Is Grain-Free Pet Food Better for Your Cat or Dog?


As a pet parent, you want your fur buddy to enjoy a life that is as long and as pleasant as possible. This starts by selecting the right pet food which is a huge part to support your pet’s health with the right nutrition.

Grain-free and gluten-free products are two of the biggest pet food trends in Malaysia currently. But is grain-free pet food the best choice for your pet? Here is everything you need to know about grain-free pet food.

Is Your Cat Picky About Food?

Well, my cats used to be like that too, but now they finished the food all the time!

If your cat doesn’t want to eat the food or finish the food you gave, I have a solution for you. Read my true story here.

What Is Grain-Free Pet Food?

Grain-free pet food for cats or dogs is a diet without grains, as well as ingredients derived from grains. Grains are the seeds of grasses and the ones commonly used in cat or dog foods include:

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

The following “grain by-products” may also appear on an ingredient label of pet food with grains:

  • Gluten
  • Starch Grain
  • Cereal Flour
  • Bran
  • Hull

Is Grain-Free Pet Food Gluten-Free?

Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in certain cereal grains, which include wheat, barley and rye. In a gluten-free diet, only gluten-containing grains are eliminated and it may still contain other gluten-free grains. A grain-free diet eliminates all grains, including gluten-free ones (e.g., corn and rice). As a result, the grain-free diet is much more restrictive.

Why Is Grain-Free Pet Food Popular in Malaysia?

All-natural cat food or dog food with no preservatives and harmful additives are becoming popular nowadays since pet parents are now more aware of the importance of picking the right pet food which directly contributes to our pets’ overall wellbeing.

1. Halo Effect from Human’s Food Industry

Many pet owners have come to believe that what is healthy for humans is also healthy for pets. Therefore, be it human food or pet food, a grain-free product is often perceived as a premium or a healthier choice in the food market. However, what applies to humans may not be applicable to pets. Let’s read until the end of this article to understand grain-free pet food better.

2. Palatability of Grain-Free Pet Food

A lot of feedback has been received from pet parents that grain-free pet foods are more palatable than rice-based foods, so grain-free food could be a good option if your pets are fussy eaters.

3. Allergies to Grains

Veterinarians might recommend grain-free pet food as part of a treatment plan for pets with unusual allergies or sensitivities. The common symptoms of grain allergies may include:

  • Hair loss
  • Itchy, dry skin
  • Rashes, inflamed skin
  • Obsessive chewing or licking of body
  • Diarrhoea or constipation
  • Blood in poop
  • Vomiting

Although allergies to grains in cats or dogs are relatively uncommon when correctly cooked grains are given as a food ingredient, when it does occur, it can be distressing for the pet and the owner. Therefore, some pet parents are not taking any chances and are going straight to the grain-free option.

Is Grain-Free Pet Food Carbohydrates-Free?

A common misconception about grain-free pet food is that it is low-carb or even free of carbohydrates.

However, no-grain pet foods usually use alternative sources of carbohydrates like potatoes, sweet potatoes, pea flour, lentils or quinoa to replace grains. Therefore, grain-free does not mean is carb-free. It also does not mean is all-meat, although it can be higher in meat content. In some cases, grain-free pet food may contain the same or even higher level of carbs than pet foods with grains.

Grain-free pet foods with the grains-substitutes as mentioned above may cause excess soluble carbohydrates which can lead to health issues in cats or dogs. A high-carbohydrate diet can cause obesity, diabetes, decreased metabolism, digestion problems and kidney problems.

Therefore, grain-free pet food with other carbohydrates used to replace grains may not be as good as it seems to be. It is important to understand the composition of ingredients and ensure that carbohydrates are not excessive, at the same time with complete and balanced nutrition.

Why Does Grain Exist in Pet Food?

Grains contain carbohydrates which play an important role in the manufacturing of dry pet food like kibbles.

The main function of cooked carbohydrates is to hold the structure or the form of kibbles and to prevent crumbling. Just like making cookies, flour or grain is a common ingredient to hold the shape. Therefore, a certain amount of carbohydrates-containing ingredients like cereals, peas and potatoes needs to be included in the recipe, no matter in the making of grain kibbles or grain-free kibbles.

Among the carbohydrates-containing ingredients, grains are the cheapest yet durable with a long shelf-life, that is why traditional pet manufacturers love putting in grains in the kibble-making process.

On the other hand, grain-free kibbles are normally manufactured using carbohydrate-containing ingredients like potatoes and legumes which are more expensive than grains. However, at the same time, some of these ingredients may contain a higher level of carbohydrates. Pet owners should be aware of the potential risk of excessive carbohydrates in their pets’ diets.

Although wet pet food usually contains a relatively smaller proportion of carbohydrates, most wet pet food contains gelling agents which are also made from carbohydrates-containing ingredients.

Can Grain-Free Pet Food Lead to Heart Disease?

A grain-free diet does not pose a health risk to cats. However, there is a potential link between grain-free dog food and dilated cardiomyopathy.

Dilated cardiomyopathy (“DCM”) is a heart condition that decreases the heart’s ability to pump blood.

Between 1 January 2014 and 30 April 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) received 524 reports of DCM (515 for dogs and 19 for cats). They have opened an investigation on what these dogs were eating and found that 90% were on grain-free diets and 93% were on diets that contained peas and/or lentils. A smaller proportion contained potatoes or sweet potatoes.

Credit:  FDA

The foods were also tested for amino acids, minerals and metals, no significant abnormalities were found.

To date, the FDA has not fully proven the relationship between grain-free diets for dogs and the development of DCM. The investigation is still ongoing.

Why would grain-free pet food contribute to DCM especially in dogs? It might not be as simple as grain-free or not grain-free because the amount of other ingredients of concern complicates the issue. For instance, a deficiency of taurine can also cause DCM in pets.

If your dog is on a grain-free diet with legumes (peas or lentils) or potatoes, it should be closely monitored for any signs of heart disease by your veterinarian.

How Freeze-Dried Raw Pet Food Is Different?

Freeze-dried raw pet food like GraceFull RAW, does not contain grains and other carbohydrates used to replace grains such as potatoes, peas and lentils. The only ingredients are what nature intended for both cats and dogs — meat, vital organs, egg yolk and bones. It is not just grain-free but is also free from any other ingredients that could potentially cause issues on your pet.

Conclusion: Is Grain-Free Pet Food Better?

Let us recap some of the facts about “grain-free”:

  • Grain-free product is gluten-free. But gluten-free does not mean is grain-free.
  • Grain-free pet food is generally more palatable than grain pet food.
  • Although uncommon, cats or dogs can be allergic to grains, especially wheat.
  • Grain-free does not necessarily mean low-carb or carb-free.
  • Grain-free does not necessarily mean high meat.
  • Carbohydrates-containing ingredients are essential for the making of kibbles, regardless it is grain-free pet food or pet food with grain.
  • There is no established relationship between a grain-free diet and DCM yet.

So, is grain-free cat food or grain-free dog food a better choice for your pet?

It all comes down to what “grain-free” means in terms of the food and, of course, which suits the best for your pet’s condition. It is also important to monitor your pet’s intake of carbohydrates because many of the pet foods (even the reputable ones) consist of far excessive carbohydrates somewhere between 46% to 74%. 1

A freeze-dried raw pet food diet is a good way to reap the benefits of a truly grain-free diet, without worrying about risks that come from fillers or grains-substitute.

Learn more about GraceFull RAW Freeze-Dried Pet Food here.


1 National Research Council, National Academy of Science, “Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats”, 2006 Edition, National Academies Press, Washington, DC, p 317

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