Whenever I go to my local pet store to get food for my two dogs, I always see, out of the corner of my eye, a lot of labels that say “grain-free.” It made me wonder whether there was a something healthier about them and if what I was buying for my dogs was somehow lacking. After all, we all want the best for our pets and that certainly includes a healthy diet. My interest was further piqued when I checked out the ingredients on the grain-free dog food because they were chock full of nutritious protein-rich alternatives including lentils, sweet potatoes, chickpeas, bison, and wild boar, all which sounded good to me. If it’s good for humans, I thought, it must be good for dogs.
Not necessarily, it turns out. Earlier this week, the NY Times reported that the Food and Drug Administration announced that it is looking into a relationship between grain-free dog food food and canine heart disease, specifically DCM—Dilated Cardio Myopathy. Symptoms include an enlarged heart, exhaustion, difficulty breathing, fainting, and potential heart failure. While DCM is usually found in large breeds that have a genetic disposition to it, such as Great Danes and Doberman pinschers, veterinarians have lately been seeing it in a wider variety of breeds including golden retrievers, Labradors and doodle mixes. One common factor among these affected dogs is that they were on a grain-free diet. This led to studies to determine whether or not this increase in DCM is tied to the surge in the number of grain-free diets which now account for 44 percent of the dog food market, a trend which began in 2007 when food from China was contaminated with melamine.
While the evidence is not yet conclusive (there have been discrepancies with regard to the definitive medical cause of the heart failure), there is a growing consensus that, unless your dogs have a proven allergy or issue with a specific grain, there is no medical basis for switching them to a grain-free diet, and that doing so might even have negative consequences. The good news is that, unlike dogs that develop DCM genetically, diet-associated cases can sometimes be reversed through a regimen of medication and diet change. If your dogs shows any similar symptoms, be sure to take them to a vet immediately to determine the cause and a proper course of action.