I used to be able to nod in recognition when clients told me what food their pet was on but these days I’m hard pressed to know a fraction of the foods mentioned. It feels like every man and his dog (literally) are having a crack at producing quality pet foods. Words like “natural” and “organic” are tossed around with abandon and owners feeding grain-free wear this badge with honour. But what’s actually in the grain-free food? Why is it good for them? Wait… is it good for them?
Animals haven’t changed recently, so why have their diets?
With the rise in “clean” eating for humans, the pet food industry has followed suit and start pushing towards more simplified, cleaner diets that mimic the diets of our pet’s wilder predecessors. Boutique pet food are popping everywhere and with no governing body regulating what goes into these foods, it’s a bit of a hot mess. Just about anyone can throw together an apparently balanced food, write whatever they want on the label and start selling. Now don’t get me wrong, plenty of them are probably getting it right but as a consumer how are we to know which one is best for our pet?
Is grain really the bad guy?
We do know that less than 3% of pets have allergies to grain, so improvements in your pet’s gut or skin health once placed on a grain=free diet is more probably due to the increased omega oils, novel protein source or the improvement in overall quality of the food than to the actual lack of grain. Many of the cheaper, supermarket-style dry foods are loaded full of the useless part of the grain that does nothing but bulk out the diet.
So is picking the grain-free option advisable?
This is probably a good time to mention taurine. Back in the 1990s some very clever veterinary scientists worked out that certain dog breeds were more prone to taurine deficiencies. What’s taurine you ask? Oh, just a super-important amino acid we need for (amongst other things) brain and heart function. Then in recent years veterinary cardiologists in the United States of America started murmuring about an increased incidence of dilated-cardiomyopathies (a form of heart disease leading to heart failure) in Golden Retrievers that were linked to taurine deficiencies. They already knew of this connection, but suddenly other less prone breeds started having similar issues and the apparent link was every dog was on a boutique, exotic-protein or grain-free diet (collectively referred to as BEG diets).
Do we really know enough to draw conclusions?
What they still don’t know is what exactly is the cause within the BEG diet. Could it be the use of substitutes for grains e.g. chickpeas, lentils or potatoes? Could it be one of the other exotic ingredients that are often included in these boutique diets? Is it a nutritional imbalance? Or is it one giant coincidence? Time will tell as researchers work hard to establish and provable link.
So, what should you feed your pet?
Whether you choose a diet that comprises grain, or one that’s grain-free, the key to it being healthy is balance. Some of us choose vegetarian or vegan diets, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the protein, vitamin and minerals we need that come from meat. We need to find other sources. The same principle applies to our pets’ diets.
Your vet is a great source of information on this topic. Their knowledge should be non-bias, evidence-based and up-to-date. If you want to research further I suggest sticking to reputable brands, looking for evidence-based research, reading every label and if you’re going down the home-cooked bath, balance it! Literally, there is a company called BalanceIt that for a small fee will formulate an appropriate home-cooked diet specifically for your pet. If you’re looking for someone closer to home, Murdoch University offers a similar service.
Dr Prue Honson
Senior Veterinarian & Hospital Director
Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association
December 1, 2018, Vol. 253, No. 11, Pages 1390-1394