November 10, 2009

While most domestic pets are not strictly ‘celiac’ (only Irish Setters have so far been shown to suffer this condition), many pets are grain-sensitive on some level. Most of the time, their owners attribute their health problems to other causes, when all that’s needed is a simple change in the daily menu.

What is gluten and how does it affect our pets?

Gluten is a generic term used to describe the proteins found in wheat and other cereal grains. It constitutes a mixture of proteins classified into two groups, called prolamines and glutelins.

In true grain intolerance, an immune response occurs when gluten is consumed; the villi, tiny hair-like projections in the small intestine that absorb nutrients from food, are damaged. Damaged villi do not effectively absorb basic nutrients — proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and, in some cases, water and bile salts.

Wheat, barley, rye and oats are excluded when following a “gluten-free diet”. Most evidence implicates wheat as the most problematic food. One school of thought is that genetically modified grains are especially risky for the gluten intolerant. Studies show that when butterflies and other species come in contact with pollen from genetically modified crops, they suffer a number of health problems and genetic mutations eventually occur. It is possible that a similar thing happens when other species consume GM grains – especially species whose systems aren’t designed to cope with a grain overload in the first place.

What are the signs of gluten Intolerance in pets?

Consumption of glutenous grains in sensitive pets, can lead to:

  • Chronic GI upset – intermittent or continuing diarrhea and / or constipation including mucusy stools. Vomiting may also occur in more severe cases.
  • Dermatitis – chronic dry and flaky skin, hair loss, redness, bumps, rashes and constant scratching are classic signs of a food intolerance.
  • Chronic ear infections – over-consumption of grain can lead to a buildup of excess sugars in the system. This in turn can contribute to yeast overgrowth, leading to dark, smelly waxy debris in the ears, head shaking and scratching.

Other health problems that may be related to food intolerances such as grain sensitivity include: arthritis, epilepsy, abnormal behavior, allergic and inflammatory reactions (including inhalant allergies due to a compromised immune system), pancreatitis, hepatitis, as well as an increased susceptibility to infection, Cushing’s, Addison’s, and thyroid problems. Of course not all these conditions are directly related to grain consumption, but the overload of grain in most modern commercial pet diets is thought to deplete the animal’s natural state of good health over time, leaving him more susceptible to these problems occurring.

How can I tell if my pet is grain-intolerant?

When several of the above signs are present, a couple of options exist to definitively determine if grain-sensitivity is the culprit.

Diagnostic blood tests are available but they are not always completely accurate – and can be very costly indeed.

An elimination diet is one of the surest ways to determine if your pet is sensitive to grains. It can be a time-consuming process for some pets, to pin down what foods cause their reactions, but for many pets, cutting out all gluten or feeding a completely grain-free pet food is the answer to problems that have been plaguing their companion for years.

Which grains are gluten-free?
  • Rice
  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat (this is actually a seed and not related to wheat)
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Other gluten-free starches include garbanzo, lentils, nuts (remember macadamia nuts are harmful), maize / corn, fava beans and cassava.

Do dogs and cats need grains?

Dogs and cats are designed to primarily eat meat. In nature, the ancestors and present day cousins of our domestic dogs and cats, consume meat as the majority of their diet.

Dogs are scavengers. A wild dog’s diet includes almost any food that provided calories – but very little, if any, grain. A major factor in the domestication of dogs was the food that humans leftover. It is thought that the wolves who were least afraid of humans, over a period of tens of thousands of years, became our close companions.

According to a recent study by biologists Ray and Lorna Coppinger, the natural diet of dogs included, “Bones, pieces of carcass, rotten greens and fruit, fish guts, discarded seeds and grains, animal guts and heads, some discarded human food and wastes.”

However, cats are more selective about food by nature and anatomy. Their ancestral diet consisted of small rodents. Their usefulness to humans had much to do with their eagerness to dispatch the rodents so plentiful around human habitats.

Some individual animals actually do need grain in their diets, to maintain a healthy body-weight or because they get dry skin and dull hair when they go ‘grain-free’. As with almost every aspect of holistic health, the answers vary depending upon the individual animal. Even littermates can very from one another, in their requirements. One pup might get an ear infection every time she eats any sort of grain. Another might be able to tolerate just oats or rye but not wheat and a third might end up thin and uncomfortable when fed only meats and veggies.

Almost no grains

The natural diet of both species includes high levels of protein, fats and water, and very little carbohydrates. The“recommended” diet of dry foods, which is the diet of most cats and dogs, is the complete opposite of this natural diet: High in carbohydrate, low in protein, fat, and with almost no water.

As a general rule, most dogs and cats do not need many carbohydrates, and most veterinary textbooks agree. Canine and Feline Nutrition: “The fact that dogs and cats do not require carbohydrate is immaterial because the nutrient content of most commercial foods include [carbohydrates].”

Small Animal Clinical Nutrition III, written by the founder of Science Diet (Mark Morris Sr.) and his son (Mark Morris Jr.): “Some question exists regarding the need of dogs and cats for dietary carbohydrate. From a practical sense, the answer to this question is of little importance because there are carbohydrates in most food ingredients used in commercially prepared dog foods.”

A highly processed, grain-based diet fed to an animal designed to thrive on a meat-based, fresh food diet is very likely to produce symptoms of ill-health over time. Diets to address disease most frequently deal with the symptoms that are the result of a lifetime of inappropriate food, not the true cause of their symptoms. The optimum diet for a dog or a cat should closely resemble their natural diet.

A diet balanced heavily toward grain promotes insulin production and the production of inflammatory chemicals. Over-production of insulin makes it hard for the body to maintain its correct weight, and can lead to diabetes and other problems. An overabundance of inflammatory chemicals means more aches and pains.

Improve the balance of your dog’s diet by reducing grain, and you may not need the dangerous non-steroidal and steroid drugs so commonly prescribed for dogs. Readers who follow Dr. Mercola’s Total Health Program will agree eating fewer grains means less inflammation! Toxic drugs certainly make animals more comfortable, but will shorten their lives too.

A word of caution: Diabetic animals or any other medical condition making a switch to a more protein-based diet should be under the close supervision of a veterinarian. Many diabetic pets do require some complex carbohydrates, often in the form of whole grains.

Making the switch

The best diet for a dog or cat is almost always a fresh, raw meat, bone and vegetable diet or a home prepared pet food diet that uses little or no grain.

For the majority of pets, a diet with more meat and less grain is a good starting point. As you add meat to your pet’s diet, at the same time, reduce the grain content. Do so gradually over a period of a few days.

Add up to 15 percent fresh meat, raw or cooked: This increases the protein and reduces the carbohydrate content of the pet’s food, but will not unbalance the levels of any essential nutrient in your animal’s diet. Never feed cooked bones!

Also, ensure the meat scraps you’re adding are mostly meat! Your doggie bag is likely to have much more fat in it than meat. Fat is a very important nutrient but one that needs to be kept in balance. Every fat gram provides double the calories of a gram of protein or carbohydrate.

For cats, we highly recommend switching all the way. Cats should not eat dry foods. Urinary tract problems and kidney failure in cats have been closely related to dietary water, which has a different effect on their bodies than the “real” water an animal drinks. It’s much better for the cat to eat her food with the water in it! Add a commercially prepared frozen raw diet. As with canned foods, if these are “complete,” they can replace all other food fed to your animals.