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Grain-Free Dog Food – Health Risks, Heart Disease, Nutrition

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Grain-free dog food has been all the rage in recent years. Grain-free dog food diets gained traction after the numerous recalls of pet food from 2007 onward due to melamine contamination from China, according to industry analysts. By the end of 2017, grain-free dog food accounted for almost 44 percent of the dog food market, bringing in close to $2.8 billion in sales.

A few months ago, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it was investigation a link between grain-free dog food diets and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a common type of canine heart disease. The condition weakens the heart, causing it to enlarge. This can cause several symptoms:

  • fainting
  • fatigue
  • difficulty breathing
  • coughing
  • heart failure

Grain-free dog food is filled with exotic proteins, heavily favoring legumes. It is not uncommon to see lentils, sweet potatoes, chickpeas and bison on the ingredients list, rather than meat protein sources. The carbs in these ingredients replace the ones found in grains. They are promoted as being more nutritious and closer to protein-rich diets than typical grain-based dog foods.

The curious connection found by the FDA, however, is that more dog breeds are being diagnosed with heart failure – even those that are not generally genetically predisposed to the condition. Large breeds like Great Danes, Doberman Pinschers and boxers are commonly ailed by DCM, but the CVCA, a practice of 19 veterinary cardiologist in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, along with other veterinary cardiologists in several other areas, stated that they have been seeing a rise in DCM in other breeds such as Dachshunds, Minature Schnauzers, Labs, Golden Retrievers, Shih Tzus adn Doodle mixes. All of these dogs had a common denominator – they were fed diets heavy in peas, potatoes, lentils and chickpeas.

However, there are no recalls as yet and millions of dog have been happily eating the grain-free dog food without symptoms or illnesses. “Don’t panic,” said Martine Hartogensis, a veterinarian who is deputy director for the Office of Surveillance and Compliance in the F.D.A.’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. The number of patients so far is small, they caution. But the CVCA states that they are seeing 8 to 12 new DCM cases a month that are not associated with genetics of the breed.

Researchers are currently unable to determine why these diets may be problematic — whether it’s the absence of grains, the presence of legumes or something else. Some researchers have determined that there may be a link with low levels of taurine in the newly affected breeds such as golden retrievers. The legumes may interfere with these dogs’ ability to make or absorb taurine. But the puzzling aspect of this theory is that other affected dogs (including mixed breeds) have normal taurine levels. Some veterinary experts recommend that owners with dogs on grain-free dog food diets watch for early signs of heart disease, including weakness and fainting.

Like this article? Check out our other article on Feeding your dog a Raw Diet.


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