There’s been a lot of buzz about the FDA’s recently-released Grain-Free Diet Alert, which has left many dog owners concerned about potential impacts of grain-free foods on their pets’ health. The alert came after the FDA investigated reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)—essentially an enlarged heart—in dogs eating certain types of dog foods, many of them labeled “grain-free”.
With the growing popularity of grain-free dog food and many leading “healthy” dog food brands making the list, dog owners who feed their dogs these foods (or are considering doing so) are faced with many uncertainties: How safe is it to feed my dog grain-free foods? Should I switch my dog to a different diet or brand of food? Should my dog even eat grain-free food? Are some foods safer than others?
With all the confusion out there, we’ve put together key considerations from our expert animal nutritionist, Dr. Richard Patton, to help you decide which diet is best for your dog.
Grain-Free Diet Alert: How Concerned Should Dog Owners Be?
Gluten-free and grain-free diets have become increasingly popular in recent years due to concerns about food allergies or the high amounts of carbohydrates in traditional dog food. But, since this spike in popularity coincides with a rise in cases of canine dilated cardiomyopathy linked to grain-free foods, many dog owners are at a loss about whether grain-free diets are actually safe.
A look at the numbers
The FDA investigated 515 reports of DCM in dogs received between January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2019, finding 560 dogs were affected. Out of the 560 dogs diagnosed with DCM, 119 of them died as a result of DCM (source here).
“An enlarged heart is very common in humans,” says Dr. Patton, “but it’s relatively uncommon in dogs, so these numbers do seem concerning. It’s absolutely something we should keep an open mind about and keep investigating.”
Why would a grain-free diet contribute to DCM?
It might not be as simple as grain-free or not grain-free, according to Dr. Patton. The amount of other ingredients of concern complicate the issue.
A look at the ingredients
The following chart shows that these cases may have something to do with common ingredients in grain-free dog food. The findings show high instances of cases reported in foods with ingredients such as peas, lentils, and sweet potatoes.
Image courtesy of FDA
And, to complicate the situation even more, some brands were reported more frequently than others, and some dog breeds also had more cases reported than others.
Image courtesy of FDA
With so many unknowns, it’s hard to pin down the exact cause of or contributor to these cases. But, as Dr. Patton shares, we should consider how these foods impact our dogs’ health, and we shouldn’t limit our concerns to the risk of DCM. There are other problems that can result from some dog foods that have been labeled “grain-free”.
Not All Grain-Free Foods are Created Equal
“Grain-free” doesn’t mean low-carbohydrates or all meat.
“Grain-free” has become a label that we tend to associate with “healthy” or “high quality.” Dog food that’s free of grains can be a healthy choice for your dog, but Dr. Patton says that “grain-free” can be a somewhat deceptive term:
“When the grains are taken out of these foods, they’re just replaced with other ingredients—peas, lentils, sweet potatoes—which means they’ll often have more carbohydrates than foods that aren’t grain-free. So, the problem with ‘grain-free’ foods with these ingredients isn’t just about the risk of DCM, it’s about excess soluble carbohydrates.”
These excess soluble carbohydrates can lead to several problems in dogs. While your dog needs carbohydrates to produce energy, too many of them can contribute to obesity, the wrong bacteria in the gut, and a lack of energy. So, if a dog food is labeled “grain-free” but the grains are replaced with other ingredients, it’s not necessarily a healthier option for your dog.
Learn more about the impact of excess soluble carbohydrates on your dog’s health here.
How Raw Dog Food is Different
Raw dog food is naturally grain-free rather than modified to exclude grains. As Dr. Patton notes, “raw food isn’t grain-free in the sense that grain-free traditional kibble is. It’s grain-free because the only ingredients are what nature intended—meat, vital organs, and bones, which means more protein and fewer soluble carbohydrates.”
Raw dog food products like those from Vital Essentials aren’t just grain-free, but they’re also free of any of the other ingredients that could potentially cause problems. “Grain-free is a non-issue to begin with in Vital Essentials foods,” Dr. Patton says. “Vital Essentials doesn’t have to use special recipes to exclude grains because the grains aren’t there in the first place.”
“And that’s how nature intended it,” says Dr. Patton.
So, should you choose grain-free?
It all comes down to what “grain-free” means in terms of the food and, of course, what’s best for your pet. A raw dog food diet is a good way to reap the benefits of a truly grain-free diet without having to worry about risks that come from fillers or ingredients used to replace grains.