Choosing Between Grain and Grain-Free Dog or Cat Food

(Dr. Iulia Mihai, DVM) Pet owners have one major dilemma: “Should I feed my pet a classic diet or a grain-free diet?” The variety of pet diets available on the market is overwhelming, and choosing the most suitable one can be a real challenge.

The concept of diets without certain potentially harmful ingredients (e.g., gluten, sugar, etc.) is increasingly common in the pet food industry. This concept may seem invented by pet food manufacturers to make us spend more money on their products. However, the concept is not entirely based on marketing and advertising, as dogs and cats did not consume grains in the wild, both species being carnivores.

In this article, you will find out if pets can eat grains, what the benefits and disadvantages of grain and grain-free diets are, and much more.

Can Pets Consume Grains?

Grains are not normally part of pets' diets, especially cats. Today's dogs are more omnivores than carnivores and can tolerate them very well even in larger quantities. In the case of cats, they have even greater difficulties in processing grains. Cats are obligate carnivores and cannot digest cellulose, having zero caloric value.

However, in the wild, cats also consume the stomach contents of their prey, which often contain vegetables. But unlike dogs, cats would not survive if their diet was not meat-based.

What Is Grain-Free Pet Food?

Grain-free pet food is produced using formulas without grains. In order to maintain the flavor and texture that pets appreciate while still giving them a variety of nutrients, the grains that were removed are substituted with other ingredients (especially in the case of dog food).

Common grains used in dog diets include:

  • Rye
  • Rice
  • Corn
  • Oats
  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Sorghum

Some types of grain-free dog diets replace grains with cassava (a highly digestible, high-quality root that provides energy) and other key ingredients. Therefore, dogs on special diets are not missing out on the essential nutrients and energy that will help them stay healthy.

When it comes to cats, they do not need grains in their diet. Grains do not provide cats with any nutritional value. They need meat to thrive

Common grains found in cat food include:

  • Wheat
  • Corn
  • Oats
  • Barley
  • Rice

What Are the Benefits of Grain-Free Pet Food?

Grains are an important source of nutrients, especially carbohydrates that dogs can use as an energy source. So what's the point of choosing grain-free diets?

Here are some of the reasons why you might choose a grain-free diet for your dog or cat:

  1. Grain-free diets can help pets with sensitive stomachs.
  2. Grain-free food can alleviate the symptoms of pets with grain allergies.
  3. Grain-free diets can help your pet get rid of bad breath.
  4. Grain-free diets can have a positive impact over your pet’s digestion.
  5. Grain-free diets can give your pet more energy.
  6. Grain-free diets have more nutritional value.
  7. Grain-free diets can help with dull coat.
  8. Grain-free diets can help maintain an optimal weight.

1. Sensitive Stomachs

Although most pets can consume grains without problems, there are a few that may struggle to do so. Food intolerance in pets includes the following clinical signs:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Flatulence

If your pet is prone to digestive issues, talk to your vet about grain-free pet food.

2. Grain Allergies

Food allergy is different from food intolerance and is more severe. Food allergy occurs when the immune system (the body's defense system) overreacts to exposure to an ingredient. The immune system treats this "threat" as non-self (foreign) and sends out chemicals (histamines) to neutralize it.

Like people, pets can also suffer from food allergies. However, grain allergy (gluten allergy) in dogs and cats is rare. Clinical signs related to this condition include:

  • Excessive itching
  • Irritation
  • Hot spots
  • Skin rash
  • Crusts
  • Open wounds
  • Secondary skin infections
  • Chronic ear inflammations
  • Hair loss
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Breathing difficulties (in severe cases)

If your pet shows these symptoms, talk to your veterinarian to determine the cause of the problem. In general, in the case of food allergies, the treatment involves an elimination diet, where diets with different ingredients are tried until one of them no longer triggers pets’ immune system.

3. Bad Breath

What your pet eats can also have a major impact on their digestive health. Every dog or cat owner has faced their pet's bad breath at least once. When grains or gluten cannot be properly digested in the intestines, you can smell it in your pet's breath. A grain-free diet can be the solution to these problems. Bad breath can be a consequence of gluten intolerance.

4. Digestion

By their nature, dogs do not completely digest grains. The enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates is salivary amylase, which is present in insufficient amounts to support their digestion. Carbohydrates are broken down in the duodenum with the help of pancreatic amylase.

Grain-free food is low in carbohydrates and high in protein and is easier to digest. The transition to grain-free food is done gradually, increasing the amount given over several weeks.

5. Energy

Animal protein is the main source of energy for carnivores. Food that contains grains does not provide them with the necessary energy intake, most of its composition being eliminated as such. Grain-free food is rich in protein and is an excellent source of energy. This type of food is highly recommended for energetic dogs with an active lifestyle and for pregnant and lactating females.

6. Nutritional Value

Products that contain excess grains have a low nutritional value. Pet food manufacturers often use grain to increase the quantity at a low production cost. Pets fed with such a composition require a much larger amount of food to cover their daily nutritional needs. Therefore, grain-free food is richer in essential nutrients, and the amount to be administered will be much smaller.

7. Shiny Coat

Grain-free food with fish is richer in essential fatty acids. These nutrients are beneficial for your pet’s skin and fur, supporting a thick and shiny coat.

8. Optimal Weight

As mentioned before, pets fed grain diets will consume more food to meet their nutritional needs. A large amount of food and a lack of daily activity is the recipe for obesity. Quality grain-free diets will provide your pet with essential nutrients in a smaller amount. However, even if you decide to give your dog or cat grain-free food, it is still important that they exercise daily.

What Are the Disadvantages of Grain-Free Dog Food?

If you want to consider grain-free food, always make sure the diet you select for your dog is high quality. Otherwise, your pet may have health problems if you eliminate key ingredients and do not replace them with essential ones.

For example, not all the grain-free recipes are better. Some grain-free pet foods use potato in place of grain ingredients rather than an essential ingredient such as meat. While we’re comparing ingredients, some pet foods use better grain ingredients like quinoa, oatmeal, or brown rice while others have inferior grains such as corn and wheat.

Grain-free diets are often more costly, but higher quality ingredients and your pet’s health are worth the investment.


Choosing your pet's diet depends on several aspects, the most important being meeting your pet’s nutritional needs

Grain food is cheaper but is often full of ingredients that bring almost no nutritional value to your pet. Grain-free food, on the other hand, can have multiple benefits for your pet, especially if they face digestive problems or food allergies. It is most important to examine the list of ingredients to see the whole picture. If your pet shows signs of food intolerance or allergy, talk to your vet.

Dr. Iuliana Mihai, DVM, Masters In Small Animals And Equines Pathology

Iuliana graduated from the University of Agronomical Sciences and Veterinary Medicine in 2012, Romania. She has a Master’s degree in Small Animal and Equines Pathology and a strong affinity for Veterinary Parasitology and Laboratory. In 2013 she started her Ph.D. in epithelial cancer in dogs and cats. She volunteered at the faculty’s clinic in her 3rd year of study, and continued her career in small animal pathology and laboratory. She has one cat and eleven rats. Her interests outside of work include traveling, writing, and crafting.


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