Despite what you’ve heard, and regardless of the wheat-free diet you may be considering, you probably have no physiological problem processing gluten. Celiac disease, which affects approximately 1 percent of the population—with another 10 percent or so suffering from non-Celiac gluten intolerance—is a serious condition with far-reaching consequences, both dietary and lifestyle-related. But our current fixation on the supposed evils of gluten, which really is nothing more or less than wheat protein, both minimizes the plight of those with Celiac and clouds the already-insanely-fuzzy food dialogue in this country.
Still, if you choose to buy into the hype—and like all food fads, the discussion about gluten is cocooned in hype—well, that’s your call: Live a life without real pasta, bread and cereal grains at the table if you choose.
But it’s wrong to assume that a gluten-free diet—or, for that matter, any other inexplicably trendy human-food trend—is in any way better for your pet.
While Americans choose so often to ruin our lives at the table as a result of trends that will inevitably go the way of Cavariccis and slap bracelets, that story has been told a thousand and three times before. Here’s what’s new, though: Rather, it’s about the many ways in which people are conflating their own supposed healthfulness with the needs of their pets, often to the latter’s detriment.
“They are kind of marketing more toward the owners’ likes and dislikes—in the sense that there’s, like, vegetarian diets out there now,” says Dr. Eric Walsh, an internal medicine specialist at the Veterinary Specialty Center in Delaware. “The grain-free is a big one that we’re seeing a lot of because we’re seeing Celiac disease in humans, and they’re worried about glutens in the grains and things like that. There is a lot we’re seeing now, with the marketing, that’s not necessarily in the dog’s best interests.”
If you’ve been paying attention to pet-food advertising recently, you’ve likely noticed a significant uptick in the marketing of so-called healthy pet foods. And while no one would argue the merits—both moral and health-related—of feeding our beloved furry friends a diet based on actual, minimally processed foods, forcing our own food-fad-based nutritional beliefs on them could be unhelpful. Like humans, dogs and cats and other household pets can and certainly do suffer from food sensitivities and allergies. That doesn’t mean their allergies are the same as ours.
“It’s tough for me to say because I see them [in my practice], but I would say overall [animal food allergies are] not as common as you would think,” Dr. Walsh points out. “We do see it, though. The main thing that dogs and cats are going to be allergic to [is] the animal protein source. So, generally, beef is a big one; chicken, fish sometimes in cats. On rare occasions, you can have a wheat-gluten allergy. There’s one breed in particular, the Irish Setter, that is known to get a gluten allergy, but … like I said, I’m in a kind of niche type of practice where we see the ones with food allergies, but I don’t think it’s as prevalent as it’s kind of laid out to be.”
So why the sudden seeming uptick in pets whose owners are feeding them diets based on their own perceived nutritional needs? To quote Mel Brooks in Spaceballs: “Moichandizing!” Walk through the aisle of your pet-food store or poke around online, and you’ll find an ever-growing range of pet food whose ad copy (a) reads more like it was written with human dietary desires in mind and (b) makes it seem as if pets everywhere have been suffering for generations with undiagnosed cases of food allergies.
(All of this, of course, does not include people whose legitimate food allergies are so extreme that they cannot have certain items in their house for fear of being adversely impacted themselves, or those with religious beliefs that preclude, say, pork products in their kitchens, regardless of whether they or their pets will be consuming them. But barring instances like these, the manipulations and machinations of the food marketers has crossed over to the realm of Fido and Fluffy with a vengeance.)
Dr. Walsh points to an article, written by Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD and DACVN, and Cailin R. Heinze, VMD, MS and DACVN, titled, “Deciphering Fact from Fiction.” In it, they write that “[g]rains are as ‘biologically appropriate’ as other popular sources of carbohydrates in pet foods. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation currently being propagated regarding grains in pet foods. Contrary to popular belief, grain-free diets do not offer health benefits over a diet that contains grains, and each diet should be assessed based on its overall nutrient profile rather than individual ingredients.” They continue: “A diet of meat and potatoes for a dog or seafood and peas for a cat is no more or less physiologic than a diet of meat or seafood and rice. However, many people assume that that potato or pea diet is superior only because it lacks grains. Much of this information is due to marketing by manufacturers who are looking for ways to make their diets stand out in a crowded marketplace.”
It seems to be working. Marianne Charbonneau, owner of Just Dogs and Cats on Sansom Street, told me that “gluten-free, limited-ingredients people—especially with the chicken jerky scare coming out of China—are much more focused on USA-based, only single-proteins very much, as well as grain-free. The trend that we’re seeing in the human population is clearly being mimicked in the pet population.”
Taken in a vacuum, of course, being hyperconscious of what you feed your pet has the potential to be tremendously beneficial: Few right-thinking people would argue that higher-quality pet food is better for your beloved companion than feed of lesser quality. The problem arises when, for example, owners don’t only foist their own unique habits on their pets, but do so in a way that is counter to how a particular animal is supposed to eat in the first place.
Cats, for example, are “called obligate carnivores,” Dr. Walsh explains. “Dogs are more like you or I—they’re omnivores, so they eat meat and vegetables—whereas cats are, like, straight carnivores. So it’s like feeding a tiger a salad. It’s not going to work out.” He personally hasn’t seen any deleterious effects first-hand in this regard, but says that, over time, “I would assume that they’re getting some level of malnourishment to some extent.”
Dr. Walsh adds: “There are diets out there that have soy-based proteins as well that I’ve seen animals on, and long-term, I haven’t seen them have any negative side-effects. But I would say if you have to feed a cat a diet, and you have a choice, and it’s not like an allergy thing, I would use a meat source.”
It all makes sense. But just like the hyperventilating nature of the dialogue regarding the food that humans consume, there is, unfortunately, a fair bit of misinformation and pseudo-science masquerading as received wisdom and a perplexing conflation of the dietary needs of wholly different species.
There are, of course, plenty of excellent pet-food options out there; just make sure to read the label carefully. Because just like the foods that human beings eat, there is a great deal of variability, even within a single category. Our beef, for example, can run the gamut from chuck ground on-site by your butcher and sourced from a single healthy cow to the notorious “pink slime” that made headlines a few years ago. You want your pet to eat relatively high-quality food, too. Just don’t take the labels for gospel: Like with food produced for humans, processing facilities are not perfect, and cross-contamination with other protein or food sources can occur, causing an allergic reaction in your pet that has the potential to go misdiagnosed as an allergy to one ingredient when it could, in actuality, be caused by some other ingredient not present on the label but working its magic in the factory’s chopper or chute.
Still, the best any owner can do is to feed their pet a diet that is appropriate for them both as a species and as an individual being, respectful of their kind’s overarching dietary needs as well as your particular pet’s personal affinities and allergies, if any.
In the end, the best advice seems to be the same for pets as it is for people: Eat a balanced diet, look upon dietary fads and trends with a healthily skeptical eye, parse labels carefully, don’t take anything for granted and use common sense. And if it sounds wrong to feed your pet a particular diet, or if you’re confused, seek out the advice of a professional.