By now, everyone has heard about grain free pet foods. Lots of people feed these products to dogs and cats. And by now, many readers have heard there’s a problem. Starting in 2014 the FDA became concerned about a possible link between grain free diets and heart disease. Recently in June 2019 that body issued a statement not only further warning consumers about the potential hazard with grain free foods, but also published a list of possibly offending foods. Here’s what we know.
Several years ago, veterinary cardiologists began diagnosing cardiomyopathy (heart muscle disease) in dog breeds who do not typically suffer from that malady. (Boxers, Dobermans, and Cocker Spaniels, for example are known to have an increased risk for heart disease.) The specialists found a common denominator of heart disease and the diets the affected dogs were being fed. The disease causes the heart muscle itself to become weak so that it cannot pump blood efficiently. Clinical signs can include weakness, coughing, reluctance to exercise and difficulty breathing. The problem can be severe and indeed several hundred animals have died from dilated cardiomyopathy over the past few years. Further studies showed overwhelmingly that the disease-producing products were those from smaller pet food manufacturers incorporating legumes such as peas or lentils and potatoes, and who may have used a unique protein source, typically, though not exclusively, alligator, kangaroo, bison, or emu. But routine proteins such as chicken and fish have also been included in the FDA’s list. Canned, dry or moist presentations were all represented. These foods were devoid of corn, wheat, soy, rice or barley. The so-call BEG (boutique, exotic, grain free) were the disease-causing diets. For the recently published list, visit https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/news-events/fda-investigation-potential-link-between-certain-diets-and-canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy#diet.
What is the actual problem with grain-free foods? The specific mechanism causing the cardiac impairment is simply not known. Speculation includes sources of ingredients (read foreign countries), formulation of ingredients, processing of same — or is it something else entirely? One of the problems is that most pet food manufacturers do not do feeding trials which would evaluate how their products affect pets long term.
Furthermore, it is reasonable to question whether this is a recent phenomenon, or has the FDA been coerced into this recent revelation by concerned veterinary cardiologists? And, how many weak dogs have had undiagnosed cardiomyopathies but their owners simply thought they were “just getting old”? This problem MAY have been around for a long time. Going forward, many nutritional deficiencies severe enough to cause clinical signs can take years to develop. We may be seeing more illnesses over time.
Surveys have shown that up to 50% of pet owners in a veterinary practice feed grain free foods. Why has the popularity of these foods increased so dramatically? Is it because we equate grain with carbohydrates and carbs have a bad rap in our society? Are owners concerned about genetically modified grains or allergies to them?
It’s worth pointing out that veterinary dermatologists note that less than 4% of animals tested are actually allergic to grain. Unless your dog or cat has a proven allergy to grain, then feeding a grain-free diet is meaningless to nutritional health. Look around folks-corn is a big part of our lives and livelihoods around here!
Dr Celeste Conn has a house call practice in Kent County. Visit her website at www.thevisitingvet.net