Why feed grain free?
I get asked almost every day why exactly someone should feed their animal grain-free food. I often get asked if it is better or why companies include grains if dogs, cats and other animals wouldn't eat that way in a feral state. The simple answer is yes it is better and I don't know of a good reason to include grains in a dog food. That being said I did have a conversation to day with one of our food reps who makes a fairly good argument about switching dogs and cats from some of the better known "grocery store brands" and some of the foods you find at big box stores and outlets to a simple single grain single carbohydrate source food. Animals do need carbohydrates in their diet and grains are a cheap and easily sourced variety of carb. So is potato. Most grain-free foods are utilizing potato as their source of carbohydrates but even that can cause issues in certain dogs.
The main reason that I do not usually recommend a food that has grains in it is, for dogs and cats in particular, their digestive tracts are engineered differently from ours. The digestive system of a pure carnivore such as a dog is made up of what is essential one long smooth pipe with a bulge at one end. The first stop is in the stomach where food begins to breakdown into its essential parts thanks to the animals stomach acid. A dogs stomach acid is about seven times more powerful than ours and is capable of digesting bone.
A high protein, moderate fat diet is what is most appropriate for dogs and cats shy of feeding them raw diets, which I will save for another post. The mouth of a carnivore is uniquely built to rip and tear at meat and not to do the work of fine chewing that our mouths do. Grip it and Rip it is how they work. Once the food is in the stomach it gets digested and becomes "chyme" which leaves the stomach in spurts into the intestine where the protein is digested and fat can be exposed to bile, which makes the fat soluble in water, in turn making it susceptible to digestion by exposure to digestive enzymes. In dogs and cats there is no enzyme capable of digesting cellulose, which forms the outer wall of the cells of all plant material.
We can set aside the issue of not being able to digest plant materials and grains and still find plenty of reason to feed grain-free. The history of commercial pet foods is relatively short but when compared to the number of generations of dogs and cats this short history represents a significant evolutional period. During this period an increasingly large number of animals have become allergic to the proteins most often found in pet food. Chicken and Beef allergies have become a serious problem for many dogs. Dogs with allergies can have suppressed immune systems which can lead to other problems such as yeast overgrowth. A dog that is having a yeast problem most often presents with symptoms that include paw chewing and licking, as well as a reddish brown tar-like paste in their ears. They can often have yeast that secretes through their skin and appears on their belly starting from their front armpits and extending toward their genitals. Many people believe that the paw licking in particular creates the yeast appearing between their pets toes, but it is in fact more often secreting through the animals skin and being licked because it is there. Switching to a grain-free food can alleviate further suppression of the immune system and taking the allergen away can, in time, reduce or eliminate the yeast growth.
Other benefits of grain-free diets can include a healthier shinier coat, reduced stool volume, increased stool quality, less frequent trips to the vet for re-occurring problems such as diarrhea, vomiting, or frequent expressing of the anal glands. Finnicky eaters might just stop acting so picky if they are switched to a grain-free. As always, be careful with any switch of foods because without a gradual change you might cause some digestive distress.
Switching to a high quality grain-free food has many health benefits that can give your pet more energy a better coat and improve the quality of their day to day lives. It can also mean less frequent trips to take care of nuisance health issues.
Changing your pet's diet
Here's a story we hear a lot around here. A frustrated pet owner comes into the store, sometimes carrying a bag of food, and tells us that they just made a switch from one brand of food to another and the animal has had a big problem with diarrhea or vomiting and that they believe it is because the food is too rich or that the animal must be allergic. This can sometimes be the case, but often it was caused by switching the pet to a new food without a transition.We all have known people who make a serious lifestyle change and decide to give up. let say fried food, then decide to splurge and eat a plate of fried food only to come down ill for a couple of days and we're omnivores.
Switching from a grocery store or big box brand of pet food whose ingredient list is populated with by-products, glutens, and fillers to a much higher quality food such as a grain-free diet can be a serious shock to a pets system. When switching food there should always be a transition period during which you mix the two foods to help acclimate the pet's digestive system. Some pets will stop eating the lower quality food in the mix all together; in this instance pets rarely have digestive symptoms. Most animals need a transition period of about a week to ten days gradually mixing more of the new brand of food until the ratio of new food to old food becomes mostly new food. A good example of this would be to start on days one and two with 25% new food and 75% old food, then go to a 50% 50% ratio for the days three and four and finish with 75% 25% new food to old food on days five and six. The complete switch can be made on day seven. Animals who are presenting allergy symptoms such as yeast overgrowth on their toes or in their ears might need a longer transition period. The transition may take two weeks or longer depending on how compromised the pets immune system may be.
Changing from a kibble to a raw diet is a much easier transition for most animals. The ease of transition can be attributed in large part to the levels of protein, fat, and carbohydrates that are included in the mix. Dry dog food, or kibble, should be considered to be a highly engineered product as is evidenced by the guaranteed analysis panel found on the back of each bag of food. In most situations the Protein, Fat, and overall Calories are nearly identical across a particular brand unless there are specialty formulas such as senior or reduced fat or calorie formulas. Raw food comes with its own set of unique benefits which include less tartar and plaque developing on their teeth, smaller and firmer stool, toning of muscle and reduced water retention. It is a more biologically appropriate for dogs, cats, and many other animals.
The transition from lower quality filler-laden foods to a good quality pet food carries benefits for you and your pet and should not scare you away from making the change. Make a gradual change that switches your pet over a seven to ten day period and consider supplementation to ease the transition.