Grain free dog foods are a fairly new addition to the pet food industry. They grew in popularity after 2007 when a protein supplement used by most companies caused some dogs to get sick. It was found that the protein supplement from China was contaminated with a toxin. After that, most companies stopped sourcing ingredients from outside North America. Pet owners were concerned and searching for healthy alternatives. This led to an explosion of pet food companies that came to the market- all trying to carve out their niche. Marketing companies found that grain free resonated with pet owners. The trend was driven by marketing and not by studies showing the food was healthier for our pets. Grain free foods were achieved by increasing meat protein (an expensive ingredient) and the addition of ingredients like peas/lentils/sweet potatoes/tapioca in place of grains. The marketing of these foods took hold and gluten free became a thing even though there have only been three dogs ever diagnosed with gluten intolerance and they were a family of accidentally inbred Irish setters. Corn was said to be bad and by-product meal was made out to be unhealthy. The consumer was given a misinformed lexicon of terms and ingredients to avoid. The outside of the bag, the brand, and its marketing terms became more important than the contents
In the summer of 2018, we started to hear of concerns raised by Dr Stern, a Cardiologist from UC Davis Veterinary Medical School. He was diagnosing an unusually large number of dogs with a condition called Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in breeds that do not have a genetic predisposition to that condition. Additionally, he noticed that all of them were on non traditional diets, mainly grain free. There are a few breeds that are predisposed to DCM (i.e. Doberman pinchers). Once diagnosed, survival is usually 12 months. Many will not show symptoms until gravely ill. The new form of the disease has been termed Nutritionally Mediated Dilated Cardiomyopathy (NDCM). In July of 2018 the FDA put out a warning and asked for information on suspected cases. They released an update last month showing they have 300 confirmed cases and unfortunately 70 of them did not survive. Dr. Stern recently released a study involving 30 golden retrievers with NDCM and showed that by simply switching to a traditional diet with grains and supplementing with the amino acid taurine that the disease was treatable and preventable.
Research is currently ongoing to determine the mechanism of this disease, or why/how it is occurring. Researchers are looking at ingredients that may interfere with taurine absorption, genetics and bacterial populations of individuals intestines to try and find some answers. Until those answers are found, we are recommending that dogs on grain free diets be switched to a more traditional diet including grains. Our veterinarians are available for nutritional consultation should you find yourself needing to change diets or have concerns you would like to discuss.
On a relatable note, Drs. Hodges and Jameson took in a 1.5-year-old lab in August 2017 whose owner had to move in to a complex that did not allow dogs. She was an untrained, super energetic force named The Bean. She arrived with a bag of grain free food that was made in the US. She was switched to a traditional diet but due to how active she was they were having a hard time maintaining her weight even feeding her 8 cups a day. A grain free food made in Alberta was added to her diet to increase her calorie intake so she could maintain weight. In March of 2018 she was due for her annual wellness exam and vaccines. Dr. Mattson performed the exam and found that The Bean had a grade 1/6 heart murmur. We x-rayed her heart and found that it was greatly enlarged. Five days later we got The Bean in to see the cardiologist and were given a diagnosis of Dilated Cardiomyopathy with an estimated survival of 12-24 months – in a 2-year-old dog! There were a few sad weeks and a bucket list was even made. Then Dr. Hodges stumbled on to Dr. Sterns warning of the potential link between grain free food and DCM. A consultation with a cardiologist from Texas A&M and the bean was treated like she had NDCM. She was put on a diet that included grains, from a company that tests every batch of food made to ensure consistency, and she was supplemented with taurine. In the meantime, Dr. Hodges started calling her the Grinch because her heart was 2 sizes too large. We took x-rays of her heart earlier this month and it has started to heal. There was a big celebration in the clinic as The Bean spends most days in Dr. Hodges office. This condition is truly preventable. Dr. Hodges does not want any other family to go through what his family has experienced. Imagine looking at your 2 year old dog every day and wondering if she has 12 months or 24 months to live.