We’ve all seen the ads.
Grain-free dog food is better for our dog, right?
Specialized diets formulated to be more like the “natural” food that dogs would eat are what we should be feeding, yes?
Not so fast says the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and board-certified veterinary nutritional specialists. These diets seem to be linked to a significant increase in the number of dogs developing a life-threatening and sometimes fatal heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) after recent findings from veterinary cardiologists were brought to their attention.
What We Know About Grains and Protein
Despite what you may read online or hear from food manufacturers, grains are a necessary and nutritionally sound ingredient in dog food. Dogs are not carnivores (diet of primarily meat) — they are omnivores (eating all food types) and even have molars designed to grind grains and other hard ingredients.
Feeding grains is not associated with changes in temperament, behavior, learning, fertility, muscle mass, or adult body size as often discussed on online forums and blogs.
There is a condition known as food hypersensitivity (or “allergy”) that can occur where a specific dog shows an allergy to a specific protein or grain that causes skin problems, but it is very rare and occurs in less than 1% of dogs. Fleas and environmental triggers (pollen, grasses and mold) are much more common causes for your dog’s red, itchy, flakey skin.
So, despite the incredibly saturated advertising campaigns promoting grain-free and specialized protein diets, there is no published scientific data that show these foods give any benefit to dogs.
In fact, these diets often have too much protein for most dogs (greater than 25%) and high levels of fat, which could put your dog at risk for obesity, kidney problems and other diseases.
What We Know About DCM
It is well established that certain breeds of dogs, mostly large and giant breeds like the Doberman Pinscher, Boxer, Great Dane and others, appear to have a genetic predisposition to developing DCM.
In other words, their risk is inherited.
It’s also known that other breeds, like the Cocker Spaniel and Golden Retriever, have a nutritional-related link to DCM due to their greater dietary need of the essential amino acid, taurine. This is a primary reason why taurine has been added to most quality dog foods for decades.
But in recent years veterinary cardiologists and other specialists have seen a striking increase in the number of DCM cases in breeds not typically associated with the disease, or cases of DCM being diagnosed in multiple, unrelated dogs within a single household. Some of these dogs were successfully treated survived but several of the dogs with DCM died from their heart disease.
The Common Link?
Many of these dogs were being fed specialized “boutique” dog foods made with high levels of grain-free ingredients and non-traditional proteins like lentils, peas, chickpeas, potatoes, barley, venison, salmon, duck, kangaroo, lamb, buffalo and bison. These ultra-specialized dog foods have become to be known as BEG diets (short for boutique, exotic ingredient, and grain-free) and have grown to such popularity that it is difficult to find a dog food that does not fall into this category in some stores.
Now we don’t know the exact cause-and-effect relationship between BEG diets and DCM, but there is enough evidence that the FDA and board-certified veterinary nutritionists at Tufts University have issued statements of warning to dog owners that these diets could actually cause harm.
You can read the details in these links to the official FDA issued warning (“FDA In Brief: FDA investigates cases of canine heart disease potentially linked to diet”- July 12, 2018) and the New York Times published story (“Popular Grain-Free Dog Foods May Be Linked to Heart Disease”- July 24, 2019) detailing the concerns over these grain-free and BEG diets.
Not the Whole Story
The initial focus has been if and how these diets affected the blood levels of taurine of dogs that developed DCM. Many of the affected dogs had confirmed low levels of taurine, and improved when switched off these BEG diets and given oral taurine supplements – but that’s not the whole story.
Some of the dogs affected with DCM did not have low blood levels of taurine, so did not need oral taurine supplements, but still reversed their heart disease when switched to a more typical diet!
So as of right now, it’s not completely clear what’s the entire problem. Are the peas, lentils and other legumes in the food binding up the taurine and causing deficiencies in some dogs? Is it a particular non-grain ingredient, or a certain level of non-grain ingredients that’s causing the problem? What role do the unusual protein sources play?
All good questions, but we just don’t have the answers yet. Thankfully, researchers are currently doing more studies to try and figure out the answers.
The Bottom Line – So What’s A Dog Owner To Do?
The current recommendation from veterinary cardiologists, internal medicine specialists and veterinary nutritionists are:
- Reassess your dog’s diet – better to be safe than sorry. If you’re feeding a boutique, exotic protein or grain-free dog food, talk to your veterinarian about switching to a diet containing more typical ingredients. Avoid peas, lentils, other legumes, potatoes, and unusual protein sources like venison, lamb, kangaroo and salmon… and be cautious of high levels of protein (over 25%) in the food.
- Make sure your diet is actually made by the company whose name is on the label. Many dog food manufacturers contract their food production out to someone else and then put their own name on the label, thus giving up some level of quality control.
- Buy foods from manufacturers that employ veterinary nutritionists and have a long track record of producing well-balanced, quality diets. You’ll need to do some deep digging on this or ask your veterinarian for recommendations.
- Avoid moving to homemade, commercially available raw-ingredient, or refrigerated dog foods. These are often plagued with high levels of bad bacteria (E. coli, Salmonella) and nutritional imbalances or deficiencies.
- If your dog does have a veterinarian-diagnosed grain hypersensitivity, talk to your vet about how to best manage that disease while minimizing the risk for DCM. This will usually include using a special, commercially made hypoallergenic (HA) diet specifically designed for dogs with skin problems.
- If your dog has been diagnosed with or showing symptoms of DCM, consult with your veterinarian about the proper tests and treatments. Many of these cases have been shown to be completely reversible with appropriate nutritional support and medication, especially in the early stages.
And remember, the advertising and commercials promoting grain-free and unusual protein sources are just that – ads designed to increase the sale of these particular dog foods and lock you in to buying that brand. They are not based on any scientific data designed to actually improve your dog’s health.