simple, wholesome diet. I only hope that owners who obviously will do anything to support the health and wellbeing of their pets aren’t swayed by clever marketing into buying expensive, well-marketed pet foods that do not consider the health of our beloved dogs.
John Burns, Veterinary Surgeon and founder of Burns Pet Nutrition.
You can view our range of Grain Free Dog Food here.