Concerns about FDA grain-free dog food warning best addressed by your local veterinarian

Published: July 11, 2019
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The recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration warning about a possible link between increasingly popular grain-free foods for dogs and a heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, has dog owners across Alabama and the nation taking a closer look at their options while searching the pet food aisles in their favorite stores.

Grain-free foods have grown exponentially in popularity in recent years, accounting for just 15 percent of pet food sold in the U.S. in 2007 while increasing to almost 50 percent today. In fact, more than half of new dog foods introduced today are grain-free, so the market continues to expand, with Americans spending more than $30 billion annually to provide their pets with what they hope is a healthier diet.

The burgeoning increase in grain-free options is part of an ongoing trend in which owners seek to apply their own ideas of a healthy human diet on the foods they choose for their pets, notes veterinarian Dr. Christopher Lea, an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences of the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine. As gluten-free human diets have become increasingly popular as a health fad among owners, many have assumed that grain-free diets would also benefit their pets.

It now appears, however, that the opposite may be the case. “Such diets are most often unnecessary,” Lea explains. “Medically speaking, it is very rare for a dog to require a grain-free diet. Only in cases where an animal showed an adverse reaction to grains, which is highly unusual, would it be likely that such a diet would be prescribed.”

Adding to the fact that such diets are not often medically advisable, the FDA recently provided an updated status report in its ongoing investigation into possible links between grain-free pet foods and DCM, a disease that results in an enlarged heart muscle and can lead to congestive heart failure.

While a number of dog breeds are more genetically prone to increased rates of DCM—especially large dogs such as Great Danes, Doberman pinschers and boxers—the FDA became involved in 2018 when veterinarians began reporting an unusual increase in the number of cases of DCM in other breeds without a genetic predisposition to the disease. To date, the FDA has received accounts of more than 500 cases of DCM in breeds not normally associated with the illness. Further study has revealed that the large majority of these cases were in dogs fed grain-free diets.

In its most recent update, the FDA named 16 popular dog food brands that might be linked to increased risk of DCM, but stressed that further research is needed to understand exactly what that link might be. One possible culprit is the significantly increased use of legumes such as peas, beans, lentils, soybeans and peanuts in grain-free foods as a substitute for traditionally utilized grains like wheat and corn, but both the FDA and Auburn’s Lea stressed that more research is needed before a definite answer is known.

In the meantime, Lea said pet owners can be more proactive in ensuring their dogs are getting a nutritious diet appropriate to their age and health needs. “First, always purchase pet food that is manufactured by a reputable company that has a nutritionist on staff that can answer your questions,” he advises. “And look for a statement on the bag that says the food follows guidelines set by the Association of American Food Control Officials.” AAFCO is a voluntary membership association of local, state and federal agencies which regulates the sale of animal feeds and drugs.

“Second, and I can’t emphasize this enough,” Lea adds, “discuss your pet’s specific nutrition needs with your veterinarian. You can do that any time you have concerns, but the annual checkup visit is a great time to bring up questions about your pet’s diet as a part of its overall health. Every dog is different and no one can give you better nutritional advice tailored to your individual pet.”

The College of Veterinary Medicine is the South's original and nation's seventh oldest veterinary medical program, celebrating 126 years. We prepare individuals for careers of excellence in veterinary medicine, including private and public practice, industrial medicine, academics, and research. The college provides programs of instruction, research, outreach, and service that are in the best interests of the citizens of the state of Alabama, the region, the nation, and the world.