Grain Free Dog Food

Should your dog go grain-free?

Many vets and animal nutritionists are now advocating the use the ‘grain free’ dog foods. Consequently, more pet owners are now searching through content labels to identify products without ingredients such as rice, wheat, oats and corn. Instead, they are favouring meat-based formulas where the menu items on offer are more likely to include chicken, lamb, beef, turkey or fish. This rising trend seems set to continue, so is ‘grain free’ just the latest episode in canine lifestyle-chic? Or would a change of diet bring your dog real benefits? Time to chew over the details of this bone of contention …

The wolf on your couch

Though it may often seem hard to believe, evolutionary science suggests your cuddly pet’s ancestors can be traced back to the wild and savage wolf packs roaming Central Asia some 15,000 years ago. Even today, your puppy’s efficient capture and demolition of a favoured toy is an echo of his feral instincts and solid proof that his predatory capabilities are still in good order. Essentially, our pet dogs still possess the sharp teeth, claws and many other physical attributes of a fierce carnivore – including a predator’s digestive system.

Wild wolves are scavengers. Their preferred diet is protein-rich raw meat but, where necessary, they will eat a wide range of other foods. Wolves are also well optimised for survival and employ sound ‘cost-benefit’ hunting strategies: they will always seek out low-energy prey options such as young, old or sick members of any herd they choose to stalk. Another modern-day close relative, the UK’s wild urban fox, has adopted similar tactics: hunting live prey by choice, but digging for garden worms, stealing food left out for pets, and feasting on late-night leftovers such as curry or fish and chips whenever these opportunities arise. So canines in the wild are carnivores by preference, and occasional scavenging omnivores if the going gets tough.

The evolutionary transformation of the feral wolf into man’s best friend has undoubtedly been accomplished not only by harnessing the pack instinct but also by exploiting the willing compliance of this ‘lazy scavenger’ to accept some modification of his dietary demands when offered a life on easy street.

Cheap to keep

When feeding dogs in the modern age, owners take full advantage of the convenience offered by clean, well-packaged pet foods. Available on a commercial scale since early in the twentieth century, kibble (dry food in the form of pelleted cereal grains) has become a recognised part of the daily diet of billions of canine family pets. Mostly consisting of cheap bulk fillers like barley, wheat and corn, kibble has helped to drive down the cost of keeping a dog – though many would argue this dietary regime takes advantage of what dogs will tolerate, which is not the same as keeping your dog in optimal good health. After all, so the argument runs, the fact that your child willingly accepts a fast-food diet of chips and burgers doesn’t mean it’s the best nutritional strategy.

Grain-free ‘ancestral’ diet

Despite their modern domestication, today’s dogs are still equipped with much the same digestive systems as their palaeolithic ancestors. One important consideration is that, unlike grazing and plant-eating herbivores, carnivorous dogs are lacking in amylase. This is a digestive enzyme in saliva which aids the metabolisation of starchy carbohydrates and cereal grains before they pass through into the stomach. Though dogs lack this enzyme in their saliva, they do add introduce some amylase in the small intestine at a later digestive phase. As a result of this digestive limitation, hard-to-digest grains and fibres are mostly broken down via a fermentation process, an inherent weakness which leaves dogs reared on standard dry-food diets prone to obesity, bowel disorders, food allergies and similar.

Grain-free dog foods are an attempt to replicate your pet’s ancestral diet by replacing potentially harmful volumes of grain with meat protein and animal fats which are so much easier for your dog to digest.

The nutritional advantages of ‘grain free’

Typical dry dog foods available in the UK, such as Symply Dog Food, James Wellbeloved, Arden Grange, the Natural dog food company and similar, may well have protein/fat/carbohydrate content ratios in the following ranges: protein 18-32%, fat 8-22%, carbohydrate 46-74%. In contrast, grain-free options will be more likely to offer the same components in the following proportions: protein 56%, fat 25-30%, carbohydrates 14%. Thus grain-free mixtures are characterised by significantly higher amounts of meat protein and the presence of much smaller amounts of non-grain carbohydrates.

Though any dog fed on poor-quality food is unlikely to starve, grain-free experts observe that the animal is being given what it will eat, rather than what it needs. Owners who begin to notice the telltale signs of a low-nutrient diet – low energy levels, the gradual development of ear infections, deterioration of the coat, skin complaints, discolouration of the teeth and foul-smelling breath – may well find their pet’s problems are largely due to dining on bulk and therefore missing out on essential vitamins and minerals. In such circumstances, moving to a grain-free diet matched to your dog’s needs would be a sensible first step towards bringing him back into a healthy condition.

Whilst grain-free diets have been shown to benefit dogs whose digestive systems may be reacting negatively to a lifetime of eating kibble-rich fare, they offer other health advantages too. Standard dog-food diets, rather like the diets of many pet owners, tend to include unhealthy amounts of over-processed and highly refined ingredients. They often tend to have a far from optimum balance of fatty acids, and mostly contain very few fruits and vegetable. These are all issues which are effectively addressed by grain-free formulas.

Smooth dietary change is a step-by-step process

Moving your dog away from a grain-based formula to a healthier grain-free alternative needs careful planning. Any new food should be introduced little by little over the course of several weeks. This gradual replacement of your pet’s existing diet will get him used to the new flavours, and importantly, will also avoid placing undue stress on his digestive functions. Nevertheless it is important to keep a careful eye on his toilet habits during the switch to ensure that all is well. And likewise, if any pre-existing health issues remain once the change has been effected, or if any new worries emerge, then it’s wise to seek veterinary help.

Whilst grain-free is a major benefit to adult dogs, owners should note that the needs of puppies are rather different. Rather than risk a diet intended to optimally fuel the needs of active, fully grown animals, it’s always best to consult your vet about suitable puppy nutrition.

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