Some of you might be curious over information that a grain-free diet for your pet might not be the best thing since sliced bread after all. And maybe you’ve already figured out that grain-free pet food is a marketing concept and not a scientific one.
I was perplexed, too, when I was wheeling my 20-pound cat into Primary Care Animal Hospital and saw a sign titled “The Truth About Grain-Free Diets.” In a nutshell, the sign said that feeding your pet grain-free food is appropriate if your pet has an allergy, that grains actually contain essential nutrients, and worst of all, a grain-free diet can result in your pet contracting a possibly fatal heart condition called non-hereditary dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM. The non-hereditary label means that the disease comes from an external factor, such as food.
The sign has been taken down in one of Primary Care’s clinics because of the flap it caused in the waiting room, but it still stands in the other location. The information on it is a streamlined summary of ongoing research by the FDA, UC Davis Veterinary School and other veterinary organizations. No conclusion has as yet been reached, but there are notable correlations.
In “Link Between Dog Diet and Heart Disease: Information Resources,” a UC Davis research aggregate, author Rob Warren wrote that a team of researchers “has found a link between some popular grain-free, legume-rich dog diets and a type of nutritional deficiency and canine heart disease known as taurine-deficient dilated cardiomyopathy. The FDA took notice and issued warnings about the potential connection.”
Grain-free pet diets have been immensely popular since they began selling commercially in the early 2000s. The Tufts University Cummins School of Veterinary Medicine stated in an article, “Grain-Free Diets, Big on Marketing, Small on Truth,” that the diets came about as a marketing plan formulated by pet food manufacturers to invite people to do something healthy for their pet. However, the authors continued, no reliable evidence exists regarding any harm that grain-free food might cause to pets.
“Whole grains, rather than being ‘fillers,’ can contribute valuable nutrients including vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and fiber to diets,” the authors stated.
The article further stated that allergic reactions in pets are most likely to be caused by meats in the diet rather than grains and that gluten intolerance in pets is rare.
I began feeding my cats grain-free food years ago because it seemed like a healthy thing to do. A lot of pet-savvy people I knew were doing it, and I thought that was enough. I’d trot home bags of boutique kibble for my kitties, with the self-satisfaction of believing that I was providing them with the diet they deserved and without any of those nasty grains that have no value and might make them logy and fat. But even before the grain-free/DCM research had begun, our cats’ veterinarian, Dr. John Kuttel in Huntington Beach, said that he considered grain-free a fad and that all pet foods made in the U.S. had to adhere to FDA regulations anyway.
Kuttel is a UC Davis veterinary grad, a former Southern California Veterinary Association officer, and a 30-plus year caregiver to most of our cats, save the Primary Care patient, one of whom is now 20? Did I listen? Of course not—I knew better.
Is your dog getting enough taurine? Likely not with a grain-free diet
Remember the Gaines-Burger ads in the early 1970s that said that we can relax knowing that our dogs will get enough cheese by eating them? Cheese isn’t good for dogs, and another respected veterinarian, Dr. Greg Perrault, said that grain-free foods aren’t, either. He, too, called out the diets as a trend, similar to the vitamin C supplements that can result in a harmful overdose.
Perrault, owner of Cats & Dogs Animal Hospital in Long Beach and the official vet at Justin Rudd’s pet events, is a walking veterinary-medicine encyclopedia. We had a phone interview, and what I couldn’t type fast enough to record during the phone interview, he more than made up for by sending me links to research and academic articles. These resources I am sharing with you. Each contains enough sub-links and sub-sub-links to ensure that you’ll be diving down a warren of rabbit holes for days and come up well informed. The links include answers to questions you might have, myth busters from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, and the most current developments in research. The aforementioned aggregate is invaluable. It beats reading through 10 pages worth of notes I printed out, with which neither you nor my editor would abide.
Perrault is adamant about educating people on the shortcomings and dangers of grain-free diets. They include the excessive amount of legumes added to the food to make up for the grains and the lack of taurine, an amino acid necessary to heart health and which Perrault said that grains do provide. Legumes aren’t harmful in themselves, as they’ve been included in pet food for a long time, but an excess of them can cause an interaction between ingredients and reduce the taurine levels.
Perrault also advised that the list of ingredients on the label is not the same as a list of nutrients.
“The food label is not designed to provide the information they are looking for,” said clinical nutrition professor Dr. Jennifer Larsen at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, in an NBC News interview. “And a lot of the pet food ranking lists available on the internet rely on the label and focus inappropriately on the ingredient list.”
Thankfully, unlike traditional DCM, non-hereditary DCM is reversible with diet change if caught early enough, although it won’t happen immediately. Again, check with your vet if your pet shows symptoms.
What’s on the menu now?
No products have been recalled as a result of the research, so you don’t need to toss what’s left of your bag of boutique biscuits. But consult with your veterinarian about diet. Read the ingredients labels, and see if there’s nutritional information on the products’ websites. Some of the brands known for grain-free choices, such as Acana, Orijen, Blue Buffalo and Taste of the Wild, have been following the research and now offer grain-inclusive varieties of their food. Orijen launched its Amazing Grains dog food product in April 2022.
“We actively monitor the research published on non-hereditary DCM and continually engage with the FDA and the wider pet food industry on this topic,” said a spokesperson from Champion Petfoods, which produces premium brands Acana and Orijen. “We are committed to meeting the highest quality standards and crafting foods that help pets thrive for a lifetime. We specialize in biologically appropriate pet foods and offer a diverse range of products to meet the needs of different pets and pet parents, including grain-free and grain-inclusive options.”
In short, there’s no conclusive data about the link between grain-free diets and DCM, but correlations have been noted in research studies. Keep up with the research—you have a good start with the links in the article—and consult your vet for any dietary advice and health concerns. Whatever comes down the pike next, for better or worse, look for the kernels of truth in it. And take it all with a grain of salt.
I like to line up the adoption feature with the rest of the column, so I asked Perrault to give me his favorite rescue.
“Heck, I always use the shelter,” he said, and that’s fine with me, considering the help they need getting pets out.
Perrault and his partner, Cookie, got their Chihuahua, Guillermo, from Long Beach Animal Care Services. Guillermo’s leading the life, all right, and all the pets on this page and in the shelter altogether deserve the same. To adopt or foster, visit LBACS during their guest hours, Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The shelter is located at 7700 E. Spring St. at the entrance to El Dorado Park, and there’s no parking fee for shelter visitors. You can also email [email protected] or access the foster link to speed the process for adopting or fostering.
Choo Choo (#A673343) needs out. Now. This stunningly gorgeous shepherd mix is red-listed with a must-exit date of April 7, but he might have a couple of days if someone is interested. Choo Choo takes treats gently and loves toys and attention. Initially, he pulled like a train on the leash, but has settled in and now walks like a gentleman. Choo Choo has a complicated past. He came in as a stray on March 1 but is chipped to an owner who has not come forward to claim him. In fact, he was at the shelter early last year with an alleged bite to the calf of a passerby in front of the owner’s property. As with any alleged bite, many questions arise about the circumstances, and many remain unanswered. But at the shelter, Choo Choo has been friendly, approachable and nonreactive to other dogs. At only 3 years old, his life should just be beginning, not facing the end.
Girly (ID#A677010) is kinda big for her age. She’s only a year and a half old! She’s healthy and happy with no hissy fits or growlies, and takes great care of her striped and spotted brown-tabby fur. She came to the shelter as a cranky stray last summer, and the volunteers had their hands full trying to bring out her hidden sweetness, which they did after many months. She adores the back-scratcher and wiggles around almost to the point of falling out of her kennel. She’s near socialized now. Want to finish the job? It’ll be worth it.
Meet the beautiful Jackie Kennedy (ID#A694688 ) in her Balenciaga black-and-white! Jackie is a year-old owner surrender who was surrendered to the shelter because of family allergies, and she’s now twiddling what passes as her thumbs waiting for someone to come and cherish her. She’s pretty and playful. Jackie, Madame Onassis got nothin’ on you! Jackie’s presently at the Pet Food Express Cat Adoption Center, 4220 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, so to adopt or foster her, come on by to meet her or call Julie at (562) 673-5050.
Great furballs of fun!
Saturday, April 8, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.: Silverado Park Adoption Fair: Saturday, April 8, Silverado Park, 1545 W. 31st St., Long Beach, adoption fees waived
Join Long Beach Animal Care Services staff and volunteers and the office of District 7 Councilmember Roberto Uranga to find out information and learn about resources for your pets. Spay/neuter vouchers, pet licensing and pet-law information will be available. You can take home a pet, too, if you qualify.
Foster for a while—or furever!
If you’ve always wanted a pet but aren’t sure if you’re ready for a lifetime (the animal’s) commitment, or if you’re past the pet-roommate days for any reason, fostering might be a great way to go, especially with one or more of the kittens popping up during kitten season. Every one of the organizations listed below is in desperate need of fosters who’ll social them and help save their little lives. Who knows—maybe one of those lives will change your mind about the not-ready-for-roommate thing.
These nonprofits also regularly feature cat, dog and rabbit adoptions. As of now, adoptions are mainly by appointment. Click on the links for each rescue in case of updates or changes. These organizations operate through donations and grants, and anything you can give would be welcome. Please suggest any Long Beach-area rescues to add to the list. Keep in mind that the rescues are self-supporting and need donations and volunteer help. Most of them cannot accept found or unwanted pets. Contact Long Beach Animal Care Services for options.