The Scoop on Grain-free Diets

by Meghan Vos

Chances are, at some point over the past two years you’ve seen something about grain-free diets on social media or even the news. Much of this information is conflicting and can be difficult to interpret, so hopefully this article sheds some light on it for you. 

In 2018, the FDA announced that it would investigate a potential link between grain-free dog foods and Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). DCM causes the heart muscle to become diseased and results in an enlarged heart that cannot pump efficiently. It is irreversible and often fatal. While DCM can be genetic, veterinarians began seeing a significant uptick in non-hereditary cases in dogs fed grain-free diets. 

The findings show that these diets are not a problem simply because they are grain-free, but actually because of higher proportions of certain ingredients in grain-free diets than in grain-inclusive diets. Diets containing peas, lentils, white potatoes, or sweet potatoes in various forms such as whole, flour, or protein within the first 10 ingredients are a concern. The studies are ongoing but the thought is that diets formulated in this way do not contain enough taurine and/or could prevent the body from absorbing it. Taurine is an essential nutrient obtained directly or indirectly from the diet. It is important for a variety of reasons, but especially in smooth muscle function, with the heart being the most important smooth muscle in the body. Dogs are able to make their own taurine if the diet contains certain key amino acids from meat proteins, but plant-based proteins such as peas, beans, and potatoes lack these amino acids. 

While the studies are ongoing, we typically recommend staying away from grain-free diets, using a “better safe than sorry” approach. If your pet is on a grain-free diet, look at the ingredient panel to ensure that there are no beans, peas, or potatoes listed in the first ten ingredients. If you are considering a switch, reach out to your veterinarian for recommendations on high quality, grain-inclusive options that will help your pet live a long and healthy life.