The Grain-Free Fad

We are always happy when clients show concern regarding the food they give to their pets instead of just picking up the cheapest thing available on the grocery store shelf. And, choosing an appropriate diet can be a daunting task as there are so many options available from hundreds of companies, both major and niche. Another problem: walk into any pet store when a sales rep is present and they will tell you anything they want to get you to buy their high-priced, possibly nutritionally questionable, diet.

The biggest fad we tackle when it comes to pet food and owner’s concerns are the grain-free diets. Many owners believe that grain-free means they are more natural, carb free, and will help with medical issues, most especially with allergies and other skin conditions. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Barley, Grain, Cereals, Whole ...

There has been no credible evidence or studies that have shown grain-free diets being better for our pets and there are no nutritional foundations to support this claim. If you search around the internet with a skeptical eye what you’ll mostly see are personal blogs spouting anecdotal evidence in favor of grain-free. So, let’s start with a little education, shall we? Let’s define a few words to start:

Nutrition: the process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth.

Nutrients: a substance that provides nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life.

Ingredients: any of the foods or substances that are combined to make a particular diet.

Cats and dogs require nutrients to maintain their relative health and the ingredients in a diet are what provide the pet with such. Proper nutrient intake is essential for normal development, overall health, and disease management. Nutrients themselves have lots of jobs to do that can be compromised by insufficient or irregular intake.

Common Misconceptions

Whole grains are fillers.

When you hear the word “filler,” you think that that ingredient has little to no nutritional value for your pet. The thing is, whole grains do provide essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids. Other grain products are a good source of protein, which in some cases are easier for the pet to digest when compared to animal based proteins. Most dogs (over 90%) can ingest grains normally found in diets without a problem.

Grain-free products are carb-free.

Grain-free pet foods have to make up for what they lack somewhere, and they mainly do that by adding more carbohydrates like sweet potatoes. Grains are carbs and they are an important energy source and are one of the six basic nutrients. (Water, protein, fats, carbs, vitamins, & minerals.)

Eat, Food, Nutrition, Feed, ...

Please remember that with so many grain-free diets available that also means we are dealing with a variety of nutritional profiles as well. This will affect not only carbs but also protein, fat, and other nutrients. Grain-free diets lower in carbs may mean that diet is higher in fat and calories (just like gluten-free foods for humans!). Some grain-free diets merely switch out grain with refined starches like potatoes which deliver fewer nutrients and less fiber and therefore have a lower nutritional value in general. This would mean that diet is not “cost-efficient” in terms of both price and the overall value to your pet’s health. In other grain-free products, grains are replaced with beans, peas, or lentils, which may provide carbohydrates but are not necessarily any better for your cat or dog than grains and may lead to GI upset.

Grains cause food allergies.

A food allergy is an abnormal response to a normal food or ingredient. Food allergies in pets are uncommon and affect less than 1% of pets suffering from a skin disease (itching, scabbing, hair loss, etc.) and grain allergies are even less common. The significant factors in the few pets that are actually diagnosed with a food allergy are usually animal proteins like beef or chicken. This merely reflects the commonality of ingredients (most diets are chicken or pork based, for example) in pet foods rather than their increased tendency to cause allergies.

Grains cause gluten intolerance.

Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder seen in humans. It is marked by a hypersensitivity to gluten proteins in wheat, barley, and rye, to name a few. Gluten intolerance is extremely rare in dogs and does not exist in cats.  Only one inbred group of Irish Setters has been known to be diagnosed with a gluten intolerance that resulted in GI upset.


The pet food market is huge and grain-free diets have an ever expanding share of that market in stores across the country and online. This group of grain-free diet manufacturers purposefully markets grains as bad for pets regardless of the science. And, because pet owners feel the nutritional choices they make for their pet’s are as important as their own choices- this leads to the inevitable result of human food trends making their way to pets. Those trends are especially popular when they focus on the overall health and wellness of the pet. (Who doesn’t want to do what’s best for their four-legged family members?!)

Remember, grain-free diets offer no discernible benefit compared to diets containing grains and every diet should be considered based on their overall nutrient profile rather than their individual ingredients. However, if you are adamant in the goal of going grain-free you should consult us first so we can evaluate the diets you are looking at together. This way, our doctor and staff can help you decide the best grain-free food for your pet without affecting their general health. No matter what, we want to help you ensure a long and healthy life for your pet, regardless of diet choice.

Read part two, from Dr. Miller, by clicking here!

Want to do some research of your own? We recommend these reputable sources:

From Tuft's University: Grain-Free Diets: Big on Marketing, Small on Truth

The American College of Veterinary Nutrition

The American College of Veterinary Dermatology

Ohio State University: The Myths and Misconceptions Surrounding Pet Foods 

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