In recent years, pet foods have become complicated, to say the least.
With so many different formulas to choose from, dozens of new brands, and very little information on the label besides flashy marketing terms, you might feel like shopping for pet food has become extremely overwhelming.
Here’s what you need to know when choosing the right food for your pet:
Ingredients In Grain-Free And Grain-Inclusive Pet Foods
The “grains” in grain-inclusive pet foods are usually corn, rice, wheat and barley.
Grain-free pet foods contain other sources of carbohydrates that are included as an energy source and to hold the kibble together. Peas, lentils, tapioca, potatoes and sweet potatoes are common in grain-free foods.
Most pet foods contain a main protein source and a main carbohydrate source. You’ll typically find varieties like “chicken and rice,” “salmon and peas,” “beef and lentils,” and similar formulas. Keep in mind, unless it is labeled Limited Ingredient, the food will likely contain smaller amounts of different proteins and carbohydrates, so if you are avoiding chicken, your beef and rice food may contain chicken fat, which can trigger your dog’s chicken allergy.
Do Cats And Dogs Need Carbs?
Dogs are omnivores. They are able to digest carbohydrates to derive nutrients and energy. Cats, on the other hand, are obligate carnivores, so carbohydrates are truly just fillers that pass through their body without much nutritional value.
Regardless of whether you feed grains or not, your kibble likely contains a higher level of carbohydrates than your pet actually needs. This is not necessarily harmful, but it is certainly not optimal. You can decrease the proportion of carbs in their diet by adding fresh foods to their bowl.
Excessive amounts of carbs may be to blame for the pet obesity epidemic in the United States. According to the Association For Pet Obesity Prevention, 60% of cats and 56% percent of dogs in the US are overweight or obese.
Carbohydrates break down into sugars that feed bacteria that cause dental disease, which affects 80% of animals over three years old. Contrary to popular belief, dry food does not chip away at tartar, no matter what shape it is in; just as you cannot eat chips and pretzels instead of brushing your teeth.
It’s okay to feed kibble if it fits your lifestyle and your budget. Just make sure to feed the right amounts. Sometimes the recommended serving sizes on the bag are more than your pet needs, particularly if they are sedentary. Brush your pets’ teeth as often as you can to prevent tartar build-up. Raw recreational bones can also help keep your pets’ teeth clean. Some pets are more genetically predisposed to dental disease than others and will need to be put under anesthesia for a dental cleaning.
Which Has More Protein: Grain-Free Or Grain Inclusive?
Athletic dogs, puppies, lactating dams all need more protein and fat. Dogs with chronic health issues like diabetes, pancreatitis and kidney disease need less protein as recommended by your veterinarian. However, extra protein does not cause kidney issues in healthy dogs, it is simply excreted in the urine or converted to fat.
The Guaranteed Analysis panel on every bag and can of pet food lists crude protein. Crude protein includes protein in both meat and plant ingredients. However, it cannot tell you how much of that protein is biologically available to your pet. Meat protein sources have a higher biological value than plant protein sources, so you do want your pet’s food to have more meat than carbohydrates.
Look at pet foods individually. Meat ingredients or meat meal should be the first. Watch out for ingredient splitting, which moves plant-based ingredients down the ingredients list even though, added together, they may actually be included in greater amounts than meat, even if the meat is the first ingredient.
Do Grains Cause Allergies?
One of the most common reasons pet owners seek out grain-free foods is because they believe that their pet has become allergic to their grain-inclusive food. However, grain allergies are extremely rare. It is much more common for pets to be allergic to protein sources like beef and chicken. So, your dog’s itchy skin is probably not due to a corn allergy.
However, low-quality grains can cause skin issues that imitate the symptoms of a food allergy. It’s not uncommon for grains to be infested with mites, mold and other insects. So, a dog might not be allergic to corn, but rather, the mites and their waste products that have contaminated the corn.
Do Grain-Free Foods Cause Heart Disease?
Recently, an increased number of dogs have been diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). This causes a larger heart with a weaker heartbeat. It’s common in certain breeds, but now veterinarians have been seeing it in breeds that are not predisposed to it.
DCM is linked to taurine deficiency and though not all dogs diagnosed with it were deficient in the amino acid, added taurine seemed to improve their condition.
Many of those dogs were on “boutique” diets, including grain-free diets primarily made with peas, lentils and potatoes, as well as unusual protein sources like kangaroo meat.
The FDA is investigating the link between grain-free dog foods and whether they actually cause DCM – and, if so, exactly which ingredient is the culprit.
For now, the risk of your dog being affected by DCM is low, so you do not need to immediately change your dog’s food. If you’re concerned, you can try a grain-inclusive diet, rotate between foods, or supplement your dog’s food with a taurine supplement, or a high-taurine food like fresh or dehydrated beef or pork heart, raw or cooked eggs, or fresh, dark meat from a chicken or turkey.
Which Is Right For My Pet?
If your pet’s food is nutritionally complete to AAFCO guidelines – which, it probably is, unless it’s labeled as specifically for supplemental or intermittent feeding only – it’s probably fine.
Some pet owners say their pets are healthiest on grain-free foods, others say their pets feel their best on grain-inclusive foods. If your pet has firm, healthy stools, a soft, shiny coat, and plenty of energy, there is no need to change their food.
You may want to rotate between a few different foods to keep your pet from developing food allergies from overexposure to the same ingredients over and over. You don’t need to try everything – sticking to just 3-4 formulas is best for finding a culprit if a food causes a health issue.
When it comes down to it, every processed pet diet can have some long-term side effects. It’s best to give your pet as much fresh food as you can, keep them at a healthy weight, and make sure they get plenty of fresh water and exercise.
Do you feed grain-free or grain-inclusive pet food? How did you choose your pet’s food?