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Dog at a computerWe are so fortunate to live (and practice medicine) in a time when our animal companions are becoming even more appreciated as a core part of our family units. They enrich our lives in countless ways and we want to provide them the very best we can in return for the love and companionship they give.

Unfortunately, this can also lead us astray. Unfounded science and guilt based marketing gimmicks have led to a sharp rise in popularity for dog and cat foods that lack proper understanding of these species’ metabolisms and leaves pet parents to cause harm just by trying to do the very best for their families.

So let’s talk about some of the issues we are finding with these smaller boutique diets and especially our biggest culprit in popular fads and marketing trigger words, grain-free diets.

The promotion of grain-free diets has been everywhere you look in the human world, and is now popular on pet food shelves as well. Claims for a laundry list of health benefits for Fluffy and Fido are touted, but little research exists to back up any of these claims. Most commonly these diets are listed as helping reduce allergies in dogs, and although they do get food allergy dermatitis, grains are very rarely part of the problem. Instead, these dogs are often allergic to the protein source, such as chicken or beef. Dogs are true omnivores, eating both meat and plant based diets, and any good commercial pet food should acknowledge this. There are currently no known health benefits to grain-free diets in dogs.

Recently, an even more serious issue related to grain-free diets has popped up across the country. Veterinary cardiologists are seeing a dramatic rise in a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM. When this happens, the heart muscle stops being able to pump effectively and becomes a loose sac instead of strong muscle tissue. Although we do not fully understand the cause of this condition outside of the traditional genetic cases, nearly all the new cases of this condition are in dogs being fed boutique or grain-free diets.

It is currently believed that the condition may be due to an amino acid called taurine. This is a complicated issue that veterinary nutritionists and cardiologists are working hard to understand, but here is what we know so far. Taurine helps the heart function normally and the disease we see in dogs is similar to what happens in cats that do not get enough taurine in their diet. Some dogs will present with DCM and low taurine levels but many do not. So why do these dogs still get sick? Either the taurine levels we measure in the blood are not matching the levels in the heart, or something in these grain-free diets is stopping the body from using the taurine properly. Because of this, giving taurine supplements is not enough to help dogs eating grain-free diets prevent this life threatening disease.

If I'm feeding my dog a grain-free diet, does (s)he have heart disease?

The good news is probably not. Many dogs on grain-free diets have not gotten DCM, and we are not yet sure why some dogs are more affected than others. The first step is regular veterinary exams (at least yearly in younger animals and every six months as they become geriatric) so that we can try to detect any changes early. Close monitoring at home for early signs of heart disease including cough, decreased activity level, weight loss, or wheezing should be investigated quickly. Some dogs will not show signs of DCM without x-rays or echocardiograms, but we should be as vigilant as possible.

So what should I feed my pet?

The next step is to transition our pets to properly balanced diets including grains. I always recommend companies that have been around for a long time and use science based practices to choose which ingredients to include. Companies like Hill’s Science Diet or Royal Canin make full prescription foods and apply that same logic and science to the over the counter versions they offer. Companies featuring celebrities' faces, colorful animals, or the idea that a Bichon mix is basically a wolf should be met with extreme skepticism. Many companies (like Hill’s or Purina) also offer limited ingredient diets that are not grain-free for people who desire those.

Walking the pet food aisles and trying to decide the best choice for our pets can be such a daunting task, but by weeding out the gimmicks and focusing on researched information we can help them live long healthy lives by our sides. And if you get stuck along the way? Please reach out out to your veterinarian for help. That’s what we are here for!

Brian Calabro, DVM, earned his DVM degree from Kansas State University. His special interests include endocrinopathies and soft tissue surgery.