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Should Your Pet Go Grain-Free?

By Valerie Gleaton

I have a confession to make: For years now I’ve treated myself towholesome, organic foods while buying my pets conventional pet food. Not off-brand mystery kibble or cat chow, mind you, but still. I blamed the cat; he’s a notoriouslypicky eater, and the one time I offered him a sample of “the good stuff” he turned his nose up at it and staged a hunger strike until I switched back to his standard 50-cents-a-can fare. I admit, I was secretly happy that he seemed to prefer the cheap stuff.

Searching for something better

But the guilt caught up with me again and I decided to give it another go. We recently adopted a 7-month-old boxer/pit bull/lab puppy, and I wanted to start her off on the right paw, nutritionally. I headed to our local natural pet storeand gave the nearest salesperson my requirements: a high-quality dog food that was still affordable (being a large breed puppy, she eats a lot).

He pointed me toward a brand of kibble that he said was not only a quality choice, but also one of the least expensive in the store. Among its other merits (high protein, antioxidants, omega fatty acids), the employee noted that it was also grain-free.

Heading toward the canned cat food, he recommended another grain-free variety for my picky kitty.

“Why grain-free?” I asked. I don’t stick to a gluten-free diet, so I wondered why my pets should.

“Grain-free foods are usually higher in protein,” he explained. “And grain-free is especially important for cats, because they really can’t digest the grains well.”

Investigating grain-free

Was he right? Should my animal companions be eating a diet devoid of wheat, rice or corn?

The argument goes something like this: In the wild, wolves and wild dogs primarily eat meat. Wild cats eat even fewer grains — only “the very tiny amount of grain or vegetable matter a mouse or bird stomach might contain.” (Ewww.) Grain is often added to pet food because it is a less expensive source of calories and nutrients than meat — a filler.

But it seems that grains can cause problems for some companion animals, just as they can for some humans. Grains can aggravate allergies (a friend’s dog has been on a grain-free diet since puppyhood due to severe skin allergies) and cancontribute to weight problems.

Aside from these specific ailments, grain is generally more difficult for carnivores like cats and almost-carnivores like dogs to digest than meat.

Making the switch

While neither of my pets suffers from allergies or animal obesity, I still decided to make the switch to food that more closely mimics their natural diets.

Comparing my dog’s new kibble to her old conventional brand, the first three ingredients are “bison, lamb meal and chicken meal,” as opposed to “ground yellow corn, chicken by-product meal and corn gluten meal.” The protein content is higher as well: 32 percent in the grain-free variety versus 28 percent in the conventional brand.

The same held true for my cat’s new canned food: The first ingredient in his conventional salmon dinner was “meat by-products” while the first ingredient in his natural, grain-free food is, reassuringly, “salmon.” And, joy of joys, he loves it!

And, although my dog’s natural, grain-free kibble was slightly more expensive than her conventional grocery store brand, I can feed her less of it (3.5 cups instead of 5.5 cups) because it’s not full of fillers, so it actually ends up costing about the same. Now I can feed both my pets with a clean conscience, withoutworrying about my empty wallet.

Before you go grain-free

  • Ask your veterinarian whether a grain-free diet is right for your pet. Mine was on board, but your pet could have a condition (such as a kidney problem) that precludes him or her from making the switch.
  • Companion animals need some fiber in their diets, so make sure to choose a grain-free food with fiber in it (my cat’s new food includes green peas, flaxseed and dried cranberries, and my dog’s new kibble has sweet potatoes, peas, tomatoes and berries).
  • Inactive animals may gain weight on a grain-free diet, so pay close attention to the feeding instructions on the bag or can. You may need to give your pet less food than on a conventional diet.
  • Some grain-free foods have a lower moisture content than conventional foods, so make sure that your pet has access to plenty of fresh water.
  • An abrupt change in diet can cause digestive problems in some pets, so switch gradually by mixing increasing amounts of the new food with decreasing amounts of the old food.
  • Monitor your pet’s reaction to the new food: appetite, energy levels, digestive issues (yes, that may mean taking a look when you scoop the poop). A short adjustment period is to be expected, but you should consult your veterinarian if the reaction seems extreme or is ongoing.