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Mixed messaging on grains in pet food

Over a year ago, I wrote my column about the headlines that were in the media about grain free dog foods and DCM (Dilated Cardio Myopathy, a heart condition). I was distressed by the amount of misinterpretation of both the source of the concern, and the framing of how to “fix” the issue.

This concern stems from a 2018 investigation by the FDA into an increased number of cases of DCM being reported. In that year, 320 cases were reported, a staggering increase from the 1 or 2 a year reported in the years before. But putting this in perspective, that’s 320 cases out of 70,000,000 dogs.

So, with mass media picking up the story with headlines like “New FDA Warning Cautions Against GrainFree Dog Food – The Atlantic” all grain free foods came under suspicion. It went further and we got headlines like “FDA names 16 brands of dog food linked to canine heart disease – NBC News” or “Certain dog food brands may be linked to increased risk of heart disease: FDA – Global News” many people started questioning those brands.

My concern then was this public messaging had little actual information accompanying the articles, just a warning against “grain free” foods, and specifically, 16 brands. The fact that the FDA advised to not change your food unless instructed to by your vet, and that while an investigation was ongoing, no definitive connection had been made as of yet (and still hasn’t) seems to have been ignored.

More recently, I have been seeing the message changing. The issue had always been a question about whether the use of legumes or potatoes was causing a problem. Most “grain free” foods replace grains with legumes and potatoes. Not all, but most, and pretty much all of the 16 brands named by the FDA. It wasn’t that there was something vital in grains that the pets needed, but rather there was something questionable in the ingredients used to replace grains in grain-free foods.

My concern is that I have had a lot of people come in lately asking how to put grains into their pet’s food to make their heart healthier. Somehow the messaging has changed from ”avoid legumes/potatoes” to “include grains”. This is the thing I do not understand.

To my knowledge, there is nothing in any grain that is vital for heart health in dogs. In all my research. I have not found anyone who will state that any grains contain any nutritional component that a dog needs for a healthy heart. Yet people are being advised to either buy foods with grain, or add grains to the food you choose, even if it is something like a balanced raw diet.

The reason grain free foods exist is because many grains create issues with our pets. Wheat is one of the worst allergens to dogs. The high carbohydrate levels most grains contain can also cause issues with things like obesity or diabetes. Grain free foods replace these high glycemic level carbs with lower glycemic level ones, and are generally less likely to cause an allergic reaction in pets, which is why they are so popular.

Fresh, raw foods do not need the grains, legumes or any starch that dry food require to make the kibbles form. Much like a nutritionist would advise you, these are cleaner, less processed foods, that only need to contain ingredients the pet needs, not items like starches needed for the extrusion process. Unless there is a specific and unusual dietary need, adding starches, especially grains, makes no sense at all.

I guess what it comes down to is, if someone tells you to add grains to your pet’s food, or to make sure there are grains in the food, ask them what it is in the grains that is good for the pet. What nutritional component of grains is beneficial for your pet’s heart health. I’m all ears.