To Be or Not to Be ... Grain Free?

This month we will be looking more closely at ‘Grain Free’ diets for dogs and cats. It seems almost every pet food brand has at least one option of grain-free food in their range, so what is so special about it?! And, why are grains used in the first place? Fear not! All will be revealed!

First things first, how did pet food begin?

It is thought that dogs were domesticated over 15,000 years ago and even before then it is believed that they were living in close company with humans and feeding on all sorts of scraps and left overs including things like meat, bones, vegetables, fruit and bread. Over the years, as we have become more and more aware of what our pets need to live long, happy and healthy lives, pet food has evolved into something more specific and recently a deeper understanding of our pet families’ nutritional needs has been gained. Now, when we look at a ‘complete’ diet for dogs and cats (be this wet or dry) there are certain components that are essential.

Where do grains fit in and are they essential?

Grains are the seeds of cereal crops that have been cultivated for food. Grains are complex carbohydrates made up of fibre and starch. Unlike refined grains, whole grains haven’t had their bran and germ removed by milling, so all of their nutrients remain intact. When fed, enzymes break down the starch turning it into simple sugars such as glucose, which can then be used in the body as an energy source. Some of the fibre in whole grains is indigestible but helps support healthy digestion. Popular grains used in dog foods are Barley, Buckwheat, Corn (or Maize), Oats and Rice.

As mentioned, whole grains are a great source of fibre. They have two different types of fibre: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre helps to maintain an even blood glucose level and boost nutrient absorption while insoluble fibre aids digestive health, regulates the digestive system and feeds the good bacteria in the gut. Some grains can even reduce the calorific value of a food while the fibre offers a “fuller feeling” which can really help when trying to slim down our slightly porky pet family members!

Grains are a good addition to pet food diets and many of our furry family have been living a long and healthy life on these foods, but they are certainly not essential. As we all know, not everyone is the same and something that works for one may not necessarily work for all.

Grains or grain free?

Sensitivities, allergies and intolerances are words that are increasingly noticeable in the world of pet foods, although the reasons behind this are not totally clear. If someone mentioned a couple of years ago that their dog was only allowed grain-free food, you would have been surprised. Nowadays, it is more common to hear that some breeds of dogs and cats are more sensitive to certain ingredients in food and these sensitivities can cause digestive upset and changes in coat and skin condition.

Sensitivities can develop from many different things but there are a few grains in pet food that are easier on a sensitive tum than others. Some grains (such as Barley and Wheat) contain the protein gluten while others, such as Rice, do not. Unfortunately, gluten can be one of those tricky tummy ‘ticklers’ that can cause irritation in sensitive dogs and cats.

Aside from gluten, our pets can be sensitive to many different things - even environmental factors – and allergies, intolerances and sensitivities can show up in a number of different ways.

OSCAR believe that the outside of the body mirrors what is happening on the inside, so if you feel good you look good; glossy coat, clear skin, bright eyes, firm stools and enough energy to fuel an active healthy lifestyle. If any of these areas gives cause for concern, we would advise the first thing to do is to make an appointment with your vet.

Problems to look out for.

Skin irritation, chewing, licking, or scratching a little more than usual can all be signs that there is something not quite right. An efficient digestive system should process food and produce a perfect poo that is a pleasure to pick up! If this is not the case, then maybe it’s time to look at the cause. Several factors can upset digestion but making sure that we don't over feed and that the ingredients in the food are easily broken down in the digestive system will help.

Many medical conditions, as well as intolerances or sensitivities, can be improved by a change in diet. Dogs that need to follow a low (but good quality) protein diet, or those following a low-fat diet for Pancreatitis or I.B.S (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) will benefit from the energy that is provided by the carbohydrates in grains.

However, if you've been to the vet and ruled out any underlying medical problems, opting for a diet that has little or no grain could make digestion easier for your four-legged ‘sensitive soul’ and help them to get their system back on track and running more smoothly.


So, if your ‘pampered’ pooch or ‘purrrfect puddy’ cat is flourishing on their diet containing grain, that’s great! A shiny coat, bright eyes, healthy weight, perfect poops and bags of energy for frolicking with their friends will indicate you’re feeding them just what they need to keep them tip top! But if you’re concerned that their coat could be better, skin a little clearer and poops a little firmer, then why not try a grain-free change?

If you would like any further advice on our blog “To be or not to be ... Grain Free”, please contact the OSCAR Helpline on our freephone number 0800 195 8000 or email

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