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Should Your Pet Go Grain-Free?

Posted By Valerie Gleaton On November 3, 2010 @ 11:31 am In Green Living, Health & Wellness, Healthy Eating | 15 Comments

Dog with his food bowl [1]I have a confession to make: For years now I’ve treated myself to wholesome, organic foods [2] 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 notoriously picky eater [3], 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 [4] again and I decided to give it another go. We recently adopted [5] 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 store [6] and 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 [7], 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 [8]?

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 [9]. Grains can aggravate allergies (a friend’s dog has been on a grain-free diet since puppyhood due to severe skin allergies) and can contribute to weight problems [10].

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 [11] 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 [12]: 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 [13], without worrying about my empty wallet [14].

Before you go grain-free

  • Ask your veterinarian [15] 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 [16] 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 [17] 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 [18]). A short adjustment period is to be expected, but you should consult your veterinarian if the reaction seems extreme or is ongoing.

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URL to article: http://blog.gaiam.com/should-your-pet-go-grain-free/

URLs in this post:

[1] Image: http://blog.gaiam.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/GrainFreePets.jpg

[2] wholesome, organic foods: http://life.gaiam.com/article/get-real-real-cost-eating-organic-and-local-food

[3] picky eater: http://blog.gaiam.com/blog/how-to-raise-an-un-picky-eater/

[4] guilt caught up with me: http://life.gaiam.com/article/going-green-without-guilt

[5] adopted: http://blog.gaiam.com/blog/meet-my-recycled-pets/

[6] natural pet store: http://www.onlynaturalpet.com/default.aspx

[7] gluten-free diet: http://life.gaiam.com/article/should-you-go-against-grain

[8] a diet devoid of wheat, rice or corn: http://life.gaiam.com/article/6-easy-ways-eat-gluten-free-and-feel-better

[9] just as they can for some humans: http://life.gaiam.com/article/gluten-latest-dietary-villain

[10] contribute to weight problems: http://blog.gaiam.com/blog/are-your-food-allergies-making-you-fat-3-steps-to-weight-loss-and-good-health/

[11] my dog’s new kibble: http://www.onlynaturalpet.com/products/Taste-of-the-Wild-Grain-Free-Dry-Dog-Food/304000.aspx

[12] my cat’s new canned food: http://www.onlynaturalpet.com/products/Natural-Balance-LID-Allergy-Formula-Canned-Cat-Food/158186.aspx

[13] feed both my pets with a clean conscience: http://life.gaiam.com/article/10-ways-green-your-pet

[14] worrying about my empty wallet: http://life.gaiam.com/article/10-ways-eat-healthy-budget

[15] veterinarian: http://blog.gaiam.com/blog/tales-from-the-vets-office/

[16] fiber: http://life.gaiam.com/article/guide-high-fiber-foods

[17] digestive problems: http://blog.gaiam.com/blog/how-to-fix-your-gut-7-steps-to-intestinal-health/

[18] scoop the poop: http://www.gaiam.com/product/doggie+dooley.do?SID=WG107SPRTAPEMACS

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