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Do Dogs and Cats Need Grains?

Dogs and cats are designed by nature to be primarily meat-eaters.

by Steve Brown and Beth Taylor

Dogs are scavengers. Their diet included almost any food that provided calories - but rarely grain. A major factor in the domestication of dogs was the food available at the human garbage dump. The "tamer" wolves, those 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." (1)

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.

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.

Dogs and cats do not need 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]." (2)

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."(3)

The Waltham Book of Companion Animal Nutrition: "There is no known minimum dietary requirement for carbohydrate..." (4)

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.

Making the Switch to Meat

We believe the best diet for a dog or cat is a fresh, raw meat, bone and vegetable diet. Still, we may not always follow that advice due to financial constraints.

Understanding that every step helps, we hope these suggestions will help you to move toward that goal. Add meat to promote your pet's health: As you add meat to your pet's diet, at the same time, reduce the grain content of your pet's diet.

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.

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.

Avoid senior, lite and diet foods: These varieties usually have fewer calories per cup because manufacturers have increased the fiber and carbohydrates and reduced protein and fat, compared to adult maintenance diets. This is the opposite of what they really need, and has no scientific foundation. Older and overweight pets need meat, not grains.

Add canned food: Good canned food has no grains, and has more protein and fat than dry pet foods. Two good choices we recommend are Nature's Variety and Wellness. "Complete and balanced" canned diets may be fed as an animal's sole diet.

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.

Research proper homemade meat, bone and vegetable diets and supplement with good dry food to cut cost: Homemade foods can be nutritious and affordable, but must be made correctly. (We'll write more about this in a future article.) This option provides the protein and fat our pets need, reduces the amount of grain they eat, and is affordable by most people.

Feeding your pet a meat- and vegetable-based diet is clearly the best choice to protect and optimize their health. By following these simple recommendations, you will radically reduce the deadly toxins your dog encounters. Read more of our recommendations in See Spot Live Longer. May your Spot live a long, healthy life! Please feel free to get in touch with Steve and Beth for more information.

DR. MERCOLA'S COMMENT: There is indeed a special relationship that exists between pets and their owners that goes far beyond the sharing of a home together. Our happy-go-lucky, four-legged friends also provide us with constant unconditional love, devotion, friendship and something else that might not be at the forefront of most people's minds -- health benefits.

Conversely, as owners, we should be just as mindful that our pets depend on us to look out constantly for their safety and good health. Pet health and nutrition experts Beth Taylor and Steve Brown remind us, just as you can benefit by optimizing your diet according to your body's unique metabolic type, you can help your cat or dog live a long and healthy life by ridding their daily diets of grains, "fake foods" they, along with their owners, were never meant to eat in the first place.

For more information about the work Beth and Steve are doing in the field of pet health and nutrition, visit their Web site.


  • Footnotes
    (1) Coppinger, Ray and Lorna, Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution, Scribner, 2001. 59 -- 78.
    (2) Case: Cary, and Hirakawa, Canine and Feline Nutrition, Mosby, 1995. 93.
    (3) Morris, Mark, Lewis, Lone and Hand, Michael, Small Animal Clinical Nutrition III, Mark Morris Associates, 1990. 1-11.
    (4) Burger, I., Ed. The Waltham Book of Companion Animal Nutrition, Pergamon 1995. 26-27: 10