Nutritional Benefits of Corn and Grains for Dogs and Cats

By Canadian Academy of Veterinary Nutrition (CAVN), Allison Wara, BSc, DVM, DACVIM (Nutrition)

You are at the local pet food store shopping for a new diet for your dog or cat - one that your pet will enjoy and eagerly anticipate at mealtimes; a diet that is nutritionally adequate and will contribute to optimal health and longevity. But when you inspect a product on the shelf, you notice grain in the ingredients list. You ask yourself: “Why is there grain in my dog/cat food?”

Why are corn and grain in my pet’s diet - aren’t they considered fillers?

Seeing corn and grain in diets for dogs and cats may be perplexing. These ingredients are often criticized and mislabeled in the popular media as “fillers” – a cheaper alternative to more expensive animal ingredients. However, from a nutritional standpoint, “fillers” are ingredients that contain little or no value, whereas grains provide a wide range of essential nutrients that support optimal health.

What specific benefits do grains provide?

Animals (including humans) have requirements for nutrients, not ingredients. An essential nutrient is one that cannot be synthesized by the animal and must therefore be provided in the diet. Thus, it is important to consider the nutrients that ingredients like grains provide, rather than focusing solely on the name of the ingredients on a pet food label.

  • Corn is one of the richest dietary sources of linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid), which is required for skin and coat health.
  • Grains such as wheat, oats, rice, corn, and barley provide protein, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals.
  • Grains also provide an easily digestible source of carbohydrates (energy) for dogs and cats.

Do corn and grains contribute to allergies in dogs and cats?

Food allergies occur when an animal’s immune system incorrectly identifies a dietary protein as “foreign” and mounts an immune response against it. Ultimately, this results in dermatological disease (itching, scratching, recurrent ear infections) and/or gastrointestinal disease (vomiting, diarrhea).

In dogs and cats, the most common dietary triggers are animal proteins such as beef, dairy, chicken, and fish (for cats).

Adverse reactions to individual grains are possible but are far less common than those associated with animal proteins. For that reason, avoiding grains altogether (e.g., feeding a grain-free diet) is not an effective or reliable way to manage food allergies in pets.

Should I feed my pet a diet that contains grains?

Corn and grain have been included in commercial pet foods for many years. Although not a new industry trend, these ingredients have been vilified as poor sources of nutrition for our pets. Dogs and cats have physiological requirements for nutrients, not ingredients, and grains are a nutrient-dense source of essential nutrients for dogs and cats.

In fact, the inclusion of grains in pet food offers many health benefits for pets and contributes to a complete and balanced source of nutrition. The popular aversion to grains and the promotion of grain-free diets in pets is a more recent trend that is based on marketing, not grounded in science.

A diet recommendation for any pet should be based on a combination of factors, including medical history, dietary history, and physical examination findings from your veterinary care team. This makes the veterinary team one of your best resources. Together, you can work out the most appropriate nutritional plan for your individual pet.

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