Is Grain-Free Food Bad For My Dog?

And what it has to do with his heart health ❤️

grain free dog food

You might’ve heard a lot of hype around grain-free dog food being good for your pup, but it turns out it’s not the best diet for most dogs.

Grain-free dog food is actually intended for pets with a grain allergy or intolerance, which isn’t a problem for most dogs.

And since it’s been linked to heart disease, a regular diet of grain-free food can potentially do more harm than good.

We spoke with Dr. Cristina Bustamante, an associate veterinarian with Caring Hands Animal Hospital in Florida and founder of Dr. B. Vet, to find out exactly why grain-free dog food diets can be bad for most dogs.

Grain-free vs. dog food with grains

Grain-free is a dog diet trend that plays into the concerns of health-conscious pet parents, with grain-free food options often being presented as a healthier alternative to their grain-containing counterparts.

Dog food with grains included, however, is actually recommended by most vets for dogs who don’t have grain allergies, since they make a dog’s diet well-balanced.

“As a veterinarian, I recommend that dogs eat diets that contain grains,” Dr. Bustamante told The Dodo. “Science has shown that dogs should have grains in their diets and that they can digest them well. In fact, when pets have an upset stomach, giving them boiled rice or pasta can help their symptoms!”

The only pups who shouldn’t have grains in their diets are those with an allergy or food intolerance to grains. But, an allergy or intolerance to grains is actually pretty rare in dogs.

“It is extremely unlikely that your pet is intolerant to grains,” Dr. Bustamante said. “Grain intolerance would have to be diagnosed by a specialist after ruling out other more common causes of gastrointestinal problems.”

If your dog does have a grain intolerance or sensitivity, a vet can help you find the right commercial diet or direct you to a veterinary nutritionist.

Benefits of grains for dogs

A diet with grains includes a bunch of nutrients that are good for your pup, like:

  • Carbohydrates that boost energy and are highly digestible
  • Fiber
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Protein

Why the hype around grain-free dog food?

Grain-free food became popular because a lot of pet parents believed all dogs simply can’t digest grains. But according to Dr. Bustamante, that’s just not true.

“Many companies advertise the popular myth that dogs should be fed as wolves and that dogs are unable to digest grains,” Dr. Bustamante said. “Evolutionarily, one of the biggest genetic differences between dogs and wolves is that dogs can digest starch (which is found in grains).”

Plus many testimonials (that have been spread throughout the pet-parenting community and amplified by dog food marketing companies) say it’s helped pups with certain health problems.

However, the lack of grains might not have actually been the element that made the difference.

“Many blogs, influencers and dog lovers will state that their dog had gastrointestinal problems, allergies and skin problems, and when they changed the diet to a grain-free diet, their problems resolved,” Dr. Bustamante said. “In reality, what probably happened is that they changed the type of protein.”

For example, chicken is a pretty common protein in most grain-containing dog foods, whereas grain-free options seem to have more protein choices, like duck, lamb, salmon and rabbit. Believe it or not, chicken sensitivities or allergies are actually pretty common in dogs and can cause gastrointestinal or skin issues when they eat any food with that protein.

So a lot of those impressive reviews from pet parents about grain-free food might mistakenly cite the lack of grains as the miracle worker, when they just didn’t realize their pups were allergic to the protein they were eating before.

“The public is very passionate about feeding dogs grain-free diets and make it seem as if it is something controversial, a secret that only good pet parents know,” Dr. Bustamante said. “In my opinion, this is due to advertisements at pet stores, TV and social media, because it is not really controversial within the scientific community.”

How is grain-free dog food bad?

Even though grain-free dog food is marketed as the healthy choice, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) noticed dogs on these diets were developing heart conditions.

“In 2018, the FDA issued a public announcement that they are investigating a relation between grain-free diets and heart problems in dogs,” Dr. Bustamante said. “There are studies being performed to identify specifically what aspect of grain-free diets are causing health problems in dogs.”

Scientists haven’t quite nailed down what exactly it is about a grain-free diet that’s causing these issues, however.

“Most grain-free diets contain a greater proportion of certain ingredients, such as peas, lentils and potatoes, that other types of (grain-containing) dog food do not contain,” Dr. Bustamante said. “Scientists are investigating if the health problems are being caused by greater proportions of these ingredients in the diets or because of [the] lack of grains.”

Dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs

Researchers aiding in the FDA’s investigation have found that a lot of dogs on grain-free diets have developed a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, which can be pretty serious.

“Dilated cardiomyopathy [DCM] is a heart condition where the heart is too large,” Dr. Bustamante said. “DCM is a condition in which the heart muscle becomes weak and the heart chambers become too wide and large, which makes the heart unable to pump blood appropriately, which leads to problems such as collapse, coughing and even heart failure.”

Breeds like boxers and Dobermans are genetically predisposed to dilated cardiomyopathy. But lately, more and more breeds that aren’t predisposed have been getting diagnosed, according to Dr. Bustamante — and the common factor seems to be grain-free diets.

“In recent years, veterinarians have diagnosed [DCM] in other breeds that were not found to have this condition before,” Dr. Bustamante said. “When studying the history of these pets, it has been found that there is a combination of similarities between cases which include grain-free diets.”

The connection seems even more apparent considering that some dogs’ conditions get better when they’re taken off grain-free diets.

“Interestingly, when they have started giving different diets to these dogs, their condition improves, which is very, very rare in dogs with heart problems,” Dr. Bustamante said.

Recent study calls into question the link between DCM and grain-free food

It’s important to note that 100Reporters conducted a six-month study into the FDA’s investigation into grain-free dog food and found that reports submitted to the administration might be biased, because some vets who submitted DCM reports may have financial conflicts of interest.

Three veterinarians who reported DCM cases have previously worked on studies funded by big pet food companies as well as charities linked to those companies.

The FDA’s investigation into the link between grain-free dog food and DCM definitely impacted the sale of grain-free pet foods, but it’s hard to say whether or not that was the goal of the vets submitting the DCM reports, especially since the pet food companies that fund these vets’ studies also have grain-free options.

Best dog food with grains

To find the best dog food that has grains in it, your safest option is to consult your vet. Since they know all about your pup’s medical history and food sensitivities, they’ll be able to recommend the right food with the right protein.

There are a bunch of brands that vets really trust and recommend to their patients all the time, and their dog foods have the perfect balance of grains and proteins.

One option is Natural Balance, which is what Dr. Bustamante feeds her own dog.

Try Natural Balance from Amazon for $21+

So even though it might be intriguing to try a super trendy grain-free diet, it could cause your pup some pretty big problems in the long run. That’s why it’s always best to chat with your vet about which food is right for your dog before making a selection.

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