Grain-free Does Not Mean “Healthy”

By: Dr. Lauren Birch

There has been some frightening news and evidence released recently about a link between heart disease and grain-free or exotic ingredient food blends for dogs.

The FDA recently released a statement about a link between certain ingredients in dog food, especially when they are one of the main ingredients, leading to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

The food items of concern were peas, lentils, legume seeds, or potatoes. These often serve as the carbohydrate source in grain-free foods. The FDA generally does not police pet foods. Pet foods do not have to be inspected or approved by the FDA before they are released to the open market. However, the FDA will ensure that ingredients in pet food are safe, appropriate, and have a function in the food. That is why they have made a statement about these particular ingredients and the types of food they are generally found in.

I have never been a fan of the grain-free food fad. There has never been any evidence to support that a grain-free diet is beneficial to our pets. There are a lot of strong opinions out on the internet and in the pet stores, advertising that grain-free food is the best. That is exactly what it is, advertising and fancy marketing. Unfortunately, with the nature of our relationship with our pets changing over the past ten years, the pet business market has changed drastically. One of those changes has been with the overwhelming amount of different types and brands of pet food.

I have always felt that some pet food companies prey on the consumer and their ideals about their own diets. 

There are so many labels being placed on pet foods, without being properly policed, ie “natural, organic, grain-free, holistic, raw” and the list goes on.

Since the advent of all these different diets, veterinary nutritionists are seeing more nutritional deficiencies. There is thought that this is occurring due to the blending of ingredients to make food that fits a formulation, rather than performing scientific research and feeding trials to be sure a food is nutritionally fit. The make-up of the dog food is more than its ingredients, those ingredients must also be bioavailable, or readily absorbed, and useful in the body.

You may be wondering what led to this link between heart disease and food?!

Some veterinary cardiologists figured out that they had been seeing more cases of Dilated Cardiomyopathy(DCM) in breeds that weren’t typically pre-disposed. Dilated Cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart muscle becomes weak and cannot pump effectively. It has generally been a genetic disorder found in certain breeds, ie Boxers, Dobermans, Great Danes, Irish wolfhounds, Cocker Spaniels, Newfoundlands, Portuguese water dogs, and Dalmatians.

We used to see DCM in cats due to a deficiency of amino acid, called Taurine, in their diet. Since adding Taurine to feline diets, cases of feline DCM are rare. The cardiologists began to probe the owners of the “unusual suspect” cases of DCM they were seeing.  After discussing the pets’ diets, they found some of these pets had low blood levels of Taurine. These dogs were being fed grain-free diets or “boutique foods” with exotic ingredients. Some of the dogs did have normal taurine levels, despite feeding these foods. However, once their diets were altered, their hearts began to improve.

There is still further work to be done, to prove or disprove a direct link. Either way, the improvement of the heart muscle on a different diet is enough for me to agree that we need to take a step back and discuss what our pets are being fed. Until there is better quality control of pet foods, I will always recommend that my clients feed their pets the brands that perform scientific research and formulate prescription foods, because naturally there is more quality control. Out in the realm of Facebook and Dr. Google, I will be and have been persecuted for this.

You will often hear naysayers talk about Veterinarians receiving no nutritional education and being paid by pet food companies to support their foods. I am here to debunk that myth. Nutrition has always been one of my passions and I can assure you I had a year of training on it in vet school, as well as multiple continuing education opportunities. We receive no financial compensation from pet food companies. They will occasionally buy us lunch while teaching us about new technology or research. They do also sponsor some of our continuing education meetings.

If you feel like you may need to alter your pet’s diet or have any concerns about the quality of the diet or ingredients you are feeding, please use the best resource available, your veterinarian. The majority of veterinarians are opposed to the grain-free diet fad. As with any field, there are going to be a few with different beliefs, but as your trusted pet’s family doctor, please speak to your veterinarian. They know you and your pet the best.

Contact us today if you have questions about your pet’s diet. We would be happy to help you find the right diet for your pet.