Are Grains Good For Dogs?
A recent trend has emerged: ‘grain-free diets’ for dogs. In 2007, there was pet food contamination in which wheat gluten imported from China had been contaminated with industrial chemicals that were being used to falsely boost protein levels. Of course it wasn't the grain itself that was the culprit, but that's how it is remembered. Could this be what started the trend?
Well, it could also be the rise in the human ‘gluten-free diets.’ The health conscious, pet-loving people would want to consider the same for their loved ones. Studies have shown that only about 1% of dogs have an allergy to grains; it is much more common for them to have a specific protein allergy or to be lactose intolerant.
But Are Grains Actually Bad for Dogs?
Grains are an excellent source of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. They are not just fillers. Grains support healthy skin, hair, and offer immune support. Dog's need carbohydrates for digestion and energy. The best carbs you can give your dog's can come from whole grains. However, what type of grain and where it is sourced from will make a difference.
What Is A Grain Exactly?
A grain is a small, hard, dry seed, with or without an attached hull or fruit later harvested for human or animal consumption.
It is composed of three parts:
Bran: Outermost layer or shell. Contains fiber and B vitamins.
Germ: The inner layer. Rich in oils, vitamins, proteins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Endosperm: The bulk of the grain kernel. It contains carbohydrates and protein.
Whole grains contain all three layers, while refined grains do not. Refined grains come from the same plants as whole grains, but they are missing the germ, bran, and the nutrients that go along with them. They have a longer shelf life since the oily germ tends to become rancid when exposed to light and heat.
Types of Grains
True Grains: Grains that are from the botanical family ‘Poaceae’ including wheat, oats, rice, rye, barley, corn, triticale, millet, sorghum, and spelt.
Psuedo Grains: ‘Grains’ that are not part of the Poaceae botanical family, but are in fact seeds from different plant species. They are considered grains because of the similar nutrient composition and ways they are prepared. These include amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa.
This is a list of grains that are commonly found in dog food and treats:
Amaranth- A pseudo grain, not a true grain. It is gluten-free and contains all nine essential amino acids making it a complete protein. It is good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, and folate; they are also a complementing source of other vitamins such as thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin, plus some dietary minerals including calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, copper, and manganese.
Barley- While high in carbohydrates, barley is low in gluten, so it’s used to make flatbreads and porridge. Commonly available pearled barley is missing its bran (outer layer) and not technically a whole grain. Look for “whole barley” or “hulled barley” for the most nutrition. It is low on glycemic index level owing to its high fiber content, thus being in the list of foods that are beneficial for minimizing chances of diabetes in dogs.
Brown Rice- gets its color from the bran coating surrounding the kernels. After rice is harvested, the bran and germ layers are either left intact or removed, yielding brown or white rice, respectively. Brown rice has three times the fiber of white rice, and is rich in protein, potassium, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, iron, selenium, and manganese, which are all important for bone growth and energy.
Corn- Corn has a high content of oily germ, which makes whole-grain corn prone to rancidity, which is why most cornmeal on the market is degermed. Dog’s bodies can’t digest whole corn properly. The corn kernel must first be refined into a meal or flour then cooked. Even on dog food labels when it’s listed as ‘whole’ it is nearly always ground first. The more ground it is, the more digestible, but also the higher the glycemic index (how food raises the blood sugar) Due to its glycemic index, it can raise your dog’s blood sugar level. It also has a low biological value when compared to other pet food ingredients.
Millet- It functions like a whole grain but is gluten free. Millet is high in phosphorus, B-vitamins, and iron. Phosphorus is essential for healthy bones, and iron maintains energy levels and overall health. While some dogs thrive on grain-free diets, millet is a healthy source of carbohydrates for most dogs, and easier to digest than wheat.
Oat- Unique among grains, oats almost never have their bran and germ removed in processing. Oats are great alternative carbohydrate for dogs who may be sensitive to wheat or other grains. Oats are full of linoleic acid, a type of omega-6 fatty acid that helps keep skin strong and healthy. They are also a good source of soluble fiber, which can help regulate blood glucose levels and regulate gastrointestinal problems.
Quinoa- Quinoa is actually a seed from the Chenopodium quinoa plant; it is not a grain. Whole grains (or cereal grains), like oats and barley, are defined as seeds extracted from grasses, not plants. Quinoa is a gluten-free, whole-grain carbohydrate, as well as a whole protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. For dogs, it must be fed cooked. It’s a great source of protein, iron, magnesium, vitamin B12, fiber, and antioxidants.
Rye- Both the endosperm and bran in rye are high in fiber, giving it a lower glycemic index than wheat. Rye has a high gluten content. Look for “whole rye” or “rye berries” to make sure you dog is getting protein, potassium, and B vitamins, in addition to the carbohydrates and fiber.
Sorghum- Sorghum is true grain (Poaceae family) and is gluten free. It is high in antioxidants and rich in B1, niacin, iron, zinc, dietary fiber, and B2. Sorghum takes longer to digest and does not an insulin spike. It is an excellent addition to dogs feed in place of wheat. It does not cause an insulin spike
Spelt- Spelt is most closely related to wheat, but is much more nutritious. It is considered an ancient grain (grains that have not been altered by cross-breeding and genetic modifications over the years). While it does contain gluten, it more fragile and water soluble making it easier to digest.
Wheat- A dominant grain in both the pet and human food industry due to its high gluten level and “stretchy” protein needed for baking. It can be harder to digest because of this as well. Like other grains, it is needed to be found as a whole to receive the benefits. It contains fiber and carbohydrates which fuel muscular and metabolic activities.
Choosing a Grain For Your Dog
Choosing which grain to feed your dog can require research on the specific breed you have and some trial and error. There is not one diet that will work for all dogs, just like humans. Make sure you are always choosing grains that are whole which contains all parts of the plant. Whole grains are unprocessed (whole oats, whole wheat, brown rice). Avoid grains that are using a fraction of the grain. They are incomplete/refined and do not offer the full nutritional benefits (wheat middlings, white rice, rice bran, ground corn).
Genetically modified grains are believed to cause leaky gut syndrome in which small fissures develop in the gut lining, allowing bacteria, toxins, incompletely digested proteins, and fats to leak into the bloodstream, triggering an autoimmune response resulting in food sensitivities, fatigue, skin rashes, gas, and bloating. If you are worried about this, feeding grains that are less common (barley, oats, spelt) or a food from high quality source is the best way to feed your dog.
Grain Free vs Gluten Free
Grain free dog foods are, as the name implies, diets that do not contain grain. Gluten free dog food, on the other hand, may or may not contain grain as an ingredient. Gluten is the protein that is found in specific types of grain, namely wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten free dog food is, of course, free of these proteins. However, not all grains contain gluten. Therefore, gluten free dog food may or may not be grain free, while grain free dog food will always be gluten free.
Is Grain-Free Food Good For My Dog?
The trends promoting the popularity of grain-free diets among humans, discovery of food sensitivities and intolerances, and the benefits perceived from eating only the unprocessed foods available to our ancestors are leading to dog food manufacturers churning out brands that use items like potatoes, peas, and lentils.
Like grains, these ingredients also have unique nutritional benefits. Sweet potatoes are a rich source of beta carotene and peas are a great source of vitamins. Benefits of feeding a grain free diet include reduced flatulence, reduced potential of food allergies, keeps your dog fuller longer, and healthier skin and coat.
Some people fear the risks of feeding grains such as mycotoxin contamination. Mycotoxins are the deadly molds that grow on grains while being stored. They are responsible for many illnesses and chronic diseases. This is usually only a problem with true cereal grains. When stored, they have the risk of contamination by insects, mites, and mold.
However applying the principles of the Paleo Diet to your pets may not be the best option since dogs today don’t have the same habits and lifestyles as their wolf ancestors. High-fat and high-meat diets aren’t as necessary as they would have been in the wild; most of our pets are not working hard enough to tolerate that energy density.
Recently there has been a potential link in grain free diets to canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). These diets contain a high proportion of peas, lentils, potatoes, and other legume seeds as main ingredients. While these foods due offer your dog nutrients, they should be fed in moderation and not replace animal proteins and high quality carbohydrates.
Your veterinarian can advise on your dog’s specific nutritional needs. He or she is an expert and will take several factors into consideration such as:
A dog’s nutritional needs change as he grows from a puppy to an adult dog to an older dog.
Weight management issues, sensitive skin or stomach, breed size i.e. large, small or toy breeds and other factors may impact nutritional needs for dogs.
If a grain-free diet is appropriate, be sure to choose a dog food without grains that is complete and balanced.
When it comes to the food you feed your dog, your preference and comfort level counts. But make an informed decision; One that is based on facts and not what’s hot or trending.
Shouldn't My Dog Eat Like a Wolf?
There’s the perception that dogs should be eating a diet similar to their wild ancestors’. However, dogs are actually different from wolves. Scientists believe that one of the physiological changes that helped dogs evolved alongside humans was the ability to digest starch. Domesticated dogs have differences in 10 key genes compared to wolves that enable them to better utilize grains than wolves. Dogs are not carnivores or just meat eaters. Dogs are omnivores with a carnivorous bias. This means dogs can eat and digest meat as well as grains (i.e. starches).
Grain-free foods don’t mean plant-free foods. Grains are seeds, like wheat, rice, oats, corn, barley, millet, oatmeal, and quinoa. Grain-free diets use other plant sources such as potato, sweet potato, pumpkin, tapioca, peas, butternut squash, parsnips, carrots, spinach greens, and various fruits. These are also not foods wolves are known to eat. In fact, some of these ingredients provide less nutrition than grains.
Feeding moderate amounts of grains is needed because dogs need carbohydrates and potatoes are not the only source. Your dog much prefers a meat based diet however. Make sure when buying food you find a meat meal as the first ingredient or a meat + meat meal.