Eating gluten-free (GF) has been one of the biggest diet fads over the past couple of years. Books with catchy titles, writings by otherwise legitimate experts and celebrity endorsements give the impression that GF diets improve health. Since many people humanize their dog it’s no wonder that we also humanize their nutritional needs or want our dog to eat the same type of diet we eat. Commercial dog food companies play into this. But are GF diets for our dogs necessary?
Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye, spelt and some varieties of oats. In dogs with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities, the body reacts negatively to the protein component of gluten, prolamine. Wheat, the major source of gluten in the diet, contains the prolamine gliadin. In dog food, gluten is added to increase the protein and carbohydrates content. For dog treats, the gummy texture of gluten helps bind the ingredients and keep it from falling apart.
Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, causes inflammation and damages the villi of the small intestine preventing uptake of certain vitamins, minerals, and eventually other nutrients such as carbohydrates and fat the longer the disease remains untreated.
Less is known about non-celiac gluten sensitivities, which is not an autoimmune disorder. In people, the symptoms are similar to those with celiac disease and may be more prevalent than celiac disease. The exact prevalence of celiac disease in dogs is unknown. There is no breed, sex or age predilection, although some breeds are commonly affected.
Symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity include weight loss, diarrhea, vomiting, excessive gas and poor appetite. A dog could also exhibit allergy symptoms such as itchiness and dermatitis.
A reliable diagnosis can only be made by removing gluten from the diet with a subsequent challenge trial. The dog will be diagnosed with celiac disease if symptoms improve. If symptoms don’t improve either the dog wasn’t on the diet long enough (it could take several weeks or longer to see an improvement), there could be extensive inflammatory changes/atrophy (steroids may be needed), or the dog doesn’t have celiac disease.
Refraining from gluten helps heal intestinal damage. Treatment involves following a GF diet for the rest of the dog’s life. Specialty food can be provided by the veterinarian or the owner will need to read food labels to ensure food and treats do not contain gluten.
Be wary of breeders, pet store owners, and trainers who try to convince you that gluten needs to be eliminated from the dog’s diet. This is based on marketing at the expense of what we know scientifically to be best for our dogs. Eliminating gluten, carbohydrate, or any category of food without medical justification may put the dog’s health at risk and potentially set the dog up for nutrient deficiencies. Avoiding gluten doesn’t necessarily improve health if there are no symptoms of celiac disease or gluten sensitivities.
GF doesn’t mean grain free. Keep carbohydrates in the diet. Look for source such as rice instead of gluten containing carbohydrates. Many brands are now using potato and even other less common healthy grain sources like barley, tapioca, millet, quinoa, and even garbanzo beans.