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Is Grain-Free Dog Food Better for My Dog?

It has been a hotly debated issue and even led to a popular new trend in commercial dog foods. But bottom line, is grain-free dog food better for our canines?

A lot of my customers ask for grain-free treats because they believe it is healthier for their dog or their vet recommended a grain-free diet. They have expressed concerns about claims that grain-free food creating heart problems in dogs fed grain-free foods so we tried to find out more about it. This potential heart issue is called DCM or dilated cardiomyopathy. It is a form of K9 heart disease that affects the heart muscle decreasing its ability to effectively pump blood leading to an enlarged heart and potentially congestive heart failure.

Like most issues, this controversy is not simply black or white. Many dogs have eaten commercial dog foods with grains and enjoyed long, healthy and active lives but others eating the same commercial dog foods have exhibited some health issues – including DCM.

Grains and Dogs: The Facts

Why are Grains Even in Commercial Dog Foods?

Grains began appearing in pet foods approximately 70 years ago when consumers wanted convenience in feeding their pets and commercial pet food manufacturers wanted to reduce costs by using cheaper grains as fillers (which also offered a longer shelf life).

For some dogs, grains can trigger allergies.

Typically, grains identified as allergy-provoking ingredients include:

- Wheat - Barley - Soy - Oats - Rice - Corn - Rye

Food allergies do not always indicate an allergy or intolerance to grains. Many dogs are allergic to protein sources including:

- Beef - Chicken - Eggs - Dairy - Fish - Lamb

Canine allergic reactions can also be due to:

  • Pet food fillers (potatoes, grains, starches and fibers)

  • Storage mites in dry dog food in non-sealed containers

  • Hooves, feathers and beaks

  • Emulsifiers, flavor enhancers, dyes, preservatives and other chemicals

Conclusion: There Isn’t One

In the December 1, 2019 issue of the Journal of the Veterinary Medical Association, Dr. Lisa M. Freeman of Tufts University emphasized the DCM issue is not just about grain-free diets and may also include other pet food trends called BEG such as:

- Boutique diets

- Exotic ingredients (Kangaroo, Bison, etc.)

- Grain-free diets

In the FDA’s 2019 update on diet-associated DCM, they revealed that more than 90% of the dog foods reported in the DCM cases were grain-free.

Dr. Freeman cautions:

The apparent link between BEG diets and DCM may be due to ingredients used to replace grains in grain-free diets, such as lentils or chickpeas, but also may be due to other common ingredients commonly found in BEG diets, such as exotic meats, vegetables, and fruits.”

These other factors can include:

  • Taurine deficiency

  • Breed predisposition, genetics and metabolic abnormalities

  • Diet history, ingredients and nutrient-profile