Grain-free, Paleo, Vegan, High-Protein. You may have heard these buzzwords floating about during your last trip to the pet store. But what exactly is grain-free? Is it at all beneficial to the health of our pets, or is it just another marketing ploy to get you to pay higher prices for food? Read on to see what the fuss is all about, and if a grain-free diet is right for your pet’s lifestyle.
Many humans are going grain-free as a way to relieve their own digestive issues, treat conditions such as Celiac disease where certain grains can cause an immune response, or just to provide overall health benefits. But, is grain-free the same for our pets?
Grain-free simply means that the food is without grains. Grains are commonly used as a source of carbohydrates, one of the main three macronutrients that also include fats and proteins, providing the energy needed for the body to go about its daily routines. Pets that are more active may need a higher source of carbohydrates, while pets that are less active may gain weight with too many. In most foods, grains such as corn, wheat, barley, and rice are what provides that energy.
Grain-free foods, however, while skipping the grains, are not carbohydrate-free. Instead, they utilize alternative sources of carbohydrates such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, etc. as a way to avoid the use of grains. In grain-free cat foods, the most commonly swapped carbohydrates included peas, potatoes, sweet potato and tapioca . In cases where a pet may be allergic to a specific ingredient, including grains, this provides the right balance of energy without triggering allergic reactions.
Food allergy dermatitis is one of the most common causes of allergy and skin disease in dogs and cats. Most commonly, these allergies are to protein sources that are commonly used, including beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish, turkey, and eggs . For pets with protein allergies, a novel source of protein is used instead, including venison, bison, and rabbit .
Grain-free diets follow a similar path, only instead of replacing protein sources that may be the trouble, they replace the grain source instead. Wheat and rice allergies are the most common grain allergies – not corn as some may speculate – and so replacing these grains with “novel” carbohydrate sources can help prevent the body’s allergic response.
If you’re curious to learn more about your pet’s nutritional needs overall, we’ve discussed in great detail the nutritional needs many of our pets have. However, food allergies can play a major part in how your pet digests that nutrition and how much of it is properly absorbed.
Food allergy accounts for up to 10% of all atopic dermatitis cases in dogs, and is equally at fault for atopic dermatitis in cats . Other causes of atopic dermatitis include parasites, flea allergy dermatitis, environmental allergens, or skin infections caused by bacteria, yeast, and fungi. Most commonly, pet food allergies show up in the form of skin reactions. This can include severe itching, redness, wounds, and open sores.
In dogs, additional signs of a food allergy can include GI symptoms such as loose stool or diarrhea, vomiting, skin symptoms such as rash or itchy skin, and excessive licking. In rare cases, signs of a food allergy may only appear as a chronic, persistent and unresponsive ear infection without any of the other outward signs !
In cats, food allergies are most commonly triggered by chicken, milk, fish and egg products (the very things we think our cats enjoy most!)  Signs of food allergies in cats present similar to allergies in dogs, including itching, eruptions of lumps, sections of pus, oils and other debris, and hyperreactivity of the immune system .
Cats are also unique that they can have a genetic predisposition to food allergies. Most commonly, Siamese cats and other Oriental breeds are prone to food-based allergies . Cats with underlying conditions such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) may also be prone to food allergies as they cannot properly digest the ingredients, leading to an immune response . Comorbid skin conditions such as flea allergy dermatitis may also aggravate underlying food allergies in cats.
The rise in identifying the cause behind pet allergies has lead to an increase in the use of dietary changes to alleviate the issue without resorting to medications that may have harmful side effects. Grain-free is increasing in popularity as a way to combat food allergies without greatly changing your pet’s routine or schedules. If you can avoid the digestive upset or excessive drowsiness caused by some medications, you can help keep your pet active and happy. However, switching to a grain-free diet still comes with both benefits and risks that should be looked into before changing your pet’s diet.
Owners looking to feed grain-free in an attempt to lower their pet’s weight may be disappointed. Grain-free diets are not low-carbohydrate or low-calorie diets, and these foods were found to have an equal number of calories to that of regular diets .
In the case of food allergies, identifying the underlying allergy through a food elimination trials is key to utilizing a grain-free diet. Elimination diets are beneficial to both dogs and cats. Typically, an elimination diet is performed by narrowing a pet’s food options down to one protein and one carbohydrate source that hasn’t been fed before . After a period of 8-16 weeks, progress and improvement are tracked and used as the new baseline. One by one, the owner adds in a potential source of reaction, either a new protein or new grain source, to determine if that is one of the underlying triggers for allergy.
Once the food triggers are identified, the owner can then place their pet on the appropriate diet. This may include grain-free foods in the case of allergies to wheat, barley, and rice, or to a novel protein source in the case of allergy to beef or fish. In cases of severe allergies or underlying illness such as IBD, a prescription hydrolyzed diet may be used, which breaks down protein and ingredient sources into smaller components, bypassing the body’s immune reaction.
For pets with grain allergies, grain-free is absolutely the way to go. For pets with food allergies to certain protein sources, grain-free may be beneficial for helping the coat recover and reducing potential cross-reactivity, however switching to a different protein source is critical to relieving symptoms.
In addition to feeding grain-free, there are other ways to help boost your pet’s overall health, improve coat and skin condition, and reduce allergies. Feeding supplements that help boost the immune system and provide inflammatory relief, such as those containing Vitamin E or Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, can help reduce a pet’s reaction to certain allergens. Combining these products with a grain-free diet can also help the skin and coat recover more quickly after an allergic episode, providing faster relief so your pet can rest easier.
As some diets may be hard to balance nutritionally due to severe allergies, supplements such as vitamins can help provide a more rounded nutritional picture without triggering allergy symptoms. In very severe cases where a homemade diet may need to be used instead of a preformulated food, supplemental vitamins can help avoid malnutrition.
As with any change in your pet’s routine, asking your vet if going grain-free before making the switch is key. They can help run a food elimination trial prior to switching diets, can monitor your pet’s overall progress on the diet, and can help check for any nutrient deficiencies that may cause issues. If it’s found that a grain-free diet will help, your vet can help you safely switch to the new diet while minimizing GI upset during the transition.
Grain-free diets are rapidly increasing in popularity, and can be beneficial in certain cases. If your pet suffers from severe food allergies, switching to a grain-free food may make the difference between a miserable, uncomfortable pet, and one that is able to return to normal activity. While it may not be beneficial in the case of environmental or other food-based allergies, it is still worth trying out if you feel your pet may find some relief.
 "Food allergy dermatitis." Vetbook. Web. 24 Apr. 2018. http://vetbook.org/wiki/cat/index.php?title=Food_allergy_dermatitis
 "Food Allergies." Cornell Feline Health Center. Web. 24 Apr. 2018. https://www2.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/food-allergies
 Heinze, Cailin VMD. "Research Update: New insight into grain-free cat diets." Petfoodology, Tufts University, 03 July 2017. Web. 24 Apr. 2018. http://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2017/07/research-update-new-insight-into-grain-free-cat-diets/
 Marion, Kristi. "Is Grain Free Dog Food the Way to Go?" CanineJournal.com, 11 Apr 2017. Web. 24 Apr. 2018. https://www.caninejournal.com/grain-free-dog-food/
 "Skin Disease Due to Food Allergies in Cats." PetMD. Web. 24 Apr. 2018. https://www.petmd.com/cat/conditions/skin/c_ct_food_reactions_dermatologic#
 White, Stephen DVM. "Overview of Food Allergy: Adverse food reactions." Merck Veterinary Manual. Web. 24 Apr. 2018. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/integumentary-system/food-allergy/overview-of-food-allergy