The Food and Drug Administration launched an investigation into grain-free pet food last July. The question: Is grain-free good for your pet?
With fad diets including keto, gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan dominating the healthy lifestyle conversation, it can be difficult enough for humans to discern what type of nutrition is best for their needs and lifestyle.
And now, that trend is spreading to the four-legged members of the family, too. Pet owners now also are facing more decisions than ever when it comes to fueling their furry friends.
Choosing food for your pet has become more than just running to the pet store and picking up a bag of kibble. More voices have entered the sphere of discussion, including veterinarians and stakeholders in the arena of nutrition, and there is more to consider. Some say it is best to prepare your pet’s food yourself at home, while others advocate for a raw diet.
One of the newer trends in pet nutrition, though, is grain-free food. Veterinarian Dr. Lorie Huston writes on PetMD that grain- and gluten-free diets are particularly helpful for people who have celiac disease, wheat allergies or gluten intolerance.
“Many pet owners choose to mimic their own food choices when choosing a food for their pet,” Huston wrote. “With the increase in the number of people choosing to consume a grain-free or gluten-free diet, pet food manufacturers have recognized that similar pet diets are attractive to pet owners.”
Although this has led to an abundance of grain- and gluten-free pet foods on the market, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been investigating reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, in dogs eating certain pet foods, many labeled as “grain-free,” since July 2018.
According to the FDA, the foods in question contained a high proportion of peas, lentils, other legume seeds and/or potatoes in various forms as main ingredients. Between January 2014 and April 2019, the FDA received 524 reports of DCM (515 canine reports, nine feline reports), about 222 of which were reported between December 2018 and April 2019. While some large breeds can have genetic predispositions for DCM, many of these cases involved small- and medium-sized breeds.
“My recommendation now is the one thing you want to avoid is a grain-free diet. The other thing they’re telling us is to avoid boutique-style dog foods, meaning not a big company with nutrition studies behind them that employ veterinary nutritionists.” — Dr. Angela Chesanek, Chain of Lakes Animal Clinic
The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates there are 77 million pet dogs in the United States. According to the FDA, it is not known how commonly dogs develop DCM, “but the increase in reports to FDA signal a potential increase in cases of DCM in dogs not genetically predisposed.” The FDA’s February 2019 update stated that in cases in which dogs ate a single primary diet, 90% reported feeding a grain-free food.
“The FDA is working with the pet food industry to better understand whether changes in ingredients, ingredient sourcing, processing or formulation may have contributed to the development of DCM,” the FDA stated.
Ocoee-based veterinarian Dr. Michael Wright, who owns The Wright Pet Nutrition, said the FDA now has released three reports on this case, but there still is no proof that DCM is linked to grain-free food. Wright said although the theory is being researched, there currently is no data to support it.
Wright, a holistic veterinarian, specializes in Nutrition Response Testing, a tool for focusing on a pet’s health problem(s) and providing specific individualized treatment. In his experiences, many grain-based dog foods have adverse effects on the pet’s health.
“I still don’t believe (grain-free food) is the cause of (DCM),” Wright said. “I do a thing called muscle testing, a tool that I use to assess whether the patient tests well for a particular food. Corn, wheat and barley, they’re terrible for dogs. They’re inflammatory, they cause all kinds of skin and ear problems. My whole practice has gone to grain-free dog food, and in the entire time I’ve been doing this, I’ve never seen a case of DCM in a dog.”
Wright said he believes there is another underlying cause that hasn’t been uncovered, possibly a toxicity. With muscle testing, Wright tests for chemicals and metals showing up in his clients. Heavy metal or chemical toxicity can lead to such adverse health conditions.
“They’re not doing any of these when they’re examining these dogs — they’re just looking for common traits,” Wright said. “(Ninety percent) reported the commonality was grain-free dog foods, and what they claim is the deficiency of taurine. One of the companies I use and tests well is Fromm. When I contacted Fromm and spoke with them, they said they’ve been fortifying their food with taurine.”
“Corn, wheat, and barley — they’re terrible for dogs. They’re inflammatory, they cause all kinds of skin and ear problems. My whole practice has gone to grain-free dog food, and in the entire time I’ve been doing this, I’ve never seen a case of DCM in a dog.” — Dr. Michael Wright, The Wright Pet Nutrition
Wright added this connection has not been proven, and when looking at the number of cases in relationship to the number of dogs in the United States, it’s a minuscule number. Wright added that he typically sees homemade, grain-free and raw-food diets as those that test well. However, each animal is different and has different needs and dietary reactions.
Veterinarian Dr. Angela Chesanek, who owns Chain of Lakes Animal Clinic in Summerport Village, views the grain-free diet more as a trend and recommends her clients avoid it.
“As far as the grain-free diets, I think a lot of it was very trendy and not necessarily based on health and needs of pets,” Chesanek said. “I compare it to the gluten-free craze in people. Gluten-free became very trendy, but the vast majority of people who buy those products aren’t necessarily directed to do so by their doctor. A large portion of the pet-food market started going grain free.”
Because the FDA listed several dog-food brands that are linked to these cases under investigation, Chesanek believes there is validity to the claims.
“They think it’s that the ingredients they’re substituting for the grain seems to make it so (pets are) not absorbing the amino acids,” Chesanek said. “It’s well believed throughout many veterinary cardiologist groups now that there’s an association.”
She added that her practice sent an email to its clients over the summer alerting them of the FDA investigation. Many veterinary cardiologists are recommending that pet owners avoid boutique, exotic-ingredient and grain-free diets, she said.
“My recommendation now is the one thing you want to avoid is a grain-free diet,” she said. “The other thing they’re telling us is to avoid boutique-style dog foods, meaning not a big company with nutrition studies behind them that employ veterinary nutritionists. A lot of the smaller companies just don’t have that. I would encourage people to ask their veterinarians what to feed their pets and not necessarily maybe the employees of a pet supermarket-type place, because I think their veterinarian is the person to ask. People need to ask whoever they see and trust to take care of their pets.”