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The Great Debate Over Grain-Free Cat Food

You've got questions. Dr. Bruce Kornreich, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, has got answers.

by Helin Jung
October 21, 2021
Close up view of a person's hand feeding a white cat with food
Atakan-Erkut Uzun / Stocksy

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While I didn’t have the opportunity to join a debate team in college, there’s enough room for debate on this topic that after writing about it, I have a feeling I’ll have had my fill. When beginning to write about grain-free cat food, I didn’t have a clue as to whether a grain-free diet was actually good for cats. I might have had a very vague notion that grain-free food contained more meat, and therefore had more of what my cat wanted to eat, but I wasn’t confident in that assessment, either.

It wasn’t long after I began working on this story that I realized the food my cat eats is, in fact, grain-free. Go figure. The next time I paid a visit to my local bougie pet boutique, I couldn’t find a single food product for cats (or dogs, for that matter) that wasnt labeled as grain-free. Strange. Next, I went to a big-box pet store to see if I could find cat food with grains in the ingredient list, and here, too, I struggled to locate more than a few items that were not billed as being grain-free. It seemed like everywhere I turned, brands were touting their grain-free pet foods. Was it a conspiracy? There had to be a point to all this, right? Some actual nutritional reason for the great removal of grain from every cat’s diet? I reached out to the director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, Dr. Bruce Kornreich, PhD, DACVIM, to get some answers.

What is it about grain-free diets that makes for controversy?

While grain-free advocates and contrarians may disagree on the cut-and-dry notion of grain versus no grain, they can often find middle ground on the topic of harmful ingredients as it pertains to their beloved pets. The additives used to replace grain, namely, legumes, in some brands that produce grain-free food can cause short-term and long-term sickness in pets, including heart issues.

Although grain-free has come to be seen as a designer diet, the impetus for feeding your pet specialized food is always situational and not all grain-free foods use the additives that can lead to these health problems. If pet parents are searching for grain-free diets that don’t use high carb fillers, they should explore human-grade food options, such as Raised Right pets.

Ask a Vet

What kind of food should a cat be eating?

In general, when shopping for cat food, Dr. Kornreich advises that you look for several things, like ensuring you’re buying food for the right life stage (either kitten or adult) and a statement on the product’s label that says it meets the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines for a nutritionally complete and balanced diet.

The most important thing is to check in with your veterinarian if you’re switching foods or have other concerns related to your cat’s diet. Changing a cat’s diet could have adverse effects on the gastrointestinal system, so the recommendation is to slowly introduce a new food over several weeks. 

Should a cat be eating a grain-free diet?

While cats do sometimes develop allergies to foods, they’re more likely to be allergic to proteins rather than carbohydrates. Dr. Kornreich says, “The incidence of a true sensitivity to grain is very low, both in people and in animals.” A sensitivity to food can be identified through an allergy panel and/or an elimination diet with the help of your vet.

Very effective marketing, combined with whatever people have come to believe about the presence of grains in human diets, is ultimately what influences many people’s decisions to buy grain-free food for their dog or cat, while others are simply searching for the healthiest option for their pet. 

What’s the problem with grain-free food? 

There have been cases of adverse effects in pets that are given grain-free diets. They can develop a heart condition called cardiomyopathy that has been, at times, fatal. Though the occurrence is most often in dogs and more research needs to be done on the exact causes (the FDA is conducting an investigation), it is more likely that high concentrations of pulses, peas, and other legumes in grain-free foods are to blame.

What if the food you’re currently giving your cat is grain-free — should you be concerned? 

Maybe? But maybe not? It’s unclear for now. “There are certainly grain-free diets that have the AAFCO label on them, and many, if not most of them, may turn out to be fine,” Dr. Kornreich says, “but until more research is completed, this recommendation is made out of an abundance of caution.” As always, consult with your veterinarian if you have specific questions pertaining to your cat’s nutritional health.

writer helin jung and cat

Helin Jung

Helin Jung is a writer in Los Angeles.