The Grain-Free Pet Food Controversy of 2018
The Issue in a Nutshell
On July 12, 2018, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), through its Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), issued a public alert about the possible connection between grain-free dog food containing potatoes and legumes and associated concerns of dilated cardiomyopathy. Since then there has been considerable confusion among dog owners about whether or not grain-free diets are safe.
So much so, in fact, that it prompted the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine to publish an article in its October 2018 issue of DOGWatch, in which it opined, "Unfortunately, that release raised more questions than answers." The article continued with CVM's own subsequent release of FAQ's to help everyone better understand the situation.
My job brings me into contact with pet owners and pet store personnel on a daily basis, and I saw first hand the confusion and concern among both groups. A lot of dog owners wondered if they should get their dogs off of grain-free diets. They were placing the emphasis on grain-free when, in fact, there are pet foods that aren't grain-free and also contain potatoes and legumes.
What Prompted the FDA Alert
There are some large and giant breed dogs that are genetically prone to dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), but reports started showing up of small and medium breed dogs presenting at veterinary clinics with DCM. That unusual occurrence caught the attention of the FDA.
The Common Thread Running Through the Majority of Cases
Diets in cases reported to the FDA frequently list potatoes or multiple legumes such as peas, lentils, other “pulses” (seeds of legumes), and their protein, starch and fiber derivatives early in the ingredient list, indicating that they are main ingredients.
While there is no legal or regulatory definition of a main ingredient, the FDA considers ingredients that appear on the pet food's ingredient list before the first vitamin or mineral to be main ingredients.
The July 12, 2018 alert contained this finding regarding diets containing potatoes and legumes:
"Early reports from the veterinary cardiology community indicate that the dogs consistently ate these foods as their primary source of nutrition for time periods ranging from months to years. High levels of legumes or potatoes appear to be more common in diets labeled as “grain-free,” but it is not yet known how these ingredients are linked to cases of DCM."
The Press and Social Media Contributed to the Confusion
The term "grain-free" tended to be emphasized in press reports, often without the accompanying wording about the uncertainty expressed by the FDA immediately stated. Or, the public just focused on the "grain-free" since it's such an important factor in the food and treats they buy for their dogs.
Comments on social media often cause certain issues to take on a life of their own, and this happened in this case.
Taurine: Another Point of Confusion
In the alert, the FDA reported:
"Medical records for four atypical DCM cases, three Golden Retrievers and one Labrador Retriever, show that these dogs had low whole blood levels of the amino acid taurine. Taurine deficiency is well-documented as potentially leading to DCM."
Well, that set off a whole new panic attack among pet owners as the social media lit up with that fact. Remember, now, that it was just four cases. However, dog owners checked their dog food's ingredient panel for taurine and often didn't find it. That's because dogs are able to make their own taurine and don't need to get it from their diet. But social media didn't know that.
Some, but not all, dog foods do supplement with taurine, probably in support of those breeds that are genetically predisposed to DCM. That wasn't commonly expressed on social media, though.
The dog's physiology enables it to combine other amino acids to form taurine, which becomes a major component of bile. Just before bile salts exit the small intestine, the taurine is extracted and reabsorbed.
Cats are known as obligate carnivores because they can't synthesize taurine and, therefore, must get it from their diet. Taurine is only available in meat and shellfish.
The Bottom Line
While the FDA continues to work with board-certified veterinary cardiologists, veterinary nutritionists and the pet food industry, they've adopted this position:
"At this time, we are not advising dietary changes based solely on the information we have gathered so far. If you have questions or concerns about your dog’s health or its diet, we suggest that you consult your veterinarian for individualized advice that takes into account your dog’s specific needs and medical history."
It seems that the investigation is focusing on the possible link between potatoes, legumes, and the dog's ability to utilize taurine. They're also looking into whether grain-free diets contain too much plant protein and not enough animal protein.
Important Information Regarding Diet and Cardiomyopathy
What is dilated cardiomyopathy?
DCM is a disease of a dog’s heart muscle and results in an enlarged heart. As the heart and its chambers become dilated, it becomes harder for the heart to pump, and heart valves may leak, which can lead to a buildup of fluids in the chest and abdomen (congestive heart failure). If caught early, heart function may improve in cases that are not linked to genetics with appropriate veterinary treatment and dietary modification.
What are the symptoms of canine dilated cardiomyopathy?
Lethargy, weakness, weight loss, collapse, coughing, increased respiratory rate and/or effort, abdominal distention.
What are legumes?
Legumes are part of the Fabaceae plant family, and are the fruit or seed (also known as pulses) of these plants. Common legumes include peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, and peanuts. Legumes are used for both human and animal food and have become a common plant-based source of protein.
Are sweet potatoes, red potatoes and Yukon Gold potatoes classified as potatoes?
Is rice also a suspect in this issue?
No, rice is a grain, not a legume.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Animal and Veterinary. FDA Investigating Potential Connection Between Diet and Cases of Canine Heart Disease. July 12, 2018.
- Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. DOGWatch. Vol.22, No. 10. Dog Food and Cardiomyopathy. October, 2018.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Animal and Veterinary. Questions & Answers: FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine's Investigation into a Possible Connection Between Diet and Canine Heart Disease. July 12, 2018.
- Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). www2.vet.cornell.edu/hospitals/companion-animal-hospital/cardiology/canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy-dcm.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
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© 2018 Bob Bamberg