grain free diets for dogs

Grain Free Diets for Dogs: Are They Safe?

We all want what’s best for our four-legged friends, but sometimes what seems like a good choice can lead to unintended consequences. A few years ago, grain free diets for dogs exploded in popularity, leading some pet owners to switch their pet’s diet to grain-free without considering whether their pet actually needed to have a grain-free diet or not. 

Grain-free diets for dogs can be complicated. Some have been indirectly linked to dogs developing a form of heart disease that’s normally uncommon in medium and small breeds. The FDA’s investigation is still ongoing, but many dog food manufacturers are working with them to ensure they provide the best possible nutrition for our pets. While not susceptible to the same problems as dogs, cats are unlikely to benefit from a grain-free diet unless they have rare food allergies.

To get to the bottom of whether your pet should go grain-free or not, we’ll look at:

  • Are grain-free diets bad for dogs?
  • Why grain-free diets for dogs have become such a big issue
  • DCM in dogs
  • Cats and DCM

You are your pet’s advocate. By being informed, you’ll be in a much better position when discussing your pet’s nutritional needs with your vet.

Are grain free diets bad for dogs?

The short answer: it’s complicated. 

While a correlation between grainless diets and canine health issues has been found, the variety of dog food recipes and their ingredients are so great that it’s difficult to make a sweeping generalization.

How can you make sure your pet has the best diet?

Always discuss any major changes you want to make to your dog’s diet with your veterinarian before buying into the latest trend. Our veterinarians at PetWellClinic are always at the forefront of the latest news and developments involving pet health. They will answer your questions about nutrition and diet and tell you what will benefit your pet’s health the most according to their individual needs. 

Why Grain Free Pet Food Has Become Such a Big Issue

Canine grain-free diets have been in the news quite a bit the past few years, but not for the reasons new diet trends are usually featured. The question isn’t whether a new fad diet makes good on its claims or is actually healthier than others. Instead, the question of including grains in your dog’s diet has to do with the health of their heart. 

This all goes back to July 2018, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) released an update to veterinarians and dog owners alike. It warned the public of dogs developing dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM for short, after eating certain kinds of pet foods.

What ingredients are in grain free pet food?
What ingredients are in grain free pet food?

What did these different pet foods have in common? Their main ingredients included:

  • Peas
  • Lentils
  • Other legume seeds
  • Potatoes

This sparked a joint investigation between the CVM and the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network. 

What’s the Connection Between Grain Free Dog Food and DCM?

One 2018 study found that many dogs suffering from DCM had a taurine deficiency. Taurine is an important amino acid for maintaining heart health. According to the results of the study, none of the 24 Labrador Retrievers in the trial were being fed dog food that had been tested and approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

AAFCO is an independent and voluntary group that works to define the ingredients used in pet and animal feed. They help ensure that the food our pets and livestock consume meets the minimum nutritional standards. When buying food for your pet, make sure that it’s been verified by AAFCO.

DCM in dogs isn’t always the result of a taurine deficiency, and grain-free dog foods don’t necessarily lack taurine. Instead, it could mean that the ingredients interact in a way that the availability of taurine is greatly reduced in your dog’s body. Alternatively, it could mean that other ingredients are missing that usually help your dog absorb taurine.

Ingredients found on other dog food labels are a great example of this. Take “byproducts,” for instance. Many people don’t like seeing “byproducts” on the labels of the food they eat. However, they can be extremely important for your pet since they usually contain meat from hearts or kidneys, which are an excellent source of taurine.

This is why choosing AAFCO-approved food for your dog is so important. It ensures that whatever you buy them has these types of ingredients to keep your dog in the best health possible.

Where Things Stand Now

In a recent update, the FDA reported over 1,000 cases of canine DCM as of July 31, 2020. Most of these cases were reported following their initial update back in 2018. 280 dogs had died due to non-hereditary DCM, some of which lived in the same household. 

While most of the dogs consumed grain-free diets high in legumes, potatoes, peas, and lentils, some also ate diets containing grain. This is important to note since legumes and similar ingredients are actually common ingredients in dog food. The difference here is that they were being used in much higher ratios than other types of dog food. 

Since then, the FDA has requested that manufacturers of grain-free dog food share their formulas. This will help experts understand what the ideal ratios are and lead to fewer incidences of DCM in our dogs. Several manufacturers have not only complied with the FDA but have adjusted their formulas to prevent future heart problems.

The FDA has been careful to avoid saying that grain-free diets cause canine DCM directly. This is because there are so many factors that play a role in the health of our dogs. Other factors such as genetics and underlying health conditions are just as important as what they eat in solving this problem.

At this point, the FDA considers this an ongoing investigation. They are working together with the scientific community to understand the correlation between grain-free food for dogs and DCM.  

DCM in Dogs

The issue at the center of the grain-free diet debate is canine DCM, a type of heart disease found in dogs. The FDA described DCM as:

…A disease of a dog’s heart muscle and results in an enlarged heart. As the heart and its chambers become dilated, it becomes harder for the heart to pump, and heart valves may leak, leading to a buildup of fluids in the chest and abdomen. DCM often results in congestive heart failure. Heart function may improve in cases that are not linked to genetics with appropriate veterinary treatment and dietary modification, if caught early.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Some dog breeds are more predisposed to DCM than others. These tend to be large and giant dog breeds such as:

  • Irish Wolfhounds
  • Saint Bernards
  • Boxers
  • Great Danes
  • Doberman Pinschers
  • Newfoundlands
Some dog breeds are more predisposed to DCM than others.
Some dog breeds are more predisposed with DCM than others.

The one exception to this rule is American and English Cocker Spaniels, which also share this genetic predisposition.

Think of it in terms of your own family medical history. Your physician needs to know your family’s medical history to understand your own genetic predispositions. The same goes for your dog’s health. What their breed is more likely to suffer from is a good indicator for what they may be at risk for.

The reason researchers are studying the link between DCM and grain-free diets is that dogs from breeds without a history of DCM are developing it. Reports of non-hereditary DCM include Golden and Labrador Retrievers, Shi Tzus, and even mixed breed dogs.

Symptoms of DCM in Dogs

DCM results in a dangerous enlargement of the heart and the thinning of its walls. Over time, this results in leaking and buildup in the chest and abdomen as the heart struggles to pump blood throughout your dog’s body.

Unfortunately, most pet owners don’t have access to their own X-ray equipment to regularly check their dog’s heart health. This means that you need to be aware of other symptoms that signal that something is wrong with your pup. Fortunately, there are symptoms you can be on the lookout for when guarding your dog’s heart health.

These symptoms usually have two main causes — lower amounts of oxygenated blood being delivered to the body and blood becoming congested in the lungs. 

The signs of lower amounts of oxygenated blood being delivered to the body are:

  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Collapse
You should look for signs of lower amounts of oxygenated blood in your pet.
You should look for signs of lower oxygenated blood in your pet.

The signs of blood becoming congested in the lungs are:

  • Swelling in the abdomen
  • Coughing
  • Increased breath rate
  • Struggling to breath

Take your dog to the vet immediately if you notice any of these symptoms. They may not have canine DCM, but they are showing serious signs that something is wrong and that they require immediate medical attention. Your vet will be able to determine the problem, what’s causing it, and how best to treat it.

The Prognosis for Non-Hereditary DCM

Being diagnosed with non-hereditary DCM doesn’t mean that all is lost. As the FDA pointed out in a recent update, “Heart function may improve in cases that are not linked to genetics with appropriate veterinary treatment and dietary modification, if caught early.” 

The FDA also points out that many dogs experiencing non-hereditary DCM had been on a grain-free diet for months or even years as their primary food source. This means that it could take a while for the negative effects of the diet to set in, giving you time to talk to your vet about whether a grain-free diet is the right choice for your dog or not.

In fact, 23 of the 24 Labrador Retrievers in the 2018 study were able to bounce back thanks to changes in diet and the addition of supplements. 

Even more promising are the results involving congestive heart failure. According to the study:

  • 11 of the 24 dogs had been diagnosed with this issue and nine recovered 
  • Of those 11, five no longer required diuretic therapy
  • Four were significantly more able to tolerate diuretic therapy

Talk to your vet before making any big changes to your dog’s diet. They will be able to give you the most up-to-date information and tell you if it’s the right choice for your pup.

Cats and DCM

The majority of news about grain-free diets and non-hereditary DCM has had to do with dogs. However, cats have also been affected by the disease. According to a 2020 update to the FDA’s investigation, around 20 cats had been affected by non-hereditary DCM between 2014 and 2020, of which 13 cats died of the condition.

Cat owners aren’t immune to the hype of new and trendy pet diets. Just like with dogs, there are tons of alternative diet options available at your local pet store, including:

  • Vegetarian
  • Vegan
  • Raw
  • Organic

But are grain-free diets along with other alternative diets good for your cat? Just like with dogs, this a discussion you should be having with your vet. They will be able to assess your cat’s needs and determine if your cat will benefit from a grain-free diet. With that said, there are a few things to keep in mind when considering a grain-free diet for your feline.

The most important thing to know is that grain-free diets don’t pose the same risk to cats as they do to dogs. The link between canine DCM and grain-free diets has not been found in cats.

Do Cats Need a Grain Free Diet?

Cat’s don’t need a grain-free diet. The logic behind cats going grainless is that you never see cats eating grains in the wild, so why should your cat? While this is true, it’s not an airtight argument. This argument assumes that wild cats get all the nutrition they need from their diet, which isn’t always the case.

According to Matthew Everett Miller, DVM, cats are able to digest 95% of starches, so they don’t pose any danger to their digestive system or overall health. More importantly, the grains found in cat food are a vehicle for important vitamins and minerals that could otherwise be missing in your cat’s diet. So grains aren’t just fillers, but are actually vitally important ingredients.

A grain-free diet probably won’t benefit your cat in any way unless they have a genuine medical need for it. Regular dry and wet cat food has already been formulated to provide the essential nutrients your cat needs. Talk to your vet about recommendations if you’d like to start giving your cat higher-quality cat food.

A grain free diet probably won't benefit your cat unless there's a medical need for it.
A grain free diet probably won’t benefit your cat unless there’s a medical need for it.

Can Cats Have Grain Allergies?

Not everyone who considers a grainless diet for their cat is simply hopping on a trendy bandwagon. Some are genuinely concerned that their cat has a grain allergy and wants to ensure their health and comfort.

It is possible that your cat has a grain allergy, but this is actually very slim. As Miller explains:

Food allergies, in general, are much rarer than pet parents believe, and grain allergies are present in a vanishingly small portion of those animals that do truly possess food allergies. Allergies to animal proteins such as chicken or fish comprise the majority of food allergies in cats.

Dr. Nicole Corder-Ramos, PetWellClinic

The best way to determine if your pet has a food allergy is to talk to your veterinarian. PetWellClinic veterinarian, Dr. Nicole Corder-Ramos, recently discussed the process of identifying a pet’s food allergy with us. Veterinarians use hydrolyzed protein diets and novel protein diets to assess if your pet has a food allergy. But before you go online and start shopping for specialty diets, visit your local PetWellClinic first and discuss your concerns with your veterinarian. 

There are some signs that your cat may have a food allergy. Be on the lookout for:

  • Hair loss
  • Scabs 
  • Itchiness
  • Intestinal issues

You’ll want to take your cat to the vet if they’re exhibiting any of these symptoms, whether it’s a grain allergy or something else, they can help you determine what your cat’s diet should be.  

Considering a Grain-Free Diet for Your Pet

Always talk to your vet before making any major changes to your pet’s diet. Grain-free diets have been connected to non-hereditary canine dilated cardiomyopathy, which may be caused by a taurine deficiency due to their ingredient formulas. The FDA’s investigation is still ongoing, but there are other variables that could also play a part in dogs developing non-hereditary DCM. For the best nutrition, choose an AAFCO-approved food for your pet.

Talk to your vet at PetWellClinic before making any major changes to your pet's diet.
Talk to your vet at PetWellClinic before making any major changes to your pet’s diet.

DCM is a type of heart disease that results in an enlarged heart. While hereditary in large and giant breeds of dogs, it’s becoming more common in medium and smaller breeds. Symptoms include lethargy, weight loss, trouble breathing, and swollen abdomen. Fortunately, the prognosis looks good for dogs with non-hereditary DCM as long as it’s caught in time for them to receive proper treatment for the condition.

Cats have also developed non-hereditary DCM but not due to eating a grain-free diet. While cats in the wild don’t eat grains, they can digest 95% of starches making it safe for them to eat. Grains and grain byproducts are also important since they act as a vehicle for vitamins and minerals. Felines can have food allergies but they’re usually related to protein such as chicken and fish rather than grains. Just like dogs, talk to your vet before putting your cat on a new diet.

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