As a pet owner, it’s understandable that you want to feed the best possible food to your beloved companion. But, with so much money spent on pet food marketing, it can be a challenge to weed through the claims and determine what food is best. All too often, pet food trends follow the latest trends in the human diet world, with such diets as vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and keto quickly gaining popularity. But, are those diets healthy for your pet?

Unfortunately, many small pet food manufacturers do not have board-certified veterinary nutritionists on staff to determine appropriate ingredients and ratios for their products. Quite a few of these manufacturers jump on the bandwagon to make a quick buck, often at the expense of your pet’s health. What’s the latest craze in pet food? The grain-free diet.


Why are grain-free diets so popular?

Grain-free diets quickly grew in popularity after the belief spread that grains were linked to causing allergies in pets. In reality, food allergies in pets are uncommon, and, if a pet is sensitive to a food ingredient, it’s usually the protein source, not the grains. Rarely do pets develop an intolerance to grains.

The best way to determine if your pet has a food allergy is to conduct a food trial. For 12 weeks, your pet is fed nothing but a food with a novel protein source to determine her response to the food, slowly eliminating the proteins that cause a reaction.

If you have switched to a grain-free food and your pet’s allergy symptoms seem to be better you may be wondering why. If you were feeding your dog a low-quality food, especially one with food coloring, chances are good that switching to a food that doesn’t include some of those ingredients—even if it’s grain-free—would mitigate food intolerance issues.


Are grain-free diets good for dogs?

While some grain-free foods may not include food coloring and other additives, that doesn’t necessarily mean they come without their own risks. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an alert to veterinarians about an increase in cases of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs on grain-free diets.

DCM is a fairly common disease that affects the heart in cats and certain dog breeds. Dogs on grain-free diets are showing an increased prevalence of DCM, even in breeds not usually prone to the disease. DCM is much more common in large-breed dogs but is now appearing in smaller breeds. Speculation is circulating about grain-free foods being deficient in taurine, an important amino acid found in animal protein. But, many grain-free foods contain adequate levels of taurine, so the missing link is being researched by the FDA and researchers at the University of California, Davis. This missing link may provide information as to why taurine is unable to be absorbed and used by dogs, even though their food contains appropriate levels.

While studies are underway and more research is needed, some non-grain food sources that researchers believe may be blocking taurine include:

  • Lentils
  • Peas
  • Fava beans
  • Tapioca
  • Barley
  • Chickpeas

Smaller, “boutique” manufacturers without the backing of nutritionists and extensive food trials could also be contributing to the rise in DCM cases. When companies don’t have the nutritional knowledge or quality control to ensure that all nutrients are at the correct minimum levels, deficiencies could occur and contribute to DCM.


How should you choose your pet’s food?

With all the confusion surrounding pet food, there are at least some steps you can take to ensure the health of your pet:

  1. Assess the reason you are feeding a certain food. Does your dog have a proven grain allergy based on a food trial? If not, consider switching to a food with more traditional ingredients.
  2. Choose a food based on rigorous quality control standards and sound nutritional research, instead of flashy marketing gimmicks. A few manufacturers that conduct food trials and research with veterinary nutritionists on staff include Purina Pro Plan, Royal Canin, Science Diet, and others.
  3. If you’ve been feeding your canine companion a grain-free diet, watch for signs of heart disease:
  • Weakness
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Fainting

During a physical examination, we may pick up a heart murmur or abnormal rhythm and recommend additional testing. If your pet has been on a grain-free diet, scheduling a cardiac work-up with taurine testing is recommended.

  1. If you plan to switch your pet’s food, be sure to introduce the new food slowly over the course of a week to prevent gastrointestinal upset.
  2. Contact us with any questions regarding your pet’s food and nutrition.


Need help figuring out what to feed your pet? Give us a call at 203-748-8878 to discuss nutritional options for your furry friend.