column By: Dr. Hank Clemmons | October, 21
Grain-free diets for dogs have become popular over the past few years because of clever marketing, not because they are nutritionally superior for dogs. There is no evidence that grains are bad for dogs. In fact, as omnivores – animals that eat both plant and animal food sources – dogs require nutritional variety in their diet.
Grain-free feeding started as a result of specific cases of digestive problems and allergies to certain grains such as corn, wheat and soy that individual dogs had. This led to feeding these dogs formulas that did not contain the offending agent(s). In fact, however, many of these problems did not stem from the grains themselves but rather from things like genetic modification, country of origin, processing practices, coatings or herbicides and pesticides that were applied to or mixed in with the grains. It was what was being done to the grains and not the grains themselves that was often the problem.
The pet food industry is a multibillion-dollar business that is poorly regulated and mostly self-policed. Anyone can start a pet food company with nothing more than an opinion on what they think is good for animals to eat and good marketing skills – advanced degrees, special training in animal nutrition, specific knowledge of the nutritional requirements for growth or healthy skin and coat – none of these are required.
This has led to the explosion of boutique pet food companies that each claim to be better than the competition. If you think ostrich meat is the best thing to feed dogs and you can convince others to follow you, then you can market your product and get rich. Grain-free and exotic ingredient pet foods have skyrocketed in popularity. There are a few “truth in labeling” laws that must be adhered to, but no one is there to challenge your opinion on which are the best ingredients to feed. Granted, most companies hire or consult nutritionists along the way, but it is not a requirement. Most of the nutritional research, done decades ago, established the minimum nutritional requirements for dogs and cats. Current research is more concerned with palatability, specific health issues and cost effectiveness. Much more money is spent on marketing strategies, which are often based on fads rather than facts.
The good news is that, if caught early enough, much of the damage can be reversed by changing the food and supplementing with certain amino acids like taurine and L-carnitine and treating with heart-specific drugs. Canine heart specialist Jason Arndt, DVM, DACVIM (cardiology), told me, “Up to 80% of diet-induced dilated cardiomyopathy can improve if recognized early and treated appropriately.” A smaller percentage can return to normal just by changing foods.
The causes behind the pathology are complicated and still being researched. What has become clear so far is that foods that have substituted legumes for grains and contain peas, lentils, chick peas, beans, potatoes and sweet potatoes at the top of the list of ingredients are more likely to be associated with causing dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs. Remember, items are listed according to their percentage of the mixture: first item has the most; second, the second most; and so on.
A study on the website of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (fda.gov) discusses the potential link between certain diets and dilated cardiomyopathy. A section of the report lists 16 dog foods implicated in the cause of the disease. Another section explains how to report a case of heart disease that is suspected to have been caused by feeding a commercial food. Here are a couple of examples showing how difficult it is to make an accurate diagnosis.
Case 1: A hunter has three hunting dogs: English pointer, age 11; English setter, age 8; Gordon setter, age 3.
The pointer and English setter both developed clinical congestive heart failure and were diagnosed by a cardiac specialist with dilated cardiomyopathy most likely associated with feeding a grain-free, dry dog food. The dog owner had begun feeding a name brand, high-end, grain-free food several years previously on the recommendation of a friend. The owner shared this information with the pet food company (one of 16 implicated in FDA reports to be causing the disease). He was told that they follow all state and federal guidelines … and that they don’t believe there is a relationship between feeding grain-free and heart disease … and have a good day!
Case 2: A female Lab, age 3.
Coming from top hunting bloodlines, she was bred to a top male and had eight healthy puppies. The nursing mother was switched to a high-end, grain-free diet on the recommendation of a friend (the guy who always acts like he knows what he’s talking about). The puppies were weaned and sold into serious hunting homes. The breeder recommended continuing with the grain-free food and kept the mother and puppy they chose on the same diet. Three years later, of the six puppies whose owners stayed in touch with the breeder, four had been diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy. The owners of all four had continued with a grain-free diet. The other two puppies had been switched to regular food and appeared normal and healthy (no cardiac workups were performed because they weren’t showing signs of disease). Is there a direct relationship?
We can’t be certain, but why risk it?