Everything You Need To Know About Grain Free Dog Food

Are you a dog parent or contemplating becoming one? Well, then you must already be aware of the limitless joy and love a pet dog can bring to your life. Whether you are living alone or with your family and friends, adopting a dog will instantly light up your life.

This isn’t surprising considering that pets often have therapeutic powers and can help you cope with feelings of depression and loss. Caring for your dog, fulfilling their daily needs, and making new memories with them can offer you a respite (even if it is short-lived) from the usual struggles of your life.

The Reality of Being a Dog Parent

However, looking after a pet dog isn’t just about the cuddles and playtime. As a dog parent, you are responsible for ensuring that your canine companion has a long and healthy life. This is particularly important considering that dogs aren’t particularly good at expressing stress, pain, and discomfort.

It is, therefore, up to you to keep an eye out and ensure that your dog is happy and healthy. One of the most crucial factors that impact a dog’s life is their diet. It is essential that you provide them with a nourishing and balanced diet.

However, in this age of internet fads, it is easy to fall for various canine diet trends. From a vegetarian and vegan diet to grain-free dog food – chances are you have come across various types of doggie diets that are in fashion.

Grain-free dog food, in particular, has attracted plenty of attention in the last couple of years owing to its potential link to canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). And as with anything that happens in the internet age, there is plenty of clutter and noise surrounding the pros and cons of a grain-free dog diet.

So, what exactly is grain-free dog food and how does it affect your dog’s health? We will take a closer look at these aspects in this blog. However, let us first understand the role food and nutrition play in your dog’s life.

Why is a Balanced Diet Important for Dogs?

First things first – every dog needs a wholesome and nourishing diet for proper physical and mental development. You can’t just feed regular human food or junk processed food to your four-legged friend.

Instead, you must consult a reliable veterinarian or canine nutritionist to formulate a proper diet plan for your dog. It is also worth mentioning that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all diet that is suitable for all dogs. Typically, your vet will consider various factors, including your dog’s breed, age, anatomy, etc., before prescribing a particular diet.

Having said that, here are a few benefits of providing your dog with a balanced diet:

1. Physical Growth

Proteins are essential for the timely development of various muscles in your dog’s body. Also, they help repair damaged cells and are instrumental in ensuring healthy skin and hair for your dog. Likewise, proteins are responsible for the proper growth of various organ tissues. Typical sources of protein in your dog’s diet include chicken, beef, and other meats.

2. Mental Health

Yes. Mental health is just as important for your canine friend as it is for you. Creatin foods, particularly junk and packaged food, can worsen canine anxiety and stress. On the other hand, wholesome foods, such as nuts, seeds, berries, brown rice, oats, etc. can help promote your dog’s mental health. Likewise, food rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help your dog battle anxiety.

3. Energy Levels

You wouldn’t want your dog to sulk in a corner of your home all day, would you? That’s why it is important to ensure that they eat foods rich in carbohydrates and fats. These are excellent sources of energy and are necessary for your dog’s bodily functions as well as overall growth. 

Foods rich in carbohydrates, such as rice, wheat, corn, etc., give your dog the energy to go about their day and have an improved quality of life. They are also crucial for ensuring gut health and proper digestion.

4. Immunity

A strong immune system is imperative for your dog’s long and healthy life. Proper functioning of the immune system protects your dog from infections and helps them fight various diseases. That’s why you need to ensure that their diet includes an adequate amount of vitamins and minerals. Both these nutrients are essential for healthy cell growth and repair. Common sources of vitamins and minerals include different types of fruits and vegetables.

Now that you know how important food is for your dog’s wellbeing, it is time for us to dig deeper into grain-free dog food.

What is Grain-Free Dog Food?

Traditionally, most canine diets have included several types of grains, such as:

  • Wheat
  • Rice
  • Corn
  • Barley
  • Soy

This isn’t surprising considering that grains are an excellent source of carbohydrates. They provide the energy your dog needs to live a healthy life and play a key role in metabolism and digestion.

However, in recent years, carbohydrates have received plenty of bad rep for causing obesity. Likewise, many dog parents are concerned that grains might lead to food allergies in their canine friend. This, in turn, has led to the rise of grain-free dog food.

As the name suggested, grain-free dog food refers to dog food that doesn’t include any grains. Instead, it generally contains legumes, pulses, and other sources of carbohydrates. Common grain substitutes include:

  • Peas
  • Chickpeas
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Pulses
  • Potatoes

Such foods may also contain protein and starch derivatives of the ingredients mentioned above. Since its introduction a couple of decades ago, grain-free dog food has often been perceived as healthy and superior to regular dog food. It has even led to the rise of the term “boutique, exotic, and grain-free” (BEG) food. Many known pet food brands offer a diverse array of grain-free dog food.

However, they are many risks associated with eliminating grains altogether from your dog’s diet. Also, grain-free dog food has been the subject of a huge controversy in the last two years. 

What is the Controversy around Grain-Free Dog Food?

Based on various cases of canine DCM reported to the FDA between January 2014 and April 2019, the federal body suggested a link between:

  1. The consumption of grain-free and legume-rich dog food
  2. The likelihood of developing canine DCM

Amidst the ongoing FDA investigation, other pet research firms, vets, scientists, and nutritionists have also conducted independent studies to explore the link between grain-free dog diet and DCM.

This, in turn, has led to a plethora of confusion and panic among worried dog parents. Who would want to feed their dog something that is supposedly “healthy” but can lead to a dangerous and potentially fatal disease, right?

We will dive deeper into some of the crucial studies on grain-free dog food later in this blog. But let us first take a closer look at DCM.

What is Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy?

Canine dilated cardiomyopathy is a cardiac disorder in dogs that leads to dilation of the heart muscles. In simple terms, it causes enlargement of the heart chambers and thinning of the ventricular wall.

This, in turn, reduces the heart’s ability to pump adequate blood through the cardiovascular system. Also, it can lead to the buildup of fluids in the heart, as well as congestion of blood in the lungs.

Common symptoms of canine DCM include:

  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Fainting
  • Coughing
  • Distressed breathing
  • Abdominal distention
  • Cardiac arrhythmia

In severe cases, canine DCM can lead to congestive heart failure, potentially causing death.

The exact cause of canine DCM isn’t known. However, researchers and vets believe that various factors, including genetic and dietary precursors, can lead to the development of canine DCM. Moreover, in some breeds, the disease is associated with decreased whole blood taurine levels.

It is worth mentioning here that larger dog breeds are genetically predisposed to develop DCM. These breeds include:

  • Great Danes
  • Irish Wolfhounds
  • Boxers
  • Newfoundlands
  • Saint Bernards
  • Doberman Pinschers

Additionally, DCM can affect medium-sized breeds, such as Cocker Spaniels and German Shepherds. It is less common in other small and medium dog breeds.

Unfortunately, scientists haven’t discovered a cure for DCM yet. However, the exact prognosis depends on a dog’s breed and overall health. In most cases, the treatment focuses on improving heart function with medication and dietary modifications.

So, how is grain-free dog food connected to DCM? Is it true that it causes DCM in dogs who aren’t genetically predisposed to the disease? Can dogs develope DCM just because of a grain-free diet? These are questions that must be storming your mind right now.

In the following sections, we will take a look at the FDA investigation on grain-free dog food and its potential link to DCM. We will also explore other research studies in this regard. Let’s get started.

FDA Investigation: Beginning of the Grain-Free Dog Food Debate

On July 12, 2018, the FDA announced that it was investigating a possible connection between canine DCM and grain-free and legume-rich dog food. The investigation was to be a collaborative effort between the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Research Network (Vet-LIRN).

The FDA announcement immediately alerted the veterinary community and caused dog parents to become alarmed. It also garnered significant media coverage. However, it took the FDA almost another year to publish a conrete update. Even then, the findings weren’t all black-and-white. Let’s explore this in greater detail.

FDA Investigation: How It Started

On June 27, 2019, the FDA published a detailed account of the investigation and the key findings. It all started with the FDA receiving 524 reports of DCM between January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2019.

This included a total of 574 reported cases of DCM (since multiple cases were reported in some households). Moreover, the reports included both cats and dogs, with 560 cases of canine DCM and 14 cases of feline DCM. Out of all the reported cases, 119 dogs and 5 cats succumbed to the disease.

It is also worth noting here that the major chunk of reports came in 2018 and 2019. The FDA points out that while this could indicate a potential increase in the incidence rate of DCM, it could also be due to higher awareness among pet parents and vets.

Dogisa - Dog Food And Health Guide

Image via FDA

What caught the FDA’s attention in the reported cases of canine DCM is that many of the dogs affected by the disease weren’t genetically predisposed. The reports includes atypical breeds, such as: 

  • Golden Retrievers
  • Shih Tzus
  • Whippets
  • Miniature Schnauzers
  • Bulldogs
Dogisa - Dog Food And Health Guide

Image via FDA

Here, the FDA points out that the higher number of reported cases for Golden Retrievers could be due to possible reporting bias. This is because there are various dedicated social media groups and pages that raising awareness on the occurrence of DCM in Golden Retrievers.

This, in turn, could have motivated more dog parents and vets to submit reports to the FDA. Also, Golden Retrievers are inherently prone to develop taurine deficiency, which is known to increase the risk of DCM.

The Link to Grain-Free Dog Food

Upon noticing the unusually high incidence of DCM in atypical dog breeds, the CVM and Vet-LIRN began investigating various contributing factors. One of the key aspects of the investigation covered the diet that was given to the affected dogs. The researchers consulted the affected dogs’ parents to learn more about their dietary history and examined product labels of the foods they ate.

What is striking is that among all the reported cases of canine DCM, 91% of the dogs were fed a grain-free diet. Moreover, 93% of them were given foods included peas and/or lentils as a main ingredient. Other commonly featured main ingredients included legumes, such as beans and chickpeas, as well as potatoes (both regular and sweet ones).

Dogisa - Dog Food And Health Guide

Image via FDA

Further investigation of the dog food labels indicated that certain brands were featured more prominently than others.

Dogisa - Dog Food And Health Guide

Image via FDA

However, the FDA clarifies that these figures have been solely compiled from reports that included the dog food label and brand information. It is also worth noting that a few reports featured multiple brands.

As of this writing, the FDA hasn’t ordered any of the featured brands to recall their products. However, the federal agency advises dog parents to consult a reliable and certified vet and outline a customized diet plan considering the unique needs of their dog.

Looking at these figures, it is natural to jump to the conclusion that grain-free and legume-rich dog food are the real culprits behind canine DCM. However, the FDA was quick in pointing out that it is still exploring how these diets affect canine cardiac health.  Also, it is studying the possibility of taurine deficiency caused by such diets.

Moreover, the FDA has pointed out that the prevalence of reports featuring dogs on a grain-free diet could be an outcome of the general popularity of such foods. Also, it highlighted the need to consult a certified vet or nutritionist before making any major changes in your dog’s diet. 

The UC Davis Study

On December 13, 2018, a team of veterinarians at the University of California, Davis published a study in PLOS ONE. It explored a possible link between grain-free, legume-rich dog food and taurine-deficient DCM in golden retrievers. The team was led by Joshua Stern, a veterinary cardiologist and geneticist at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

According to Stern, what triggered the research was the higher number of reported cases of DCM in Golden Retrievers at the clinic over the last two years. The July 2018 announcement by the FDA further caught his attention.

The clinical study, which involved 24 Golden Retrievers affected by DCM, found that all but one of the dogs were on grain-free or legume-rich diets. In some cases, the dogs were fed a mix of the two diets. It is also worth mentioning here that all the dogs involved in the study had a documented taurine deficiency.

Upon administering taurine supplements and dietary changes, 23 of the affected dogs showed signs of improvements. This included nine dogs who had already developed congestive heart failure prior to the study.

Stern pointed out that the ingredients present in grain-free or legume-rich foods may not directly cause DCM in dogs. However, they often lack many essential nutrients that are necessary of maintaining cardiac health and overall development.

Also, many of these foods contain excess amount of soluble carbohydrates that lead to the development of wrong bacteria in the gut. This, in turn, can interact with or hinder the absorption of taurine in the blood. Stern’s research, therefore, recommends dog-parents to steer-clear of strictly grain-free dog foods and opt for a more balanced diet instead.

The BSM Partners Study

The latest study on the effect of grain-free and legume-rich diet on canine DCM in the Journal of Animal Science on June 15, 2020. The research was conducted by independent pet care research and food consulting firm BSM Partners.

The peer-reviewed research compiled the findings from 150 already published studies on this subject. Unlike previous studies, it concluded that the available data doesn’t support the argument that grain-free and legume-rich diets are directly linked to canine DCM.

The study also highlighted various shortcomings in the FDA investigation, including reporting bias and small sample sizes. It also pointed out that many of the reports submitted to the FDA didn’t include vital information, such as:

  • Health history
  • Comorbidities
  • Dietary history

The article also explored other contributing factors that can lead to DCM, such as tachycardia, myocarditis, and hypothyroidism. However, it didn’t rule out the possibility that certain diets could be a contributing factor for DCM. The researchers suggested that more research is needed in this regard for a conclusive verdict on grain-free dog food.

What is the FDA’s Latest Stand on Grain-Free Dog Food?

On September 29, 2020, the FDA issued an inflection point at a virtual scientific forum organized by the Kansas State University. It revealed that at this point the FDA doesn’t have the adequate information to conclude that grain-free and legume-rich dog diets are responsible for development of DCM in dogs that aren’t genetically predisposed to the condition.

The FDA further mentioned that it hasn’t ordered any dog food recalls or advised dog parents against administering grain-free diets. Dr. Steven Solomon, director of CVM, reiterated the statement while emphasizing the need for additional research to understand the cause of non-heriditary DCM in dogs.

Grain-Free or Grain-Inclusive: What is the Right Choice?

There isn’t a simple way to answer this question. Based on the latest research, one could conclude that grain-free food isn’t that bad for dogs after all. However, it is worth mentioning that grain-free dog foods often use other sources of carbohydrates to replace the grains.

This, in turn, can increase the level of soluble carbohydrates in your dog’s blood, thereby leading to obesity and digestive issues. Also, it can interfere with their body’s ability to metabolize and absorb taurine, which can potentially lead to DCM.

Moreover, it is essential to emphasize that grain-inclusive food aren’t necessarily bad. They provide your dog with a balanced amount of various nutrients needed for all-round development. Even if you notice signs of gluten-induced allergy in your dog, you could swap wheat with gluten-free grains, such as rice and soy.

However, if you want to give grain-free diet a shot, make sure you closely work with your vet to develop a balanced and nutrient-rich diet plan. It is important to remember that every dog’s body is unique and will have very specific needs. You vet should be able to formulate a diet chart keeping these needs in mind.

Also, if you dog is on a grain-free diet, there is no need to immediately switch to grain-inclusive foods. As with everything, talk to your vet ro figure out what is best for your dog’s wellbeing. As a ground-rule, never make any drastic changes in your dog’s diet without consulting an expert. Ultimately, what matters is that your dog should get the best quality of life.

Have you ever tried giving grain-free foods to your dog? Would you consider it? Share your views in the comments section below.

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