Grain-Free Pet Foods

Dec 3, 2018   Tracey Aston   Diet and Nutrition

Earlier this year, the FDA released a warning linking grain free foods – foods made primarily with legumes, potatoes and peas – to a condition called canine dilated cardiomyopathy.  Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine describes Canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) as “primary a disease of the cardiac muscle that results in a decreased ability of the heart to generate pressure to pump blood through the vascular system.” As scary as that sounds for pet parents, it basically comes down to feeding your pet a nutritionally sound diet. Research is still being done and nothing is concluded as of yet, but even the FDA said in their report that “it might be down to a nutritional deficiency.”   "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 fiber derivatives early in the ingredient list, indicating that they are main ingredients," the FDA said.

Our pets are carnivores, and for their food to have nutritional value it must contain taurine. Dogs require 22 essential amino acids to handle all their metabolic and energy needs but their bodies only produce 12 of the 22, the other 10 must come from the food they eat.  Plant proteins do not contain all the amino acids critical for carnivores.  Taurine, an amino acid, and a building block of protein, is essential for carnivores. Taurine is found primarily in muscle meat, and is completely absent in cereal grains. Taurine is distributed throughout the body with high concentration in certain tissues including heart wall muscles. DCM has well-documented connections to taurine deficiency. Dr. Martine Hartogensis of the FDA said, “We are concerned about reports of canine heart disease, known as dilated cardiomyopathy, in dogs that ate certain pet foods containing peas, lentils other legumes or potatoes as their main ingredients.”  Please take note, as the main ingredient. Always be certain to check the ingredient list on all dog food. The process of making kibble uses such high heat that any proteins in the food will be damaged or destroyed. Imagine cooking a chicken in the oven for 2 days, how much meat would actually be left? Dry kibble should show taurine listed in the ingredient as an additive, as it will be cooked out during production. 

In her article, A broken heart: Risk of heart disease in boutique or grain-free diets and exotic ingredients, Dr. Lisa M. Freeman, a veterinary nutritionist and a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, wrote “Many pet owners have, unfortunately, also bought into the grain-free myth.  The fact is that food allergies are very uncommon, so there's no benefit of feeding pet foods containing exotic ingredients.  And while grains have been accused on the internet of causing nearly every disease known to dogs, grains do not contribute to any health problems and are used in pet food as a nutritious source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.”  It's not just the exotic ingredients but poorly sourced ingredients going into dog food.  For example, rice is used as a good binding agent for dog food, though rice is a grain and is not always the best for our pets, the source of the rice must be taken into consideration. Unfortunately, big dog food companies will get their sources for dog food from non-human grade consumption. This means, that if a framer has experienced a drought and their crop is damaged, dog food manufactures will source that for their food because it can't be used for human consumption, resulting in poorly sourced quality food. These poorly sourced grains can cause food allergies to our pets, and again goes back to feeding a nutritionally sound diet. 

Dr. Freeman goes on to tell the story of Peanut, a 4-year old male Beagle/Lab mix who was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition.  “Peanut had been lethargic, not eating well, and occasionally coughing.  The veterinary cardiologist seeing him asked what he was eating and found that his owner, in a desire to do the best thing for Peanut, was feeding a boutique, grain-free diet containing kangaroo and chickpeas.  Peanut required several medications to treat his heart failure but the owner also changed his diet.  And today, now 5 months later, Peanut's heart is nearly normal!”

The best nutritionally sound meal will be home cooked or a raw diet, including several different types of meat, vegetables and fruits. If feeding another type of food, whether wet or dry, make sure you're reading and understanding the ingredient list – the main ingredient should always be meat. Be on the lookout for high filler content such as potatoes, peas or legumes and check to make sure taurine is added to all dry kibble.  As the FDA stated in their report, “it might be down to a nutritional deficiency.”  It's imperative your dog is getting the best nutrition for optimal health and you're educated on the ingredient list of their foods.  Our recent blog post, The Truth About Veterinarian Prescription Diets contains information on how to properly read and understand an ingredient list.

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