Dr. Sydney Spitzer: Are grain-free diets really what’s best for our pets?

DrSydneySpitzerGrain-free diets have become a popular trend in today’s pet food world. This may be due to following human food trends that include avoiding gluten or high carbohydrate diets.

We all have the best intentions at heart when we choose our pet’s diet, and there are many to choose from. There is a lot of information out there about the “best” foods, and why they claim to be the best, which can be overwhelming for any pet owner. Unfortunately, some pet diets have not gone through scientific feeding trials to ensure that they are safe for our four-legged family members.

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This is a common occurrence for the grain-free diets we see on the market. A big reason some companies have not gone through this process is due to the public perception of animal testing. Understandably, unnecessary or dangerous testing should be avoided – however, feeding trials are generally very safe. Companies that use feeding trials ensure that everything is formulated correctly in the lab, before approving a diet.

Feeding trials are essential to ensure diets are complete, balanced, and safe for the general pet population. New studies have been coming to the attention of the veterinary field and the public showing a connection between grain-free diets and a heart condition called nutritionally-mediated dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). This heart condition has been reported in over a thousand dogs and many cats that have been eating grain-free diets for a large portion of their lives.

The diets that are most commonly connected to this heart condition are those that have replaced grains with legumes, including peas, lentils, chickpeas, and beans. Legumes have not been used in commercial dog foods until recently, and although chemically they may have seemed appropriate and balanced, some nutritional interactions were unknown.

So, why are grain-free diets that use legumes causing nutritionally-mediated dilated cardiomyopathy? At this time, the connection if still being researched, but current studies suggest that the legumes may bind an essential nutrient for heart health called taurine, preventing the animal from absorbing it. Without this nutrient, the heart becomes enlarged, weak, and unable to function properly.

Nutritionally-mediated DCM can lead to heart failure and death. Signs of heart failure may include persistent coughing, decreased activity, and fainting, but sometimes dogs with this condition show no symptoms until it is too late. Diagnosis of nutritionally-mediated DCM requires a thorough veterinary examination, chest x-rays or heart ultrasound, and taurine level testing.

While nutritionally-mediated dilated cardiomyopathy can be deadly, the silver lining is that recent studies have shown that many dogs and cats with this heart condition can regain heart function when the grain-free diet is replaced with a good quality commercial diet. Some affected pets do require additional supplementation and heart medications after diagnosis. Consultation with your veterinarian can help you choose the diet most appropriate for your pet’s heart and overall health.

Dr. Sydney Spitzer was born in Fort St. John and has been a part of the North Peace Veterinary Clinic team for many years. She graduated from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in 2019 and is keen about large and small animal surgery and medicine with specific interests in orthopedics, ruminants, and small animal nutrition. 

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