Grains – a dog’s friend or foe?

Grains – a dog’s friend or foe? Banner

Grains – a dog’s friend or foe?

Quite simply, there isn’t a simple answer.  However, just as we can be judged by others for our food choices, dog owners are feeling increasing pressure to ‘go raw!’ or ‘give them grain-free only!’ or ‘serve it on a silver platter and sing to them while they’re eating!’. OK, maybe the last one was an exaggeration, but there are a lot of choices now for dog owners and it can be confusing.  During May, we’ll examine the benefits of certain diets, but today we’re going to focus on grains.

What is a grain? 

Grains are the seeds of grasses, called cereal crops, cultivated as food.  Some contain gluten, a plant-based protein, and some do not.

Grains with Gluten

  • Wheat
  • Rye
  • Barley
  • Oats (if not certified gluten-free)
  • Spelt
  • Kamut

Gluten-free grains

  • Corn
  • Rice
  • Oats (if certified gluten-free)

Just to confuse matters, there is also a category of “pseudo-grains”, which are the seeds of broad-leaf shrubs or plants, rather than grasses.  These have a slightly higher protein content and are gluten free, they include:

  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Quinoa

Then, they’re broken down even further into ‘whole’ or ‘refined’ grains.  Whole grains are the whole grain kernel with the bran, germ, and endosperm intact. Refined grains are processed to only leave the endosperm, giving them a longer shelf life. During this process, dietary fibre, iron and B vitamins are removed.  Whole grains are more nutritious and don’t cause a blood sugar spike as much as refined grains do.

So, what is the problem with putting grains in dog food if dogs are omnivores?

Often, there isn’t a problem, especially if the grain is gluten-free.  However, gluten is present in wheat, which is one of the top five ingredients known to cause sensitivities in dogs.  Gluten is implicated in a variety of inflammatory-type health issues and problems can arise when gluten grains are used in place of more bioavailable animal protein in dog food.

Dogs can digest grains. Whilst they don’t produce salivary amylase, they do produce pancreatic amylase, therefore enabling them to digest starches. However, a lot of dogs have sensitivities to grains.

If you notice any of the following symptoms, it would be worth talking to your vet about switching to a grain-free diet:

Skin Irritation:
Often a grain allergy manifests itself with dryness, irritation and inflammation on the surface of the skin. Observe your dog to see whether they are scratching more, especially on the paws or around the face, and whether small scabs are present. If so, then looking at a grain-free, nutritious diet might relieve these symptoms. Anicura Dog Spray and Dog Gel can be used to stop the itch and soothe the broken skin until the cause of the allergy is found.

Digestive issues:
Although dogs can digest grains, they find it much easier to process meat and vegetables.  If your dog has an intolerance to grains, you might notice frequent bowel movements (more than 2 per day), or vomiting.  Of course, these can be symptoms of many other issues, so a trip to the vet is best if it continues for more than a day or two.

Ear infections:
Just as in children (and some adults), recurring ear infections are symptomatic of a grain intolerance in dogs. Look for pawing and scratching at the ears and have your vet take a look.

Issues with anal glands:
If you notice that your dog is trying to relieve their anal glands by scooting across the carpet, or licking the area, it may be that the diet is the culprit.  Often this is down to inadequate fibre in modern canine diets, but can also be a symptom of a food allergy.  If you feel that there has been an increase in ‘carpet scooting’, a trip to the vet is advised.

So, what are the benefits of grains?

  • Whole grains contain lots of vitamins and minerals
  • Oats contain soluble fibre which enhances absorption of nutrients, helps to stabilise blood sugars and plays a role in managing cholesterol
  • Gluten-free grains can help to regulate the digestive system

Certain grains should be avoided for certain medical conditions, so if your dog’s diet does contain grains, check with your vet as to whether they are suitable for the condition in question.  For example, although we know that whole grains are more nutritious, dogs with kidney disease should have white rice instead of brown, due to the phosphorus levels present in the latter.

The conclusion? If intolerances are not present, and the digestive system absorbs carbohydrates well, then your dog may do well with a small amount of gluten-free grains in his diet.

Talk to your vet if you are concerned about any of the symptoms listed, or if you are planning a major change to your dog’s diet.