Dr. Deb Zoran of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences recently cautioned against grain-free diets for dogs.
Zoran studies canine and feline nutrition for Texas A&M Small Animal Clinical Sciences. After seeing a rise in questions over grain-free dog food, Zoran offered research-based advice for pet owners. Zoran said grains contain essential nutrients that dogs need, such as carnitine that contribute to a healthy coat, weight and decreased risk of illness.
Past years have seen a trend in pet owners feeding their dogs grain-free diets. According to Zoran, the trend began under the popular, though incorrect, assumption that dogs are naturally carnivores and therefore do not need grains.
“Dogs are true omnivores,” Zoran said. “They thrive on a balance of [grains and meats] that are in the right balance and have completed their nutrient profile needs. Commercial pet foods use grains in diets for several reasons – they are an inexpensive protein source, a great carbohydrate (energy) source and a source of certain essential nutrients that can’t easily be gotten from other sources.”
The grain-free trend was partly caused by some people who believed that their dogs could develop grain allergies, Zoran said. However, according to Dr. Lori Teller, a clinical associate professor for Texas A&M Small Animal Clinical Sciences, grain allergies in dogs are very rare, and dog allergies are more often rooted in meat.
“Of the food allergies that dogs get, they tend to be much more related to a protein source, such as chicken, beef or seafood. So those allergies are much more common than the grain allergies,” Teller said.
Dogs with allergies show certain symptoms, such as itchy skin, ears and paws, as well as itchy, red eyes. Pet owners should watch to see if their dogs are rubbing their ears, licking their paws or scratching their skin.
“The best thing to do is to take your dog to your vet for an exam to make the diagnosis,” Zoran said.
According to studies and reports by the Food and Drug Administration, a lack of grains in a dog’s diet is linked to canine dilated cardiomyopathy, a disease usually found in larger dogs that often leads to heart failure. This risk makes finding a healthy diet for a dog even more important, Zoran said.
“Every pet is an individual and that means there is no one diet, family, brand, type or choice that is best for all. Every pet’s metabolism, nutritional needs (depending on their lifestyle, work, growth or if they are reproducing) are different,” Zoran said. “The right diet will result in normal stools, healthy coat and skin and a healthy weight and muscle mass – all of which are helped (or prevented) by diet.”
Zoran and Teller both said there is no single best brand or type of dog food. Instead, the elements required for healthy food can be found in several different ways.
“I do recommend that owners choose a food that is made by a nationally known company, and that the food has undergone AAFCO feeding trials,” Teller said. “It will usually say that on the bag or on the food manufacturer’s website, and that means that those foods have been actually tested and researched on dogs over an extended period of time, so that we know that the food is healthy and can meet the nutritional needs of that animal.”
Zoran recommends that owners pay close attention to their pets while feeding them new food.
“Once you have selected your product, and you are feeding it to your dog---these four things should be met: your pet likes the food, your pet’s GI tract ‘likes’ the food (normal stools), your pet’s skin and haircoat are sleek, shiny, and healthy on the food and your pet is a healthy weight,” said Zoran.
While finding a balanced diet for a pet is a lot of work, pet owners are encouraged to make the effort, Zoran said.
“I realize that means you have to do work to figure out the best diet for your pet, but that is the reality,” Zoran said. “In the end, a good diet is essential to a healthy pet.”