Going Against the Grain

You may have noticed quite a bit of coverage about grain-free dog food diets in the media of late. Many so-called ‘boutique’ and ‘exotic’ brands have come under scrutiny due to the potential health risks associated with their product.

As usual with matters like this, opinions weigh in fast and heavy with many scientists, veterinarians and lobbyists going into overdrive to help manage the brand backlash.

All of this noise can make it difficult for paw-rents to determine what the facts are. And as most of you know - between us we're nerdy, independent and completely dog-centric, so here's our take on the issue!

The Problem:

Interest was sparked back in July this year, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert warning pet owners  about potential links between grain-free dog foods and canine-dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a disease of the dog’s heart muscle. The fact that such an alert was issued is significant in itself, bearing in mind it has taken months and even years for similar alerts to be issued for other health scares.

What is DCM?

DCM is a primary disease of the heart muscle, resulting in weakened contractions and poor blood-pumping ability. The heart chambers become dysfunctional, reducing the amount of blood the heart sends out to the body as well as the amount of blood that enters the heart.

Eventually, the body’s organs (such as the kidneys) become damaged from the lack of blood and oxygen supply, fluid can accumulate in the lungs and total heart failure can occur. Symptoms can include:

  • Rapid and excessive breathing and shortness of breath
  • Coughing (due to build-up of fluid on the lungs)
  • Weakness and lethargy
  • Inability or unwillingness to participate in exercise
  • Abdominal distension
  • Fainting spells and loss of consciousness
  • Heart failure-death from irregular heart rhythm without any previous symptoms

Unfortunately, there is no cure for DCM. While diet has been shown to result in improvements, most dogs will pass within about 2 years of diagnosis.

DCM has a primarily genetic component, usually presenting between the ages of 4-10 and most commonly affecting Cocker Spaniels, pure-breeds and larger breeds, particularly:

  • Irish Wolfhounds
  • Great Danes
  • Doberman Pinschers
  • Boxers
  • Newfoundlands
  • Dalmatians

What prompted the FDA to issue their alert was a significant increase in incidences of DCM in smaller, medium and mixed-breed dogs in recent years - in unheard of proportions. Reports of DCM affecting Shih Tzus, Bulldogs, Whippets, Retrievers and Miniature Schnauzers abounded. What became apparent was there was one common thread: these dogs were being fed boutique, grain-free pet foods.

Taking this one step further: if we look at a similar incidence of DCM in cats in the late 1980's, this was eventually linked to taurine deficiency. Interestingly, studies have shown that increasing taurine intake in dogs with DCM has decreased the severity of their illness...!

So what Are ‘Grain-Free’ Dog Foods Anyway?

The ‘grain-free’ dog-food trend and the aggressive marketing around it is a relatively recent concept. It’s been an exercise in harnessing the concerns of health conscious paw-rents and selling food based on these concerns.

It can almost certainly be traced back to the 2007 pet-food recalls, when wheat gluten contaminated with melamine caused the deaths of thousands of dogs and cats across the world. This scandal brought attention to how manufacturers were artificially boosting the protein content and bulk of their products by adding cheap fillers, such as grains. Awareness was also growing about how nutritionally useless these carbohydrates are to our canine companions.

We had realised that grains and carbohydrates were not a healthy choice and a likely contributor to the growing obesity epidemic and rise in allergies.

So we, as consumers, demanded change: and we got it.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the change we needed for our pups.

Out went barley, wheat, spelt, rye, corn and wheat.

In came peas, lentils, potatoes, legumes, chickpeas and other seeds.

Named ‘grain-free’ and packaged in a boutique style, they sought to reassure us we were making a better choice for our pets. You see, grains, per se, were never really the issue. Grains are cheap fillers that add bulk to commercial pet foods.

So rather than having cheap grain fillers, instead now we had... cheap fillers that add bulk to commercial pet foods (they just happened to be version that at this stage were viewed in people-food terms as relatively healthy!).

The real problem would be more accurately described as soluble carbohydrates.

Whether from grains or non-grain sources, these starches have no role to play in a healthy canine diet. From a biological standpoint, their bodies are simply not designed to process them. Nutritionally, they provide nothing of value (and the FDA is investigating whether they may actually be doing harm by impacting the way dogs bodies absorb nutrients). The manufacturers simply switched ingredients and told us this was a better way. 

So How Do I Avoid Grain-Free Dog Food?

Well, the good news is - if you’re reading this, you probably already are!

A fresh, clean, raw diet is always going to be the best choice you can make.

All the various terminologies, the cute packaging, the ‘experts’ wheeled in to discuss the benefits of ‘grain-free’, ‘organic’, ‘science’ …diets. It just creates confusion - as it’s meant to.

It distracts pet parents from the real issues.

It has people agonising over which brand or variant of commercial food they should choose. This is akin to you or I stressing over which menu item from McDonald’s we should eat every day for the rest of our lives to stay healthy - it’s all the same.

And they don’t care which one you choose - it’s all from their menu.

So please stop stressing over all these options - take a moment to sit down and read what's actually in your dog's food. And yes, it might be a bit of a shock but it will be one of the most important things you ever do for them.


Note: since researching and writing this blog, we have also become aware of a class action suit being filed against manufacturers of Taste of the Wild dog food (a premium food readily available in Australia). While we are only aware of summary facts - it is alleged that the company knowingly included ingredients in their food that were contaminated by heavy metals (incl. arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium), pesticides, BPAs and acrylamide. If you'd like to read more on this please refer here.

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