Grain Free Dog Food – Heart Problems? FDA weighs in

If you are a dog owner that gives deep and critical thought to what you feed your dogs, you’ve most likely either considered switching to or already have switched to grain-free dog food.  The arguments are compelling, but what about the science to back it up?  Is grain-free better than other dog foods?  Is the proliferation of grain-free dog food causing canine dilated cardiomyopathy? Can we identify dog foods linked to the number of growing heart problems we see manifest as canine heart disease? There is no definitive answer, but the FDA has published a report, and some of the research may surprise you.  Read on for more information.

FDA Investigates Dog Food linked to canine heart disease

There are currently more than 500 reports that indicate a connection between grain-free dog food and canine heart disease, or canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).  In a statement from the FDA regarding this research, 16 dog food brand names were released that have a significant number of reported cases linked to them.  The uptick in the number of cases over the last few years has been extremely fast:

  • 2014: 1 reported case
  • 2015: 1 reported case
  • 2016: 2 reported cases
  • 2017: 2 reported cases
  • 2018: 320 reported cases
  • 2019: 197 reported cases (as of April 2019)

…so you can see, in the past couple of years, this has risen in significance greatly – enough to catch the attention of the FDA.

Why might Grain Free dog food cause canine heart disease?

We don’t know for sure yet. The general pattern is that grain-free foods are typically high in lentils, peas, other legume seeds, and potatoes.  If any of these are listed among the first 10 ingredients of the dog food you are feeding your dog; then there’s a good chance that dog food falls into this arena.

Historically larger breeds of dogs have shown a propensity to develop canine heart disease, but the recent rash of reports indicate the many breeds that, up to this point, have been resistant to it.  Yet another cause for concern.

16 dog food brands named by the FDA in connection to the grain-free heart problems

Below are the 16 brands specifically named in the FDA report as having 10 or more reported cases. We are also providing a link to their respective pages that explain their stance on the DCM issue, what they are doing about it, and other resources they share.

  • Acana: 67 reported cases
  • Zignature: 64 reported cases
  • Taste of the Wild: 53 reported cases
  • 4Health: 32 reported cases
    • We could not find anything DCM specific on their pages, which was disappointing.  4Health is a Tractor Supply product and is what we feed all of our dogs. The main 4Health site can be found here:
    • 4Health FAQ
  • Earthborn Holistic: 32 reported cases
    • Earthborn Holistic FAQ
    • Look under the Quality and Safety drop down and find the “What is Midwestern Pet Foods stance regarding a possible link between dogs eating grain-free diets and heart issues”.
  • Blue Buffalo: 31 reported cases
  • Nature’s Domain: 29 reported cases
    • This is Costco’s brand of dog food.  We could not find an official DCM related page on their website, but there is an entry on their Facebook page with a good amount of detail and Costco’s response:
    • Costco Facebook – DCM question
  • Fromm: 24 reported cases
  • Merrick: 16 reported cases
  • California Natural: 15 reported cases
    • No longer in production
  • Natural Balance: 15 reported cases
    • Not much info here – look under the “Why is Taurine in your dog food” entry on this FAQ.
    • Natural Balance FAQ
  • Orijen: 12 reported cases
  • Nature’s Variety: 11 reported cases
    • Nature’s Variety has a nice FAQ, and DCM is the very first topic, with several sub-topics
    • Nature’s Variety FAQ
  • NutriSource: 10 reported cases
  • Nutro: 10 reported cases
    • We couldn’t find any reference to DCM on their webpage. Still, they did respond on Facebook with: “We are working in partnership with the FDA, the broader pet food industry, and our own Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition to understand this complex issue better.”
  • Rachael Ray Nutrish: 10 reported cases
    • Also could not find anything referencing DCM on the website.  Their public statement on Facebook:  “At this time, no conclusion has been reached by the FDA and based on the information we have reviewed with vets having expertise in animal nutrition, it is not clear what role diet plays.”

The brands above have shown 10 or more cases connected to the FDA investigation.  All of the above also offer grain-free dog foods.

What is the FDA advice?

The FDA does not recommend that dog owners stop feeding grain-free dog food to their dogs -it is too early in the research to do that. The best approach is to work closely with your veterinarian for guidance. While this is the FDA’s stance, that hasn’t stopped stores from carrying the food or from Veterinarians advising dog owners to stop feeding their dogs the suspect dog foods.

What is the science behind grain-free dog food?

Actually – not much.  The general feeling is that grain-free dog food hits the spot with dog owners focused on feeding the best food to their dogs, and “grain-free” is relatively new and top-of-mind due to the advertising. But, none of that means it’s been scientifically proven to be any better for your dog than foods that contain grain.  The comparison is often made to wolves…arguably the healthiest and most robust of all dogs.  Do they eat grain?  On the surface, no, but in reality, they feed on animals that eat grain and, therefore, ingest healthy amounts of grain.  Given this, the argument in favor of grain-free dog food makes less sense.

Symptoms of canine heart disease

Seeing symptoms of canine heart disease or canine dilated cardiomyopathy often happens late in the sickness cycle.  The symptoms are normally shortness of breath, lethargy, and an intolerance to exercise.  The sad aspect is that if these symptoms are showing, the disease is already advanced.  In any case, bring this to your vet’s attention quickly.

If you have more than one dog, and one of them is showing these symptoms, get them all checked out.  Depending on the breed, some will get it faster or worse than others, so even though other dogs at home aren’t showing the symptoms, they may be on the way, so get them checked out even if you don’t see symptoms in them.  Odds are, they all eat the same type of food, so if one has it, others may be developing it, so best to catch it early.

Simply switching to a different food will help some but not all – there’s no established pattern identified to date, but the general advice is to move them off the grain-free dog food to be on the safe side.

What’s next?

The research continues, and the dog food companies will do their best to counter the research while providing the best advice and the best dog food for their customers.  Doing anything else would not serve anybody’s best interest.  As mentioned previously, the best advice from everybody is to talk to your veterinarian as they know your dogs. They can establish baselines. You know they are doing their own research on this topic.  If you have a veterinarian you like and trust, you should be in good shape to deal with this.

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