Concerns with Grain-Free Pet Food | Animal Care Clinic (2023)

Concerns with Grain-Free Pet Food

Concerns with Grain-Free Pet Food:

Updates on Diet-Associated Heart Disease in Dogs

Veterinary cardiologists and the FDA have been investigating a link between a canine heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and certain pet foods that include legumes (peas, lentils, etc.) or potatoes as main ingredients. The ingredients of concern are commonly found in diets marketed as grain-free, but a link has also been found with other types of boutique and exotic ingredient diets. We are alarmed because DCM is being seen in dog breeds that are not traditionally prone to it.

(Video) 2022 FDA Grain Free Dog Food Update! Is Grain Free Dog Food Safe?

What is dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)?Concerns with Grain-Free Pet Food | Animal Care Clinic (1)

DCM is a disease of heart muscle that leads to a large, flabby heart, which then causes fluid to accumulate in the chest and abdomen. DCM causes symptoms like reduced energy, coughing, difficulty breathing, collapse, and death. In the past, DCM generally only affected certain breeds of dogs with a suspected inherited genetic link (Dobermans, Boxers, Great Danes, Newfoundlands, Irish Wolfhounds, Saint Bernards , and Cocker Spaniels). DCM is now being seenin other breeds, and these dogs were reported to have been fed newerBoutique, Exotic Ingredient, or Grain-Free (“BEG”) diets. Some of these patients have been found to have low blood taurine levels, which is a proven cause of DCM. Unlike traditional DCM patients, heart function in dogs with diet-associated DCM may improve with veterinary care and diet change.

DCM was common in cats in the 1980s, until an association was made with taurine deficiency. Feline DCM could be reversed with taurine supplementation, and the overall frequency was drastically reduced when the requirement for taurine in cat food was increased. Perhaps a similar scenario will play out for our canine patients.

Which pet foods are involved?

Concerns with Grain-Free Pet Food | Animal Care Clinic (2)

Grain-free diets aren’t the only source of diet-associated DCM; foods from boutique companies and those with exotic ingredients have also been found to cause the same heart problems. Veterinary nutritionists suspect the legumes and potatoes used instead of traditional grains or other exotic ingredients may be involved. A lack of qualified nutritional expertise and quality controls is another potential source of issues with many of these diets.

The FDA recommends reviewing the pet food’s ingredientlist to see whether legumes (peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, peanuts, pea protein, pea starch, pea fiber) or potatoes (including sweet potatoes and red potatoes) are listed as a main ingredient (ie. listed before vitamins or minerals). High levels are common in grain-free foods but may also appear in other diets.

(Video) Is there a link between Grain Free Pet food and Dilated Cardiomyopathy

June 2019 updates: the FDA published a list of brands most commonly named in reported cases. Over 90% were labelled as “grain-free” and 93% contained lentils and/or peas. A much smaller number of listed foods (42%) contained potatoes.

Cardiologists have defined3 types of DCM in dogs:

  1. Breed-specific DCM: this is the traditional, inherited type that happens in certain large and giant breed dogs. It is develops unrelated to diet.
  1. Diet-associated DCM with taurine deficiency:this type is not related to breed/genetics. A low blood taurine level is found. Fortunately, nearly all these patients have improved with taurine supplementation and diet change.
  1. Diet-associated DCM without taurine deficiency: this type is caused by a different but currently unknown dietary factor(s) in BEG diets. Potential causes are a nutrient deficiency, impaired absorption of a nutrient, or even a heart toxin. Some of these dogs improve with diet change.

Additionally, some dogs with breed-specific DCM eat BEG diets, and there are many dogs without heart disease eating BEG diets.

What is taurine and how do taurine deficiencies develop?

Taurine is an amino acid (component of protein). The reason some dogs develop taurine deficiency is not completely understood at this time, but it is suspected to be related to reduced synthesis of taurine. Golden retrievers may be especially predisposed to developing taurine deficiencies.

What are BEG diets, and why are veterinarians so concerned about them?

(Video) Grain Free Diets and Heart Disease - Latest Research

Cardiologists have listed 23 different BEG diets fedto dogs diagnosed with diet-associated DCM. They fall into these categories:

Boutique brands, raw, or home-cooked diets have been found to be more prone to nutritional imbalances, which may be related to a lack of nutritional expertise (ie. not employing veterinary nutritionists or conducting pet nutrition research) and/or lack of adequate quality controls. Deficiencies are more likely to occur with lax quality control standards or lack of feeding trials and proven digestibility of ingredients.

Exotic ingredients (like kangaroo, duck, buffalo, salmon, lamb, bison, venison, lentils, peas, fava beans, tapioca, barley, and chickpeas) have become mainstream in pet foods, but these non-traditional ingredients make it much trickier to ensure nutritional balance. Their nutrient profiles, digestibility, and interactions with other ingredients less understood as traditional ingredients. Although they are often marketed as being more natural or healthier, there are actually no proven benefits with exotic ingredients. Less understanding of these ingredients means pet food companies using them need better quality controls, testing, and supplier audits; but these standards are unfortunately not commonly seen with the boutique brands using them. Veterinary nutrition specialists actually recommend “ignoring the marketing and avoiding diets with exotic meats…They aren’t helping your pet, but they are likely hurting your wallet!”

Grain-free diets may be a problem because they tend to utilize legumes and potatoes to replace traditional grains, and these ingredients have been the primary concerns with diet-associated DCM.

The underlying problem could also be accidental inclusion of a heart toxin (ie. a heavy metal contaminant, pesticide chemical sprayed on an ingredient, or a natural component that is toxic in large amounts). The cause could even turn out to be incredibly complicated, like an interaction between a specific dietary factor and gut microbes. It is also possible this could be a false association altogether, though this is unlikely due to many patients improving with diet change and taurine supplementation.

Concerns with Grain-Free Pet Food | Animal Care Clinic (3)

(Video) Ask the Vet: The Issues of Grain-Free Dog Food

Many people (and many pet food companies) completely underestimate the complexities of the pet food manufacturing process. Although minimum and maximum nutrient standards are established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the effects of digestibility and processing, and the effects ingredients have on each other must be well understood and accounted for—but this is not always the case, especially with BEG diets. Acceptable quality control requires extensive, ongoing testing, which is often not in place. Errors are easy, especially when incorporating exotic ingredients that are not as well understood as standard ingredients. For example, the body uses taurine differently from a lamb-based diet than from a chicken-based food, and taurine usage is also affected by the types and amounts of fiber. These subtle nuances mean it is critical for pet food companies to invest in qualified nutrition specialist employees, ongoing product research/development, and strict quality controls; again, this is unfortunately not the case with many companies.

What are the current recommendations?

  1. The FDA recommends evaluating the main ingredients of dog food (any ingredients listed before vitamins and minerals) to check for legumes or potatoes, which seem to be related to diet-associated DCM.
  1. Veterinary nutritionists recommend owners reconsider feeding BEG diets to dogs until the cause(s) of diet-related DCM
    have been worked out, and they recommend feeding commercial pet foods made by an established manufacturer that contains common ingredients, including grains. If an individual pet must have a home-prepared diet due to medical conditions or strong family preference, then a veterinary nutritionist should be involved ( or aregood options).
  2. Veterinary cardiologists recommend that dogs diagnosed with DCM be screened for low taurine levels. All other dogs in the household that are eating the same diet should also be screened for DCM.
  1. Dogs with possible diet-associated DCM should be switched to a diet made by a well-established manufacturer with standard ingredients (beef, chicken, rice, corn, wheat) and given a taurine supplement.

What pet foods are best?

Unfortunately, advertising by the pet food industry has exceeded nutritional science, so it has become challenging for pet owners to wade through the myths and misinformation to make healthy pet food choices. Having thousands of pet food options makes it even more difficult to sort out the great foods from the ones that only have great advertising. This growing issue of diet-associated DCM highlights the urgent need to return to a research and quality control based approach to pet nutrition instead of the current reliance on fads, myths, and consumer marketing strategies.

Concerns with Grain-Free Pet Food | Animal Care Clinic (4)Talking to your veterinarian is important to discuss your pet’s individual nutritional needs, life stage, body condition, activity level, and any medical conditions. When assessing a pet food label, remember the ingredient list doesn’t tell us anything about quality or absorption of the ingredients or if they are in correct proportions. The ingredient list is primarily used by many companies for marketing. Many online ratings websites fall into the same trap of ranking foods by ingredients, opinions, or myths rather than sound nutritional knowledge, so don’t wastetime with them either!

One useful part of the package label is the nutritional adequacy statement (“AAFCO Statement”). However, according to veterinary nutrition specialists, the most important information is actually the name of the company, which truly most determines the quality and nutritional expertise going into the food. Cost or level of marketing really don’t indicate which companies are best.

(Video) Grain Free Diets: What are the risks and are they better?

Although picking the best pet food is made difficult by scary nutrition myths and excellent marketing, here are the most important questions to research:

  1. Does the company employ AT LEAST one FULL-TIME qualified nutritionist?This means a PhD in animal nutrition and/or board-certification by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition or European College of Comparative Nutrition. This does not include veterinary technicians or general practice veterinarians like me, and only consulting occasionally with a qualified nutritionist isn’t adequate either. Lack of full-time employees with true expertise in nutrition is a huge red flag that the company does not actually prioritize nutrition.
  1. Does the company own the plant(s) where their food is manufactured?Many small/boutique companies do not, which limits the control they have over quality.
  2. What quality control measures do they practice?These vary widely and are often ignored, but are critical to producing safe, consistent, healthy food. Advertising that your food is highest quality does not mean it is true. A label statement that the food is “complete and balanced” is not always true either (and outside studies have found deficiencies in many of the foods that don’t meet this list of standards). Good examples of quality controls include Certification of Procedures by the Global Food Safety Initiative, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, or American Feeding Industry Association; testing ingredients and end products for nutrient content, pathogens, aflatoxins; materials risk assessments; and supplier audits. Lack of decent quality controls is common but should make you extremely cautious about choosing their foods.
  1. Is the food proven with Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) FEEDING TRIALS?This information should be listed on the package label. If the company does not do AAFCO feeding trials, then they should at least prove they meet AAFCO nutrient profiles through analysis of the FINAL product (not just predicting they are good enough based on the recipe only)–you’ll have to call the company to ask for this information.
  1. Does the company conduct any research?Is it published in peer-reviewed journals? Lack of contribution to furthering our knowledge of pet nutrition is another red flag.
  1. Can the company provide you with the specific amount of any nutrient, like sodium or calcium?They should be able to give you the exact amount, not just the minimum or maximum (which are basically useless). This number should ideally be reported on an energy basis (grams per 100 kilocalories or grams per 1,000 kilocalories). If the company does not know these details about their foods, you should not trust their products.
  1. Can the company provide you with number of calories for any of their foods on any basis(ie. per cup, per can, or per kilogram)? If they do not know, you should be very skeptical of their final product.
  1. Does the company bash other pet food manufacturers, especially using pet food myths?If so, you should question how reputable they truly are.


Why do vets not recommend grain-free? ›

Your vet may recommend against grain-free dog food because it lacks ingredients that contain critical nutrients for dogs. Heart health is big for dogs, and grains help support heart health. If your dog eats grain-free dog food, they're not getting those nutrients which can lead to poor heart health.

What are the disadvantages of grain-free dog food? ›

Some of the disadvantages of a grain-free dog diet include:
  • Not suitable for older and less active dogs. ...
  • Most are still rich in carbohydrates from non-grain ingredients. ...
  • It is a little bit more expensive. ...
  • Getting your dog to adapt to a new diet.
21 Sept 2020

Can a grain-free diet harm a dog's heart? ›

Recent and ongoing research from the FDA has shown a potential link between grain-free diets and canine heart disease, specifically a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

Do cats get DCM from grain-free food? ›

Well-intentioned pet owners who've been feeding their cats a grain-free diet — thinking that what's beneficial for humans is good for cats — have discovered that it can lead to dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart condition otherwise known as DCM.

What does the FDA say about grain-free dog food? ›

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that there is no scientific evidence that a grain-free diet causes canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). The agency outlined the multiple potential factors that can, alone or in combination, contribute to dogs developing this rare and scientifically complex disease.

Do dogs need grains to survive? ›

While dogs don't need grains to get the glucose they need to survive, they need at least some form of glucose in their diet. Starchy vegetables and legumes provide this glucose in grain-free foods, whereas wheat, rice, and other grains provide this glucose in grain foods.

Which is better for dogs grain-free or not? ›

Grain-free diets replace grains such as rice and corn with potatoes or legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) as a carbohydrate source. No study has ever shown grain-free to be superior to grain-inclusive diets.

What are the pros and cons of a grain-free diet in dogs? ›

Pros and Cons of a Grain-Free Dog Food
  • Easily Digestible. ...
  • It is Less Allergenic. ...
  • Helps Boost Health and Activity Level. ...
  • It's Beneficial for Dogs with Diabetes and Cancer. ...
  • More Expensive. ...
  • Not Ideal for Less Active Dogs. ...
  • It Can Be Challenging for Picky Eaters. ...
  • High in Carbohydrate.
27 Jan 2021

Does grain-free dog food cause kidney problems? ›

Dry food/kibble diets have not been proven to cause kidney disease. However, after diagnosis, it's recommended that water be added to the pet's diet because these patients will become increasingly thirsty.

Does grain-free food cause dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs? ›

Four years later, the FDA has found no firm link between diet and dilated cardiomyopathy. Nor has it rejected such a link, and research is ongoing. Publicity surrounding this issue, nevertheless, has shrunk the once-promising market for grain-free dog foods.

What does grain-free diet cause in dogs? ›

The FDA cited the increased potential of a canine heart disease called Dilated Cardiomyopathy or DCM in dogs subsisting solely on grain-free diets.

Is it OK to feed cats grain free food? ›

Are Grain-Free Diets Dangerous for Cats? For cats and their owners, grain-free diets do not pose a health risk. Although there is a suggested link between grain-free dog food and canine heart disease, no such link appears to exist in cats.

Should cats be fed grain free food? ›

Do Cats Need Grains? No, cats don't need grains to live happy, healthy lives. Many vets recommend a diet for housecats that resembles what a cat would eat in the wild. Wild cats are obligate carnivores, which means that their natural diet is 70% or more meat-based protein.

How do you prevent DCM in cats? ›

Because the cause of the mutated gene isn't understood, HCM can't be prevented. The prognosis is good for asymptomatic cats but varies for cats showing signs of heart failure.

Do dogs need grain in their food? ›

Should dogs eat grains? The truth is that grains have a purpose in dog foods to provide a variety of important nutrients that dogs need. Bottom line, grain-free dog food isn't necessarily better for your pup. Here are some common grains used in dog food and why you should consider keeping them in his dish.

Does grain free dog food cause heart problems 2022? ›

Studies performed by the FDA and cardiologists at veterinary colleges including UC Davis and Tufts University have confirmed that there is a link between legume rich, grain free foods and canine heart disease.

What foods damage dogs kidneys? ›

High salt (sodium) diets may increase blood pressure and may worsen kidney damage, so diets designed for pets with kidney disease are low in sodium. You should also avoid feeding high salt treats such as cheese, bread, deli meat, and many commercial dog and cat treats.

What foods cause liver damage in dogs? ›

Grapes & Raisins. Any cookies, cakes or other treats containing grapes or raisins should be kept well away from dogs. Grapes and raisins may cause severe liver damage or even kidney failure in dogs.

What are the signs of DCM in dogs? ›

What are signs of DCM in dogs?
  • Lethargy.
  • Anorexia.
  • Labored breathing.
  • Panting.
  • Coughing.
  • Abdominal distension.
  • Sudden collapse.
  • Irregular or weak pulse.
6 Jul 2021

What is the most common cause of dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs? ›

The cause of dilated cardiomyopathy is unclear in most cases, but certain breeds appear to have an inherited predisposition. Large dog breeds are most often affected, although it also occurs in some smaller breeds, such as cocker spaniels.

What dog is the most predisposed to DCM from grain free foods? ›

Larger breeds such as Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds, Newfoundlands, and Saint Bernards are the most commonly afflicted, but Cocker Spaniels can also suffer from DCM.

Can grain free food cause allergies in cats? ›

Causes of Grain Free Food Allergy in Cats

In this case, your cat's system thinks something in his grain free food is a threat and therefore the body responds in an attempt to protect itself by breaking out with skin discrepancies and gastrointestinal upset.

What foods cause heart disease in cats? ›

Veterinary professionals are seeing an increased rate of DCM reported in dogs and cats eating diets with main ingredients such as exotic meats (kangaroo, pork, lamb), legumes (lentils, peas, beans), or potatoes, the main ingredients often found in diets marketed as grain-free.

What breeds are susceptible to DCM? ›

Breeds predisposed to DCM include the Doberman Pinscher, the Great Dane, the Boxer, and the Cocker Spaniel. Dietary carnitine deficiency may play a role in some cases of Boxer DCM, and taurine responsive DCM has been identified in Cocker Spaniels.

How common is DCM in cats? ›

Dilated cardiomyopathy is rarely seen in cats today. Historically, it was linked to a dietary deficiency in taurine, which has been corrected by most cat food manufacturers. DCM is characterized by a poorly contracting dilated left ventricle and oftentimes enlarged atria.

Does taurine prevent DCM? ›

Giving taurine is unlikely to prevent DCM unless your dog has taurine deficiency. And given the lack of quality control for dietary supplements, you can introduce new risks to your dog if you give a supplement without evidence that she needs it.

Is grain free better or worse for dogs? ›

Grain-free diets replace grains such as rice and corn with potatoes or legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) as a carbohydrate source. No study has ever shown grain-free to be superior to grain-inclusive diets.

Why grain is not good for dogs? ›

Hard to digest

Carbohydrates aren't the easiest to digest for all dogs, particularly those who already have digestive problems. This can cause your pet to experience unpleasant and painful symptoms such as stomach ache and constipation. As such, dogs with digestive issues can benefit from a grain-free diet.

Why do vets not recommend grain free cat food? ›

"With an all-natural and grain-free type diet they are lacking an amino acid called taurine which essentially predisposes them to a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy," Billmaier said.

Do dogs benefit from grain free food? ›

Grain-free dog food can help your pup with getting less flaky skin, a shinier coat, and whiter teeth. Also, you can enjoy less-stinky dog kisses, as grain-free dog food can improve your pup's breath. The benefits of grain-free dog food are vast.

What are the pros and cons of a grain free diet in dogs? ›

Pros and Cons of a Grain-Free Dog Food
  • Easily Digestible. ...
  • It is Less Allergenic. ...
  • Helps Boost Health and Activity Level. ...
  • It's Beneficial for Dogs with Diabetes and Cancer. ...
  • More Expensive. ...
  • Not Ideal for Less Active Dogs. ...
  • It Can Be Challenging for Picky Eaters. ...
  • High in Carbohydrate.
27 Jan 2021

Is grain free food better for pets? ›

There are a lot of dog and cat foods sold as grain-free with marketing suggesting that feeding no grains is healthier. This is not true and can, in fact, cause illness for some dogs and cats. There is no medical or physiologic basis to feed dogs or cats a grain-free diet.

Why do vets recommend grain free dog food? ›

The main benefit of grain-free dog food would be if your dog has a direct allergy related to grains. Then, your vet may recommend a grain-free diet. However, Wilson says grain allergies are very rare, and it's more common for food allergies in dogs to be linked to the protein source rather than the grain source.

Why should cats not have grain? ›

Some Benefits of Grain Free Foods for Cats

While it's less common than other food sensitivities, cats can be sensitive to grains. A food sensitivity or intolerance can cause problems like vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and skin irritation.


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