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Five years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find a dry dog food that wasn’t based on cereals. No one batted an eyelid if a food contained wheat, maize or barley; this was the norm for pet owners, vets, nutritionists and food manufacturers alike. Today, however, the average pet food aisle offers a wealth of products supporting ‘grain-free’ diets - in a short time, it has become a major differential for many pet owners when selecting a new diet. Grain-free is indeed the new buzz word in dog nutrition - but how this happened and why it matters is what pet owners might want to consider.
As with most human food trends, grain-free pet food became popular in the United States well before the concept hit UK shores. This area of the market has seen a huge area of growth for many US pet food companies and it makes complete sense that UK companies would opt to develop this part of their business too ; for example, at 2015’s Crufts it seemed as though every other stand was spreading word of the benefits that going grain-free can bring.
Cynics, however, might question if this new market area is just a carefully orchestrated fad, fuelled by pet food companies and their marketing budgets. And it is certainly true that there is a fair amount of money being put behind the ‘grain-free’ concept. Go online and a quick search will find you endless, so-called ‘impartial’, nutrition articles many on sponsored websites, promoting the diet’s virtues. However, this is a more serious business than some shallow trend. Nutrition has significant impacts on our cherished companion’s health and, what’s more, grain-free products are considerably more expensive than many of the alternatives. So, pet owners will want to be convinced of these products’ efficacy before committing to a change long term. But with devoted dog-lovers embracing the grain-free movement, there must be more substance behind its popularity than just a marketing trend.
Grain-free diets are clearly making a worthwhile difference to pets. Both owners and vets have reported that grain-free diets result in noticeable improvements in many dogs that suffer from digestive function issues and skin complaints. These types of complaints are all too familiar for vets - in a recent survey carried out by the British Veterinary Association it was estimated that over 70 percent of non-routine appointments were for these types of clinical problems alone, and while not all of them are as a direct cause of the patient’s diet, this is definitely a significant contributing factor in many. So it’s hardly surprising that recommendations for grain-free diets are growing, both in veterinary consultation rooms and by word of mouth from other pet-owners.
As a vet myself, I have personally experienced the difference grain-free diets have made to some of my patients. I am all too familiar with the relief of an owner when they have resolved such a frustrating, upsetting and costly issue for both them and their canine companion - so much so that my investigation is often complete once a change of diet has created the desired effect. But the pertinent question is very rarely asked: what is it about this new diet that is making the difference?
Naturally, the first assumption people tend to make is to relate their dog's state to familiar human health conditions, such as coeliac disease. A coeliac sufferer has an intestinal hypersensitivity to gluten and is often labelled as gluten intolerant. Gluten is the protein proportion found in all grains in varying quantities. Removing grain from a diet ensures that you remove any gluten containing ingredients from of the recipe. However, most foods for dogs can’t declare that they are truly ‘gluten free’, as other cereal-containing products will be made in the same factory, this though is not a big problem, as genuine gluten hypersensitivity in dogs is very rare and, in fact, has only so far been identified in the Irish Setter breed.
Both owners and vets have reported that grain-free diets result in noticeable improvements in many dogs that suffer from digestive function issues and skin complaints
There is, however, documented evidence of other food allergies and intolerances that create skin and digestive issues in dogs - and one of the culprits is wheat. Any clinical abnormality thought to be related to something that has been ingested is termed an ‘adverse food reaction.’ These adverse food reactions in dogs can be split into two groups: those caused by an inappropriate immune system response (such as a food allergy) and those caused by food intolerances. An all-too familiar example of food intolerance is what happens when a dog eats something that is rotten, causing a digestive upset. The dog's immune system plays no part in this reaction - it is purely a consequence of the presence of high levels of chemical toxins.
Food allergies are caused by an immune system reaction to a particular protein molecule, which is known as an allergen. By far the most commonly documented allergen is beef protein, which has caused a reaction in 60 percent of cases, recorded, followed by dairy and then wheat. The incidence of wheat allergies is actually relatively low, seen in approximately 24 percent of cases. The very nature of an immune system reaction means that a protein must have been presented to the immune system prior to the allergy developing - so the dog must have eaten it before. If the animal is predisposed to developing an allergy, its chances increase every time it is exposed to that particular protein. This makes it clear why the prevalence of food allergies, in general, tends to reflect the ingredients that are most commonly included in commercial dog foods.
Just as with humans, the most reliable way of diagnosing a food allergy is by process of elimination. Patients are commonly put on an exclusions diet, which will be based on a novel protein and carbohydrate that a dog has not previously been fed. The gold standard for an exclusion diet is to prepare home cooked meals so there is no risk of anything else being present in the diet, for six to eight weeks. Quite a labour of love!
Improvements can often be seen in the first week but be aware that in some cases it may take much longer - up to eight-weeks for full effects to take hold. The challenge of diagnosis then becomes apparent, as to properly complete the process, you need to re-introduce your dog to their old diet. It is only by doing this and witnessing the clinical signs recurring that you can definitively diagnose the problem as being a direct consequence of food. However, in many cases this step is, quite understandably, not completed due to pet owners not wanting to put their dog through a potential recurrence of the clinical signs.
Attaining a proper diagnosis is notoriously difficult and as a result, the incidence of food allergies is pretty controversial. However, given that these are currently estimated at only 1-6 percent of clinical cases and that wheat is only accountable for 24 percent of these reactions, it’s obvious, due to the sheer numbers of dogs where improvements are being seen, that it’s not all down to wheat or gluten allergies. Certainly, some dogs will improve because of the removal of another protein source within the diet they are allergic to. However, with the confirmed incidence of food allergies being relatively low, it indicates that there may be more to this issue than just allergies alone.
Food intolerances are certainly more prevalent than allergies and they are probably more common than evidence suggests. Food intolerances are caused by reactions to particular chemicals, both biological and synthetic. The quality of ingredients can certainly cause variations in chemicals present in the finished food, such as ingredients that are going off, or the preservatives or additives that might be used. Ultimately, the quality of ingredients going into any food comes down to formulation and the quality control processes put in place by the manufacturer. Manufacturers that care about the quality of ingredients that go into their foods are more likely to produce diets that trigger fewer food intolerances and are more likely to produce grain-free foods. So some of the improvements being observed may well be from feeding a better quality all natural dog food product.
We shouldn't discount another factor here. Something else that possibly contributes to the grain-free success story, yet is not immediately apparent, is storage mites. Storage mites are microscopic and commonly found in stored cereals. Their presence has been observed in dry dog foods, with the number of the mites increasing with the length of time a bag is left open. They are also by far one of the most commonly documented skin disease allergens in dogs. This suggests a very good reason that changing to a grain-free diet would be helpful in terms of reducing exposure to these mites.
Essentially, for each dog in which a grain-free diet has created an improvement, the answer as to why this is the case won’t be the same and may be the result of multiple causes. A dietary change is a simple step for owners and vets to try if they suspect an adverse food reaction. If time and money aren't a problem, the ideal scenario would be for owners to attempt the elimination route, but as this is understandably not a feasible option for many, the next-best alternative could be to seek a grain-free diet for your pet.
For more information on canine food allergies and intolerances with dog diets contact our clinic or browse a range of grain-free dog foods here.