It’s not the lack of grain in grain-free dog food that is cause for concern, but the use of the inferior ingredients that replace it.
Finding the “right” food for your dog these days can be something like playing Russian roulette. With a new scare or recall almost every month, some pet owners advocate going back to the good old days when dogs were fed mostly table scraps mixed with a bit of kibble or some rice. That approach has problems too, however, because human food is now so much more processed than it was back then, so it doesn’t really provide a solution for healthy nutrition into the dog’s senior years.
Dog owners are bombarded regularly with information about the harm being done by certain types of dog food. Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs has become synonymous with grain-free dog foods, which not long ago were considered the best food for dogs with hip and joint problems.
So how did we go from feeding grain-free to solve one problem to believing it to be the cause of a completely different condition? Here’s what you need to know about the canine DCM debate.
The original FDA alert describes canine DCM as a condition that causes the dog’s heart muscle to become dilated. The enlargement of the heart and its chambers makes it harder for the blood to pump through effectively, which causes fluids to build up in the chest and abdomen. The pressure of the fluids causes the valves to leak, and the whole process results in congestive heart failure.
Some breeds are more likely to develop this condition because of their genetic makeup, too. The list of breeds highly susceptible to DCM includes large and giant breeds, as well as the smaller American and English Cocker Spaniels, although cases have been seen in multiple other pure- and mixed-breed dogs.
Many of the symptoms of DCM are believed to simply be normal aging, so owners don’t always realize their dog has the condition until it’s fairly advanced. Reduced energy levels, lethargy, rapid breathing or shortness of breath, for example, often go hand-in-hand with obesity, but these can all be signs of DCM. If a dog has an ongoing cough, episodes of collapse or a chronic loss of appetite in addition to any of the other symptoms, it’s worth checking the ingredients in the food he eats.
With all the hype surrounding the DCM issue, it’s often difficult to convince pet owners that it’s not the lack of grain in grain-free dog food that causes the problem. It’s the ingredients used to replace the grain that are the cause of concern.
That doesn’t mean a diet high in grain is faultless, however. Grain has been shown to cause digestive difficulties for dogs, whose systems aren’t optimized for metabolizing the complex carbohydrates used in large quantities as fillers in commercial dog food. The fibers and grains remain undigested, and only get broken down with fermentation. Over time, this can cause inflammatory bowel problems, dog food allergies, obesity, bone and joint problems, and leaky gut syndrome.
Many grain-free dog food diets replace the wheat and corn traditionally used with potatoes or legumes, such as peas, lentils and other pulses. In low-cost foods, these are often high on the list of ingredients, which means they are present in larger quantities than other items. When dogs consistently eat these foods for several years, they simply aren’t getting the nutrition they need to stay healthy.
Treatment of dogs with DCM showed that many responded well to supplements of taurine, which is necessary for strong heart function, retinal and reproductive health. This led veterinarians to conclude that the same grain-free diets that are high in filler content don’t contain enough protein to result in good taurine production, which essentially results in a taurine deficiency in dogs. So, once again, it’s not the lack of grain that’s causing the problem, but the other changes to the food content that are typical in grain-free foods.
As in everything, moderation is the best practice, and the best way to achieve a balanced dog diet is by feeding a combination of everything in small quantities. Ideally, you shouldn’t feed any dog the same food every day for years at a stretch. For one thing, commercial food manufacturers use the same mix of ingredients constantly, which means any excess or deficiency gets compounded. People who promote home-prepared dog food diets suggest that a variety of ingredients over a week or more provides the best form of balance, rather than trying to balance every meal perfectly, but even this requires careful planning—much like feeding humans does.
If cooking for your dog is out of the question, don’t despair. Your veterinarian will be able to help you determine whether your dog will actually benefit from a grain-free dog food diet, or if you can ignore the hype and go on feeding him or her wheat and corn in moderate quantities. Whatever type of commercial food you use, opt for one which has real meat, chicken or fish as the first ingredient on the list. If the label says “chicken and rice,” but the first few ingredients are pea protein, chicken by-products, and other items that sound remotely like food, you’re not looking at a high-quality product.
Identify several good quality commercial kibbles and use them interchangeably. This helps you to avoid falling into the single-food trap. Always discuss dietary changes with your veterinarian before making them, and support any specific conditions your dog has with natural hip and joint remedies for dogs.