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GRAIN FREE CAT FOOD: 2020 Research Update [Is It Beneficial to Cats?]


Grain-free diets are one of the largest search terms regarding alternative cat food diets.  There is limited information on the benefits and reasoning behind “grain-free” cat food compared with other more traditional cat food diets.  In this article we will discuss some of the reasons pet owners are looking into grain-free cat food and whether it might be a good choice for your cat.




Why the interest in grain-free diets for cats?  With the relatively recent popularity of the Ketogenic & paleo diets for weight loss and optimal health for people are showing more interest in diets that fit with particular aspects of human evolution of the body and digestive sytem.


Some of these “natural” or “evolutionary inspired” diets include the blood type diet, DNA diet, ancestor diet, ketogenic & paleo diet.  A proponent of these diets seeks to produce an ideal human diet based upon our ancestral past and evolution.


With cats, there has been an interest in understanding what diet is optimal for cats or felines overall health and digestive system.  The search for grain-free cat food may be an indicator of this overall interest in optimal health.


First of all, optimal diets for humans or cats are a hotly debated topic, and currently, there is no conclusive evidence that it is not safe for dogs or cats to ingest grain as a group. 


According to Cornell University, Cats are obligate carnivores, which means that they rely on nutrients found only in animal products. Cats evolved as hunters that consume prey that contains high amounts of protein, moderate amounts of fat, and a minimal amount of carbohydrates, and their diet still requires these general proportions today.


This may be counter-intuitive the fact that most cat food contains large amounts of carbohydrates and with proper rationing and overall care, cats can live long and healthy lives on cat food products that contain grain.


The vast majority of dogs (and cats!) are very good at digesting and using grain nutrients at amounts commonly present in pet foods (> 90%).


Although gluten intolerance is a popular buzzword, Gluten intolerance is exceedingly rare in pets


One thing I did discover is that “grain-free cat and dog food can have one dangerous side effect.  When the company cuts out the grains they often have to substitute another carbohydrate source such as potatoes, rice, etc.    But in one study by the FDA, the substitution of legumes has shown an increased risk for cardiomyopathy


FDA Reports Increased Cardiomyopathy

FDA announced that it had begun investigating reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating certain pet foods, many labeled as “grain-free,” which contained a high proportion of peas, lentils, other legume seeds 


We understand the concern that pet owners have about these reports: the illnesses can be severe, even fatal, and many cases report eating “grain-free” labeled pet food.


Animal numbers in DCM Reports received between January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2019

 Number of reportsNumber of animals affectedNumber of deaths

  *Cats are generally more likely to develop hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (a heart disease)


Vetnutrtion did a study that compared ingredients and some nutrients – calories and carbohydrates – between a number of popular grain-free and grain-containing dry diets for cats.



They obtained information on ingredients and basic nutrients from 77 dry cat diets, 42 grain-containing diets, and 35 grain-free diets for sale by major online retailers. In each category, we then measured the components that were most abundant and compared the nutrients for the two categories. Here are some of the things we’ve found that is more interesting:

  • In some cases, Cat Food can be labeled “grain-free but may include non-wheat grats such as oat or barley.  Grains constitute a large section of consumed carbohydrates, Common grains found in cat food include wheat, corn, oats, barley, and rice.
  • The calories were similar across both forms of diets, but feeding each other did not necessarily imply eating more or fewer calories, although the calories in the diets differed considerably throughout both classes. 
  • There were lower amounts of carbohydrates in the typical grain-free diet than the normal grain-free diet, but there were grain-free diets with amounts of carbohydrates equal to or even better than grain diets.
  • In both grain-free and grain-containing diets, the most common animal-sourced components were poultry (chicken, turkey, and/or duck), eggs, and fish. 
  • Peas, cranberries, potatoes, and carrots were the most popular vegetable-based components in grain-free diets. Rice, linseed, cranberries, and oats were the most popular plant-based foods in grain-containing diets. 
  • Lettuce, watercress, celery, blackberry, raspberry, apricot, artichoke, chia, papaya, and zucchini were some of the diets that featured some very unusual cat food ingredients.
  • Exotic meats – venison, bison, rabbit – were most common in grain-free diets.


“Grain-Free” is a marketing term rather than a health term


  • The most common plant-sourced ingredients in grain-free diets were peas, cranberries, potato and carrot. The most common plant-sourced ingredients in grain-containing diets were rice, flax, cranberries, and oats.


Recently published data indicates that grain-free pet foods may not be as good for your pet’s diet, but the research in question also indicates one of my pet peeves: there is no reliable way to determine the quality of grain-free diets and to make a decision on the needs of the pet owner in this area. 


Compared to diets high in animal protein, barley, and soya-based on NPPF dietary profiles, the report appears in a recent issue of Pet Wellness-25 grain-free products. They noticed that the majority of pet food brands did not satisfy these nutrient requirements, and even relatively decent diets were below quality.


I’m glad to see, on the one hand, that people are looking at these issues and taking them seriously enough to research the nutritional facts of pet food to see what their pets are capable of. These findings, on the other hand, have left me saddened by the inability of pet food manufacturers to offer a consistent quality of quality that they can use to make informed and healthy choices for their animals. 



What also surprised me was that it also indicated that fresh meat may possibly have higher levels of meat protein than any grain-free substitute in other foods. 


Grain-free foods, however, are not carbohydrate-free because of the lack of sugars. Instead, natural varieties of carbohydrates, such as maize, sweet potatoes, peas, etc., are used as a way of minimizing the usage of rice. 



The most regularly traded carbohydrates included peas, oats, sweet potatoes, and tapioca in grain-free cat food. Where a pet may be allergic to a particular food, such as wheat, this produces the perfect nutrient combination without triggering any allergic reactions. 



Owners trying to feed grain-free may be unsuccessful with their attempts to minimize the weight of their pets. Grain-free diets are not diets that are low in sugar or low in calories, though certain ingredients have been found to have the same calories as usual diets.

George Aguilar

Content Writer for Healthy Petables

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