Please Don’t Panic About the Grain-Free Thing

Are grain-free dog foods good or bad 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

Note: read our update on the FDA’s latest report from July 2019 here.

I’ve been getting calls, emails, social media messages, and countless forwarded articles from other websites and publications about the grain-free dog food warning – perhaps even from you! And the first thing I want to tell you is to take a breath!

The FDA issued a warning (linked here) that it is investigating a possible link between diet and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs.

The grain-free dog food warning spread like wildfire through social media channels, but unfortunately, it also rapidly got dumbed down to a ridiculous level; it quickly evolved into something like “grain-free foods cause canine heart disease,” or worse yet, “boutique foods might kill your dog. The FDA characterizes the issue as a “potential association” between diets with very specific attributes (and certainly not ALL grain-free diets) and canine DCM – not a cause.

Please note that the FDA’s headline did not say anything about “grain-free diets” causing heart problems – though almost all the blog posts and articles in other publications have been saying exactly that. If you read the FDA’s statement, you will see that they said there may be a link between some grain-free diets and canine DCM, but there are also many other things going on that may be responsible for an observed rise in cases of canine DCM.

grain free dog food concerns

Linda Case, long-time animal nutrition expert and author of Dog Food Logic, has written an in-depth article for WDJ’s September issue that goes into lots of detail about what is known about the dietary causes of DCM, including several issues regarding taurine and the amino acids (cysteine and methionine) that dogs use to produce taurine. Click here to read her article about the connections between diet and DCM in dogs. Hint: It’s not as simple as the possibility that the diets are lacking the amino acid precursors to taurine.

[Whole Dog Journal has covered taurine deficiency in the past, regarding vegetarian diets for dogs, low-fat dog foods, and canine congestive heart failure.]

But for now, hopefully to put your mind at ease, I’m going to briefly discuss some of the pertinent facts that make the story a little more complicated than the “grain-free diets cause heart disease” headlines.

What We Know About Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Dogs

The FDA received a report from Cardiac Care for Pets, a practice that employs 19 veterinary cardiologists in Maryland, Kentucky, Virginia, and Texas, that they had seen a spike in canine DCM cases – and not just in the breeds that have a genetic predisposition to developing DCM, but also in breeds that are not known for an inherited propensity for the condition. Their report also included the fact that all of the cases had something in common: all the dogs had been eating diets heavy in peas, lentils, chickpeas, and potatoes.

Other veterinary cardiologists were noticing the same thing. The FDA received reports recently of about two dozen additional cases, including three dogs that died of the condition. After reviewing the medical records of these dogs, the FDA felt it was prudent to issue a measured warning, in part to alert dog owners and veterinarians to be aware of signs of the condition in potentially affected dogs (which, it is hoped, will elicit more data). Its warning, specifically, stated that vets and dog owners should be alert for signs of DCM in dogs eating foods “containing peas, lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes as main ingredients.”

That’s our emphasis, but it is repeated in the FDA’s warning:

“Diets in cases reported to the FDA frequently list potatoes or multiple legumes [our emphasis again] such as peas, lentils, other ‘pulses’ (seeds of legumes), and their protein, starch, and fiber derivatives early in the ingredient list, indicating that they are main ingredients.” [Again, our emphasis.]

What is a “main ingredient”? There isn’t a legal definition, but in our book, it’s anything in about the first five ingredients on the list. As you probably know, food ingredients are listed on labels (by law) in order of their weight in the formula before the food is cooked. The first four to six ingredients generally represent the majority of what is in the food.

That said, the FDA’s warning also addressed “multiple legumes.” Our readers should be alert to the fact that food manufacturers sometimes list smaller amounts of several similar ingredients, or several constituent parts or “fractions” of the same ingredient. This not only visually minimizes the seeming presence of those ingredients in the food, but also makes the total of the ingredients ahead of these fractions seem to be present in more significant amounts than they actually are.

For example, it would appear that a food that lists its ingredients as “Chicken, peas, pea protein, pea fiber…” contains more chicken than any other single ingredient. But if you added up the total amount of pea-based ingredients, they would surely outweigh the chicken.  This is what the FDA is getting to with its warning about “multiple legumes” – foods in which the legumes, taken together, might outweigh the animal protein sources.

If You Feel Your Dog’s Food is Connected to DCM:

Based on the FDA’s report, here are our first take-away points:

  • No matter what your dog eats, if she has any signs of DCM – including decreased energy, cough, difficulty breathing, and episodes of collapse – you should make an appointment to see your veterinarian ASAP, preferably one who can refer you to a veterinary cardiologist.
  • If you feed your dog a food that contains any potatoes, peas, lentils, or other seeds of legumes (such as chickpeas/garbanzo beans, soybeans, other types of beans, and alfalfa seeds), look at the ingredients list. If the food contains one or more of these ingredients high up on the ingredients list, has several of these ingredients, and/or is a limited-ingredient diet – typically, one containing only one animal protein source and one or two carbohydrate sources – the possibility is good that the food is one of the type that is being looked at as possibly causing a higher incidence of DCM.
  • In contrast, foods that are not limited-ingredient foods and contain just one of those ingredients, or that have one or two of these ingredients fairly low on the ingredients list (say, as the fifth or sixth or lower-level ingredient/s on the list), are not the kind of diet that has been connected with DCM.
  • If you feed your dog a diet that meets the description of the foods that have been described by the FDA as potentially problematic (foods that have potatoes, peas, lentils, or other seeds of legumes as main ingredients), consider these points:

– Are you feeding your dog this food because it’s the only diet you have been able to find that does not trigger other health problems in that dog? If so, continue feeding the diet, but carefully monitor your dog for any hint of signs of DCM. Also, discuss possible alternative diets and/or a blood test for taurine levels, with your veterinarian.
– Are you feeding your dog this food because you like the company, or it was recommended to you, or for no particular reason? Then consider switching to a diet that either contains fewer or none of these ingredients, and read on for more recommendations.

Not All Grain-Free Foods Are Under Suspicion

Within a matter of days of the FDA’s press release, we watched in dismay as the issue was reduced to, in the majority of cases, “grain-free diets cause heart canine heart disease. ”

Please understand that there are grain-free diets that do not contain potatoes, peas, lentils, or other seeds of legumes as main ingredients. For example, there are many raw diets, fresh-cooked/frozen diets, canned diets, and even some dry/kibble diets that are grain-free that do not contain potatoes, peas, lentils or other seeds of legumes.  Not all grain-free diets have been implicated as concerning as regards canine DCM.

But, as we have been saying for some time (most recently here), grain-free diets have gotten inordinately popular for no particular reason. Many dog owners buy these products because they have heard some vague argument that “grains are bad for dogs” – an ill-informed blanket generalization we have fought against for ages. There is no particular advantage – and actually, several disadvantages – to feeding a grain-free diet (of any kind) to a dog who doesn’t have any problems with eating and digesting grain.

Points to Consider About Grain-Free Dog Food

  • Grain-free diets are often far higher in fat and calories than many dogs require. In dogs who gain weight easily, there is a very real danger of having to reduce the amount of food that one feeds the dog so much (in order to keep him from gaining too much weight), that he is at risk to become malnourished. In other words, if you cut his portion of a super-high-calorie diet to a reasonable number of calories, he may not get enough of the vitamins and minerals he needs.
  • Commercial diets that contain grains have been around longer and have been more thoroughly tested (in clinical settings and through common use) for far longer than diets that use increasingly novel non-grain sources of carbohydrates.
  • As Linda Case explains further in her article in the September 2018 issue, certain types of diets (specifically, diets that contain lamb meal and rice diets, soybean-based diets, diets high in rice bran or beet pulp, and high-fiber diets heavy in soybeans), have been previously identified as possible dietary causes of low taurine levels in dogs – something that is known to contribute to the development of DCM.

Our advice has long been to feed a grain-free diet only to dogs who have a problem with digesting multiple grains. (And, if you know which grain is giving your dog problems, you could also find a food that contains different grains, instead.)

However, we would not want to be on the record as saying “all grain-free foods are bad.” That’s another ridiculous overstatement. There are some terrific grain-free foods on the market – and some dogs do far better on these products than any grain-containing foods they have been fed. Owners have to look for products that work well for their individual dogs – and be willing to change as their dogs’ needs change.

Overreaching by Those With an Axe to Grind

It was bad enough to see the FDA’s warning reduced by a combination of poor reporting, poor reader comprehension, and social media hysteria to “grain-free foods cause canine heart disease.” But some media outlets also included statements from an animal nutrition expert whose opinions on diets are consistent with those of the pet food industry corporate giants; she has repeatedly been quoted as implicating “boutique” pet foods in the current rash of reported cases of DCM. What’s a boutique food? She doesn’t define this, but we suspect it’s anything made by any company whose annual sales are less than umpteen million…

This same expert has also implicated foods that contain “exotic ingredients,” which she provided a partial list for in one article: “kangaroo, lentils, duck, pea, fava bean, buffalo, tapioca, salmon, lamb, barley, bison, venison, and chickpeas.” Hmm.

All in all, we have lost track of the number of times she has been quoted as saying that pet owners should avoid “boutique, grain-free, or exotic ingredient diets” – and, unfortunately, this over-broad and ill-defined description is finding its way into more and more discussions of this concerning issue.

We have one more bone to pick with this expert; one of her articles on this topic suggests that dog owners do themselves a favor and “stop reading the ingredient list!” This makes us absolutely see red, as it harkens back to the “bad old days” of pet food. Twenty years ago, the making of pet food was a black box. “You guys, we are the experts here, trust us!” was the message of Big Pet Food. Consumers could no more find out where a food was made or where its ingredients were sourced than find out where the company CEOs ate breakfast. A suggestion that consumers shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about what is actually in the food they buy for their dogs, and which is listed on the label by law for the protection of consumers and their dogs, is downright insulting.

We’d like to suggest that concerned owners keep reading labels and educating themselves about canine nutrition, and, for now, limit themselves to the facts that are currently known by the FDA about this spate of canine DCM cases (here is that link again!). Also, Linda Case’s excellent article in the September issue of WDJ will also help shed much-needed light on this complex and concerning issue.

164 COMMENTS

  1. The grains and corn gluten are gentically modified and linked to diabetes allergies and cancerous TUMORS IN LONG TERM STUDIES AS DRS AND SCIENTIST HAVE TRIED TO WARN US ABOUT ..THAT WORKED UNDER MONSANTO. THEY WERE FIRED BY MONSANTO EHO MAKES ROUNDUP AND FEEDS IT TOMUS IN THE GMO WHEAT AND CORN GROWN W/ BUG KILLER IN THE PLANT !!
    THE LOG TERM STUDIES OF GMO WHEAT AND CORN WHICH IS 80% OF OUR SUPPLY AND ALSO USED IN OUR COMPANION PETS FOOD Is what makes your dogs AND cats sick..
    SOME PEOPLE REPORTED THEIR DOGS BECOMING ALLERGIC
    TO MEAT ..THE REASON THISIS HAPPENING OS BECAUSE THE COWS ANS CHICKENS PARTS USED IN THE PET FOOD ARE FED THIS GMO CORN AND WHEAT . On top of that
    THE WHEAT AND CORN AND CORN GLUTEN THAT CAUSES SEVERE ALLERGIES ALSO IS THE MAIN INGREDIENT FILLER that is in all the cheap food AND CAUSE DOGS (CATS TOO SOMETIMES.TO BECOME ALLERGIC TO
    M E A T EVEN LOSE HAIR SCRATCH THEMSELVES BLOODY . GROW LARGE TUMORS Cause diabetes in cats and dogs. So you know its doing this to us
    ..I have taken care of dogs that had severe allergies and atarted them on chicken brown rice and they recover . They can habe taurine suppliment. I Startes making my grandmothers dogs food after she lost her hair and had just rW red skim on her back for few years and when taken Off of the Iams or
    regular cheap food and put on Grain free her hair began to.come back and she started clearing up!! BUT MUST HAVE A TAURINE SUPPLIMENT AND ASK a Knowlegeable holistic Vet HOW MUCH TO GIVE IN YOUR DOGS FOOD
    .H U M A N S
    .Dogs ans cats suffer from HORRIBLE ALLERGIES DIABETES TUMORS AND CANCER FROM THE GMO food that was snuck into our food in the 80s. This has bug killer grown into it so it tears us and our pets up. PUT YOUR DOGS ON GRAIN FREE ANS SEE THE DIFFERENCE IN THEIR HEALTH BEHAVIOR AND COAT.You can GET TAURINE SUPPLIMENT TO ADD TO THE DRY FOOD. LOOK UP HOW TO MAKE HOLISTIC GRAINFREE DIET AND WJTH TAURINE. I made my Gmas dogs food and she Perked up was happy and her hair grew back. She was scratching herself bloody . OR hairless on top of back AND depressed LIKE before I changed her diet. I Had my gma Change the vet to lakeview because the previous lady vet almost killed her . Over using steroids so much that she was bloated and her thyroid was messed up from the steroid injections. We took her to a vet that within a month had the bloat down and her hair fully back The previous woman vet had her on steriod shots for 7yrs+ by .And then gave her too Many vaccines at once did almost kill her .Now my gpa wasn’t helping the vet by not giving pills to the dog but.SHE did not offer the easily chewable flavorful easy to give 3 month flea pill or have him put her on a grain and yeast free diet free to stop scratching and yeast infection on her body!! All VETS SHOULD KNOW THAT (and know also too many vaccinations in one day kills small dogs or kittens!!!).

    Some won’t often tell you often about grain free dog food because they are paid or given something in exchange to sell food for certain companies like royal canin and science diet that are NASTY GMO corn gluten and wheat based food and are horrible for dogs .Science Diet has even had traces of Pentobaribitol found in it that is used to euthanize animals because euthanized animals are rendered into cheap dog foods . (EVEN IAMS AND EUKANUBA ))And Used As “Animal protien “”and “Animal fat” This was snuck under our noses also. I fear to know what else we are not told about.
    To be safe look up organic diets if you want to make your pets food but.make sure to talk to holistic vet about proper vitamins and taurine amount Just LOOK FOR GRAIN FREE NO ANIMAL BI-PRODUCT CHICKEN BISON BEEF TURKEY WITH SWEET POTATOES OR NO POTATOES OR CARBS FOR DOGS THAT SUFFER WITH YEAST INFECTIONS.

    OR FIND HOLISTIC FOOD YEAST FREE W/TAURINE. online
    .

    • What a ridiculous alarmist comment this is. First of all, we get it. You hate Monsanto, but just to prove how ignorant you are, you called Round-up a bug killer, when in fact it is an herbicide. Step away from the keyboard please.

    • Did you ever think about the fact that the animals used to make your dog food were probably fed those GMO grains…. where is the pass on? And do you not eat? I don’t like the GMO stuff, but it is everywhere, and even stuff that says it isn’t GMO is turning out that it is, as the farmers are using it, and it cross pollenate to fields were the farmers haven’t used it.. and then those farmers are sued for producing GMO produce…It is a real mess….. But feeding grain free doesn’t keep GMO out of your dog’s diet….as there are non-grain products like beets, peas, ect that are also now being Genetically Modified. And not ALL Genetically modifying is dangerous.. All it means is that genes are scientifically modified. Doesn’t always mean chemically, like most of Monsantoes is..

      • All GMO food products are harmful to humans and pets – none are safe. It is all about food for profit and the FDA approved GMOs in 1982 and seems to care less about it – they are an absolute joke and protect no one. Any commercial grain that you consume is GMO. So your bread, cereal, cookies, crackers, flour are GMO products. Look at what has happened to people since 1982 – over half of the population is overweight and a third are obese. Virtually every civilized country except the US bans GMOs for health reasons. The seeds are modified to add an additional lectin protein that keeps insects from consuming the plant. The insects that do try to consume the plant die. GMOs alleviate the need for insecticides and increase crop yield and margins. Lectins in corn – soy and many other GMO products destroy the stomach biology of humans and animals (dogs- cats) and cause all sorts of inflammation and medical problems – the list is massive. For this reason, Whole Foods does not sell a single GMO item. I do not consume any dairy or grain products but rather grass fed eggs and animal protein – twice as expensive but every thing else out there is garbage because it contains GMOs. Its my choice and I have never been healthier – perfect gut health. I no longer have any inflammation pain and haven’t taken an ibuprofen in years. My dogs get the same diet as I do with Visionary Pet – Keto Dog Food which is grain free and has no funky vegetables. They also have never been healthier. Both are 12-13 years, perfect weight and plenty of energy. Bottom line – you are what you eat – that’s a fact – same thing applies to your pets.

    • Dear Lisa, no one likes to be shouted at, even in print. Over-use of capital letters is HARD TO READ. I’m guessing most people are going to skip right over your comments, which make you look rather unhinged.

      • Sorry but the caps did not bother me one bit….i was far more interested in the content of the post. I and most everyone can read and understand misspelled words, lack of punctuation as well as capital letters. I refuse to be haunted by my old english teacher by focusing on those mistakes which offer me zero insight , and focus on the content and benefits the writer is offering.

        • EXACTLY! Lisa’s info is what I already know thank God! For the rest of you, grow up and stop playing grade school teacher. Ours and our pets food supplies basically poison so everyone should do their homework and feed your pets the right stuff and stop listening to traditional vets. they are just like pharmaceutical companies….out to make a profit only….they rarely care about your animals UNLESS you have a good holistic vet.
          My 2 dogs eat an organic, GRAIN FREE and grass fed protein source raw diet and they are in perfect health at ages 12 and 13 so case closed!

          • Totally agree with you John and Lisa! People are blind and need to research how unhealthy a lot of the processed foods, chemicals, colouring and hidden additives are not listed on packaging. Grains are not a part of pets diet- natural meat products are best. That’s why we make our own foods for our pets. FDA takes a blind eye to “Cancer Dog treats from China?” Processed chicken and duck treats sold at Costco and Peavy mart stores. Costco recently removed” The made in China ” off their packaging. Fillers such as sawdust, styrofoam, melamine (used in plastics) toxic chemicals. List goes on. 3 of our friends have lost their dogs to cancer due to Chinese products, and what are we dealing with today! Open your eyes and do some research ! Ban all Chinese crap coming into our country! We and our pets will live healthier lives! Locally Champion foods- Orijin and Acana …. as I was waiting to Vet. apt. 3 B. train trucks loaded with grain? yet no mention of grain on their products? Thats why we make our own and gone to holistic “all natural” now our Yorkie is recovering from a shrinkage of a tumour on his liver. 2nd one has permanent urinary issues and is constantly drinking water? Do your research !

    • Let’s squash this rumor that vets or anyone else are paid a kickback to sell a certain food. It simply is not true. Also there is no need to type in all caps and scream at us to get your (incredibly long) point across. Proper grammar and punctuation go a lot further than capital letters. If a taurine supplement were the answer, don’t you think they’d know that by now?

  2. My poor 2 year old great dane just died of CHF due to DCM (Diagnosed Christmas Eve) and had been fed all the major grain free foods under suspicion since we got him, several varieties of grain free Orijen and Taste of the Wild. His bloodline had no history of DCM or any cardiomyopathy. Make sure you do your research and that the brand your feeding your dog has a team of nutritionists and does nutritional testing that follows WSAV guidelines.

    • Hi Samantha! Sorry to hear about the loss of your puppy. Were
      You aware of the class action lawsuit against TOTW for traces of carcinogenic metals in their food? It may be old news but thought I’d say something!

    • My dog was 100% grain free for a mere 3.5 years and was just diagnosed with early stage DCM exactly like what the FDA warned us about. It was found by accident during testing for another issue. By the time dogs display the warning signs and are diagnosed with DCM it’s too late. If your feeding your dog a grain free diet get a heart ultrasound NOW.

      And if you are lucky enough to detect the illness in time to save your dog the medication costs over $200 a month so if you don’t have a reputable pet insurance plan get one NOW. We are just at the tip of the iceberg on this issue and it breaks my heart the pet food industry is blatantly ignoring the risk to our pets.

      Look for a protein + rice or a protein + oats to get the benefit of grain free without the risk.