Ask a Vet: Advice on Grain-Free/Raw Food Diets

Ask a Vet: Advice on Grain-Free/Raw Food Diets

Posted by Dr. Susan O'Dell on 18th October 2016

We asked veterinarian Dr. Susan O'Dell, "What are your thoughts on grain-free/raw food diets?" Read her response below!

This question actually needs two answers, as grain-free and raw are not synonymous. To start, let me first outline my general philosophy on pet foods. 1) A diet must be complete and balanced. 2) Keep the diet simple and avoid ingredients that cause an adverse reaction.

So, what does this really mean when it comes to keeping your pets safe? Complete and balanced commercial pet foods are formulated to include all of the nutrients your pet needs at the appropriate ratios. These standards have been set by a non-profit organization known as AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials). In order for a pet food company to claim its product meets the AAFCO standard, the food must pass laboratory analysis and may or may not be additionally proven through a feeding trial on real animals. Check your pet’s food labels for the AAFCO claim to be sure the diet is complete and balanced.

The next key to feeding your pet is simplicity. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of choices available with numerous different brands and various formulations within each brand. Make it easy for yourself, and for your pet. Pick one food and stick with it! Changing from beef to chicken to salmon may wreak havoc with your fluffy friend’s digestion. Prevent belly upset or possible allergic reactions by keeping them on one food that works for them.

 Now, when we apply my two-point philosophy to raw diets, they all fail in some way. Owners who feed homemade raw food diets can easily fall short of “complete and balanced” unintentionally. Even most commercial raw food diets have not undergone a feeding trial to support digestibility and absorption of the nutrients in the food. Also, bacteria like E. coli, Salmonella, and parasites like Sarcocystis are just a few of the unwanted “ingredients” that may be present in a raw diet. Raw food exposes the pet and the owner to disease such as salmonellosis from contaminated raw pet food.

Despite my concerns regarding the dangers of raw foods, I do offer them one accolade – most of them contain high quality ingredients. Pet nutrition runs the full gamut and spans the equivalent of fast food to fresh and organic. The ingredients included in raw diets are of a much higher grade than the average kibble. 

If you want to feed your pet a premium diet, or you already use a raw food, consider these guidelines for your pet’s health and safety: first, make sure the label has an AAFCO statement acknowledging a feeding trial - “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that (XYZ Food) provides complete and balanced nutrition.” Secondly, cook the food prior to feeding it to your pet. Although raw food proponents claim that cooking the food destroys nutrients, it actually makes some of the ingredients more easily digestible for your pet. Cooking not only changes the digestibility, but also greatly reduces the risk of bacterial or parasitic diseases for yourself and your pet.

For those individuals who have a sensitivity, they should avoid any problem ingredients. However, a dog that reacts to corn does not need to avoid all grains across the board! Each pet is an individual, and therefore, no single diet choice will work for all.Grain-free food is another recent fad that requires a deeper look. Grains commonly used in pet foods include corn, wheat, and soy. For most healthy animals, just as with healthy people, grains are a fine source of carbohydrate. In other words, grain-free foods have no specific benefit for most pets. 

Of course, grains are not the only option for carbohydrates in dog and cat foods. There are alternative sources, including legumes and tapioca. In general, there is no harm in feeding a grain-free food. Just remember to look for the AAFCO feeding statement.

Here is the take-home point: make an informed decision when selecting your pet’s food. After that, monitor your pet’s condition for changes, and, if necessary, change foods again until you find a diet that allows your pet to thrive.

Planning a trip to the vet? Review our Common Mistakes Made at the Vet article before you go!

Do you have a question for our vet? Email us at!

Dr. Susan O'Dell grew up in Michigan, where she received her Bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Michigan and her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Since graduating, she has practiced at animal hospitals all across New England, with a particular focus on educating small animal clients.

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