Pet owners are inundated with pet-food information from a variety of sources—well-meaning friends and family, social media, advertisements, pet store employees, and veterinary professionals. Grain-free diets have been a hot topic in recent years because, depending on whom you talk to, they are touted as the best choice a loving pet parent could make, or akin to playing a game of Russian Roulette with your dog’s heart. Our Medina Veterinary Clinic team helps you take an objective look at the facts surrounding grain-free diets.

Grains are not filler for pet food

Marketing departments for grain-free pet food want you to believe that your dog is more like a wolf than a cow, and should not be forced to eat food that contains “filler,” like corn, oats, or wheat. Whole grains, however, are a great way to deliver the vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, fiber, and protein that your pet needs, so they serve an important role in dog food, rather than being cheap “filler.” Whole pieces of corn may pass through your dog’s digestive tract practically unchanged when they steal a picnic snack, but that does not mean that the corn in dog food does the same thing. Pets efficiently digest and use the grains processed correctly during food production, which can play an integral role in a complete and balanced diet. 

Grain-free pet food isn’t always synonymous with low-carb

Depending on the food formula, some grain-free diets have equal or higher amounts of carbohydrates than a grain-containing food. Peas, beans, tapioca, and lentils are non-grain carbohydrate sources that are prominently featured in some grain-free diets. Other formulations are indeed lower in carbohydrates, with a higher percentage of the energy supplied from fats and proteins, which may be too energy dense for some sedentary pets. 

Grains are rarely linked to health problems in pets

Grain-free pet food manufacturers would like owners to think that many pets are grain-allergic, but this is not the case. While some pets can be allergic to food ingredients, protein sources, such as beef, dairy, and chicken, are more likely the culprit for food-allergic pets. In the rare case that our Medina Veterinary Clinic team suspects your pet has a grain allergy, we will recommend a specific veterinarian-approved diet to minimize the risks associated with grain-free diets. With the exception of one inbred Irish Setter family, gluten intolerance is virtually nonexistent in dogs and cats, so unless a family member needs to strictly avoid gluten contact because of a health condition such as Celiac’s Disease, there is no pet health reason to seek gluten-free pet food, instead of traditional grain-containing pet food.

Grain-free diets may be linked to dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs

In July 2018, the FDA reported that boutique, exotic ingredient, and grain-free (BEG) diets may be linked to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs, a disease where the heart chambers enlarge, and become less efficient at pumping blood, eventually leading to heart failure, and death. Certain dog breeds are known to be genetically predisposed to DCM, but in recent years, veterinarians have been seeing more DCM cases in non-genetically predisposed breeds. After an investigation, the FDA determined that 90% of reported DCM cases involved dogs who were eating a grain-free diet. Some instances involved multiple pets in the same household, raising the concern that this diet could be contributing to DCM development. When the diet was changed, and in some cases supplemented with the amino acid taurine, heart function improved in some of the dogs, further indicating a possible dietary link.

The FDA and veterinarians continue to investigate the diet-DCM connection, as no definitive link has yet been found. This is due in part to the complexities involved in pet food manufacturing, and the inherent difficulties of studying a disease that relies heavily on veterinarians or owners to report cases, since a widespread national surveillance system does not exist. Researchers are currently focusing on the levels of amino acids such as taurine, ingredient processing methods, nutrient bioavailability, and the effects of combining ingredients. The exotic ingredients, such as ostrich, alligator, or lentils, used in some of these diets further complicate matters, because they have different nutrient profiles from more commonly used ingredients, and may change the nutrient metabolism. A heart-toxic ingredient may also exist in some of these diets, either as a contaminant, or a naturally occurring chemical compound. Until more definitive information exists regarding dietary DCM, our Medina Veterinary Clinic team recommends not feeding BEG diets to your pets, and consulting with us if your pet is currently on a BEG diet, so we can advise you further. 

If you have questions about grains for pets, would like to discuss dietary DCM, or need help choosing a pet food, give us a call. Our veterinary team is well-educated about pet nutrition, and can be a trusted, reliable information source, rather than your friend, the pet store employee, or Facebook. We promise to recommend a nutritious, safe food that is well-suited for your furry friend’s unique needs, with no marketing gimmicks.