Some (not all!) grain-free dog foods are getting extra scrutiny from the FDA, after several dogs in the US who ate those foods developed a rare canine heart disease.
You don’t have to ditch your dog’s favourite food just because it’s grain-free, but it’s worth taking a look at why you chose it and whether it’s really the best choice.
Are some of these foods really dangerous?
The FDA is suspicious of certain grain-free foods because of a rash of cases of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs.
This is a condition that isn’t fully understood, but it’s more common in certain breeds, and previous research has shown that diet can play a role, especially if it results in dogs’ bodies being deficient in the naturally occurring chemicals taurine or carnitine.
Some veterinary cardiologists noticed they were seeing more cases of DCM in dog breeds that don’t normally get it, and these dogs were eating grain-free dog foods with potatoes or legumes.
That’s all we know so far. The FDA isn’t warning people away from grain-free dog foods, just giving us a heads up that they’re looking into them. It could turn out that the food isn’t related at all. Here’s one alternate explanation off the top of my head: Grain-free pet foods are more expensive, and may just happen to be popular among the same people who have the budget to take their pet to a canine cardiologist.
Which foods are suspicious?
The FDA doesn’t name names, but here’s how they describe the foods:
Diets in cases reported to the FDA frequently list potatoes or multiple legumes such as peas, lentils, other “pulses” (seeds of legumes), and their protein, starch and fibre derivatives early in the ingredient list, indicating that they are main ingredients.
In other words, they aren’t talking about every food that says “grain-free” on the front. If a food has multiple words near the beginning of the ingredient list that name these ingredients — such as “lentils” and then “pea protein” and then “soybean flour”, for example — that could mean that legumes make up a large proportion of the ingredients of that food. Take a look at your dog’s food label and see whether it matches this description.
What’s so great about grain-free foods anyway?
We think of dogs as carnivores, and indeed their wild ancestors ate plenty of dead animals. But dogs are built to be able to digest other foods as well. Scientists who have compared dog DNA with wolf DNA found that our canine best friends are better equipped than their ancestors to digest starch (found in grains and other plant foods). This probably helped them learn to take advantage of human garbage and handouts.
The details of how this happened are historically murky, but in any case, dogs are not full-on carnivores any more. Dogs can eat grains as a part of their food, so long as the food is nutritionally balanced overall (enough protein, and so on).
“Grain-free” dog foods aren’t usually all meat; look at the ingredients list and you’ll typically find that grains such as wheat or corn have been replaced by other starchy vegetables — such as peas, lentils and potatoes.
Until now, it’s seemed that the grain-based and vegetable-based dog foods deliver similar nutrition. But if the FDA’s suspicions are right, the foods with large amounts of legumes and potatoes might be bad for your dog’s long-term health.
What should I do if my dog eats a grain-free food?
If you feed your dog a grain-free food, and it contains multiple legume or potato ingredients near the top of the ingredients list, it’s probably smart to switch to something else until we figure out whether these are problematic.
The Whole Dog Journal suggests asking yourself why you chose this food. If it was just on a whim, switch away. But if you settled on this food as the only one that helps your dog with digestive or other health problems, proceed more carefully.
As always, the best source of information about what to do for your dog’s health is not an article you read on the internet, but a discussion with your veterinarian.