Last July, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it was investigating a possible link between potatoes and legumes as major ingredients in dog food and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs. They released “preliminary information,” and as media outlets went gung-ho with the announcement, somehow potatoes, soy, peas, and lentils morphed into the label “grain-free.” The research—a lot of it from UC Davis in California—is indeed preliminary: It shows no proof, evidence or causal connection between grain-free foods and DCM. Yet media and public panic ensued, and dog folks were told to feed more “traditional” diets, not grain-free.
We have a lot of experience feeding dogs. Right now, we also have a trained experimental scientist on our staff (she loves Labs more than she loved “labs.”) So the brouhaha that ensued is a concern. Because in our view, it is not the grain-free diet that is the problem. It is a poor diet that is low in protein and high in starch that is the problem.
The original intent for grain-free was feeding an ancestrally appropriate diet. Grains are not a natural part of a dog’s diet. (When is the last time your dog ran gleefully into a wheat field to grab a snack?) Grains are a filler, and foods such as corn or corn products (a base of a lot of brands termed “traditional” foods) are a cheap source of calories. Many people choose to feed grain-free after they notice a problem and that their dogs derive a variety of health benefits from grain-free. For example, leaky gut syndrome, food sensitivity, or intolerance to a particular grain or protein can subside with a switch to grain-free.
We’re including a lot of links below to articles that debunk the original hysteria around the FDA announcement and this preliminary research. We’re pretty sure more publicity will try to convince you and us to stop feeding grain-free. In the interest of our dogs’ health, here’s a few things we’ll be thinking about in the next go-around:
1 Let’s all keep calm and feed our dogs.
2 Follow the money, it can be pretty illuminating. In this instance, know that a main funder for research into grain-free food is the Morris Animal Foundation, the foundation created by the owners of the Hill’s Science Diet brand. The three main researchers from UC Davis (Joshua Stern, Lisa Freeman, and Darcy Adin) also receive funding from Purina and Royal Canin. These are “traditional” brands who often use corn or corn products as a major ingredient, and are (ahem) not historically proponents of grain-free diets for dogs.
3 Check the numbers. At the end of November 2018, there were 77 million dogs in the United States and 325 reports of DCM in a 5-year period. It is a rare disease. It is a devastating disease, and deserves careful research to find help for those dogs who develop it. Prior work indicates there are some breeds more disposed to DCM—Cocker Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, and Newfoundlands, for example—and that low levels of L-carnitine, some amino acids, and selenium are known causes of DCM. These factors need to be considered in any research that tries to causally link diet to the disease.
4 Check more numbers. A retrospective study of DCM cases by Dr. Adin (UC Davis) originally found 22 cases over a 2-year period of DCM in dogs on grain-free foods and 27 cases of dogs eating food with grains. None of the grain-free dogs were taurine deficient (taurine is another source of investigative interest in DCM.)
5 Look for other voices. The highly publicized research from UC Davis was published without peer review, meaning that its methodology, results, and conclusions were not subjected to an objective review from other researchers. This is not standard practice in research, and perhaps as interesting, not even standard practice by the journal that published it.
Nutrition is central to all health, senior dogs and everyone else. Our focus will continue to be feeding those in our care with the best nutrition possible. Number one priority? Let’s all keep calm and feed our dogs.
~ Mary Gustafson, PhD
Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) – What Do We Know? Our favorite, reasoned summation that cautions against premature conclusions, from a well-known veterinarian / nutrition expert
Special topic: The Association Between Pulse Ingredients and Canine Dilated Myopathy: Addressing the Knowledge Gaps Before Establishing Causation Argues that ingredients do not represent full nutrition, and that full nutritional composition needs to be investigated before blaming one type of ingredient
Cardiomyopathy (Heart Disease) in Dogs and Why Some Dogs Eat “Exotic” Ingredients Includes a review of methodology problems in publicized research studies
“BEG” Pet Food and DCM Part 2: Is Veterinary Bias at Play? An animal nutritionist (who does not promote grain-free) cites flaws in the research
FDA Technical Report, Updated June 2019
Diet-Associated Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Dogs: What Do We Know? Published research from UC Davis