We recently spoke to Dr. Paula Tyler, veterinarian and owner of the Cochise Animal Hospital in southern Arizona, about grain-free dog food. What she told us might surprise you. In summary, grain-free dog foods aren’t good for dogs.
But if a grain-free diet isn’t healthy for dogs, why do so many people believe it is, and why has this trend become so popular? The simple answer: marketing.
How Grain-Free Dog Food Became Perceived as Healthy
Modern fad diets, like the paleo diet, have convinced many people to stop eating high-carb foods, like whole grains, despite a mountain of clinical research showing that people who eat whole grains, such as rice, corn, and oats, are perfectly healthy. If fact, people who regularly eat whole grains are usually healthier than those who don’t. Nevertheless, trends in the fitness industry have convinced people otherwise, and since you can’t actually market anything to a dog, you have to target the owner.
If a dog’s owner is someone who believes grains are bad for people, then they are likely to buy a grain-free dog food. They figure what’s “bad” for them must also be bad for their dog. Sadly, consumers also place too much faith in dog food manufacturers. They assume that if a dog food company makes a grain-free food, then it must be good for dogs.
However, Dr. Tyler told us most dog food makers use the lowest quality ingredients they can get away with, and they change their formulas all the time based on what’s cheap and available. If one day, chicken scraps are cheap and abundant, then chicken is going to be the main protein in their dog food. But if the next day, fish heads are cheaper, then fish becomes the main protein in the formula.
What this proves is that dog food manufacturers don’t care about the quality of their food as much as their bottom line. A company that takes pride in the quality of their product wouldn’t spontaneously change the recipe just to increase their profit margins.
We asked Dr. Tyler if there’s a brand she recommends, and her top pick was Science Diet. She told us they at least use a consistent formula, and their ingredients are better than most other brands. Her second pick was Purina Pro Plan – not the grain-free kind, obviously. At the bottom of her list was Purina Dog Chow and other similar cheap dog foods. She said these dog foods contain the worst ingredients – literally the cheapest stuff makers can get away with.
Grain-Free Diet and Heart Disease
Studies have found a link between heart disease in dogs – diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy – and grain-free dog foods. What’s interesting, though, is that it’s not necessarily the absence of grains that’s the problem, it’s what the grains are replaced with. Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVN, says you should steer clear of any dog food that uses “exotic ingredients.”
Grains typically make up the bulk of most dog foods, so in order to make a dry dog food that’s grain-free, they have to replace the grains with other ingredients. Potatoes, lentils, and chickpeas are common replacements, but the research is suggesting it’s not healthy for dogs to consume large quantities of these ingredients. Furthermore, the ingredients advertised on the front of the bag, and listed at the top of the ingredients, probably don’t make up most of the recipe – there’s a lot of other stuff in there.
For example, a bag of dog food might say the formula is salmon, chickpeas, and potatoes; but in reality, those ingredients only account for a small percentage of the food. Unlike human-food makers, who have to list ingredients by order of which one is used the most, dog food companies do not. They can make any ingredient appear to be the main ingredient, even if it barely exists in the dog food.
Bottom line: don’t feed your dog any dog foods that contain unusual ingredients. Stick to the basics.
What If You Can’t Afford High Quality Dog Food?
Premium brands, like Science Diet and Purina Pro, are pricy. For some dog owners, they are simply too expensive to buy on a regular basis. So what are you supposed to do if you can’t afford a high quality dog food? Buy the best dog food you can afford that only contains basic ingredients, like chicken and rice. You can also supplement your dog’s diet with whole foods that are good for them, such as lean meat, cooked oatmeal, brown rice, peanut butter, and carrots.