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Grain-Free Cat Food: Important Considerations

Drs. Foster & Smith Educational Staff
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Grain-free pet foods are everywhere these days. We offer this guide to help you understand what a grain-free diet truly is, which cats may benefit from one, and a common misconception about grain-free feeding.

What is a Grain-Free Pet Food?

To begin this discussion, let's start with the definition of grain: the seed portion of any cultivated cereal crop used for food. The whole grain contains bran, germ, and endosperm, but in refined grains the bran and the germ are removed (as well as the nutrients and fiber they contain).

In pet foods, grains have traditionally been used as carbohydrate sources and fillers. In many lower-quality formulas, grains have also been used as protein sources. A grain-free diet, then, contains NO grains of any kind, including wheat, corn, rice, oats, and barley.

Instead, grain-free foods often contain alternate sources of carbohydrates, such as white potatoes, sweet potatoes, green peas, chickpeas, or carrots. Sometimes, however, a grain-free pet food contains primarily meat, along with added vitamins and minerals to make it complete and balanced.

Why Consider a Grain-Free Diet?

Though beef is still the biggest culprit in adverse food reactions in pets, some cats have sensitivities to grains. These pets can develop digestive problems like vomiting and diarrhea, or skin/coat problems like itching and flaking - particularly on the ears. Grain-free diets are thought to minimize adverse food reactions in these cats.

A veterinarian may use an elimination diet to identify the allergen triggering the adverse reaction. When a grain is believed to be the culprit, the pet is often switched to a grain-free diet. Skin and digestive issues may improve as the result of a switch to a grain-free diet, but some believe it may also be due to the fact that grain-free diets are often premium formulas with higher-quality ingredients.

An Evolutionary Way to Feed?

Grain-free diets (particularly the high-protein formulas) are also gaining popularity with owners that want to feed a more evolutionary diet. Since the wild cousins of our cats consumed a diet void of grains and heavy in meat, organs, bone, and a smattering of grasses - some owners believe their domesticated pets should eat similarly. Other proponents of the high-protein, grain-free diets believe they are ideal for highly active or working pets that require more energy.

Are Grain-Free Diets Low in Carbohydrates?

A common misconception about grain-free feeding is that these diets are lower in carbohydrates. Some of them are. However, formulas containing starchy vegetables or legumes such as white potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas or chickpeas often have just as many carbohydrates as a diet containing corn, wheat, or rice.

Do Pets Need Carbohydrates?

Not necessarily. Pets require glucose to supply energy for organs and other metabolic processes, but carbohydrates are not the only source of glucose. Provided a cat's diet contains enough of the right amino acid and glycerol precursors from fat and protein, the liver (and to a lesser extent, the kidneys) can supply sufficient glucose for the metabolic needs of pets through a process called gluconeogenesis. This, of course, assumes the pet has a healthy-functioning liver and kidneys. Always check with your veterinarian if you want to feed a low-carb or carb-free diet.

What to Look For in a Grain-Free Diet

As with any pet food, the most important consideration is that it is complete, balanced and appropriate for the age and species of the pet. So, first make sure it meets the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Cat Food Nutrient Profiles for your pet's life stage. Look for formulas with no meat by-products or artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. Also make sure, per serving, it has an appropriate amount of calories for your pet's activity level. See all our great Grain-free pet foods and do some comparing of your own!

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