Grain-Free Food Causes Heart Failure… Maybe

Grain-free pet food is a current pet food fad.  Yes, I said it. It’s a fad, just like bouffant hair, peace signs, and oxygen bars. We’ve all seen the pet food commercials touting the benefits of grain-free food, and the reasons all dogs should be eating grain-free: By-products are bad, wolves eat a grain-free diet, and all pets have food allergies and need a grain-free food. We’re not here to debunk all of these myths (because all of these are wholly untrue), and we’re not saying that grain-free food is bad. We’re not out to start a debate about what you feed your pets, because we know this can be a passionate topic. However, we do want you to know that grain-free food may come with risk if you choose to feed this to your dog.

For the past many years, veterinary cardiologists have been seeing an alarming increase in the number of dogs with a heart condition called Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), which in simple terms means that the heart gets big and flabby. It can’t work effectively and leads to heart failure. DCM can be an inherited risk in some dog breeds. Veterinary cardiologists who studied this condition discovered that many of the recent dogs diagnosed with DCM were also being fed grain-free food, “boutique” (food made to be sold in specialty stores or boutiques) food, or exotic-protein foods. These foods have been called BEG foods – Boutique, Exotic, Grain-Free. Cardiologists have found a possible link to the amino acid taurine, but at this time it’s unclear what the exact role taurine plays. Taurine is a necessary amino acid, essential to the heart, eyes, and the brain. What is the link between food & heart failure? The answer is unclear thus far.

Researchers have seen definite linkage between DCM and BEG foods. These foods are typically marketed as “healthier” or “more natural”, and for dogs with allergies.  These foods often have new or exotic proteins as kangaroo, buffalo, or salmon. These foods are often made with alternative starches such as lentils, tapioca, and chickpeas.  Vegan and raw/home-prepared diets have also been implicated.

Why are these foods being fed? Marketing. A few companies making a big stink about a fabricated problem. For the last 10-20 years, pet food companies have been telling us that grain-free is more natural for dogs. They’ve been claiming that most dogs have food allergies. Both of these are completely false. Food allergies are generally rare in pets, and grains provide a wholesome source of essential nutrients for pets. Wild dogs do eat grains! Pet nutrition is a complicated topic, and the manufacture of pet foods can be very tricky. In the manufacture of grain-free or boutique foods, many times corners are cut, and new/rare ingredients aren’t metabolized like manufacturers expect. The biggest thing is that many of these BEG food companies don’t work with veterinary nutritionists, nor do they put their food through rigorous feeding trials and testing. How do they know it’s safe?

For now, we recommend a standard maintenance diet for your pet’s life stage that is NOT grain-free. Royal Canin, Purina, Hill’s, Iams, and Eukanuba are all brands that have been deemed safe. Their food has stood up to the test of time and laboratory testing. If your pet has a medical concern that requires a specialized diet, please consult with your veterinarian; they know more than a pet store employee or a commercial on TV!

If you have concerns about heart disease in your pet (diet concerns, coughing, shortness of breath, decreased exercise tolerance, fainting or collapse), please schedule an appointment with a veterinarian as soon as possible. DCM can only be definitively diagnosed with an echocardiogram, but x-rays can be suggestive of this condition. The best thing you can do right now is get your dog off a grain-free or BEG food!

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