Monthly Doctor’s Blog: Common Questions Around Grain-Free Diets

Every month, the doctors of AtlasVet are writing a blog post to help pet owners with common questions. 

Dr. Cherica Richmond discusses common questions around grain-free diets!

Grain free diets are wildly popular among pet owners. In recent years however, the FDA has been studying a correlation between certain grain-free diet and a specific type of heart disease in dogs called dilated cardiomyopathy.

What is dilated cardiomyopathy?

Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a progressive condition found in dogs and some cats in which the heart muscle (myocardium) of the lower pumping chambers (ventricles) becomes weak and so loses its ability to contract normally.. The dog breeds most likely to predisposed are Golden Retrievers, Dobermans, Labrador Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels (and others less so). But over the past several years, veterinarians have seen a spike in cases of DCM in dogs of all different breeds and sizes.

But I heard that grain free diets were best. Is this not the case?

Most owners want what’s healthiest for their dog and when looking at the list of ingredients on a grain-free dog food, it looks healthy. Humans are going grain-free/gluten free, so the perception is that they can feed their dog something similar to what they are eating, because it’s the healthy thing to do. In reality, grain-free diets garnered their popularity as a result of marketing rather than a true medical need. The most common food sensitivities in pets are usually a result of the protein (meat) source in the food. Chicken, beef, and pork are in fact the most common food-related allergens.

 How do you know if the dog’s food has created heart problems and if so, can it be reversed changing feed?
The clinical signs of heart disease include: noticing that your dog is slowing down, having less tolerance to exercise, more rapid breathing, coughing, weakness, and collapse episodes.  Routine physical examinations with your primary care veterinarian can also help find underlying cardiac issues if signs of a heart murmur, other abnormal heart sounds, or an irregular heart rhythm are present.  If signs of heart disease are noted and are related to nutritional issues, we have found some dogs will have a reversal of their cardiac changes with adjustments in the diet.

My dog has been eating a grain-free diet. What should I do know? 
Until we know more about the true association between grain-free diets and DCM, we recommend changing the dog’s diet to a food that is grain inclusive and been feed-tested for nutritional adequacy. When switching foods, you should gradually transition your dog to the new food over 7 days, every two days reducing the amount of old food and increasing the amount of new food until your pet is exclusively eating the new food.  

If your pet is not showing any clinical signs, no specific cardiac testing is necessary; however, if you are concerned and/or you have a dog that may be of potential higher risk, you can consider having an echocardiogram done by a veterinary cardiologist to evaluate for signs of heart enlargement or dysfunction.

Which food brands do you recommend feeding my dog instead?

Here at AtlasVet, we recommend Royal Canin, Hill’s Science Diet, Purina, IAMS and Eukanuba. Whichever brand you decide to go with, make sure that the diet has gone through the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) testing to confirm nutritional adequacy. This organization regulates the sale and distribution of animal foods, and animal drug remedies, to safeguard the health of animals and humans.