Grain-Free Dog Food: Helpful or Harmful?


Grain-Free Dog Food: Helpful or Harmful?

Just because your dog loves meat doesn’t mean grain-free dog food is good for him. Find out what grain-free diets are and why they have stirred up controversy. rubydeck
rubydeck By Debra Steilen Updated April 12, 2021 Advertisement Pin FB More Tweet Email Send Text Message Print

So. Many. Choices. You know, because you've stared at all the types of dog food while walking the aisles of your local pet store or shopping online. And if you're checking into grain-free dog food, which loving pet-owners choose because they think it's closer to the meaty diets of ancient wolves, you'll see ingredients that range from chicken, lamb, and kangaroo to bison and bunny—along with peas and lentils and potatoes. But is this type of diet good for your dog's health? Keep reading to learn more about grain-free diets for dogs and whether or not you should feed them to your four-legged best friend.

dog eating grain-free dog food
dog eating grain-free dog food Credit: Jacob Fox

What Is a Grain-Free Dog Food Diet?

It's pretty simple, really. Any type of dog food made without corn, wheat, soy, rice, barley, or other grains is considered grain-free, according to the American Kennel Club. But since dogs still need carbohydrates for energy, grain-free dog foods use alternative sources like peas, lentils, chickpeas, beans, and potatoes or sweet potatoes.

Why Is the FDA Investigating Grain-Free Dog Food?

The U.S. FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine is investigating a possible link between dogs who eat certain grain-free dog foods and canine dilated cardiomyopathy—known as DCM—which leads to a decreased ability for the heart to pump blood. The agency's July 2019 update stated that 91 percent of foods reported in DCM cases were grain free; 93 percent of reported foods contained peas and/or lentils; and 42 percent contained potatoes/sweet potatoes. No single animal source was predominant.

The trigger for the FDA's investigation was cases of DCM showing up in breeds—such as golden retrievers—without a genetic predisposition to get this disease. What isn't clear to the FDA yet is the exact source of the problem.

"Is it the lack of a grain source? Or is it the alternate carbohydrates like peas, lentils, and potatoes?" asks Jessica Romine, DVM, DACVIM, who is a veterinarian with BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Southfield, Mich. "They haven't figured it out yet. I doubt that any single ingredient will explain everything," she says.

Are There Any Grain-Free Dog Foods That Are Healthy for Dogs?

If a grain-free diet is critical, Romine recommends considering a grain-free product from one of the following brands: Eukanuba, Hill's Science Diet, Iams, Purina, or Royal Canin. These options are among the few that meet current nutrition and safety standards set by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) and labeling standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). They also have undergone AAFCO feeding trials to ensure safety.

"There are so many health problems we can't prevent," Romine says. "If you can prevent heart disease by controlling your dog's diet, do it. Err on the side of feeding a diet that doesn't have those problems [being studied by the FDA], until we understand the problem more."

My Dog Is on a Grain-Free Diet. How Can I Tell If He Has Dilated Cardiomyopathy?

Signs of dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs include fatigue, weakness, a drop in energy level, and as a result, shorter walks, Romine says. A more serious case of DCM may produce labored breathing, a soft, wet cough, gums that are purple instead of pink, and sometimes a heart murmur or heart failure.

"But even if your dog is acting perfectly fine, that doesn't mean he's not affected," Romine says. "There are numerous cases of dogs with no symptoms having quite severe disease on echocardiogram."

What Should I Do To Make Sure My Dog Is Healthy While on a Grain-Free Diet?

Romine recommends taking a dog who has been on a grain-free diet to the vet to get checked out—even if that pet doesn't show any symptoms. The vet will listen to your dog's heart and take x-rays. Your pooch may even end up getting an echocardiogram by a veterinary cardiologist, which is the gold standard for evaluating cardiac function. But, she says, the good news is, "It's possible to reverse the disease as long as your dog is not in end-stage DCM and you swap out the grain-free diet." 

What Should I Feed My Dog Instead of Grain-Free Dog Food?

The best thing you can do is to consult your veterinarian, who understands animal nutrition and is best suited to advise you about which high-quality dog food is right for your individual pet.

Still unsure? You may want to look for recommendations made by board-certified veterinary nutritionists (Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition), who have completed four years of vet school as well as a two- to three-year residency specifically in veterinary nutrition. The terminology can be tricky, as the phrases "animal nutritionist" or "dog nutrition specialist" sound similar to board-certified veterinary nutritionist, but do not carry the extensive education and training behind them.

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