Grain Free and Cats: Is Grain Free Food Bad for Cats?

Cat owners who are looking more closely at their cat’s diet and researching healthy choices will likely come across information about grain free cat diets, as well as some strong opinions (and confusion) around this topic. If you’re wondering whether it’s safe to give a cat a grain free diet, the short answer is that it can be a healthy option, and it carries little risk.

That said, “grain free” doesn’t always mean “healthy.” Depending on the brand, these pet foods can still have fillers and byproducts or have too many or too few carbohydrates to make a balanced diet. This guide will take a closer look at the grain free trend and help you determine if grain free is the right choice for your cat’s needs.

The Definition of Grain Free in Cat Food

Grain free cat food or kitten food is food that’s free from all grains. Grains that typically show up in dry cat food include:

  • Corn
  • Wheat
  • Oats
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Rice

What many pet parents don’t realize is that grain free doesn’t mean low-carb. In fact, there are many sources of carbs that aren’t grains, including things like:

  • Lentils
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Cranberries
  • Tapioca

In fact, a 2017 study in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery found that some grain free cat foods had higher carb counts than grain-containing cat foods. And some of the grain free sources of carbs in cat food, like tapioca, are very unnatural for a cat to eat.

In other words, grain free food can be a healthy cat food option, but it’s important to look beyond this term and check out the individual product, its ingredients, and nutrition facts to determine if it’s right for your cat. Your veterinarian can also help you compare foods and make a smart choice since they know your cat’s unique needs.

The Rise in Popularity of Grain Free Foods for Cats

Pet food trends tend to follow human nutrition trends, and the shift to grain free cat food is no exception to this. Grain free pet food was originally something veterinary nutritionists and dermatologists recommended to pet owners when cats showed signs of a sensitive stomach, gluten issues, or true grain allergies.

It wasn’t until the 2000s when low-carb diets for humans were popular that similar trends started hitting the pet food industry. High protein, low-carb, and grain free foods grew in popularity. Similarly, when gluten-free eating gained awareness due to a larger percentage of the population getting diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it also influenced pet foods.

Though celiac disease in pets is very rare, gluten intolerance is more common and can cause chronic stomach, skin, and ear problems. As this knowledge became more widespread, many pet food manufacturers responded by swapping out grain ingredients with other carb sources.

That said, grain free doesn’t mean hypoallergenic. Cats can still be sensitive to these foods whether or not they have grain allergies specifically or need a gluten-free diet

Do Cats Need Grains?

No, cats don’t need grains to live happy, healthy lives. Many vets recommend a diet for housecats that resembles what a cat would eat in the wild. Wild cats are obligate carnivores, which means that their natural diet is 70% or more meat-based protein. They also tend to eat their whole prey. This includes muscle, bone and stomach contents, which usually contain grains, fiber, and other nutrients.

So, a cat’s diet isn’t all meat, but it’s also not heavy on grains. To help support your cat’s health, you should look for pet food that is similar.

What matters more than the grain free diet vs. grain diet debate is that a cat’s diet shouldn’t rely heavily on carbohydrate sources. Lean, meat-based protein like chicken, turkey, and fish should be the first in the list of ingredients and carbs should be low on the list. A cat food that follows these guidelines should be a healthy choice.

Some Benefits Cats Can Get From Grains

While cats don’t need a lot of grains in their diet, they can benefit from having some. Grains provide several good essential nutrients, including:

  • Fiber
  • Fatty acids
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals

Some whole grains can also be a good source of protein. The protein in whole grains is more easily digested than that found in meats and can provide balance to an all-meat diet. If your cat needs to gain weight or is lacking in any of these nutrients, some healthy grains in the diet could help.

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a serious condition that weakens the heart muscles, also comes up in discussions about grain free diets for dogs and cats. In 2018, the FDA investigated whether eating grain free food with legumes in it was linked to DCM, but the study didn’t find a concrete connection.

Grain Problems Can Be Confused With Other Ingredient Intolerances

If your cat seems to have a sensitive stomach or is reacting badly to their food, your first thought may be to switch off grains or another food ingredient. But stomach sensitivity often isn’t caused by food. When it is food-related, protein sources are much more likely to cause stomach discomfort than carbohydrate sources. That said, your cat’s veterinarian is the best source of information.

Some Benefits of Grain Free Foods for Cats

While it’s less common than other food sensitivities, cats can be sensitive to grains. A food sensitivity or intolerance can cause problems like vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and skin irritation.

If you’re noticing these problems, consider putting your cat on an elimination diet to discover the source of the issue. If you trace it back to grains, then a grain free diet may be in order.

Sometimes, your veterinarian may recommend a low-carb, low-grain diet for your pet. In these cases, cats that need to lose weight or take care of digestive troubles can thrive on grain free diets. Similarly, cats that are allergic to grains or gluten can benefit from grain free foods.

Also, cats that are picky eaters prefer these high-protein foods. If you decide to make a switch, the key is to do it with the insight and guidance of your veterinarian. A quick check-in can answer your questions and relieve any concerns.

How to Select a Grain Free Food for Your Cat

As we’ve talked about in this post, “grain free” doesn’t always mean “healthy” or “packed with nutrients.” Here are three simple tips to choose a better quality grain free cat food:

  • See if it’s been formulated with a vet nutritionist: If a company makes this claim, it means they had insight on the nutritional value of their food from a certified expert. A nutritionist can help ensure each type of food (wet, dehydrated, or dry) has the proper nutrients for cats of all ages.
  • Read through the ingredients and see what comes first: We mentioned earlier that cats are carnivores, first and foremost. That means the first ingredient(s) in the list should be a meat or fish, such as whitefish, cod chicken, or turkey. Non-grain carbs, like sweet potatoes, tapioca, or lentils, should be lower down.
  • Check for whole muscle and organ meats: Cats in the wild get a balanced diet by consuming their prey whole, eating flesh, bones, muscle, and organ meats (kidneys, heart, liver, stomach, brains, etc.) Organ meats in particular are seen as a “superfood” for cats. The best grain free food will include a mixture of these. Consider avoiding foods with “meat meals” and byproducts, which tend to have little meat and are often cooked using high heat and pressure, which affects the nutritional value.

The Honest Kitchen Has Grain Free Foods That Cats and Owners Love

If you think a grain free diet could benefit your cat, don’t choose any old brand off the shelf. Grain free canned food or kibble can still be made from low-quality ingredients or be high in fat or carbs.

The Honest Kitchen has human grade cat foods, including many grain free recipes, that both cats and their owners love. All our recipes were formulated with a certified vet nutritionist to ensure overall health and wellness for cats. These tasty foods are packed with thoughtfully sourced protein, natural ingredients and vitamins and minerals to help support your cat’s health.

Shop our line of grain free foods today to find the right fit.

Health Disclaimer: This post is educational in nature and doesn’t constitute health advice. Please consult your pet’s veterinarian or other healthcare professionals for specific guidance on this topic.

Meet the Author: Dr. Leilani Alvarez

Leilani Alvarez, DVM, CVA, CCRT, CVCHM is an integrative veterinarian, utilizing both conventional and holistic modalities and is employed at the renowned Animal Medical Center in New York City. Dr. Alvarez is the director of The Tina Santi Flaherty Rehabilitation & Fitness Service at NYC’s Animal Medical Center. She practices Integrative Medicine, which includes therapies such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, homeopathy and physical rehabilitation, which help to increase the overall health of a patient and can often increase the success of conventional treatments.

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