The pet food industry has changed dramatically in the past ten years. One of the changes we have seen is a shift toward popular “grain free” diets for dogs. Veterinarians have long recognized that these diets aren’t nutritionally superior but many consumers are understandably swayed by excellent marketing campaigns. Although veterinarians receive extensive training in nutrition, pet food remains surprisingly controversial. We have therefore largely remained quiet on the issue unless someone specifically asks us what to feed their pet.
With this newly released report, we feel compelled to speak out publicly for the health and safety of our patients. If you have strong opinions regarding pet food based on your own personal experiences, we ask that you express them respectfully.
In 2018, the FDA started investigating a possible link between grain free diets and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs. This condition is historically uncommon and diagnosed primarily in only a handful of breeds. It is life threatening if untreated and can be fatal even with intensive care. Veterinary cardiologists at referral institutions had noticed a significant increase in the number of patients diagnosed with DCM, particularly in breeds not typically affected. A collaborative effort was begun to seek an explanation and one possible answer appeared to be grain free diets.
This week, the FDA published their findings. A link to the full report is posted here and we would recommend that you read it in its entirety if you have concerns:
This chart (from the report above) lists the brands of food most commonly fed to reported patients who developed DCM. If your dog eats one of these diets, please discuss the findings with your veterinarian to decide if you should consider changing his/her food.
The chart is not just hypothetical; these numbers represent dogs loved tremendously by their families. In 2017, we had a beloved patient at Courtenay Animal Hospital who died at only 5 years old from DCM. His breed was not one genetically predisposed to the condition and he was fed a “grain free” diet that is listed here. We cannot say definitively that the food was implicated in his DCM but if we had known about a possible correlation then, we might have been able to save him. I have talked to numerous veterinarians about this in the past year and almost all of them share similar stories.
This chart does not mean that every food manufactured by these brands is “bad” and most companies produce many different formulations. The biggest concerns surround diets which use peas or other legumes as a main ingredient but this is not the only factor. There is still much to learn.
While there is no single best diet for every dog, we recommend that you feed a balanced diet appropriate for your pet’s life stage and manufactured by a company which employs veterinary nutritionists, budgets extensively for research and development rather than marketing, and conducts feeding trials with live dogs before releasing new diets rather than simply formulating them in a laboratory.
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) has a list of criteria for the manufacturing of a high quality dog food. Veterinarians know the companies which meet these guidelines and we’d be happy to share them with you on request but avoid doing so here, as we don’t want to appear to be promoting any specific company. We simply want our patients to remain as healthy as possible for as long as possible and complete, balanced nutrition is crucial to animal health.
The WSAVA published a single page summarizing their recommendations when selecting pet foods. You can read that here:
They also have an excellent publication addressing FAQs and myths regarding pet foods. You can read that here:
We would urge you to read these publications or seek other resources from veterinary nutritionists when debating what to feed your dog, rather than trusting popular internet sites which may not be run by veterinary professionals.
Here is another good page from the clinical nutrition service at Tufts University:
If you have any more questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to us or other veterinary professionals!