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My thoughts on the grain-free dog food scare

In April 2019 the FDA released a report suggesting a potential correlation of feeding grain-free foods to dilated cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart) in dogs. Link here: https://www.fda.gov/media/128303/download This swept Facebook and social media, and the message was often dumbed down to “grain-free diets cause heart disease in dogs.” Within months, many veterinarians began jumping on board with this message and warning pet owners that feeding grain-free diets was dangerous for their dog’s health. While it seemed counterintuitive to me at the time that a domesticated wolf would need grain in its diet, I began bringing in more grain-inclusive foods at the request of customers.

 

     In June 2019 the FDA report linked above became publicly available, and my friend and then-colleague, Jason Young, downloaded the report. We had taken enough statistic classes to understand that cats, dog breeds predisposed to DCM, dogs over nine years of age, and dogs being fed a diet including grains should be eliminated from the group of afflicted dogs. We pored over the reports, highlighting those examples. At about fifty pages in, we realized that nearly every entry had been highlighted. At this point, I became highly skeptical of this report’s conclusion. In this report, 560 dogs were found with DCM in a country with 77 million pet dogs. While that’s only 0.000007% of dogs, why the increase in cases? Turns out, there may not have been an increase at all, and the FDA seems to be distancing themselves from this investigation. Link: https://truthaboutpetfood.com/new-study-suggests-fda-has-some-serious-explaining-to-do-regarding-dcm/

 

     Shortly after the report’s release to the public, the FDA released a list of brands of foods that had been most implicated. Two things occurred to me while reading this list. First, most of the brands were popular and higher priced. Second, no dog foods owned by the big chocolate companies, MARS (Iams, Pedigree, Eukanuba, Royal Canin, and more) and Nestle (Purina, Beneful), or Hills (Science Diet) were listed. To address the first point: it makes perfect sense that people willing to pay for an electrocardiogram on their dog probably aren’t feeding Ol’ Roy. And to the second point, it turns out that it was researchers at Hills, Nestle, and MARS that sent the FDA their data in the first place. Link: https://apnews.com/article/science-health-pets-dogs-us-food-and-drug-administration-adbe215e2ee660b57b1d01dfff8d5f40

 

From the article:

“Until 2017, the FDA saw one to three reports of DCM annually. But between January 1 and July 10, 2018, it received 25 cases. Seven reports came from a single source, animal nutritionist Lisa Freeman from Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, an FDA spokesperson said. FDA records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, however, indicate those reports may not have been fully representative of cases seen at the Tufts clinic.

     In a June 2018 email to FDA veterinary medical officer Jennifer Jones, Freeman attached a document instructing vets to report cases to the FDA, ‘If patient is eating any diet besides those made by well-known, reputable companies or if eating a boutique, exotic ingredient, or grain-free (BEG) diet.’

     According to PubMed.gov, Freeman has received funding from leading sellers of grain-inclusive foods, including Nestle Purina Petcare, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, and Mars Petcare, since 2002. Her recent conflict-of-interest declarations state: ‘In the last 3 years, Dr. Freeman has received research funding from, given sponsored lectures for, and/or provided professional services to Aratana Therapeutics, Elanco, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Nestlé Purina PetCare, P&G Pet Care (now Mars), and Royal Canin.’”

    

     “Report your findings if the dog in question is being fed grain-free” appears to be cherry picking data to suit the desired outcome. When you only look for what you want to see, you only see what it is that you are looking for. I am reminded of the old ads from the 1940s stating that more doctors recommend Lucky Strike cigarettes, but sadly, the majority of vets in this area were quick to jump on board and warn against the feeding of grain-free foods. After getting a stern talking to by their vet, customer after customer came in looking for grain-inclusive alternatives to what they had previously been feeding.

    

     I should say right away that I believe the majority of veterinarians are good people who care about the pets they see and want the best for them. I am, however, dismayed to find that vet school nutrition textbooks have links to pet food companies such as Purina and Mark Morris Institute (i.e., Hills).  But that’s a post for another day.

    

     First, pulse ingredients like legumes were suspected to be the root cause, then lack of taurine. But as time has gone on, study after study have been unable to replicate the findings released in the initial FDA report. Researchers at Kansas State University invited specialists from fields ranging from cardiology to nutrition, who were unable to establish a causal relationship between diet and canine heart disease. Link: https://www.avma.org/news/until-more-science-available-fda-will-end-public-updates-potential-link-between-certain-diets

    

     Then the Journal of Animal Science followed with a peer-reviewed study showing no correlation between grain-free diets and DCM in June 2020. Link: https://academic.oup.com/jas/article/98/6/skaa155/5857674

    

     Studies have passed peer review showing no correlation between diet and DCM, the FDA themselves have ended public updates on the matter, and no one has been able to establish any connection of DCM to diet at all. Yet almost four years later, I still have dog owners coming in my store on a weekly basis saying that their vet has instructed them to change their dog’s diet to something grain-inclusive. Why so many were quick to jump on board with the initial report, and are so hesitant to review new information, I do not know.

    

     There is probably no harm in feeding some grains to a healthy dog that has no allergies or intolerance to them. I am of the belief that grains are of limited nutritional value to dogs and are predominantly filler. But in fairness, so are potatoes and peas, which many brands use in place of grains while allowing them to market the food as grain-free. What I don’t like seeing is the use of filler in such high amounts that the food is basically cereal.

    

     I suppose at this time you might be wondering what we feed our own dog, Eleanor. For starters, the presence of grain is hardly a concern at all in the scheme of things. Unless grains compromise a large percentage of the food, the presence or absence of grains matters little. We rotate meat proteins each purchase and feed her primarily a raw diet. When feeding kibble, we look for the most minimally processed, meat-rich foods we can find. We avoid rendered meats (will be labeled “meal” such as “chicken meal”). The FDA defines rendering as “any firm or individual that processes slaughter byproducts; animals unfit for human consumption, including carcasses of dead cattle; or meat scraps.” Here is a link to what a rendering plant looks like: https://truthaboutpetfood.com/the-facility-smells-intensely-of-rotting-animals/

 

     And we avoid brands implicated in the deadliest recall in pet food history. Shortly after opening our store in 2007, we were confronted with a massive recall of dog foods and jerky treats that were poisoning pets. Some five hundred dogs went into kidney failure due to melamine poisoning from rendered ingredients from China. Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_pet_food_recalls The brands recalled for melamine poisoning were lines from Purina, Royal Canin, Hill’s Science Diet, Kirkland Signature, Blue Buffalo, DelMonte, Smart Pack, Sunshine Mills, and Natural Balance. After this recall, Blue Ridge Pet Supplies has not carried any of these brands of kibble nor considered them for our own dog, Eleanor. Melamine testing, even today, is not required in pet food.

    

     Although it’s becoming dated, the documentary Pet Fooled is a must-watch for dog and cat owners. At the time of this writing, it’s available for streaming on Prime. You should be able to find it with a cursory google if you don’t have Prime or if it is no longer on Prime. I am a big advocate of the Whole Dog Journal.

    

     Pet food is an over $57 billion industry in the United States alone. And grain-free foods were nearing a 50 percent share of sales before the aforementioned FDA report.  Huge corporations with financial interests have stakes in each side of the issue. Companies on both sides have put tremendous resources toward showing only the evidence they want brought forward. Some companies have hedged their bets and have interests in both grain-inclusive and grain-free foods. MARS went so far as to acquire Champion Pet Foods (Orijen/Acana), which has the reputation of some of the highest quality kibble in the industry (for what it’s worth, at the time of this writing, the ingredients nor sourcing of Champion foods have changed). Trying to determine what data is factual and what is manipulated is difficult. Overall, we lean toward foods that are minimally processed, low on fillers, and species-appropriate for dogs (or cats). Ingredient panels on the back of bags are far more important than the artwork on the front. Avoid vague ingredients such as “poultry” rather than something more specific such as “chicken” or especially generic terms like “animal meal,” since this opens up what the ingredient could be to almost anything. Many brands out there have been implicated for including euthanized pet dogs and cats. https://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/dog-food-industry-exposed/dogs-meat-meal/ Avoid concentrated vegetable proteins such as pea or potato protein. This is used to get the counts up high enough to bring to market with inadequate meat content. Do the best that you can within your means. Check the daily feeding guide on the bag and see how much is recommended based on your dog’s weight. In many cases, cheaper dog food is fed at such a higher volume that even though the bag may cost half the amount, it’s much more expensive to feed over time. And if there’s no intolerance or reason not to, rotate food from time to time. Also, understand that food allergies are quite rare in dogs. The most recent study I could find indicates that about two dogs in a thousand have actual allergies to foods. It is frequently misdiagnosed when environmental allergies are present, however. Link: https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2018-07-15/banfield-few-pets-allergic-food-flea-environmental-allergies-rise

    

     As a store, we have no “dog” in this fight. Our store sells dry, canned, and frozen raw dog foods of many brands, both with and without grains. After years of researching the topic, we feed our own dog a raw diet. Feeding raw is not without risk, though frankly, no feeding is. Salmonella and raw food that has been left warm go hand in hand. Dishes need to be thoroughly cleaned after each feeding, and food needs to be thawed as needed. Use common sense when handling raw meat. Below are some links regarding the benefits of raw feeding:

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