By Beth Hamill
The food and drug administration threw dog owners a curve ball recently when it published findings from a study that linked canine heart disease to specific, grain-free, dog food brands. Full disclosure—if I did not see my dog’s kibble on the FDA list, I would not be writing this post. However, out of concern for not only my precious dog Lulu, but my clients’ dogs as well, I felt compelled to research the topic of grain-free dog food and share my findings here.
If you’re short on time, check out this piece in Popular Science. My primary concern is that you get this important canine health news. For a more thorough examination and related links, read on.
Table of Contents
The FDA Study & Related Findings
Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a major update on a study investigating canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) cases in dogs eating pet foods labeled “grain-free.” DCM decreases the heart’s ability generate the pressure needed to pump blood through the vascular system. The most definitive way to diagnose this condition is with an echocardiogram. Medication is the preferred treatment.
There are DCM studies that predate The FDA study. Clinicians noted the condition in cats in the late 1980s and dogs in the mid-1990s. And as early as 2016, the Clinical Nutrition Team at Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary Medical Center argued that dogs have a vital need for nutritious grains in their diets.
What Constitutes a Grain-Free Diet?
“Grain-free” dog food does not include wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, or other grains. Still, dogs require carbohydrates in their diet for energy, so manufacturers include other carbohydrate sources, such as potatoes, carrots, and peas.
Raw food, keto and reduced gluten diets started trending among humans. These dietary fads seeped into dog food world—big time.
Grain-Free Diets Not the Only Cause of DCM
The Tufts Clinical Nutrition Team, key players in investigating grain-free diet concerns, expanded the list of possible culprits in causing DCM to include “boutique or grain-free diets and exotic ingredients” (aka “BEG”).
The reason for expanding the list is that, in some cases, the newer dog diets include ingredients that are culturally unfamiliar in the U.S. and not yet widely studied by veterinary nutritionists. Some BEG diets, for example, include kangaroo meat.
The FDA report includes other causes of DCM as well—only some of which relate to diet. Some of the causes appear to be genetic, such as a predisposition to difficulty processing the amino acid taurine.
Breeds Most Impacted By DCM
Most dogs affected by this condition are medium and larger breeds, with Golden Retrievers being by far the most commonly reported. The Golden Retriever is a very popular breed, which may account for the number of cases reported. The Golden Retriever’s genetic predisposition to taurine deficiency may also account for the number of cases reported as taurine deficiency is linked to DCM. Taurine supplements effectively treat some cases.
The second and third most common categories are mixed breed and Labrador retrievers. With both groups, sheer numbers would offer some explanation. There are comparatively few reports of smaller dogs having DCM. Of the small dogs, the Shih Tzu tops the FDA’s list, with five reported cases (compared to 95 for the Golden Retriever).
For some breeds, DCM may be a foregone genetic conclusion. Boxers and Doberman Pinschers have a genetic mutation that leads to DCM. Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds, Scottish Deerhounds, Newfoundlands, and Cocker Spaniels are genetically predisposed to DCM.
It is important to note here that the breeds discussed above are the ones most reported. All dog owners should pay close attention to dog nutrition and speak with a vet in case of any unusual symptoms.
What Should We Feed Our Dogs?
The simple (but incomplete) answer to this is: the same food we would be feeding them before the fad diets came along and created a demand that dog food manufacturers met.
The more complete (yet still simple) answer is to read labels and reviews carefully to determine if a given type or brand of dog food provides the right balance of nutrients. This is easier said than done, though.
Finding the right dog food from the great variety of brands can be daunting. Nonetheless, the choice is an important one. Not all dog foods are necessarily good for your dog—this also includes most of those that loving pet owners prepare themselves.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) offers guidelines for a sensible canine diet. They say that processed foods, wet or dry, “contain all of the nutrients dogs need to stay healthy… A good dog food will contain meat, vegetables, grains, and fruits. The best dog foods contain high-quality versions of these ingredients that are appropriate for your dog’s digestive system.”
It is also well worth looking at the site of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO monitors pet food sale and distribution, and recommends nutrient profiles for cats and dogs. We suggest looking especially at their pages on pet food.
It bears repeating that we are not alone in our quest to find a nutritious, non-toxic dog food. Your vet is your best partner when it comes to designing a healthy diet for your canine family member.
The End (for now)
At this point, you might be thinking, “How can any of us be sure that the next dietary recommendation won’t be wrong?”
Nothing is ever certain. However, there are good resource links and advice in this post. If something seems like a fad, it might be. Before abandoning you dog’s diet, do a little research and consult your vet.
Remember, no dog can be completely healthy without love, attention, and exercise. Play with your dog regularly and go on walks together. If you can’t always find time to walk with your dog, hire a good dog-walking service to do it for you.