Pet Food – The Grain-Free Debate: Good, Bad or Indifferent?
The Grain-Free Food Debate: Good, Bad or Indifferent?
The health benefits of different brands of pet foods, particularly grain-free ones, is a big debate in the pet health industry, particularly for dogs. The current consensus seems to be that grain-free foods may do more harm than good for your pet, leading to a dangerous heart condition, which we describe below. Before we get to that, here is some essential information about the pet food industry in general, why people might choose grain-free food, and what constitutes grain-free food.
Why would a pet need grain-free food?
Some people thought if gluten-free and grain-free was better for people, then it would be for their dog, too. Then, in 2007, reports to the FDA indicated a source of gluten used in a kibble produced in China had been contaminated with melamine. This spiraled into keeping dogs off wheat/gluten and other grains. Additionally, American pet owners were (and many still are) choosing to put their pets on a grain-free diet due to concerns that have very little evidence-based science behind them, including the following:
- lack of industry-independent data
- lack of robust scientific studies or nutritional consensus
- inability to afford individualized medical and nutritional assessment
- defaulting to what was taught to them by family or community
If a dog was suspected to have a food allergy or sensitivity, then the dog’s diet was changed to eliminate grains on a trial basis to see if the symptoms improved. If so, grains were suspected as the cause and the dog would remain on grain-free food.
What is grain-free food?
Any pet food made without wheat, corn, rice and other grains is considered “grain-free.” This does not make it gluten-free! Gluten-free and grain-free are not synonymous.
To provide the carbohydrates that a pet needs for energy and other physiological functions, a grain-free food contains alternative sources of carbs such as potatoes, oatmeal, and pea flour. This ensures that the grain-free food is equal to, or even greater, in amount of carbs.
Do dogs really need a grain-free diet?
The consensus is that there are only rare medical instances in which a dog will require a costly grain-free diet. Here’s why:
For thousands of years, dogs evolved from their wolf ancestry eating grains as a part of their natural diet. If anything might make a dog unwell, it is more likely to be the preservatives, fillers, and even the source of the protein used in dog food production. Also, over-feeding raw food and human food scraps can expose the pet to hostile bacteria (Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Yersinia) that can make the animal gravely ill.
What health risks accompany feeding grain-free pet food?
Eliminating grains completely from a dog’s diet has led to a significant cardiovascular health problem known as non-hereditary dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). This heart condition results in an enlarged heart and thinning of the heart muscle. The deterioration of the heart can lead to heart failure and death.
DCM was first identified by reports of adverse events (i.e., dog deaths) submitted to the FDA by vets and dog owners over a period of years. The FDA investigation is still ongoing, but the data has been compelling enough for the agency to issue a warning regarding grain-free food and risk for DCM.
Pet Food Industry Guidelines
Just as we humans have governing bodies overseeing food safety, the same is true for commercial pet food (kibble): WSAVA (World Small Animal Veterinary Association) publishes guidelines for the pet food industry. It’s a big topic that is beyond the scope of our newsletter to discuss in detail, but the bottom line is this: When it comes to choosing pet food, we have to be just as careful for our pets as we are for ourselves. The best, general advice is to
- research the brand
- carefully read ingredient labels
- look for kibbel that has the least additives, fillers, and preservatives and the most naturally sourced, nutrient dense ingredients.
Another great resource for evaluating pet food is this “pet food score card” and the WholeDog Journal resource about pet food ingredients.
If you are feeding grain-free food to your pet, discuss with your vet the reasons why you made this choice and assess the health risks for your pet. If you suspect a food intolerance or potentially life-threatening food allergy but never had your pet tested, veterinarians now have access to reliable food testing methods to confirm that. Ultimately, the choice of the best food for your beloved pet should be made together with a properly trained doctor.
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