What are grains?
Grains are the seeds of plants that are grown, cultivated, and processed into food-stuff. Basically, any food made from wheat is classed as a grain. This includes bread, rice, oats, cereals, pasta, and tortillas. Grains are divided into two categories: unrefined and refined. The only difference is that refined grains undergo a milling process which removes the bran and germ. This improves their ‘shelf-life’, meaning they don't spoil as quickly as unrefined grains. But this milling process also strips away dietary fibre, iron, and vitamins. In some cases, these are added back into the grains after processing. These grains will be labelled as enriched.
So are grains good or bad?
It depends. Eating too many refined grains has been linked to obesity, inflammation, and digestive problems. But the right amount of unrefined grains may reduce the risk of heart disease, as well as being a good source of fibre and vitamin B. Whatever the case, unrefined grains are definitely better than refined ones.
Can dogs eat grains?
They can, but whether or not they should is still up for debate. Those arguing against the grain often refer to the domesticated dogs closest ancestor, the wolf. Their argument is that you'll never see a wolf grazing through a cornfield. Instead, these carnivores are on the lookout for fresh meat. Given that dogs descend from wolves, the idea is that they should be eating the same foods. It suggests that dogs have not evolved to process grains. Their systems are not equipped for breaking down complex carbohydrates, and many fibres and grains remain undigested. Over time, this may lead to inflammation disorders, bowel problems, allergies, and obesity.
But there are two sides to most stories. The pro-grain camp argues that dogs have had plenty of time to adjust to a “modern” diet that includes grains. DNA research suggests that the domesticated dog evolved around 7,000 years ago. This is around the same time that humans began cultivating large areas of lands. The idea here is that dogs developed along with agriculture, meaning they were often fed the scraps and leftovers from all kinds of “human” food, including grains. Scientists have also looked at the AMY2B gene, which is responsible for producing chemicals that break down grains. Their studies have shown that the gene is 28 times more active in dogs than wolves.
I’m confused: should I feed my dog grains or not?
It's ok if you're feeling confused; both sides make compelling arguments. On the one hand, the “carnivore” diet appears to make sense. It's natural. It's based on the foods our dogs were "designed" to eat. On the other hand, the pro-grain team are keen to stress that today's modern dogs are very different from their ancestors, and there's a bit of science to prove it.
So there's really no right or wrong answer, or at least not yet. But you know your dog better than anyone else. If they seem in good health and high spirits, then they might be well adapted to a diet that includes grain. Think carefully before making any changes to their routine, or at least consult a vet beforehand.
When should I stop feeding my dog grains?
For whatever reasons, some dogs don't react well to grains. These pooches are likely to develop allergies, stomach issues, digestive problems, and obesity. If your dog is suffering from anything like this, then switching up their diet might help.
Tips for going grain free
If you decide that going grain-free is best for your dog, then start off slowly. Going cold turkey on the grain could be counterproductive. Start off by switching up just one meal a day. Then gradually reduce the grains over the following week, replacing them with protein and vegetables. This allows your dog's system to adjust. You can also keep notes on how the new diet is affecting your dog.
Best grain free dog food
There are loads of companies producing grain free dog food. You can choose from wet canned food to dry dog food. The quality of the ingredients will vary within each product, so do plenty of research before deciding on what to put into your dog. Alternatively, you can take a DIY approach by cooking and preparing all your dogs meals. A non-grain diet needs to be high in protein, but it must also include enough healthy fats and vitamins. Vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes are great sources of healthy carbs, and you can also introduce a few multivitamin supplements to keep your dog healthy.
Going grain-free isn't about being right, or winning the argument. It's about what's right for your dog. Each of our pets has a unique set of dietary requirements, and each one responds differently to different types of food. If they seem healthy, then it's probably a good idea to leave them be. If not, then changing over to a non-grain diet may improve their overall health. Think carefully before making any changes to your dogs routine, and speak to a specialist for more advice.