Choosing Dog Foods After the Grain-Free Scare

Whether you feed your dog grain-free food or not, a balanced diet is best for your dog.

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Learn more about DCM in the September 2018 issue: “DCM in Dogs: Taurine’s Role in the Canine Diet

A warning from the FDA about a recently reported spike in the number of dogs developing dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) (linked here again) and a possible connection between DCM and the inclusion of peas, lentils, legumes, and potatoes in the diets of a majority (not all) of the dogs means we are going to be talking about diet a lot for a while.

I read the comments on both my blog from last week and Whole Dog Journal‘s Facebook page (where a link to the blog is posted), and I have also been reading messages and emails sent directly to me, and one thing jumps out: So many people have been feeding grain-free diets with absolutely no reason or justification for their decision. Some people have gone so far as to accuse WDJ of promoting these grain-free dog food diets over diets that contain grain – oh, no you don’t! That is just flat untrue.

The Popularity (Overpopularity?) of Grain-Free Dog Food

When the first few grain-free dry foods began appearing on the market about 10 years ago, we were happy to see products that could be fed to dogs who were allergic to or intolerant of grains. Mind you, these dogs are in the minority. Nevertheless, the fact that some commercial grain-free dog foods were available meant that more people who suspected that their dogs might have an allergy to or intolerance of some grain or another could try one of these foods and see for themselves: Did their dogs improve? Get worse? Or did it make no difference whatsoever? The commercial availability meant they could do a feeding trial that didn’t take a lot of time to research or money (for a home-prepared diet trial).

Lots of people tried grain-free foods and some of them noticed that their dogs’ allergy symptoms or digestive problems went away. When you have been dealing with a chronically itchy dog, or one with persistent diarrhea or gas, and these symptoms cease – well, it’s almost like a religious conversion. These folks often go out and preach.

Between the feeding success of these foods in some dogs, the enthusiasm of the owners of the success-story dogs, and the relentless hype coming from the “bones and raw food” / “biologically appropriate raw food” / “evolutionary diet” people (many of whom have strong anti-grain sentiments), grain-free just took off. I complained in a blog post over a year ago that it has gotten to the point where I was having a difficult time finding a food that did contain grain in pet specialty stores.

It came home again about a month ago, when three different people who were adopting the puppies that I had been fostering for my local shelter each asked about food recommendations and each said, “Should I get a grain-free food?” In each case, I asked them, “Why do you ask?” And not one person had a real answer. “I heard grain-free was better!” seemed to be the consensus. (My answer to that: It’s better for dogs who have problems with grain!)

If pressed about my misgivings about grain-free dry dog foods for any or all dogs, I say this: There is a far shorter history of dogs eating the carbohydrates that are being used in these diets than there was of dogs eating grains. I don’t like putting my dogs on the front wave of anything, whether it is the latest/greatest heartworm prevention medication (when ivermectin works just fine, and has been for decades), or flea treatments, or diets. I tend to want to hold back and see whether an inordinate number of adverse experiences are reported as these things hit the market.

Dogs Need Balance Over Time in Their Diets

But, perhaps more importantly, feeding ANY type of food every day, all year, for years and years, goes against my longest-standing food recommendation. We have always encouraged owners to switch foods frequently – at least several times a year – and switch manufacturers, too. Many food makers use the same vitamin/mineral premix in all their products, making us worry that any nutrient excess, deficiency, or imbalance would become essentially entrenched in the body of a dog fed an exclusive diet of that company’s foods.

Home-prepared diet advocates talk about “balance over time.” The concept is this: If you change the ingredients and recipe of your dog’s diet – exactly as most of us feed ourselves and our human families – as long as you include everything that a dog needs over the span of any, say, week’s worth of meals, the dog will be fine. In other words, every single meal doesn’t have to be “complete and balanced” – you can accomplish this over the course of several meals.

I look at the feeding of commercial diets the same way; I think you can similarly achieve balance over time by feeding different commercial products from different manufacturers, and, in this way, hedge your dog’s nutritional bets, rather than going “all in” on any one manufacturer or set of ingredients.

Whole Dog Journal‘s General Dog Food Recommendations

When I am asked to make diet recommendations, these are the things I say:

1. Feed a variety of products, rotating both among and between several manufacturers of products, for nutritional balance over time, and to avoid problems caused by long-term exposure to any formulation problems or nutritional imbalances/excesses/inadequacies in your dog’s diet.

2. Feed the best food you can afford and that your dog does well on. This doesn’t mean spend the most that’s possible; if your dog does great on mid-range foods, great! But super cheap food should be avoided. The difference in the ingredients of cheap foods versus mid-range foods is staggering.

3. DO READ ingredient labels. You should recognize most of the foods in the food; if things are weird, and only sound sort of food-like, they are likely highly processed food fractions. You don’t want to see a lot of those. If the front of the label says the food is “chicken and rice” you had better see chicken and rice high up on the ingredient label, not buried four ingredients back below chicken by-product meal, corn, wheat, and pea protein.

4.  Feed grain-free foods only for good reason (dog intolerant of/allergic to multiple grains). Feed limited-ingredient foods only for good reason (dog intolerant of/allergic to multiple ingredients). Feed exotic protein sources only for good reason (as a part of a formal food allergy trial, or to a dog intolerant of/allergic to multiple “common” protein sources).

5. Above all: Trust. Your. Dog! If it works for him, it’s okay. If it doesn’t work for him, change!

78 COMMENTS

    • Are you kidding me? Yes, there are lots of grain-free choices now, but if you want grains, just look for Purina products and most of the other big dog food brands. Hill’s “Science” Diet also comes to mind. After some readers passionately defended these products because there is a lot of research behind them, I went label-reading at Petco yesterday. It seems to me that junk food fortified with vitamins and minerals is not a good bet.

      I found plenty of grain-ful choices.

    • We buy our food at stores other than Walmart, Petco, etc….. maybe try to google arcana brand, lets say and see where and if its available in your area. What about Chewy.com or some other resource like that on line? Its not cheap, but its worth it for our furry kiddos health :). Hope that helps and good luck!

    • I totally agree with all this food mess everyone is writing about, and I am totally confused too on what to buy. When I was a kid my dad fed our dogs Purina. There was only 1 Purina back then, some 70+ years ago. He always put some of our dinner leftovers in the bowl too. Sometimes, when he was making soup for us, he would make soup for the dogs too. No salt or tomatoes, just broth and veggies and meat. He would put that over their food. They also got a raw beef knuckle bone once a week which the grocery store just gave dad, no charge. These dogs would live past 16 years and I never remember having to take them to the Vet except for yearly shots. I think we’ve allowed or caused these food companies to get so fancy with dog food that it’s crazy. I think I’m going back to Purina Pro Plan and add a small amount of good leftovers. Our dogs also had some our snacks like apples, pnut butter, leftover cereal, cheese, salad…. in hindsight I believe their diet was much better than what they eat today. I just wish the crazy no grain, etc. would stop!

  1. I’m going to second that problem. The only dog food I can find right now in stores is grain free… except for the cheap stuff! So what’s a nice high quality dog food with grain? Can’t find them anywhere!

    • I did a ton of research on this and found a few established brands outside of the big ones (i.e. Hill’s, Purina, Iams) Fromm (Duck a La Veg, Salmon a La Veg, Classic Line) been making pet food since the ’40s, owns its manufacturing plants; Evangers (Chicken With Brown Rice) been making pet food since 1935, has full time nutritionist, American Natural Premium (Turkey and Pumpkin) been making pet food since 1998

      • I just started my dogs on Evengers Super Premium Chicken with Brown Rice. I don’t know how (or even “if”) it is rated by The Whole Dog Journal, but here is the ingredients list.

        Chicken, Chicken Meal, Brown Rice, Chicken Fat [preserved with Mixed Tocopherols], Oatmeal, Dried Egg, Carrots, Celery, Beets, Parsley, Lettuce, Watercress, Spinach, Dried Kelp, Cranberries, Blueberries, Potassium Chloride, Vitamins [Vitamin E Supplement, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Niacin Supplement, Vitamin A Supplement, d-Calcium Pantothenate (source of Vitamin B5), Thiamine Mononitrate (source of Vitamin B1), Biotin, Riboflavin Supplement (source of Vitamin B2), Vitamin D3 Supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (source of Vitamin B6), and Folic Acid], Chelated Minerals [Zinc Sulfate, Ferrous Sulfate, Zinc Amino Acid Chelate, Iron Amino Acid Chelate, Copper Sulfate, Copper Amino Acid Chelate, Manganese Sulfate, Manganese Amino Acid Chelate, Magnesium Amino Acid Chelate, and Cobalt Carbonate], Calcium Iodate, Dried Chicory Root, Hydrolyzed Yeast (Actigen™ – probiotic), Selenium Yeast (SelPlex™), Lecithin, L-Carnitine, Dried Lactobacillus acidophilus Fermentation Product, Dried Enterococcus faecium Fermentation Product, Dried Lactobacillus casei Fermentation Product, Dried Lactobacillus fermentum Fermentation Product, Dried Lactobacillus plantarum Fermentation Product (LactoSacc™ – probiotics), Taurine, Yucca Schidigera Extract, Citric Acid Preservative, Rosemary Extract.

        Personally, I don’t see how the FDA could have listed 16 top level dog food companies as being the possible culprits when they don’t have the data to back it up. What? 520 dogs affected in 5 years when there are 77 million dogs in the country, with many millions of them eating grain free food! And no conclusive evidence that peas or potatoes are even linked to DCM in any way? And yet the FDA had the nerve to put out that notice which will cost premium dog food companies billions of dollars! Something seems terribly wrong here.

        And while I’m at it I am a little disappointed with the above WDJ article, which seems to now be running for cover after putting grain free dogs foods at the top of their ratings for years. Now they are saying they only meant that to use grain free foods if the dog is allergic to some grains. I couldn’t believe I actually read that!

      • In the study, there have been DCM cases with FROMM’s food, including their grain inclusive variety. They do not conduct feeding trials either. I am not sure about the others as I didn’t research them when choosing for my dog.

        You should really be looking for dog foods with the disclaimer that they have been “proven to meet the AAFCO nutrition with feeding trials” not the “meets the AAFCO guidelines for nutrition” which means they did not do any feeding trials and your dogs are the lab rats for testing.

      • HI EMILY V.,
        We feed our Cavapoo (2.5 years old) Fromm dry dog food and while she doesn’t go ga-ga for it she eats it on a regular basis (a few pieces of white chicken however, GA-GA). Anyhow, our vet just gave us this huge over the top spiel on Cardiomyopathic or heart condition CAUSED by grain free foods. We are at a total loss. We recognize “big business” push and that is why I was skeptical of the vets “scare” tactics but, what to take with a ‘grain’ (lol) of salt or not, has us so lost. The crazy study that came out pretty much listed the top grain free foods at our local boutique pet store. I don’t know who to believe and want only what is best for my pooch. Doing research continues to confuse because everyone has their biases related to pro or anti big business, pro or anti grain free, pro and anti raw. As our little pup is only 10 pounds (and Cavalier’s as a pure breed are known for heart conditions) this fear mongering put us on alert. If anyone can help or offer with an obviously UNBIASED opinion, I would greatly appreciate it. That or links that aren’t way deep, sponsored by the products they are recommending.

        • Have you researched taurine supplements? That’s what I give, once a day. Plus I add steamed veggies to her diet. I do feed grain free but am including a Purina kibble this month. Not sure what yet. But I do buy different kibble, canned food.

  2. I am at a total loss as to the brand and type of dog food I should be feeding my Australian Cattle Dog. The brand I am using is the number one brand reported by the University of Ca Davis to possibly cause DCM. After reading article after article on the subject I am even more confused. Help, please!

    • I did a ton of research on this and found a few established brands outside of the big ones (i.e. Hill’s, Purina, Iams) Fromm (Duck a La Veg, Salmon a La Veg, Classic Line) been making pet food since the ’40s, owns its manufacturing plants; Evangers (Chicken With Brown Rice) been making pet food since 1935, has full time nutritionist, American Natural Premium (Turkey and Pumpkin) been making pet food since 1998

      • I’m replying to you since you say you did a ton of research. I’m in the process of doing the same, which is how I came to this post. I’ve heard of Fromms but not the other. My 5 yr old rescue (not bragging lol, only saying that because I don’t know her breed mix other than mostly Wheaten Terrier) had been on Orijen Original for 4 years and was on Merrick before that. Also, I mix in a little Castor and Pollux canned food for her dinner, just for variety. All of that is grain free so now I’m feeling an urgency to switch ASAP. I was leaving towards The Honest Kitchen dehydrated food. It has grains and is apparently excellent. Thoughts?? Anyone?? At my request for her opinion, my vet did some due diligence on this and contacted a pet nutritionist and the FDA, both of whom recommended Purina Pro Plan Focus, specifically the Salmon Sensitive Stomach variety. My dog is a genetic magnet for issues and had a sensitivity to things in general. I’m inherently anti-Purina as I don’t feel it’s quality, high-end food but should I reconsider?

        • You need to join a facebook group called Taurine Deficiency(Nutritional) Cardio Myopathy. You find many people on there have dogs diagnosed with DCM, dogs that have died from it and their stories as well as vets and vet techs. It has tons of info and moderators to answer questions. The only foods determined to be safe at this point in time by WSAVA are Purina Pro Plan, Hills Science Diet, Iams, Royal Canin and Eukanuba (grain inclusive) as they have the food trials and research behind them. I have struggled too feeling Purina was not good quality but after reading and research I have switched my dog to Pro Plan. Also checkout taurinedcm.org

          • Funny because the list you listed, other than Royal Canin, I would NEVER feed my dog. They are all crap. My vet says my pets live long lives due to “Good Groceries”. I only feed them the best food, if one sells out like Merrick, Castor&Pollux, California Naturals, etc. I immediately switch and it’s kind of ironic that once they sell out they all of a sudden have recalls. My current go to is Honest Kitchen.

          • We had two dogs die young from the same stomach cancer. A German shepherd and a Thai Ridgeback. Both were fed Royal Can in. Coincidence ? I think not.

        • Hello. I too gave in to the scare tactics from my vet. I only want the best for my 10yr old lab mix. So I gradually shifted her from Merrick grain free chicken to purina pro plan weight management. She seemed fine for a few weeks. Christmas eve I had to take her to the ER where she was diagnosed with autoimmune disease that attacks her platelets, she had zero platelettes and was bleeding severely internally. While I believe the disease was underlying for some time, I also believe the grain mixture in purina pro caused issues in her gut that caused ulcers and bleeding. She also started eating grass amd deer poop which she had NEVER done before. I sign of imbalance in her gut.
          Noone knows your dog better than you do!
          If your dog is doing well you might try introducing gluten free first. Dont go full bore with corn, wheat, and soy like I did. Now my girl is on heavy doses of steroids that are far worse.
          There are some I’ve been reading about for the past week that have grains, just not the ones mentioned above. Also, if you go on chewy.com, I think they have a filter for no wheat, corn or soy.
          Whatever you do, control the ingredients you add. I am now at a loss as to what she is sensitive to because pro plan had everything in it.
          I am investigating Dr Tim’s brand and once I get my girl stable, will try to add that in slowly.
          Best wishes to all you dog lovers out there!!

          • You can have your dog tested for food sensitivities. I had my dogs tested through NutriScan. Some vets have it but I did mine online. They send you a kit. Pretty easy directions to follow. My dog that had so many digestive issues that led to leaky gut was sensitive to a long list of foods including chicken and turkey which was a staple of his diet. My other dog that rarely has any digestive issues and is very healthy , was only sensitive to barley. I highly recommend you test your dogs. It really helps in food selection. Every dog is different.