Recently I got an email from a radio listener complaining that their dog was “allergic to grain” and wanted my advice on whether a “grain free” dog food would solve their problems. I have found that “grain-free” seems to be a distorted concept in pet food. Some dog owners believe grain free food is of “magical” value to their dogs and give it credit for solving extensive problems—which may not be completely accurate.
In addition, dog owners and some veterinarians have a mistaken perception that dogs commonly develop grain “allergies” which cause skin problems. While this does indeed happen, grains are some of the least likely causes of food allergies. I am eager to clear up some fundamental misunderstandings about the word “grain” and the word “allergic” by pet owners.
Let us start by clearing up what is meant by “grain” — something I know a lot about since I happen to have celiac sprue disease (which means an intolerance to the gluten in grains). I am supremely aware of what constitutes a grain since I have to carefully avoid grains in any form, with wheat (as bread or flour) being the one most often seen in foods. This is also true of lower quality pet foods — the presence of wheat is a red flag about a product. Wheat is the grain primarily seen in dog food.
While celiac disease (called gluten enteropathy in dogs) is exceeding rare in dogs and seen only in a few certain breeds, wheat is generally considered to be best avoided as a quality source of nutrition. Pet foods based on corn are also seen on the list of lower quality foods, which is because it is high on the glycemic index and may contribute to issues such as obesity and blood sugar issues.
The presence of corn indicates that a pet food is heavily carbohydrate and plant protein-based rather than relying on a good meat protein source as the primary ingredient. When I was the PETCO spokesperson in 2011 for their natural foods, the signs on the wall in the natural section of their stores said everything you needed to know in choosing a high quality pet food: No Corn, No Wheat, No Soy. However, I also want to make sure to clarify that corn is not really considered a grain and is fully allowed on a human celiac diet, as is rice — wheat is the big no-no, as other people who are gluten (grain) intolerant will confirm.
I have written before that “grain free” is not really what it seems to be because it does not mean “carb free.” One reader wrote that her Pomeranian Spunky “began having seizures at 5 years old and sniffling and scratching a lot, losing much of his hair. I bought him expensive dog food which I thought was GOOD dog food. I sat up for hours one night researching allergies in dogs and found that grains in dog food, corn and wheat in particular, caused allergies in dogs like intense scratching and biting of paws, groins, and near top of back end, but also seizures. I have wheat allergies, my daughter has gluten allergies. I put Spunky on a grain free dog food and all his symptoms cleared up in less than two weeks.”
I can pretty much assure her that if any of Spunky’s symptoms were food related (which was not actually established with elimination diet or allergy testing like SPOT Platinum) they went away because she stopped feeding the previous food. She believed it to be a “good” food but apparently it contained various sub-optimal ingredients, which she didn’t know because she had not read the label before feeding it.
There could have been something in the previous food (preservatives, chemicals, poor basic ingredients) that had something to do with his scratching if it resolved that quickly — it was fixed by eliminating the previous food, not substituting it for a new better food. However, the “sniffling” that she mentioned is an upper respiratory reaction probably from an environmental allergy (like people who take antihistamines) and not food related. Lastly, seizures in a 5-year-old Pomeranian are most likely an inherited genetic trait.
I recall when a man named Bill wrote into HALO in response to a blog I had written and said: “My vet says absolutely no grain for my allergic 5 year old mini-Sheltie, Bonnie. She came from a shelter with a bad yeast infection of her skin and ears. The vet said no grains, beef or poultry, because they are the most likely cause. I certainly don’t want to keep aggravating a food allergy. So, what can you suggest?”
To Bill I would respectfully suggest changing to a veterinarian who actually understands food allergies in dogs, because that advice is so general and without scientific logic! A dog that has been in any shelter can arrive with all sorts of conditions, including previous neglect, poor hygiene and often poor nutrition. Trying to avoid chicken, beef and wheat “just in case” would be a lifetime of management without any proven reason.
As far as wheat or wheat gluten (or corn for that matter), you won’t find them in any premium dog food. One step on the path to improved health would be to switch to a high quality premium pet food like HALO as a powerful tool for ongoing health. Many shelters have the privilege of feeding Halo to their dogs thanks to Freekibble.com that spread Halo’s generosity. I’ll bet little Bonnie has left those problems in the rear view mirror now that she has a Forever Home with Bill!
Here are a few take-away points when making nutritional decisions for your pets:
1) Issues with human nutrition and digestion are not parallel to the dog digestive system or immune system.
2) Reading anecdotes on the Internet is not a good way to diagnose or treat any medical or health issue, for our pets or us.
3) Dogs are rarely allergic to food ingredients — poultry (including eggs) is the number one allergen for dogs (not grains), but the only way a responsible veterinarian instructs owners to discover if their dogs are genuinely food allergic is to go on a two month elimination diet in which ALL commercial food is removed from the diet and the owner cooks a simple diet of a protein and rice. Dr. Donna Spector, my co-host on THE EXPERT VET on Radio Pet Lady Network has spoken on our show about how to utilize an elimination diet, and written about it on her blog for Halo.
4) Never let guesses or assumptions about pet food be a substitute for a visit to a smart veterinarian who will help you figure out your pet’s problems using common sense, medical skill and modern technology.
Tracie Hotchner is the author of THE DOG BIBLE: Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know and THE CAT BIBLE: Everything Your Cat Expects You to Know. She is also a renowned pet radio host and producer, having spent 7 years on the Martha Stewart Channel of Sirius/XM with CAT CHAT® and even longer with her award-winning NPR radio show DOG TALK® (and Kitties, Too!) that continues to broadcast in the Hamptons and the Berkshires. Her most recent accomplishment is the pet talk radio network she has created on the Internet called The Radio Pet Lady Network.