No pet owner wants to put their dog’s health in danger, but unfortunately, that may be exactly what some of us are doing, even if we don’t know it. For the past few years, grain-free, “biologically appropriate” diets have been all the rage among conscientious dog owners. Dogs weren’t evolutionarily designed to eat oats, grains, and the like, so why would we want to fill their bowls with them? So the argument has gone – until now. According to the MSPCA, depriving our dogs of grains might be doing far more harm than good – as will eschewing traditional meats like beef and chicken for more exotic meats like kangaroo, lamb, buffalo, salmon, and venison.
The argument isn’t necessarily new, but it’s developed a whole new significance in light of the COVID Pandemic. The lockdown has led to a huge increase in the number of new puppy adoptions, and at the MSPCA’s Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, the surge has been accompanied by a worrying trend among new owners to feed their new pups a diet that could spell major trouble down the line. “For many people, the new puppy may be the first dog they’ve ever had, and it’s understandable they’d want to feed them what they believe to be the most nutritious food on the market,” MSPCA’s Dr. Virginia Sinnott-Stutzman says via whdh.com. But as it turns out there’s a world of difference between what we ‘believe’ are the most nutritious foods on the market, and those that actually are.
“Scientific research increasingly validates the necessity of some grains in addition to traditional proteins such as chicken and beef,” Dr. Julia Lindholm, of Angell’s cardiology service, adds “The foods that lack these are often foods that include peas, lentils, potatoes, and exotic meat, which we believe are responsible for diet-related DCM (Dilated Cardiomyopathy).” It might be a novel situation that’s throwing a spotlight on how diet affects health, but the idea that grain free diets could have an adverse effect on our pet’s wellbeing isn’t new. Back in 2018, the United States Food and Drug Administration commissioned an investigation into the potential link between certain dog foods and Dilated Cardiomyopathy (a fatal heart condition) after the number of canine heart disease cases reported to the Agency jumped from less than five a year to 320.
The studies suggested a positive correlation between grain-free, specialty dog foods with a high proportion of peas, lentils, other legume seeds and potatoes and the instances of Dilated Cardiomyopathy. 16 dog food brands were identified as being the most commonly named by owners of affected pets, with all brands being of the type that market themselves with the slogans of “biologically appropriate” and “grain-free”. According to the FDA’s studies, the brands with the most frequent links to DCM cases include:
- Taste of the Wild
- Earthborn Holistic
- Blue Buffalo
- Nature’s Domain
- California Natural
- Natural Balance
- Nature’s Variety
- Rachel Ray Nutrish
The FDA investigation sparked similar investigations in other countries, with Daniella Dos Santos, Junior Vice President of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), noting via The Telegraph, “This is a complex issue that involves multiple factors, though the overarching link appears to be grain free diets. “There is currently insufficient evidence to confirm the beneficial health claims of a grain free diet. “As investigations continue into a potential link with DCM, we recommend caution in choosing a grain-free diet for your pet. “We encourage owners to speak to their vet about a healthy, balanced diet tailored to life stage, breed, health needs, and lifestyle.”
So, what’s a conscientious pet owner to do? After spending the last few years coming round to the idea of grain-free, it seems rice might not be quite so evil after all. Although you can’t mitigate the chance of your dog ever developing any health problems through diet alone, the evidence does seem to suggest that what we do and don’t feed our dogs has consequences way beyond what we’d previously thought.
So, should we all be doing a 180 and reintroducing our four-legged friends to the concept of grains? Quite possibly. While there’s still work to be done in establishing a firm, causal link between certain foods (or the absence thereof) and Dilated Cardiomyopathy (because after all, correlation isn’t causation), veering on the side of caution may be advisable, particularly if your dog is of a breed with a genetic predisposition towards the disease. Although instances have been seen across all breeds, topdogtips.com lists those with a greater risk as larger dogs like Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Boxer, Cocker Spaniels, Afghan Hounds, Dalmatians, English Bulldogs, Irish Wolfhounds, Newfoundlands, and Bernards.
As per the MSPCA’s recommendations, try to use the following guidelines when choosing a dog food:
- Look for a label from The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) confirming that the food offers a complete and balanced diet.
- Use food that’s been made to meet the needs of your pet’s particular age– i.e. don’t feed a puppy adult food, and don’t feed an adult puppy food. As young dogs have very different energy and nutritional needs to older pets, feeding an inappropriate food type could have serious consequences on their health.
- Look at the content’s list carefully. An animal protein source should feature high up on the list (pet food manufacturers list contents in descending order of overall percentage) but avoid any foods that favor exotic meats like kangaroo, lamb, buffalo, salmon, and venison and stick to more conventional proteins like chicken and beef instead.
- Avoid marketing gimmicks – just because a food comes with a ‘biologically appropriate’ banner doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best option for your pet.
- Do your research – before introducing your dog to any new foods, thoroughly research the brand and the ingredients that go into the food beforehand. Although peer reviews are helpful, they’re not the be-all and end-all – check out the AAFCO website for any information on the brand, and speak to your vet if you need any further guidance.