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Grain-free dog food: a lasting trend or a danger to your dog?

In 2018, the FDA found evidence that grain-free dog food can cause heart disease in dogs. So why do almost half of dog owners still feed it to their pets?

Updated July 1, 2020

Created By

Lori Zaino, ,
grain free dog food

almost half of pet owners feed their dogs grain-free diets

Wellness Core. Taste of the Wild. Instinct Raw Boost.

No, these aren’t names of fitness trends, smoothies, or yoga retreats. They’re the names of brands that make grain-free dog food.

Fancier and pricier, grain-free dog food sounds exotic. These days, your pet can follow the same fad diet you do.

But besides putting a dent in your wallet, grain-free dog food may cause major heart issues in dogs.

The FDA is investigating reports of over 500 dogs diagnosed with heart issues linking a majority of the cases to a grain-free diet. Although research is still preliminary, the FDA study mirrors a larger problem: Why are people feeding their dogs grain-free food in the first place? And why are they continuing to do so despite the research?

What you need to know about the FDA’s recent research on grain-free dog food

The FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network (Vet-LIRN) have developed a few reports on how dogs eating grain-free foods (with main ingredients such as peas, lentils, potatoes, and others) are developing canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a heart disease.

The FDA began investigating potential new causes of DCM in dogs after multiple reports of dog breeds that are typically not genetically predisposed to DCM began developing the heart condition, which seemed highly unusual. And there was one key link: grain-free diets.

Typically, larger dogs such as Boxers, Irish Wolfhounds, Great Danes, Newfoundlands, Dalmations, Saint Bernards, and Doberman Pinschers as well as medium breeds like American and English Cocker Spaniels are genetically prone to the disease. It’s also more common in male dogs. When reports of smaller and mixed dog breeds experiencing respiratory symptoms such as cough and difficulty breathing as well as low energy and even collapse started rolling in, the FDA knew something didn’t seem right.

In 2018, the FDA received a surge of case reports (320) of pets with DCM, with more in the first quarter of 2019. A majority of the dogs were on grain-free diets, though a few were on raw food and other diets. Interestingly enough, online searches for grain-free and grain-free dog food were steadily increasing around that same time.

Although the study uses only 500+ reports and there are millions of dogs in the United States, it’s important to know that many vets and dog owners don’t report DCM cases to the FDA. So there may be a stronger link between grain-free diets and DCM (or not) but the data may not be available yet.

But they are working on it. Vet-LIRN, in conjunction with the Chesapeake Veterinary Cardiology Associates, is working to collect data and samples from dogs with DCM as well as healthy dogs not eating grain-free diets for research.

Understandably, grain-free dog food companies are anxious to dispel these claims. Many are doing “studies” of their own in the hope of invalidating the possible connection between grain-free food and DCM. But it’s difficult to take this research seriously when it’s financed by the dog food companies themselves. This literature review in particular claims the link between grain-free food and DCM is false, but it was sponsored by the company that owns Zignature (this brand is one of the 16 currently under investigation by the FDA). And without the use of the proper scientific testing methods, it’s hard to give these types of analysis much weight.

But why are pet owners still feeding their pets grain-free food?

People always seem to be hopping on a new diet trend: grain-free, gluten-free, vegan, you name it. And when the grain-free food movement took hold, it wasn’t just humans cutting grain out of their diets. Since 2004, people have been following grain-free diets — and feeding grain-free food to their pets. In fact, grain-free searches online peaked in 2019, even after the FDA released a report that they were investigating the connection between grain-free dog food and DCM in July of 2018.

A 2015 article from the Washington Post stated that “About a third of Americans are cutting back on gluten, and many are eliminating carbs, good or bad, altogether.” It seems like, despite the information available, Americans still see feeding their dogs’ grain-free food as healthy a choice as they do in their own diets.

But grain-free diets in humans aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. While there’s no correlation between humans eating grain-free and heart issues, there are negatives to a grain-free diet in humans. For example, grains are high in things like iron, and a grain-free diet in humans may have effects such as low-energy or constipation. But many adults don’t bother to do the research on the downsides to a grain-free diet for themselves or for their pets. Instead, they fall for stylish packaging or trendy marketing campaigns promising that grain-free diets are healthy and delicious for dogs.

After comparing the price of six popular grain-free brands with six popular brands of regular dry dog food, we found that regular dry dog food costs 42% percent less per pound than grain-free dog food. But when it comes to grain-free food, you may not be paying extra for quality control and safe ingredients as some might believe. Those added dollars are likely going directly towards eye-catching packaging, fancy branding, and pricey marketing campaigns.

It makes sense that high-end packaging with prices to match could win us over. After all, people tend to think that if it’s more expensive and looks nicer, that means it’s better or healthier. In fact, when betterpet surveyed 200 random dog owners, 14% thought that a higher price tag always meant healthier dog food.

But looks (and prices) can be deceiving. So why are pet owners spending more on food that could be potentially lethal to their dogs?

We surveyed 200 dog owners about their pet's diet

According to betterpet’s survey results, 45% of 200 random dog owners are currently feeding their pets grain-free food. A further 14% did at one point, but no longer do. 37% feed their dog food with grain, and 1% preferred not to say.

52% of survey participants said they were aware that grain-free dog food was potentially connected to heart disease. 40% were unaware, while 7% were unsure.

The 45% who are feeding their dogs grain-free food had varying responses as to why. Some said that their pets had allergies or stomach sensitivity to grain. Others mentioned they thought it was “healthier.” One participant stated it was a suggestion from their breeder; another, a suggestion from their groomer. A few felt grain-free was “more in line with what a dog’s diet should be” — carnivorous, and not using grain as a filler food. A few felt that the fewer ingredients dog food has, the better, so cutting out grain seemed like a good idea.

We were curious to find out why 14% of the survey participants had fed their dogs grain-free food, but then changed back to regular food. Almost all explained that it was because they had either seen the FDA’s reporting connecting it to DCM, or at the suggestion of their vet who told them about the possible grain-free food and heart problems link.

Vets weigh in on why dog owners are still choosing grain-free

We asked some vets to weigh in on why, despite the research, almost half of dog owners are still feeding their pets grain-free food.

Indiana-based veterinarian Leslie Brooks told betterpet that she couldn’t believe how quickly grain-free dog food caught on. “It seemed to be a way of catering to the perceptions and needs of pet owners more so than the health of pets. Even though dogs are not humans and their digestive systems are different than ours, we as humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize animals to feel a deeper connection with them, which can sometimes inadvertently be harmful to our pets,” she said.

Dr. Brook’s comment is very much in line with our survey results, which reflected that some pet owners have a tendency to humanize pets. 21% of participants thought that what is healthy for humans is healthy for dogs.

And it may not be the fact that grains are missing that’s causing the issue. It may be the ingredients the grain-free food does have, such as legumes or exotic foods. Dr. Brooks said, “The research is linking the issue to something to do with peas, lentils, or other ingredients in the food and the concentration of them in the food and how the new combinations may be affecting the ability of a dog to absorb or metabolize certain nutrients that are important for heart function.” Many of the smaller, boutique companies may not have the resources to do extensive testing and research on the fancy foods they offer despite the prices they charge. And it’s still unclear if ingredients like kangaroo, buffalo, and bison are helping or hurting your dog — but they sure do sound cool.

Florida-based veterinarian Erica Irish explained that it’s pretty simple for brands to influence conscientious pet owners who want to feed their pets the best food. “But if the companies don’t spend some of their money on research and quality control, it may not be the best food for your pet,” she said.

Dr. Irish told betterpet that food representatives in pet stores can often lead to owners making snap decisions about dog food that could negatively affect their pets. “ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a client tell me that they purchased food from a local pet store because there was a food representative there who suggested it to them. Commercials and packaging are very appealing to owners, and companies put a lot of effort into making sure their product is something that consumers will buy. The notion that a diet is “grain-free” may make someone have second thoughts about grains and think that grains are bad for dogs,” Dr. Irish added.

Dog owners should research both the brand and the type of food they are planning to buy. “Buying from a company that has veterinary nutritionists on staff and that does active research on their food to make sure it doesn’t cause harm and provides adequate nutrition is the best way to go,” Dr. Brooks suggested.

And yes, we’re going to state the obvious here: dogs are not small humans. Both vets agree that dogs shouldn’t be eating the same diet as humans. So while we’re thrilled you lost 30 lbs on your gluten-free diet and have so much more energy, it’s best to chat with your vet about your dog’s diet instead of taking advice from the food brand reps at your local pet store. But more on that further down.

Vets explain the connection between about grain-free food and DCM

Veterinarian Erica Irish’s first brush with DCM came in the form of an emergency. A Doberman eating grain-free was brought in and passed away almost immediately after due to heart failure. But her other DCM case has a happier ending:

“An owner brought their three-year-old pitbull in who was lethargic and showing symptoms of respiratory distress. My colleague recommended an emergency echocardiogram and found the signs of DCM. The owners stopped the grain-free diet and started heart meds. Now she’s active and playful again,” Dr. Irish told us.

Neither vet that betterpet interviewed felt that grain-free food was a safe choice for most dogs. Dr. Irish said that, “To date, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that grain-free diets have major health benefits. Dogs with food allergies could potentially have a grain-allergy, but it is more likely that the protein source would be the inciting factor for food-allergic dogs.”

Dr. Brooks commented further on allergy cases, recommending owners should only feed their dog grain-free food if their pet has a confirmed grain allergy.

“The only benefit to grain-free dog food would be for that very tiny percentage of dogs that actually has a grain allergy. Working with a veterinary dermatologist or other specialist and doing extensive food trials and testing would be the way to confirm whether grain-free food will help with this or not,” she said.

Both veterinarians stressed that discussing your dog’s diet with your vet (as opposed to your groomer, breeder or a food rep in a pet store) is essential when making the best food choices for your pet.

“Until we know more about grain-free diets, veterinary cardiologists recommend avoiding grain-free diets. Nutrition is a major part of your dog’s health, so it is definitely something to discuss with your vet. Because diets are not regulated by the same agencies that regulate drugs, it is perfectly legal (but perhaps dangerous!) to allow representatives from food companies to make recommendations to you while you shop!” Dr. Irish added.

Who regulates dog food? It’s complicated.

Looking at our survey results, it seems pet owners don’t have a clear information source (besides their vets, of course) on what is the best and healthiest food for their dogs. Some think it’s more expensive food, some think it’s grain-free and some are happy to admit they’re well, basically clueless when it comes to their pet’s dietary needs.

The AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) works with feed ingredients. When we reached out to the organization for comment, they told us, “AAFCO does not certify animal feed or pet food, including dog food. We work with ingredients and not formulations. Our focus is on the safety of the ingredient for the intended use in the intended species.”

So, AAFCO doesn’t certify or approve dog foods, it details what dog-food manufacturers need to put on the label as well as creating nutrient profiles. Veterinarian Leslie Brooks provided further context on the role of AAFCO, explaining that they don’t specifically regulate grain-free food. “They set the basic minimum and maximum standards for minerals and nutrients in dog food and based on life stage,” she said.

While there isn’t a list of AAFCO-certified pet food, you can check legal food product lists per state via the state feed program. Click here to find your state’s specific info.

But if the AAFCO isn’t regulating dog food, who is? How do we know if the food we are feeding our pets is safe?

The FDA states that “There is no requirement that pet food products have premarket approval by the FDA. However, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) requires that pet foods, like human foods, be safe to eat, produced under sanitary conditions, contain no harmful substances, and be truthfully labeled.”

AAFCO puts out an official publication about labeling pet food for manufacturers. Each item must include the following, according to a statement by the FDA: product name, the species of pet the food is intended for, a quantity statement, a guaranteed analysis, a list of ingredients, a statement of nutritional adequacy, feeding directions and the name/address of the manufacturer.

But this may not be enough for consumers, who aren’t getting clear answers. Pet Food Industry stated that “According to a survey by Luminer, 92% of consumers read the ingredients list when buying new pet food, yet 84 percent said they would be more likely to read pet food labels overall if they provided more nutrition and ingredient information.”

The industry is starting to listen. The AAFCO is working on modernizing its methods for labeling. Updates to labeling will include things like declaring items like a non-fiber carbohydrate or including a starch and sugar analysis, as well as more information for safe handling according to Pet Food Industry.

If pet owners are confused about how dog food is labeled and if it’s safe, it’s no wonder they might be easily influenced by a friendly food brand representative in a store that may be touting grain-free food. It’s easy to take advice from someone who seems knowledgeable, confident, and gives consumers an alternative to carefully reading and interpreting food labels.

Looking at our survey results, it seems pet owners don’t have a clear information source (besides their vets, of course) on what is the best and healthiest food for their dogs. Some think it’s more expensive food, some think it’s grain-free and some are happy to admit they’re well, basically clueless when it comes to their pet’s dietary needs.

shopping for dog food

the labels and jargon don't make shopping any easier

Understanding dog food labels

Reading pet food labels can be confusing. These tips will help you better understand the information you may find on the labels.

95% rule. If the product name is Savory Chicken for Dogs, the named ingredient(s) (chicken in this case), must make up at least 95% of the weight of the product.

Light/low-calorie: Meets AAFCO requirements for reduced calories.

Natural. Has few or no synthetic ingredients or artificial flavors.

Grain-Free. The food has no grain products: barley, wheat, oats, grain sorghum, corn rice, rye, and grain.

Guaranteed analysis.  The product is guaranteed to have the percentages of protein, fiber, fat, and moisture as specified on the label.

With: Lamb “with lentils” must contain at least 3% of the mentioned “with” ingredient (lentils in this case).

Nutritional adequacy: This means the food has either has ingredients formulated to provide levels of nutrients according to an established profile or has been tested using the appropriate AAFCO Feeding Trial Protocol(s).

A quick note: Grain-free doesn’t mean carb-free

Grains are ingredients such as barley, wheat, oats, grain sorghum, corn rice, rye, and grain are grain products. So, if the dog food is labeled as grain-free, it can’t have any of these items. But you may notice that grain-free doesn’t mean carb-free, especially after reading some dog food labels.

In order to make grain-free food filling enough, many grain-free varieties use items like potatoes, lentils, or pea proteins to make the food starchy and filling. Remember, just because a product is grain-free doesn’t mean it’s healthy. It means it doesn’t have grains, not that it’s carb-free. In many cases, grain-free dog food could be considered carb-heavy.

If I don’t feed my dog grain-free food — what should I be feeding them?

One of the reasons dog owners started feeding their dogs grain-free food was because they were also indulging in similar dietary plans. Or a food representative guided them to the grain-free section at the store, praising the benefits of sweet potatoes, kangaroo and dried alligator for your dog. Or the fancy packaging impressed them.

But the point isn’t to be reactive with your dog’s diet. Instead, be proactive seeking exactly what you should be feeding your dog. Avoid falling for trends and marketing ploys, and discuss your dog’s diet plan with a vet, who can help you understand what type of food or diet is right for your dog based on breed, age, and any ongoing health issues (or lack thereof).

The essentials: what to feed your dog

Vets Dr. Erica Irish and Dr. Leslie Brooks explain exactly what you need to know to properly feed your dog in one helpful breakout box.

👉 Always speak with your vet about your pet’s diet, especially if you plan to deviate from traditional dog food or your dog has any health issues/allergies.

Dry dog food. This is easier to feed and can help reduce plaque on teeth.

Wet dog food. This is better for pets with no teeth, with kidney issues, and may be more enticing as its odor is stronger. But it can cause buildup on teeth since there’s no crunching to clean the teeth.

Age-specific food: Adult and senior dog food may have fewer calories to maintain weight when dogs age. Senior foods may have extra ingredients to help with joint health. Pregnant/lactating dogs may benefit from eating puppy food, younger dogs with arthritis, senior food.

Grain-free food. Avoid it. It’s linked to heart issues (talk to your vet if your dog has a grain allergy).

🍕 Table food. Avoid it. It can be toxic, caloric and home-cooked diets may be deficient in vitamins (unless formulated with the help of your vet).

Organic food: Assuming it’s not grain-free, you can feed your dog organic food, though there are no added nutritional benefits from organic food for dogs.

Low calorie/light food. Check with your vet first — overweight dogs can have underlying health problems. Make sure to ask about the quantity.

🍣 Raw food diets. Avoid these. There’s no scientific evidence to support them, but dogs and humans have a much higher risk of contracting bacteria such as Salmonella or Campylobacter.

Avoid feeding your dog these items. Chocolate, caffeine, grapes, marijuana, sugar-free ingredients like xylitol, members of the Allium family like garlic and onions, alcohol, human NSAIDs like aspirin and ibuprofen, grapes and raisins, macadamia nuts and greasy food with bones.

Brands. There are a variety of brands to choose from, but buy from a company that has a veterinary nutritionist on staff such as Hill’s, Purina, and Royal Canin.

What do you do if you’re feeding your dog grain-free pet food

If you’ve been feeding your dog grain-free food, it’s not too late to switch to regular food. Dr. Irish explained, “Owners that choose to feed grain-free feel like they are making the right decision.” But your dog isn’t impressed with stylish packaging, and they don’t feel cooler than the dog next for eating kangaroo instead of kibble.

Dr. Brooks recommends trusting your vet over a marketing company, saying, “The majority of pet owners I’ve spoken with do switch their dogs off grain-free diets once I let them know there is a possible link between these diets and heart disease. I think pet owners truly want what’s best for their pet.”

If that’s you, here are a few of your options: 

  • Change their diet.
  • Talk to your vet about the best food for your dog.
  • Think about why you’re actually feeding your dog grain-free food. The most expensive/trendiest option isn’t always the best. Many healthy dogs eat regular, run-of-the-mill dog food.
  • Consider avoiding these brands which the FDA is currently investigating: Acana, Zignature, Taste of the Wild, 4Health, Earthborn Holistic, Blue Buffalo, Nature’s Domain, Fromm, Merrick, California Natural, Natural Balance, Orijen, Nature’s Variety, NutriSource, Nutro, Rachael Ray, and Nutrish
  • If you believe a certain dog brand or food has caused your dog illness or heart damage, you can file a complaint with the FDA here.
  • Watch for symptoms of DCM in your dog. Some are fatigue, weakness, coughing, shortness of breath, pale gums, increased heart rate, loss of appetite, and fainting.
  • If your dog shows any of the above symptoms, immediately head to your emergency vet.