Grain-Free Foods: FDA’s latest

I still speak to many clients who aren’t familiar with the link between grain-free diets and heart disease in pets. Grain-free diets are extremely popular, so this is an issue impacting a large percentage of the pet-owning population. Because no recalls have been issued, it’s been difficult to follow and understand what is going on; however, several brand names relevant to the problem were issued (see FDA web site) earlier this week.

For the last couple of years, there has been growing uneasiness in the veterinary cardiology community about the uptick in dilated cardiomyopathy cases. This heart condition is supposed to be something you inherit based on your breed, but a new, highly unpredictable pattern was emerging. It was starting to look less like something you got from your family tree and more like a disease you could contract through some sort of exposure event. The identity of this disease had changed radically, making it a much more elusive target.

Veterinarians involved in the first foray were able to establish a connection with diet but could not provide further details. The situation was brought to the attention of the FDA, where further research was initiated, but no brands or formulations were identified at that time. As you may remember from a previous drama starring chicken jerky, the FDA is extremely reluctant to issue a recall of any product until the offending substance has been specifically identified. Although a list of brand names has now been published, the specifics of the problem are still not clear.

Most “grain-free” diets achieve this status by replacing the cereal portion (corn, wheat, barley, rice) of a conventional pet food with other plant-based materials. Potatoes and/or legumes (beans and peas) are an important common denominator among the problematic foods.

Obviously, not every animal consuming potatoes and peas has become ill, but we have to suspect that there is an unrecognized population of victims with partial heart muscle destruction; these would be patients that haven’t been diagnosed because they haven’t collapsed yet. Some dogs may be more sensitive to it, but we don’t know why. We don’t know how long it takes to develop problems or whether this interval may differ from recipe to recipe. We don’t know if it is the inclusion of a harmful substance or the omission of something essential. It might not even be the potatoes or the grain. It could be a lesser-known ingredient that happens to be associated with one or the other; for example, a particular preservative that’s typically used with potatoes and peas or a microorganism that infects them prior to harvest.

If you are feeding your dog a grain-free food, please consider carefully why you are doing this. Did it just seem to make sense, since “dogs were originally wolves”? Don’t let your personal loyalty to this diet upstage the cardiac function of your canine companion. There aren’t a lot of trained veterinary nutritionists who love the idea of grain-free food, but there are a ton of marketing executives who really do.

Dr. M.S. Regan