Grain Free Diets

Recently there has been a lot of information in the media concerning grain free pet foods.  There have been articles in the Washington Post and the NY Times  , among others, warning about the risks of feeding these foods.  We have looked at all the scientific articles available and we have some answers and also lots of questions.  Here are the facts that we know:

In the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of cases of a particular type of heart disease, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), diagnosed in dogs, that appears to be linked to diet.    A true association has not been proven to exist, however, some pets get better with diet changes and specific supplements.

In July 2018 the FDA began investigating reports of DCM in dogs eating pet foods containing a high proportion of peas, lentils, other legume seeds and potatoes as main ingredients. The incidence of heart disease was extremely high for breeds of dogs that do not typically get this disease.  Recently the FDA updated their reports, however data from December and January are missing due to the government shut down. Between January 1, 2014 and November 30,2018,  DCM was reported in 325 dogs (of  a wide variety of breeds, most being mixed) including  74 deaths. There were also 10 cats reported with 2 deaths.  The majority of the foods fed were dry foods, 90% labeled “grain-free”.  The diets contained animal proteins including fish, eggs, lamb or chicken.  There was no predominant protein source.

An analysis of the foods did not differ in make up from foods containing grains with respect to taurine and other amino acids as well as protein, fat, and fiber.  The cardiologists at the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine in Davis, CA have been looking at blood taurine levels in golden retrievers and have found that some of the patients had low blood taurine levels even though the food had adequate taurine. Deficiencies in Taurine have been linked to heart disease since the 1980s, however this is not the only issue apparently involved with the current rises in DCM.  Research is currently ongoing, and is looking at not only outright nutrient deficiencies, but deficiencies caused by possible food interactions or metabolic differences. For a current review of scientific information please see Dr. Lisa Freeman’s article from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association.

What do pet owners need to know?

After looking at both taurine deficient and non-taurine deficient forms of DCM a few key associations were apparent.  Many dogs were being fed some variety of Boutique (small manufacturer or limited production runs), Exotic protein ingredients, or Grain free diets, these are commonly referred to as “BEG” diets.

The current guidelines from the veterinary cardiologists and veterinary nutritionists are:

  1. Evaluate the diet that you are feeding.  If the diet is boutique, has exotic ingredients (such as rabbit, venison, bison etc), or is grain free, you may consider a diet change to one without those properties.  At the very least, consider adding a good quality multivitamin, or possibly taurine (you may call us to discuss this).
  2. If you are concerned about your dog, watch closely for signs of heart disease such as weakness, slowing down on walks, coughing, fainting or trouble breathing.  We may be able to recognize early heart disease.
  3. If we do diagnose your dog with DCM we may test taurine levels and report to the FDA.

As of now, out of an abundance of caution, we are recommending that our patients not use food that falls into the BEG category.  At Hopewell Animal Hospital we have not had any patients with diet related DCM, but we are very concerned.  This food issue is certainly something to take seriously, if you have questions about the right food for your dog (or cats) please contact us.

How do I decide what to feed my pet??

Feeding our pets has never seemed more complicated than in today’s world of recalls, contamination, nutritional issues, and “extreme” marketing. This sheet is an attempt to help you decide what is best for you and your pet when trying to choose a diet. Of course, some pets may require specific diets created for medical conditions, and these are things that we will discuss as individuals if your pet has any such conditions. Other factors, such as canned –vs- dry, free feeding –vs- timed meals, and using vitamin supplements are more a matter of personal preference, and we will be happy to discuss these issues with you as individuals.

For the purpose of this sheet, we will just touch on some important considerations when choosing what to feed your beloved family members.

#1: Read labels.

  • ”fancy” ingredients do not equal high nutritional value. Companies routinely use terms such as “all natural”, “organic”, “human grade”, etc. These terms are strictly marketing, and are meaningless as far as indicating true nutritional value.
  • Don’t believe everything you read about the food itself. E.g.: the term “by-product” was falsely demonized by people saying it contained hooves, horns, feces, & other “undesirable” ingredients. This is not true, by definition “meat by-product” includes organs & bone, but NOT intestinal contents, hair, horns, teeth, or hooves.
  • Label ingredients are listed in descending volume order, with the first ingredient being the largest by weight in the product. Companies love to appeal to human tastes, but if “nice looking” ingredients are listed >5 items down the list, or after a vitamin, they are likely in such a tiny amount that they contribute nothing.

#2: Do some research.

  • Contact the manufacturer and ask relevant questions:
    • “Do you employ a full-time nutritionist?”
    • “Who formulates your food & what are their credentials?”
    • “Are you using AAFCO feeding trials?” (the best method)
    • “f using just AAFCO recommendations without feeding trials, is your nutrient profile determined by ingredient profile, or by product analysis?” (product analysis is more desirable.
    • Where are your ingredients sourced, and where is the food made?”
    • “What quality controls do you have in place?”
    • “ Can you provide a COMPLETE nutrient analysis of the food?” (not just crude protein/fiber/etc., but EVERY nutrient).
    • “What research has been done on the product?”
  • Be Skeptical. Use reliable websites to obtain information:

  • Double check any claims made by a food manufacturer. Be aware of the credentials of the sources of information. Make sure your information is up to date—things change often and rapidly in the world of science and nutrition.
  • Do not give in to “my cousin’s neighbor’s father-in-law’s dog did great (or terrible) on…” . Or to the minimally knowledgeable employee at a store that wants to sell you whatever they can.
  • Be aware of recall information.

#3: Can I cook for my pet?

  • The most critical element in home cooking for your pet is providing full & balanced nutrition.
  • Here, at Hopewell Animal Hospital, we can formulate Food therapy diets based upon Traditional Chinese Medicine principles (these diets are analyzed using ingredient nutrient profiles, and so always require a multivitamin/mineral supplement)
  • Good information about home cooked diets and appropriate balance/supplementation can be found: (Veterinary nutrition) (nutritionist run diet service)

#4: What about raw?

  • While we are not big proponents of raw diets, some raw diets do have their merits.
  • It is important to follow excellent food handling & hygiene when dealing with raw foods to minimize potential contamination.
  • Some good information on raw diets:

#5: Does the diet “agree” with my pet?

  • Is your pet maintaining a healthy weight, good teeth, sleek coat, bright and active personality, and having normal bowel and urination habits
  • Your pet must actually like the food (if they won’t eat it, it certainly can’t do them any good).