In June 2018, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), a federal agencyresponsible for protecting the health of the public drug and food supply,announced that it was investigating the link between grain-free dog foods anda potentially deadly disease, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). A year later, theFDA issued an update (Source). Why did the FDA decide to investigate thisissue, and is it safe to feed your dog grain-free dog food?
This piece defines a grain-free diet and DCM. It looks at the link between thetwo and the reason the FDA is investigating the connection between the risingcases of DCM and the growing popularity of grain-free foods. Finally, we lookat whether it is still safe to feed your dog a grain-free diet.
What is a Grain-Free Dog Diet?
When a food product is advertised as being “free” of an ingredient (think“sugar-free” or “cholesterol-free”), it is generally because the ingredient inquestion has been shown to have a negative impact on health. However, themarketing of “grain-free” dog foods does not appear to have started inresponse to the health deficits of grains in dogs.
In 2018 the New York Times reported that grain-free diets started to gaintraction in 2007 following the Chinese pet food recalls due to melaminecontamination. According to the FDA, Melamine is an industrial chemical withno approved use in animal or human food in the US. It is mainly used inindustry as a flame retardant, industrial binding agent, and the manufactureof plates and cooking utensils. It is not clear how melamine ended upcontaminating pet food (Source).
The connection between the melamine contamination and grain-free diets wasbased on the fact that the FDA traced the melamine to products withingredients like rice protein and wheat gluten (grains). Melamine was alsofound in the kidneys and urine of dead cats that were part of a studyconducted by scientists at Cornell University (Source).
Grain-Free Dog Diets Before 2007
If “grain-free” dog food became more popular in 2007, were there any grain-free foods before then? Even though the idea of “grain-free” seems to be amarketing tool nowadays, it looks like dog food before World War II (1939 to1945) was mostly grain-free, consisting mainly of meat. However, the rationingthat become popular during the war resulted in the introduction of dry kibble,which had increased cereal grains like corn. Over time, higher proportions ofgrains would be introduced into dog food (Source).
Before the 2007 melamine contamination, in the 1970s and 1980s, cat owners andvets were already reporting increased numbers of cats either becoming blind ordying from a lack of Taurine, a compound produced by most mammals in an organknown as the pancreas. This was soon blamed on the increase in grains in petfood because Taurine is obtained from muscle meat and other organs like thekidney, heart, liver, and seafood (Source).
The Growing Popularity of Grain-free Diets
By 2017, the grain-free diet accounted for 44 percent of the market, withalmost $2.8 billion in sales per year. Why did grain-free foods grow sopopular? Dr. Stanley Coren, a University of British Columbia professor and theauthor of _How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-HumanCommunication_speculates. He believes that this popularity is the result of ahuman eating disorder affecting animals. Coren is referring to the generalnotion that gluten, a protein found in most grains like barley, oats, wheat,and rye, is not suitable for some humans and should be avoided. Consequently,companies selling grain-free diets could be cashing in on this apprehension(Source).
Dr. Lisa Freeman, a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine atTufts University and a veterinary nutritionist supports Dr. Coren’s beliefthat the denigration of grains could be misplaced. She says, “Contrary toadvertising and popular belief, there is no research to demonstrate thatgrain-free diets offer any health benefits over diets that contain grains”(Source).
It might surprise you to learn that there is a debate as to whether dogs arecarnivores or omnivores. Suffice it to say that dogs have evolved alongsidehumans for thousands of years. As a result, they can remain healthy whileeating vegetable matter.
It is nonetheless vital to realize that a “grain-free” diet does not mean adiet where dogs only eat meat. Instead, the distinction is about whether dogsshould be fed grains, like barley, corn, oats, rice, sorghum, rye, and wheat —or other starches, like “peas or lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoeslisted as primary ingredients” (Source).
Connection to Allergies
Lorie Huston, writing for the pet news website PetMed.com, says that “anotherpopular misconception that many pet owners fall victim to is the assumptionthat grain-free diets are the best diets for pets with food allergies.” Hustonnotes that even though allergies occur in dogs, grains are not among theleading allergens found in food. To support this view, the same writer citesresearch which concluded that beef was the most common allergen among theanimals tested (Source).
What is Dilated Cardiomyopathy?
According to Dr. Freeman, DCM is a severe heart disease that results in theheart enlarging and beating weakly. Other conditions believed to be associatedwith DCM include inflammation of heart muscles, poorly contracting heartmuscles, low thyroid levels, rapid heart rates, and reduced blood flow intothe heart muscles (Source).
An abnormal heart rhythm characterizes DCM. It typically affects large dogbreeds such as Doberman Pinschers, Boxers, Irish Wolfhounds, and Great Danes.In these cases, it has been connected to a genetic component (Source).
The genetic predisposition theory is also supported by the New York-basedproviders of specialty and emergency veterinary care, the Upstate VeterinarySpecialties. The organization reports that genetic predisposition plays asignificant role in most of DCM cases.
The American Kennel Club reports that an increase in cases of DCM has recentlybeen noted among dogs like the Golden Retrievers, Shih Tzus, Bulldogs,Labrador Retrievers, and Whippets. These breeds are usually not geneticallypredisposed to this disease (Source). The link to grain-free diets is based onFDA records, which show that 93 percent of DCM cases, among such breeds, arelinked to grain-free diets (Source).
It has been a challenge to clearly say whether the grain-free diet is thereason behind the increase in DCM among dogs that are not predisposed. This isbecause the disease has also been linked to other factors. For instance, anarticle published by the Cornel University College of Veterinary Medicineidentifies other factors like infections, apart from nutrition and geneticpredisposition (Source).
So how do you tell whether your dog may be suffering from DCM? An articlepublished by Washington State University advises that in the early stages ofthe disease, no clinical signs may be detected. The same report notes that oneof the common early signs could be reduced tolerance to exercise. Due to thischallenge in identifying early symptoms, a physical examination by the vet isprudent at regular intervals (Source).
As the disease progresses, the heart’s ability to pump blood becomes evenweaker. A notable blood pressure increase in the veins above the heart is alsotypical. Other symptoms include an accumulation of fluid around the heart andthe lungs. This leads to heart failure, which could be characterized byfainting episodes and an increased risk of sudden death (Source).
Why the FDA is Investigating Grain-Free Dog Diet
According to the FDA, its current investigation into DCM involving dogs on thegrain-free diet was triggered by an escalation of reports of DCM. Forinstance, the FDA reports that between January 1, 2014, and April 30, 2019, itreceived 524 reports. Of these reports, almost half were received betweenDecember 1, 2018, and April 30, 2019. In some cases, more than one animal fromthe same household was involved (Source).
The 2019 FDA update confirms that there is an increase in the number of dogsdiagnosed with DCM outside the ones which are genetically predisposed. Most ofthe dogs involved in these cases had been fed with foods containing legumessuch as potatoes, peas, and lentils, which are labeled grain-free.
The graph below, sourced from the FDA, shows the leading DCM cases reported tothe FDA between January 1, 2014, and April 30, 2019. (Source)
Despite the increased suspicion about these diets, the FDA has not directedpet owners to change their pet diets since the investigation is stillunderway. The FDA advises that pet owners should always liaise withveterinarians concerning the menu for their dogs.
New information in the 2019 update includes a list of the brands and thecorresponding number of reports linked to each brand.
- Acana (67)
- Zignature (64)
- Taste of the Wild (53)
- 4Health (32 reports)
- Earlyborn Holistic (32)
- Blue Buffalo (31)
- Nature’s Domain (29)
- Fromm (24)
- Merrick (16)
- California Natural (15)
- Natural Balance (15)
- Orijen (12)
- Nature’s Variety (11)
- Nutrisource (10)
- Nutro (10)
- Racheal Ray Nutrish (10)
Is Grain-Free Food Safe for Your Dog?
While the increase in cases of DCM among different breeds is apparent, what isstill unclear is the reason why. Even though the FDA has indicated that it isinvestigating grain-free diets, there is no proof showing a clear connectionbetween the two.
Initially, DCM was associated with a deficiency of amino acid known asTaurine, with some breeds of dogs being more vulnerable to this condition.Since then, reports of several cases involving atypical dog breeds such as theGolden Retriever have started to be more common. The common factor unifyingthese cases could be their diets. (Source).
So, is grain-free food safe for your dog? Dr. Freeman provides the shortanswer, “the relationship (between grain-free and DCM) has not yet beenproven, and other factors may be equally or more important” (Source). Thisanswer implies that, for now, grain-free dog food can still be treated as safefor your dog.
Even though the FDA has instituted an investigation into the grain-free diet,the numbers indicate that this whole issue could be a tempest in a teacup. Forinstance, if you consider that there were 87.9 million dogs in the US by theend of 2017 (Source) and the grain-free diet had a 44 percent market share,you will discover that about 39 million dogs are on a grain-free diet. If youthen compare this to the fact that the number of dogs that died from DCMbetween January 1, 2014, and April 30, 2015, was 119 (Source), you could arguethat the whole grain-free dog food scare may be overstated.
What Should Dog Owners Do Now?
For now, as we wait for the results from the FDA investigation, the AmericanKennel Club provides essential advice on what to do next: “As a general ruleof thumb, the best thing you can do for your dog’s dietary health is to workwith your veterinarian. Together you can weigh the pros and cons of your dog’sdiet and, if necessary, monitor your dog for signs of DCM” (Source).
There may be no need to panic about grain-free dog food yet as even the FDA isnot ready to advise that these foods are not safe.
I’m Robert Evans! I’m super passionate about helping you care for your dogbetter by providing the best information and recommendations. Every day, Ihelp more dog parents make smart decisions so their pet has a long and healthylife!
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