Grain free pet foods have consumed the pet food market over the past few years. Made with meat and legumes that would be favored by the most health conscious person. They are promoted as being both healthy and nutritious, and similar to the protein rich diets our dogs’ ancestors may have eaten.
But, during the summer of 2018 the food and drug administration announced that they are investigating a link between these diets and a common type of heart disease found in dogs. The condition is called Dilated Cardiomyopathy (or DCM).
WHAT IS DILATED CARDIOMYOPATHY?
DCM is a disease of a dog’s heart muscle and results in an enlarged heart. As the heart and its chambers become dilated, it becomes harder for the heart to pump, and heart valves may leak, which can lead to a buildup of fluid in the chest and abdomen (congestive heart failure). If caught early, heart function may improve in cases that are not linked to genetics with appropriate veterinary treatment and dietary modification. Symptoms include fatigue, difficulty breathing, coughing and fainting. DCM is typically seen in large breed dogs that have a genetic predisposition for it, like Doberman pinschers, Irish wolfhounds, boxers and Great Danes.
A practice of 19 veterinary cardiologists in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, alerted the F.D.A. that it has been seeing DCM among other breeds, including Golden retrievers, doodle mixes, Labrador retrievers and Shih Tzus. The common factor was a diet containing peas, lentils, chickpeas, and potatoes. These are the carbohydrates typically used to replace grains in grain-free foods. Other veterinary cardiologists have also noted the correlation with their patients.
DO I NEED TO CHANGE MY DOG’S FOOD?
There have been no food recalls based on this study, and millions of dogs are happily eating these diets. So far the number of patients affected is small. The probability is low that most dogs eating any of these diets being questioned will develop DCM. However, given the fact that we don’t yet understand why these diets are affecting some dogs and because DCM is a life-threatening disease, you may want to reconsider your dog’s diet until we know more.
Researchers do not know why these diets would be problematic. It may be the absence of grains, the presence of legumes, or something else. Suspected diets are those from boutique companies, contain exotic ingredients (exotic meats, vegetables, or fruits), or are grain free. We also have to take into consideration that not all pet food manufacturers have the same level of nutritional expertise and quality control, which could introduce potential issues with some products.
Raw or home-made diets are not safe alternatives either. Dogs have been diagnosed with DCM whom eat those types of diets as well. Raw and home-cooked diets may increase your dog’s risk for many other health problems. It’s best to stick with a commercial pet food made by a well-established manufacturer that contains common ingredients.
WHAT ARE THE EXPERTS SAYING?
Dr. Lisa Freeman, a veterinary nutritionist and researcher with the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, sees this moment as an opportunity to view grain-free diets skeptically. “Contrary to advertising and popular belief, there is no research to demonstrate that grain-free diets offer any health benefits over diets that contain grains,” she said.
Grains are an important source of protein and other nutrients in many meat-based pet foods, she continued. “Grains have not been linked to any health problems except in the very rare situation when a pet has an allergy to a specific grain.”