Grain free dog food in the news…AGAIN

Last summer I wrote an article about the grain free dog food fad. Word was getting out that many of these foods are linked to a specific kind of heart failure that was killing dogs. It was on the national news!  Dog owners were worried, asking questions. Here’s last year’s article about grain free food to get you caught up.

Then life went on and suddenly nobody seemed to care anymore. Veterinarians kept warning people, yet no one seemed to listen. People kept feeding these diets, convinced they are the “best” for their pet. More dogs got sick. More dogs died. As a veterinarian, this whole grain free thing is downright exhausting. There was never a need for grain free food to be created in the first place, and now it’s doing harm. My favorite argument for grain free is that it’s more “natural”, and dogs “don’t eat grain in the wild.” If you follow that logic, dogs must then farm lentils in the wild? Sure. I’m picturing Fido with his straw hat driving his tractor.

Farmer Fido aside, veterinarians have known grain free food is not ideal for years. We’ve suspected it’s linked to heart failure, and the evidence continues to mount. Yet, we go through our day talking with clients, telling people the same warnings over and over, only to get blown off the majority of the time. After a while you kinda give up.

Here’s what kills me: if a drug, or a heartworm preventative, or a flea killer were to cause the same thing, pet owners would listen! They’d avoid that product like the plague. They’d ask their vet about it, and they would believe us. Yet, if a food is causing a disease, suddenly no one believes it. Everyone is too busy avoiding “by-products” (AKA liver) than to consider what is actually good for their dog.

So why bring this up again? Well, ’tis the season for yet another report to come out, again warning that grain free food is causing a specific type of heart failure called DCM (Dilated Cardiomyopathy) in dogs. Time for everyone to ask their vet about food, looking for reassurance that grain free isn’t so bad… and most of them will not like the answer their vet gives.

The recent report by the FDA is unique in that it names names! (Here it is – it’s a good read!) Past reports have implicated grain free food, specifically those with a legume base, in the cause of DCM. But everyone could convince themselves it’s the “other food” causing problems. It couldn’t possibly be the brand of food the kind, caring person in the pet store assures them is the best. (For my article on why you shouldn’t believe people in the pet store, click here).

Now that the brands are listed, that deniability is gone. Now what? Once again, people are asking veterinarians what to feed, but not really wanting to know the answer. They want assurance their dog will be just fine. When we can’t give them that, they stop listening and go ask the high school kid at the pet food store. He’ll know.

Here’s what most veterinarians will tell you:

-We recommend foods made by companies with veterinary nutritionists on staff. Who has that? Hill’s, Royal Canin, Iams/Eukanuba, and Purina.

-We recommend brands that perform AAFCO feeding trials. Who does those? Hill’s, Royal Canin, Iams/Eukanuba, and Purina. Who has never done those? Everyone else. Why? They take time, are very expensive, and are a general pain in the rear.

-We recommend foods made by companies that are large enough to control their entire manufacturing process. Guess which ones those are?

In the last 15 years there has been a boom in “boutique diets.” What are these? A marketing team comes up with a great idea to appeal to consumers. It’s not necessarily good for the dog, but people will buy it and that’s what counts. So they come up with a food that fits the bill, advertise it, confuse consumers, and it sells like crazy. It all started with vilifying corn, then by-products, then saying it MUST have meat as a first ingredient, then grain….what next?

Everyone wants a piece of this oh-so-profitable pie.

To give you an idea of how crazy this cottage industry has become, here’s something that actually happened to me 5 years ago:

I have a blog (duh.) I used to write articles for other blogs as well. I had my name out there as a veterinarian who could write a piece for your site, or consult on issues. Imagine my surprise when I got an offer from a brand new pet food company! They didn’t want a blog article. They didn’t know me from Adam. They wanted to use my name, and nothing more.

They were a start-up company (who shall remain nameless) who had an idea for a pet food, but they needed a veterinarian to sign off on the formulation (AKA the recipe, basically). They didn’t care if it was legitimate, balanced, or healthy at all. They knew what bullet points they wanted to market and made up a dog food to meet those criteria without ANY input from ANY veterinarian. When they found out a vet had to sign off on it, they were scrambling.

I’m not a nutritionist. I’m just a regular veterinarian. They did not ask if I had any experience in nutrition, pet food, or anything at all. They didn’t care. They offered me money (not even that much!) to simply look over a recipe and approve it. I obviously declined. However, if you’re a veterinarian carrying a ton of student loan debt and an “easy” few hundred bucks comes your way, you just might say yes, and I get it. Someone out there did. It’s probably on the shelf of the lovely pet store near you.

So let my experience give you an idea of the “research and development,” or lack thereof, that goes into many of these small brand pet foods. I’m not saying all are bad. But most are not good. How can they be if the creators have no idea what they are doing?

My point? Don’t get caught up in buzzwords. Or marketing. It’s hard, I get it. In fact, I’m almost done with my book on how to read a pet food label. It takes a freakin’ book, because of the amount of downright deception on the label! (Hint – meat as the first ingredient is 100% marketing twist!)

If you want your veterinarian’s opinion on what to feed your dog, and you plan on listening, then please ask! It’s refreshing to have owners finally listen to us on this topic, and more are finally starting to. We’re in this business to help save lives, and seeing our patients get sick despite our warnings is heartbreaking.

ADDENDUM: Many people have asked what exactly a by-product is. In terms of meat production, by-products are any part of the animal that is not muscle/meat. Basically, it means organs, like liver, tripe (intestines), and lung.

Posted in General health, Myths & Hot Topics.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you so much. It’s hard to even find a dog food that doesn’t have some kind of gimmick on the package.😥

  2. You had me, until you said “Here’s what kills me: if a drug, or a heartworm preventative, or a flea killer were to cause the same thing, pet owners would listen! They’d avoid that product like the plague. They’d ask their vet about it, and they would believe us.”
    There are PLENTY of articles and reports (including a class action lawsuit) out there that show these medications are making dogs VERY sick and in some instances killing them. And yet, you’re still pushing them on our pets!!!

  3. Hello! I found your blog from a friend of a friend! (Actually family!) As an avid pet owner, I had some questions after reading your article.
    As a vet yourself, do you know what nutrient found in grains may be missing in a diet that does not have many carbohydrates?

    My dog currently eats a diet of a food high in fish and veggies, eggs, lean beef (in small amounts), and a little cheese. She’s an 8 yr old Shepherd mix, 75 lbs.

    She walks 2-4 miles a day and and eats beef bones every so often.

    She goes to the vet twice a year, has healthy teeth and fur and her blood work is always great. My concern is this: If she seems in top condition, are you suggesting there are possible ailments not being caught by my vet due to my not specifically giving her grains?

    What tests should I have my vet run to ensure her current lifestyle is not secretly causing heart disease? Her food-base is a high protein & veggie diet. The labeling does say “grain free” but that’s not why I buy it. It’s because I feel the food ingredients are good quality.

    I 100% agree with your argument, that people should not be feeding their dogs the latest trends just “because.” As someone focused on quality ingredients and exercise, I’m just curious what the specific risk is by not making sure she is eating grains.

    Thank you!!

  4. Oh Hey, I commented a few minutes ago. As a somewhat obsessed dog owner, I continued researching on my own. I found this great article that helps connect the dots.

    The reason for DCM heart disease in dogs (and cats) is likely a deficiency in taurine. Dogs make their own, cats need to consume it.

    “Grain Free” diets either contain poor quality protein (which cats NEED higher quality, and dogs use to make more taurine) and /or contain higher amounts of legumes, peas and such to replace the grains. These ingredients used in greater abundance in grain free foods contribute to taurine deficiency.

    Also, thanks to humans breeding dogs irresponsibily, some breeds don’t produce taurine as well.

    Taurine is an amino acid that’s very important to dogs and their heart health. (and cats)

    Vegetarian diets for dogs and cats are also horrible and often tied to grain-free.

    So there you have it! It’s not that dogs need grains, it’s the ingredients that either suffer in quality, or are added that contribute to a taurine deficiency, which is the prime suspect in DCM and other heart conditions in Dogs and cats.

    Thanks for choosing to be a vet. Vets are heros in my book!! 😀 I hope this is useful to you!

    I couldn’t link my sources due to the blog spam filter. But I’m happy to email it!

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