The Grain-Free Pet Food Controversy of 2018

Updated on December 3, 2018
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock, and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.


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).

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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Bob Bamberg


      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment
      • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

        Bob Bamberg 

        8 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hi Pat,

        You're not alone. Many, many pet owners were left confused by the FDA alert in July when they announced increased reports of dilated cardiomyopathy in small and medium breeds of dogs. About 54% of the cases were fed grain-free diets containing potatoes and legumes as main ingredients. What was underplayed was that there are many foods that are not grain-free but that contain potatoes and legumes as main ingredients.

        They cited that as a common thread among the cases, but acknowledged that there can be other, non-diet related causes as well. They said not to change your dog's diet based on the information they've gathered so far, because it's non-conclusive.

        I think they're focusing on the possibility that potatoes and legumes may somehow interfere with the dog's ability to fully utilize taurine.

        The mention of taurine deficiency caused a minor panic attack among per owners who searched their dog food labels for taurine and didn't see it. Dog food doesn't require added taurine since dogs can manufacture their own. Some manufacturers, including the food I work for, add taurine because there are some large and giant breed dogs that are genetically predisposed to dilated cardiomyopathy and we want to support them. Cats, by the way, are obligate carnivores because they cannot manufacture their own taurine and must get it from their food. Taurine, an essential amino acid responsible largely for heart and eye health, is only available in meat and shellfish.

        Bottom line, if your dog is doing well on his present food, there's no compelling reason to change it.

        Love and angels to you and your family as well. Regards, Bob

      • pstraubie48 profile image

        Patricia Scott 

        8 months ago from sunny Florida

        O dear--my head is spinning. I read the bottom line but I'm still not sure what I should feed my pup. She could not come to live with me when I moved but I still buy her food so can you tell me a little bit more I don't know what to do. Thank you my friend. Angels are headed your way this evening and I hope you and your family have a lovely Thanksgiving day tomorrow PS

      • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

        Bob Bamberg 

        8 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hi, Diana, it's doubtful that any of your pets suffered from grain-free pet foods. Cats and dogs have no dietary requirement for carbohydrates, which is what grains are. While most tolerate grains nicely, there are some that can't, and may experience digestive or skin issues from consuming grains. The emphasis on grain-free is more marketing than science, for the reasons listed above. Grain-free talks a good story, but most dogs and cats can tolerate them.

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 

        8 months ago

        I don't have pets but this information is interesting. I have wondered why the emphasis on non-grain foods for dogs. I wonder how many of my past pets suffered from the ingredients you mentioned here.

      • DrMark1961 profile image

        Dr Mark 

        9 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

        FlourishAnyway, that is very common in veterinary medicine. A popular new anti-allergy drug was approved after only being tested for up to one month, and now dogs are put on it for the rest of their lives.

        (Here is a link if you are interested in reading the article that big pharma put out to tell all vets that it was okay to use )

        The pharma companies claims were so outrageous that even the FDA complained

        The next time you receive advice about the latest miracle cure, a great new drug that you should put your pet on, be skeptical. Your dog or cat has only you to protect his best interests.

      • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

        Bob Bamberg 

        9 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Nice to see you, FlourishAnyway! I agree, but they drew no conclusions from was just an aside, but it caused even more unnecessary concern and confusion among pet owners. Good to have you stop by and comment.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image


        9 months ago from USA

        A sample size of four is shocking to base an announcement on. Scientists should know better.

      • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

        Bob Bamberg 

        9 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Thanks for stopping by, Heidi. I agree with you. It seems that whatever actual or perceived human maladies occur, the same is assumed for our dogs. That's an assumption that may not bode well for dogs because people may make decisions based on the human condition, which may not apply to the dog. Thanks for taking the time to comment, nice to see you.

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        9 months ago from Chicago Area

        Thanks for the information on this hot button topic in the dog community these days!

        In addition to the issues with the atypical cases, I think people are mixing this all up with the gluten-free diet craze for humans. And that's an even more confusing mess! From what I've been able to gather, very few people (like on the order of 1%) actually have Celiac's disease or wheat allergy. So it might be that people just feel better when they eat less breads, pasta, etc. and it's popular to say they have a gluten allergy. Whatever.

        Anyway, thanks for bringing up the discussion. Hope all is good. Have a great day!

      • DrMark1961 profile image

        Dr Mark 

        9 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

        Low 80s this morning (at about 8 am). Still spring, so my dogs are relaxed in the shade and waiting for those "dog days" of summer.

      • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

        Bob Bamberg 

        9 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hi Doc,

        I agree that it's too early to make any changes, which is what I tell customers I talk with about the issue. They just don't have any results proving that potatoes and legumes are the problem. They're just a common thread.

        Grain-free diets are more marketing than science. While some dogs may have digestive or skin issues associated with certain grains, most dogs tolerate them well. And they really aren't fillers...they do have a purpose. They're binders, the starches that help hold the kibble together. In grain-free foods, binders such as peas, potatoes and tapioca are commonly used.

        I think the FDA mentioned taurine as an aside, but pet owners grabbed onto it and expected their dog's food to be supplemented with it. The company I work for has always supplemented with taurine in our dog food formulations because there are breeds that are genetically predisposed to the condition and we want to support them.

        37 degrees F here this morning. Geez, I hate it when that happens. Must be nice and toasty down there in the rain forest. Always great to have you stop by and comment.

      • DrMark1961 profile image

        Dr Mark 

        9 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

        So I am still confused as to what your position is: as a commercial dog food guy, are you with the vets that say that it is too early to make any changes? I feel that these grain free diets are not a lot better than the grain diets since they are still trying to bulk out the dogs diet by using a cheap filler. (A lot of raw feeders do the same thing, searching for cheap fillers to bulk out their dogs diet.)

        The taurine issue is very interesting too. No matter how much research is done, there are a lot of things we still do not know. When a dog food proclaims that it is "100% complete" that is only to say that it is complete at least as far as we know at the time. I think a natural diet that is varied is what most dogs should be eating. (Remember Papillon, and all of the health problems he displayed in the movie from eating the same diet all of those years? An extreme case, and I am not suggesting that dog food is like the filth that he was fed, but the analogy is the same. If a diet is not complete there are going to be problems later on. We just dont know about them all at this point.)

        Interesting reading. I am glad you wrote this.


      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

      Show Details
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
      ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)