Pet Talk: Confusion over Grain-Free Diets

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The pet food and treat industry has grown and changed so much over the years. Much of that change has been very positive, with natural foods becoming more mainstream, something I only dreamed of when opening my first store 18 years ago.

But something happened in 2018 that I believe derailed the direction it was heading. This is arguably the biggest thing to happen in the pet food industry.

What happened in 2018?

The FDA issued a warning to the veterinary community that over 1,100 dogs had been diagnosed with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). DCM affects the heart muscle which can eventually lead to death. It is the second most common disease of the heart of dogs with a strong genetic link to certain breeds, including Golden Retrievers, Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Boxers and Irish Wolfhounds. The FDA was concerned that an increasing amount of other breeds and mixed-breed dogs were being diagnosed with DCM.

If not genetic, what else can cause DCM?

Dilated Cardiomyopathy can result from a lack of Taurine, an amino acid that is crucial to a healthy heart in dogs and cats. Taurine naturally occurs in muscle and organ meat and is also added to processed pet food as a supplement if the food is lacking in naturally occurring taurine. Rightfully so, the FDA wondered if there was a link between their DCM diagnosis and what these affected animals were eating.

The FDA found a potential link

They began compiling a list of dogs (and a few cats) that had DCM and found that the majority, although not all, were eating foods without grains. This made sense to me because of the trend towards healthier, more gluten-free options. The other, most interesting correlation I noticed, is that most of the dogs and cats that developed DCM were eating the same food, with no variety for many years. 

In lieu of grains, pet food manufacturers typically use pulses (legumes) as a starch to help bind the meat when forming a kibble. Pulses include lentils, chickpeas, peas, potatoes and sweet potatoes. These carbohydrates do make up a large portion of the food. 

Was there something about legumes blocking the absorption of Taurine? Research soon began, and in the meantime, out of an abundance of caution, the veterinary community asked their clients to stop feeding grain-free foods.

Why do I think this derailed the industry?

I believe the FDA warning had good intentions, however, how that information was interpreted led to misinformation and confusion. For the next four years, pet owners thought they needed to add grains to their pet’s diet for a healthy heart. The message from the FDA was very misunderstood! Before any studies were completed, without any scientific facts, countless scared pet owners exchanged healthy diets for less optimal diets with grains.

We saw folks on raw-fed diets moving to kibble with grains, even though very few dogs and cats on a raw diet developed DCM. We saw folks on grain-free diets start adding grains to their grain-free, legume-based kibble. Every day we helped many who were told by their vets to “find something with grain”.

Fast forward, four years later

“In March 2022, veterinarians and scientists from BSM Partners, a pet care research and consulting firm, and the University of Missouri found ‘no significant correlation between the national canine DCM incidence rates in relation to grain-free pet food sales.’”1 

And, as early on as September 2020 at a virtual scientific forum at Kansas State University, FDA officials “acknowledged that there is no clear evidence indicating that grain-free goods with pulse ingredients are inherently dangerous for dogs and conceded that the ‘complex scientific messaging’ was often lost in translation in the media.”2

Moving forward

Virtually none of this information has had time to trickle to the pet owner and veterinarian community and we’re still seeing pet owners every day reading out-of-date information or being told by their vets to avoid grain-free diets.

“Simply put, there was never sufficient evidence to link grain-free diets to Dilated Cardiomyopathy. There are far greater things to worry about in that space. Cancer and kidney disease to name a few! We should really be focusing on food and nutrition as a whole versus specific nutrients, like taurine,” says William Hoekman, Vice President of Nutrition and Communication at Green Juju.

I agree with Mr. Hoekman’s advice. I believe that offering a diet with variety, and offering freshness to the diet as often as one can, is the message here for DCM. I’m certain most other independently-owned nutrition-focused pet stores and veterinarians would echo that approach. My hope now is that we can move past this, help you uncover facts, un-muddy confusion, and continue to find options that best suit you and your pets.

1, 2 Pet Product News, “FDA Halts DCM Updates, Citing Insufficient Data on DCM Cases and Pet Foods”, January 9, 2023

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