Grain Free: Is This the New Enemy?

Posted on Aug 12th, 2019, 01:23 PM America/Los_Angeles


By Dr. River May

                Grain Free and exotic protein pet foods have recently come under scrutiny after FDA reports of association with heart disease known as Nutritionally Mediated Dilated Cardiomyopathy.   Are you now confused and worried?   You’re not alone!  As usual there are many conflicting opinions.   Pet food manufacturers haven’t made this any easier as they focus on marketing trends that don’t necessarily agree with the science behind animal nutrition.   This article hopes to allay some of your worries and provide practical advice. 

Why do many health issues improve when pets are fed grain free foods?

Dogs and Cats are able to digest grains as part of a healthy balanced diet with rare exceptions.   Unfortunately, grain free diets have gained a reputation as the cure all to many pet health problems. Pet food manufacturers have capitalized on this misunderstanding by marketing grain free diets with costs 3-4 times their alternatives containing grain.   However, grain free diets do help many pets with a variety of medical problems. So how can we explain this correlation?   A postulate of statistical analysis essential to the understanding and resolution of any problem is, “Correlation does not equal Causation”!  It turns out to be proteins, rather than grains, that are the major influencers.  Traditional diets containing grain often have multiple protein sources (ie beef, chicken, turkey, fish).  In contrast, many grain free foods are formulated with single protein sources or an exotic type of protein such as rabbit, venison, or kangaroo.   This reduces the risk of inflammatory conditions.  In addition, grain free diets contain a higher Protein:Carbohydrate ratio, which results in healthier weight and more energy.  In summary, we often see a positive response to grain free diets despite the fact that the lack of grain is not responsible.  

So if my pet seems healthier when I feed grain free food, what’s the problem?

A risk of feeding grain free food is the development a life threatening form of heart disease known as dilated cardiomyopathy.  Untreated, this may lead to; slowing down on walks, inappetence, lethargy, abnormal breathing, weight gain, fainting, or coughing.   Any of these symptoms should prompt rapid evaluation.   Your Veterinarian will perform a complete physical exam.  If your pet has dilated cardiomyopathy, they may detect; a new heart murmur, abnormal rhythm, irregular pulses or fluid buildup.  A lack of symptoms won’t completely rule out heart disease.   An echocardiogram (ultrasound) is the only definitive way to diagnose this problem.   X-rays and blood testing may also be used to screen for complications.

In the meantime, what’s the best type of food to feed our family pets?

If your pet has been eating grain free food; the safest option is to make an appointment with your veterinarian for an exam and consultation.  Transitioning to a diet containing grain will likely be all that is recommended.   If there is a medical reason a grain free diet was recommended, I usually suggest selecting a new diet containing the same type of protein but that also contains grain.  For example, if your pet is currently eating a chicken and green pea diet; select a diet that contains only chicken as the protein but also contains a grain such as barley, rice, or oats.   Rest assured, there is no evidence to suggest pets need to eat more than one type of protein.  In fact, some studies have shown pets live longer if they eat fewer types of protein.   Nutritional Dilated Cardiomyopathy takes a long time (likely longer than 6 months) to develop.  Therefore, diet changes can be made gradually.   A gradual transition over a course of 2 weeks is ideal.  Start by adding a few kibbles of the new diet to each meal for a few days.  Slowly increase the amount new food, while decreasing an equal amount of old food, so your pet is eating 100% of the new diet after a couple of weeks. 

What can be done if my pet is diagnosed with Nutritionally Mediated Dilated Cardiomyopathy? 

Fortunately this type of heart disease can be treated and often cured.   A transition to a diet containing grain and diet supplements are recommended.   Your veterinarian will run some blood tests and monitor by repeating echocardiograms.  Medications may be indicated to decrease abnormal heart rhythms and to treat symptoms of heart failure.  With proper treatment, heart disease will usually resolve within 6-12 months. 

What is in grain free food that causes dilated cardiomyopathy?

There is still a lot we don’t know.  The majority of grain free foods that are associated with dilated cardiomyopathy contain some type of legume such as green peas or lentils.   However, grain free diets containing other types of carbohydrates (i.e. potatoes) are also implicated.  The problem may be lack a particular micro-nutrient or the effect of an ingredient on a patient’s ability to absorb nutrients.   I’m confident the answers to these questions will come from the many dedicated veterinarians and nutritional scientists currently working on the problem.   In the meantime, almost all pets can thrive on a diet containing grain.   The silver lining is that diets containing grain are less expensive and more readily available!   Talk to your veterinarian about the diet that is best for your four legged family members. 


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