Is Grain-Free Dog Food Linked to Canine Heart Disease?
Health-conscious pet owners are willing to pay a premium for dog food marketed as "grain-free" because it sounds like a healthy option.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently began investigating these foods for possible links to canine heart disease.
What Are the Dangers of Grain-Free Dog Foods?
These foods contain potatoes, chickpeas, lentils and other legumes as main ingredients. For humans, these foods are part of a healthy diet. But for dogs, now there are growing concerns that they may be linked to a potentially deadly canine heart disease known as dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).
This link has not been confirmed—and no recalls on these foods have been issued—but the FDA's Office of Foods and Veterinary Medicine is now investigating after hearing troubling reports of DCM occurring in dogs that were consistently fed these diets.
Dr. Martine Hartogensis, a veterinarian who serves as deputy director, said in a statement, "These reports are highly unusual as they are occurring in breeds not typically genetically prone to the disease."
What is DCM?
Dilated Cardiomyopathy is a condition thought to be related to taurine deficiency. It results in an enlarged and weakened heart, and can lead to congestive heart failure.
Dogs affected with DCM may seem tired or weak, have trouble breathing, lose weight even though they eat normally, develop irregular heartbeats—and even collapse suddenly.
Some breeds are genetically predisposed to DCM (Doberman pinschers, Irish wolfhounds, Boxers, and Great Danes), but more recently it has been reported among other breeds, including Golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, Doodle mixes, and Shih Tzus.
The Popularity of Grain-Free Dog Food
The list of ingredients in grain-free pet foods is quite exotic, containing a variety of proteins such as bison, ostrich, squid, alligator and kangaroo. They are often advertised to appeal to pet owners using unproven notions about protein-rich Paleolithic diets and gluten sensitivity.
Lisa Freeman, a veterinary nutritionist and researcher at Tufts University, along with other experts, points out that grain-free pet diets should be viewed with skepticism. She notes, "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."
The researchers agree that the main claims of the health benefits of grain-free pet foods are "all advertising" and there is no research-based evidence that dogs are gluten-intolerant. They acknowledge that it doesn't mean their clients are wrong when they report apparent health benefits from feeding their pets grain-free diets.
"The main claims of the health benefits of grain-free pet foods are 'all advertising' and there is no research-based evidence that dogs are gluten-intolerant."
In fact, many pet owners enthusiastically claim benefits of their pets being more energetic, generally healthier, with a shinier coat and better gut health. What pet owner doesn't want these benefits? But when larger, unseen health concerns are brought to light a wise pet owner wants answers.
Is a Grain-Free Pet Diet Too Risky?
This question certainly merits investigation and consultation with your pet's veterinarian. We understand the difficulty in finding answers when there seems to be so much conflicting information available these days.
Making high quality, nutritious pet food is definitely not easy. In fact, it's critical to combine the right ingredients in the right proportions. Complicating the effort to create a high-quality food is the effect of processing (or not processing) the food during the manufacturing stage.
One way to reduce your dog's risk of DCM and give you peace of mind is to feed your dog foods consisting of more typical ingredients made by a company with a long track record of producing good quality diets. Check with your vet about the current dog food brands recommended by a nutritionist and/or a cardiologist.