In the recent past, there has been tremendous and fairly ingenious marketing by various pet food companies that has promoted the (incorrect) idea that grain free diets are healthier for dogs. Not only has this led to a boom in sales for smaller "boutique" brands like Acana and Zignature, but it has successfully cast the larger, veterinary-supported brands like Royal Canin as somehow "bad" because grains are included in most if not all of their diets. Even more frustrating, Blue Buffalo led the charge with commercials suggesting that your veterinarian knows less about diet than the cashier at your local PetCo or your dog trainer. Everyone wants to make money, and these smaller brands (although Blue Buffalo is now owned by General Mills, and Taste of the Wild is owned by Diamond foods, for example) are no exception. The grain-free push has, by and large, been an extremely successful and lucrative marketing ploy.
Dogs are omnivores; grains are not new or unusual for them to eat. Interestingly, most diets that purport the evils of grains include potatoes, peas, or legumes as a substitute, and all of these ingredients would actually be less likely than corn or wheat to be ingested by wolves or wild-ranging dogs. Furthermore, most food-allergic dogs are not allergic to the grains (although they can be); chicken, beef, and lamb are more likely to be the culprits of skin disease and GI intolerance.
Dogs are not wolves any more than we humans are chimpanzees. We do not have the ability to digest the forage that makes up the majority of the diet of our closest genetic relatives. Dogs similarly should not eat like wolves. Canis familiaris as a species has evolved to eat the refuse of human settlements; their evolutionary history includes scavenging around the dumps at the outskirts of towns, meaning that they have always ingested grains along with meats and other (less savory) ingredients. (See the amazing book by Raymond Coppinger - Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution for more information on the evolution of domestic dogs.)
Veterinarians have, as a whole, been neutral (at least in public) about the grain-free trend. We assumed that, besides making dogs fat and sometimes anxious (higher protein levels decrease serotonin absorption), there wasn't a lot of harm to these diets, except to the owner's pocket book. Because most of the diets are AAFCO approved, it was everyone's assumption that they contained the necessary nutrients for overall health. This is a case of deja vu: in the early 1980's, we didn't know that cats need extra taurine in their food, and dilated cardiomyopathy was the most common heart disease in that species. It took everyone a while to dial in the why and then to determine the solution to the problem (added taurine).
In dogs, it isn't such a simple solution because they are able to produce their own taurine from other amino acids, and most dogs with DCM due (we think) to diet, do not have low taurine levels. The cardiologists following their disease initially suspected that this issue was diet-related because the heart function (measured by contractility) improved with a change of diet (and only with a change of diet). Ergo, something about the feeding of the so-called "BEG" diets (boutique, exotic, and grain free) seemed to be correlated with DCM in dogs. While certain breeds of dogs are usually prone to DCM regardless of diet (doberman pinschers, boxers, and great danes), even small breeds like schnauzers and shih tzus, in which DCM is very unusual, are being diagnosed. Golden retrievers also seem to be particularly prone to this type of dietary DCM, and for right now, we have no idea why.
The “grain-free" dog food companies have fired back at the FDA and veterinary community, claiming that: a) it's all a big conspiracy theory funded by the likes of Purina and Hills and b) veterinarians know nothing about nutrition. I'd like to dispel those myths.
a) The FDA has nothing to do with these findings beyond reporting observations and allowing people to do their own due diligence. What the FDA has revealed is not a scientific study and doesn't pretend to be one. Neither the FDA nor the researchers have yet claimed causation. The veterinary cardiologists merely reported correlation when they started putting 2 and 2 together (for a better look at correlation vs. causation, see https://www.iperceptions.com/blog/causation-vs-correlation.) There is no conspiracy theory here. (Believe me that so far the discovery of this correlation has not been a picnic for vets, most of whom are fielding dozens of emails a day from panicking clients who are worried about their pets. We would love to find out all this was a big false alarm, but we aren't holding our collective breath).
b.) Most general practitioner veterinarians have had at least a semester long class in nutrition in veterinary school, and that training continues on the job. When a client feeds a pet an inappropriate diet or chew toy, we are there to help fix the problems, whether that is a bacterial overgrowth in the gut, a bone stuck across the top of the mouth, a fractured tooth, or a bendy jaw or electrolyte disturbances. That is my job. I need to be able to identify problems and find solutions...and I might need to flip through my textbooks, search the veterinary information network (full of specialists who can answer my questions) or call local specialists to get there.
I will be the first to admit that I do not know how to formulate diets. I also do not know how to do a TPLO or repair a fractured spine. In veterinary medicine, we would all be doomed if we did not listen to our colleagues whose entire job revolves around one specialty, and luckily we have this boarded specialty in our field called "veterinary nutrition." These are folks who have a DVM and have completed a 3-year residency after vet school in nutrition. They are the ones with the deep understanding of domestic animal nutrition, and they are saying there is a problem with the way some of these diets are formulated. Veterinary cardiologists (again, 3-4 years of residency training after veterinary school) are saying there is a problem with the hearts of dogs fed these diets. For the well-being of my patients, I believe these specialists, and I think that Taste of the Wild, Acana, Blue, and all the other brands implicated in this issue ought to listen to them as well.
All that said, as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy wisely advises us: don't panic. While I do believe that the currently reported cases are the tip of the iceberg, and that much more information has yet to come to light, I also know that there are likely millions of dogs on these diets with less than a thousand currently reported cases. Dilated cardiomyopathy does not occur overnight. It takes years. So, you have time to finish that bag of dog food, read the links below, talk to your vet, and decide for yourself whether the risk seems real enough to switch your dog's food. I urge you to read everything with a critical mindset. Call your dog food company and ask them what they are doing to investigate this issue. Ask if they have a boarded veterinary nutritionist on staff. Ask if they are conducting long-term feeding trials. If you get the sense they are defensive and brushing this issue aside, ask yourself whether you want to support a company that values its bottom line over the health of the animals that they are supposedly helping.
Here's the crux of the issue, guys: I am fielding texts from friends, emails from clients, facebook messages from family, and phone calls multiple times a day and everyone wants to know the same thing: what should I feed my dog? And the problem with that is that there is really no one correct answer. I can tell you that I am currently recommending Royal Canin and Purina Proplan to friends, family, and clients. For me, it matters that those brands have a veterinary nutritionist full-time on staff. I like it that they conduct feeding trials and make sure that dogs not only like the taste of the food but also thrive on it long term. I can also tell you that I, although many of my colleagues would disagree, believe that a home cooked diet balanced by a veterinary nutritionist and alternating various ingredients is always going to be better than any of the kibbles out there. But most people (including myself!) don’t have the time, inclination, or money to make that happen in a safe and thorough manner. (If you are one of the few who do, please make sure the diet is balanced - www.balanceit.com is a great place to start). Most vets have seen the consequences of an imbalanced home made diet, and it isn’t pretty (imagine a jaw that bends with light manual pressure - yep, seen it!).
I feed my dogs Purina Proplan Bright Mind 7+ years large breed. Other veterinarians I'm sure make other equally valid choices, but I will tell you that most of us feed one of the "big 5": Royal Canin, Purina Proplan, Eukanuba, Hills, or Science Diet. We are scientists, and we like the science behind these brands. We like the transparency of the companies, and how they take responsibility if there is an issue with their foods. We are not "bought" by these brands; in fact, most clinics make very little on the markup. I haven't gotten any free dog/cat food or perks since vet school 14 years ago!
When you text, email, or call the clinic asking about the FDA announcement, and which food to feed, the answer invariably is: it depends. What is your budget? How do you feel about those bigger companies and are you open to new information or do you still firmly believe that grains are bad for dogs? Is your dog overweight? Does he have medical conditions or concerns that make you reluctant to switch diets? Does she seem to vomit when she eats chicken and you are worried that changing her diet will start up all those puppyhood GI issues again?
If the above recommendations (Purina Proplan, Royal Canin, and Eukanuba) aren't what you are looking for when you ask what diet to feed, please make an appointment by calling us at 541.306.6991 so that we can review your pet's clinical history, listen to your concerns, and discuss more specific options. These recommendations may well change as further information comes out, but right now, we are playing it as safe as possible. Remember, we (vets) and you (pet parents/owners/guardians) are very much on the same team in terms of what we want for your pet: a long, healthy life with no preventable diseases.
See the links below to look into all this further:
First peer reviewed study published on this association:
How to choose a diet: