Gluten and grain-free diets for dogs

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Most of us know someone on a gluten-free diet – and maybe some dogs who are too. But do these restrictive diets make sense for our dogs’ health? Here’s Head Vet Sean with the facts so you can decide for yourself.

What’s the difference between wheat, gluten, grains and cereals?

  • Grains and cereals – edible plant seeds like oats, barley, maize, rice and wheat. All rich sources of carbohydrates, energy, B vitamins and fibre.
  • Wheat – a common type of grain, and a beneficial ingredient in dog food, in appropriate quantities. Wheat gluten is the kind most commonly associated with allergies or intolerances in humans.
  • Gluten – a type of protein found in several grains. There are different types of gluten, for example, wheat gluten is different to that found in maize or rice. Gluten forms a sticky substance when it’s mixed with water and holds its shape once cooked. This is what gives baked foods – including crunchy kibbles – their structure and texture.
  • Carbohydrates – a vital macronutrient that provides rapid, easy-to-use energy; the fuel your dog needs to grow and stay active. Different types of carbohydrate contain different levels of starches, natural sugars and fibre – all important elements of a healthy, balanced diet.gluten and grain-free dog food

Can dogs eat carbohydrates?

Some people say dogs should only eat meat, like their wolf ancestors. But over 30,000 years of evolution have made wolves and modern domestic dogs very different – they have around 30 genetic differences in how they digest plant-based starch. That’s because dogs adapted to digest the food leftovers we offered them, including plants and grains. Our dogs are fully-fledged omnivores.

Do carbs make dogs fat?

While it’s true that too many carbs can make your dog put on weight, the same can be said of too much fat or protein. Balance is key.

Related blog: Why do dogs need carbohydrates?

Can dogs eat grains?

Grains are good for most dogs, as part of a balanced diet. They’re an excellent source of:

  • Whole grains – rich in a range of important nutrients
  • Complex carbohydrate – for slow-releasing energy
  • Essential amino acids – the building blocks of protein
  • Fibre – to aid digestion and help your dog feel full

Energy from grains is slow-releasing – it takes a long time to enter the bloodstream. That means your dog gets a steady supply of energy, rather than the spikes and drops in blood sugar associated with other energy-rich foods, like sugar.

Grains are sometimes unfairly viewed as a filler ingredient in dog food. While this can be true if the proportion in a recipe is too high, it’s not true all the time. Grain can be a valuable part of your dog’s diet.

What’s the deal with grain-free dog food?

In humans, gluten allergies and intolerances are a hot topic – lots of us are now choosing to ditch wheat from our diets. The market for gluten-free foods is booming. As we constantly see gluten-free claims being touted as a selling point for our food, it’s not surprising we’re starting to see this trend creep into our dogs’ food too.

But our dogs’ digestive systems work differently. The truth is, unless your dog has been diagnosed with a gluten allergy or intolerance, cutting grains from their diet can remove the benefits of whole grains unnecessarily.

Can dogs be allergic to gluten?

In humans, coeliac disease is a genetic intolerance to gluten that affects around 1 in 100 people.  For dogs, genetic gluten allergies or intolerances are much rarer – the ingredients most often associated with allergies or digestive upsets in dogs are animal proteins. Wheat allergies only account for 1% of all allergies in dogs. When you look at food allergies alone, the figure is still low  – only 10-13% are gluten allergies.

Genetic gluten allergies also seem to be limited to certain breeds. We know a small number of Irish Setters are affected, and new evidence suggests links with a cramping syndrome in Border Terriers.

Is my dog allergic to gluten?

Symptoms of food allergies, such as gluten allergies, include:

  • Chronically itchy, sore skin
  • Recurrent ear infections
  • Occasional digestive issues

If your dog’s symptoms are limited to digestive issues such as diarrhoea, vomiting and loose stool, it’s more likely they’re suffering from a food sensitivity or intolerance, not an allergy. But all of these symptoms can be signs of other issues too. A trip to the vet is the best way to find out what’s going on.

Related blog: Does my dog have a food allergy?

If you think grain could be the cause of the issue, it may be best to exclude wheat first. If you exclude all grains, your dog could unnecessarily miss out on other beneficial grains that are far less likely to cause problems. It can take up to 12 weeks for your dog’s reaction to subside, so it’s important to be patient before you make any further decisions about your dog’s diet.

If you’re not sure what’s behind your dog’s reaction, a hypoallergenic diet can help. This avoids the top five culprits – beef, eggs, dairy, soya and wheat. Once the reaction subsides, you can try reintroducing these ingredients one by one, to see which was at fault.

Excluding ingredients from your dog’s diet can be tricky, but it’s not if you’re a tails.com customer. Your dog’s food is individually tailored, so you can make all these changes in your dog’s profile in seconds. Log in. Click. Done.

Related blog: I think my dog might have a food allergy. What’s the best way to find out?

Trying gluten-free dog food

A small number of dogs need gluten-free dog food – mainly dogs with a diagnosed gluten allergy. If this applies to your dog, look for foods made without wheat, barley and rye. Your dog can still eat oats and rice. Maize is fine too because maize gluten is a different protein – one that’s very unlikely to cause a reaction.

Grain-free dog food recipes

If you’ve tried excluding wheat, and there’s been no improvement in your dog’s health after 12 weeks (it can take this long for their symptoms to subside), you may wish to switch your dog to a grain-free dog food. Your dog still needs carbs for energy and fibre, so make sure the food you serve includes alternatives.

At tails.com it is easy to try our grain-free recipes. We can replace grain with a combination of sweet potato, potato and beet pulp to make sure your dog gets all the nutrients they need. Ask us to leave grain out of your dog’s recipe and we’ll work out the right balance. You’ll see the option to exclude grain in your dog’s profile.

Need help separating grain fact from fiction? Our veterinary and nutritionist team are on hand to help. Get in touch at hello@tails.com.

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14 comments

  1. My Jack Russell has ‘turns’ very similar to those seen in Spikes Disease In border Terriers. Like many border terrier owners I put her on a grain free diet and the turns have more or less stopped, they only seem to happen when she’s snuck a wheat treat like sausage or biscuits.

  2. My Jack Russell has ‘turns’ very similar to those seen in Spikes Disease In border Terriers. Like many border terrier owners I put her on a grain free diet and the turns have more or less stopped, they only seem to happen when she’s snuck a wheat treat like sausage or biscuits.

  3. Hi Fen,

    Glad to hear you’ve figured out what might be the cause. As you know Spike’s disease has been linked to a genetic gluten sensitivity in Border Terriers only, but many with cramp and spasm episodes don’t improve even with a gluten-free diet. There are similar disorders in other breeds which don’t have any link to diet; episodic falling syndrome (EFS) in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels for example. Jack Russell Terriers and Labradors in the UK are seeing a rise in similar movement disorders recently, but whether this is purely genetic or there is a dietary link is unclear at present. Luckily tails customers can select wheat or grain as an exclusion on their dog’s profile if it appears to cause problems.

    Best wishes,
    The tails.com team

  4. Hi Fen,

    Glad to hear you’ve figured out what might be the cause. As you know Spike’s disease has been linked to a genetic gluten sensitivity in Border Terriers only, but many with cramp and spasm episodes don’t improve even with a gluten-free diet. There are similar disorders in other breeds which don’t have any link to diet; episodic falling syndrome (EFS) in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels for example. Jack Russell Terriers and Labradors in the UK are seeing a rise in similar movement disorders recently, but whether this is purely genetic or there is a dietary link is unclear at present. Luckily tails customers can select wheat or grain as an exclusion on their dog’s profile if it appears to cause problems.

    Best wishes,
    The tails.com team

  5. Hi Abbey. Shar Peis are prone to many skin conditions, some complicated by food allergies or intolerances. Many Shar Pei owners choose a diet that excludes the most common food allergens just in case there are skin problems. But the breed itself is not naturally allergic to grain. At tails.com if you choose a hypoallergenic blend we exclude beef, eggs, dairy, soya and wheat. You can also exclude grain and other ingredients if you wish. Each dog is an individual and their allergies or intolerances are too.

  6. Hi Abbey. Shar Peis are prone to many skin conditions, some complicated by food allergies or intolerances. Many Shar Pei owners choose a diet that excludes the most common food allergens just in case there are skin problems. But the breed itself is not naturally allergic to grain. At tails.com if you choose a hypoallergenic blend we exclude beef, eggs, dairy, soya and wheat. You can also exclude grain and other ingredients if you wish. Each dog is an individual and their allergies or intolerances are too.

    1. Hi Ellen,

      We’re able to exclude a large number of ingredients from any potential blend, including grain. There are certain ingredients however, that we are unable to exclude together in the same blend. At this time we’re unable to provide a blend at this time that’s both fish flavoured and excludes grain.

      We’re always looking to expand our range of available kibbles so we hope we can provide your dog with a suitable blend in future.

      Best wishes,
      The tails.com team

    1. Hi Ellen,

      We’re able to exclude a large number of ingredients from any potential blend, including grain. There are certain ingredients however, that we are unable to exclude together in the same blend. At this time we’re unable to provide a blend at this time that’s both fish flavoured and excludes grain.

      We’re always looking to expand our range of available kibbles so we hope we can provide your dog with a suitable blend in future.

      Best wishes,
      The tails.com team

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