The nutritional value of grains in cat and dog food

Grains can provide cats and dogs with nutrients and energy that are essential for their health - this article explores how they form part of a complete and balanced diet for your pet.
Man holding wheat in a field

When we discuss ingredients in pet food, it’s important to remember that their primary role is to provide vital energy and nutrients to sustain the health of cats and dogs. While as humans we often focus on specific ingredient in our diets, we should take a nutrient-led approach to pet food.

According to the Pet Food Institute, cats and dogs require more than 40 essential nutrients in their diets.1 Pet owners are therefore recommended to ensure their cat or dog is provided a specific combination of nutrients in their diet, which addresses the unique needs of their pet. Ingredients alone cannot ensure that each of these nutrients are present, or in the right quantities, in a pet’s food.

Instead, by following a nutrient-led method, we can put the needs of cats and dogs at the forefront of food production and investigating ingredients for the high-quality nutrients they can provide. With this approach, we also ensure we source highly digestible ingredients to support a pet’s absorption of nutrients.

With that in mind, let’s explore how grains can be used to provide some of the key nutrients cats and dogs need, as well as how this compares to other ingredients.

What are grains?

Grains, commonly referred to as ‘cereals’ or ‘cereal grains’ are the edible seeds of specific grasses and include wheat, corn, rice, barley, oats and rye, to name a few.

Are grains nutritious for cats and dogs?

When properly processed, grains and cereals provide plenty of nutritious and digestible nutrients and energy for cats and dogs. These include:

Vitamin E illustration

Vitamin E

Vitamin E protects against cell oxidisation.

Vitamin B illustration for the nutritional value of grains in cat and dog food

Vitamin B

Vitamin B provides a range of benefits for the nervous system, skin, hair and growth.

Linoleic acid illustration for the nutritional value of grains in cat and dog food

Linoleic acid

Linoleic acid is an important nutrient in maintaining a healthy skin and coat for cats and dogs.

One of the main nutritional benefits of cereals are the high-quality carbohydrates they provide. Carbohydrates are one of the three categories of macronutrients, alongside fats and protein, included in diets for animals and act as the main energy source for pets.2 Grains and cereals are also high in fibre, which is a beneficial nutrient in supporting healthy gastrointestinal functions in cats and dogs.

In fact, some grains, such as brown or white rice, may be recommended for dogs or cats experiencing gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhoea, as they are naturally easy for pets to digest.

Can cats and dogs digest grains and cereals?

Further to the nutrients that grains and cereals offer, it’s important to consider their digestibility for pets. Digestibility refers to how many nutrients a food item is able to provide. For example, an ingredient may be rich in nutrients but hard for a cat or dog to digest. This means that fewer nutrients are absorbed by the animal's intestines and consequently fewer will end in the bloodstream.

An ingredient that is highly digestible for pets can provide a much higher proportion of nutrients, and therefore a cat or dog may receive the same level of nutrition concentrated into smaller portions.

Cats and dogs are able to digest processed grains using the enzymes which are normally present in their digestive system: amylase for the starches and proteases for the proteins.

To expose the most nutritious, digestible elements of grains or cereals, the raw ingredient is ground and heated in the manufacturing process. This removes the less digestible outer shell and leaves the nutrients that cats and dogs need.

After this grinding and cooking process, some plant proteins can actually be more digestible than animal ones. This has been evidenced in a comparison of the digestibility of raw protein sources, with wheat gluten (99%) and soya isolate (95%) outscoring dehydrated pork (92%), poultry (88%) and lamb meal (88%).3

Digestibility Raw Protein 20% 0% Wheat Gluten Soya Insulate Pork Poultry Lamb 40% 60% 80% 100% 99% 95% 92% 88% 88%

Are grain free diets safe for cats and dogs?

Over the last few years, there has been a trend towards grain-free foods for cats and dogs (diets that are made with recipes containing no cereal), primarily due to concerns about food allergies or carbohydrate intake.

In reality, research has actually shown that food allergies are responsible for as little as 1-2% visits to the vet for cats and dogs.4 Instead, environmental allergies have been identified as a lot more common.

Grains can provide essential fatty acids, fibre, vitamins, and minerals – making them an important part of a complete and balanced diet. Switching your cat or dog to an all-meat diet without proper supplementation carries a considerable risk of nutritional excesses or deficiencies. In particular, all-meat diets may not provide your pet with the required carbohydrates necessary in a complete and balanced diet.

Before making any changes to your pet’s nutrition, you should consult your vet to ensure that the new diet is complete, balanced and entirely safe for your cat or dog.

Finding the right nutritional balance

At ROYAL CANIN, we’ve conducted extensive research for more than 50 years into these ingredients and found that when properly processed, grains can provide a great source of energy and essential nutrients for your cat or dog.

A healthy diet for cats and dogs provides nutrients from multiple sources - not only meats but carbohydrates like grains, wheat and corn too. The important point is ensuring that your pet receives a balanced and precise blend of over 40 key nutrients to support their ongoing health and wellbeing.

1 function/

2 European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF)

3 Royal Canin Research Centre

4 Verlinden et al. Food allergy in dogs and cats: a review. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 2006; 46: 259-273

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