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A Grain-Free Diet May Not Be Good for Pets

A Grain-Free Diet May Not Be Good for Pets

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Researchers say dogs are missing certain amino acids—and it's causing a rise in heart disease.

If your dog enjoys a special diet, there's a good chance that your veterinarian helped you curate their meal plan for a reason. But if you've taken it upon yourself to place your pet on a grain-free or legume-rich (or both!) diet, researchers are warning dog owners that good intentions may actually be leading to poorer cardiovascular health in particular.

A team of veterinarians at the University of California-Davis found a link between grain-free, legume-heavy diets and nutritional deficiencies that can lead to a heart disease known as taurine-deficient dilated cardiomyopathy (or DCM). Their research was published in the scholarly journal Plos One last month.

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The study found that dogs on these kinds of diets are not getting enough taurine, an amino acid that's crucial for heart health, according to a press release from UC-Davis. A long-term taurine deficiency has been linked to DCM, which is a heart muscle disorder that can cause heart failure in canines, and possibly lead to premature death.

“Given the recent surge in cases, we need to pay close attention to what we are feeding dogs,” lead author Joshua Stern, a veterinary cardiologist and geneticist at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, wrote in the release. “Choosing a well-researched dog food that has a healthy nutrient profile backed by expert formulation and research is of paramount importance.”

While some dogs are predisposed to be more likely to develop cardiovascular issues and DCM specifically, researchers say that there has been an uptick in cases recently—and diet is the factor linking all the different canine breeds to DCM. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration issued a public alert to veterinarians and pet owners alike about the link between diets and cardiovascular health.

More research on your dogs health:

This study involved 24 golden retrievers with DCM and a taurine deficiency—23 of the 24 dogs involved had been placed on a grain-free or legume-rich diet, or a blend of both. These dogs were then given a new diet and a supplement of taurine, and the study found that all but one dog saw an improvement in cardiovascular health. Nine of the subjects were in dire condition with congestive heart failure, but even they showed dramatic improvements or no longer had congestion, according to the study.

“This study helped us confirm that this condition is treatable and avoidable, something that traditional DCM of genetic origins is not,” Stern said.

The researchers advise dog owners to consult their veterinarian before switching diets, and especially before introducing taurine supplements into a daily routine, as canines can develop DCM and other heart issues outside of diet-issues.

Christopher Bernard / Getty Images

The bottom line: While you may wish to avoid unhealthy dog foods, you need to plan on including a solid source of taurine—while many varieties of canned dog food might seem overprocessed, they often include ingredients like heart and kidney, which are good sources of taurine. Researchers have previously recommended that dogs should not follow human diets, including gluten-free meal plans.

“Pet owners should ask themselves if they’re buying the food because it sounds good to them or whether it’s right based on veterinary research and evidence,” Stern said. “Staying away from some of the most common marketing gimmicks may help to protect your pet.”

Guide to Grain-Free Dog Food

Grain-free and gluten-free products have gained much popularity among people in recent years, and pet food manufacturers are following this trend, too. But is grain-free dog food the best choice for your dog?

What are the benefits of grain-free vs. grain dog food? Here’s a guide to grain-free dog diets and how they compare to grain dog food.

Choosing a diet for your cat is a task that should not be taken lightly. Grain free and gluten free pet diets have become extremely popular. This popularity has mirrored the appearance of similar products for people. These diets are particularly helpful for people that have celiac disease, intolerance to glutens in general, or allergies to wheat.

Many pet owners choose to mimic their own food choices when choosing a food for their pet. With the increase in the number of people choosing to consume a grain free diet, pet food manufacturers have recognized that similar pet diets are attractive to pet owners. The popularity of these diets has led to an increase in the number of grain free and gluten free diets available for pets.

Are these diets the best choice for your cat? How do you know if your cat needs a grain free or gluten free diet?

Grain Free Versus Gluten Free Cat Food

Let’s start by discussing the difference between a grain free and a gluten free diet. Grain free cat foods are, as the name implies, diets that do not contain grain. Gluten free cat food, on the other hand, may or may not contain grain as an ingredient. Gluten is the protein that is found in specific types of grain, namely wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten free cat food is, of course, free of these proteins. However, not all grains contain gluten. Therefore, gluten free cat food may or may not be grain free, while grain free cat food will always be gluten free.

Does My Cat Need a Grain Free Diet?

Most cats do not actually require a grain free or a gluten free diet. But how do you know if your cat does require one of these diets? To answer that question, let’s take a look at some of the common reasons pet owners choose to feed their cat a grain free or a gluten free diet.

A particularly popular feeding concept that often seems to go hand in hand with feeding grain free pet food is the feeding of a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. High protein, low carbohydrate diets do have their place, particularly in the feeding of diabetic cats. However, it is important not to assume that a grain free diet is a low carbohydrate diet. In fact, some grain free pet foods contain carbohydrate levels similar to or even higher than diets containing grains. In many grain free diets, ingredients such as potatoes replace the grains in the food and often these ingredients have more carbohydrates than the common grains used in pet food. As a result, grain free and low carbohydrate pet foods are not always synonymous with one another.

Another reason that many cat owners choose to feed grain free or gluten free cat foods is a mistaken belief that these diets are the best choice for cats that have food allergies. While food allergies do occur in pets, corn and other grains are not among the most common allergens found in foods. In fact, according to some of the available research, corn is actually one of the least likely sources of food allergy. In one literature review, 56 cats with food allergies were evaluated. Forty-five of the food allergies resulted from eating beef, dairy, and/or fish. Corn, meanwhile, was responsible for only 4 cases. 1

For cats that truly do have allergies to protein in grains, a grain free diet would be an appropriate choice. The following are symptoms that would be expected in cats that have food allergies (or other types of allergies).

  • Itchiness
  • Excessive hair loss
  • Bald patches
  • Inflamed skin
  • Sore and scabs
  • “Hot spots”

A food trial with a grain free food would be necessary to determine whether the food is beneficial for your cat.

Does My Cat Need a Gluten Free Diet?

For most cats, a gluten free diet is not a requirement. The exception would be the rare cat that has an allergy to gluten. This, however, is very uncommon.

Some gluten in the diet can, in fact, be beneficial for providing some of your cat’s protein needs. However, it is important to know that cats are carnivores and they do need animal-derived protein in their diet. So, gluten or other plant-based protein cannot be the sole protein source in your cat’s food.

1. Carlotti DN, Remy I, Prost C. Food allergy in dogs and cats. A review and report of 43 cases. Vet Dermatol 19901:55-62.

Guaguere E. Food intolerance in cats with cutaneous manifestations: a review of 17 cases. Eur J Companion Anim Pract 19955:27-35.

Guilford WG, Jones BR, Harte JG, et al. Prevalence of food sensitivity in cats with chronic vomiting, diarrhea or pruritus (abstract). J Vet Intern Med199610:156.

Guilford WG, Jones BR, Markwell PJ, et al. Food sensitivity in cats with chronic idiopathic gastrointestinal problems. J Vet Intern Med 200115:7-13.

Ishida R, Masuda K, Kurata K, et al. Lymphocyte blastogenic responses to food antigens in cats with food hypersensitivity. Unpublished data. University of Tokyo, 2002.

Reedy RM. Food hypersensitivity to lamb in a cat. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1994204:1039-1040.

Stogdale L, Bomzon L, Bland van den Berg P. Food allergy in cats. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 198218:188-194.

Walton GS. Skin responses in the dog and cat to ingested allergens. Vet Rec 196781:709-713.

Walton GS, Parish WE, Coombs RRA. Spontaneous allergic dermatitis and enteritis in a cat. Vet Rec 196883:35-41.

White SD, Sequoia D. Food hypersensitivity in cats: 14 cases (1982-1987). J Am Vet Med Assoc 1989194:692-695.

Veterinary Practice News interviewed four board-certified vet nutritionists about allergies and the role grains play in them. The nutritionists told the magazine corn, wheat and soy are rarely the cause of food allergies.

"I honestly don't know where that got started. It's not based on any data, and there are excellent foods that contain one or more of those items," said Cailin Heinze, MS, VMD, and a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.

Clinically speaking, the most common food allergens are beef and dairy, with only 10 percent of all pet allergy cases being caused by food at all. Most pets actually have reactions to the world around them, like pollen from grass, trees, molds and fleas, not foods. If you suspect your dog suffers from an allergic reaction — either environmental, food, or a combination of the two — talk with your vet about the issues your poor pal is experiencing. Then, under consistent professional treatment, you can determine if he has a food allergy and to which ingredient your pup is reacting adversely through some careful food trials.

6 Homemade Dog Food Recipes That Are Good Enough for Humans

We humans don’t deserve all the fun. While we stress about how to make dinner interesting, our furry friends often get treated to the same ol’ meal, day in and day out. We can only imagine how boring that must be.

Why not actually treat them to something — as in, something homemade? These DIY dog food recipes are simple, cheap, and sure to make your pup love you…even more than they already do.

If you’re into formulas to make life easier (yes, please), most of the dog food recipes break down like this:

  • 50 percent cooked protein
  • 25 percent produce
  • 25 percent cooked complex carbs

Here are some general guidelines for how much chow you’ll need, depending on the weight of your dog. Keep in mind, you may need to cook more if your pooch is super active.

Dog weightFood per day
12 pounds1 cup
25 pounds2 cups
50 pounds4 cups
100 pounds8 cups

Before you dive into the doggie delicacies below, check in with your vet about what your four-legged friend really needs.

Each breed has different nutritional requirements to consider. Plus, many purebreds, like Frenchies and pugs, are known to be more prone to food allergies. Always work with a pup professional you trust.

It’s also a good idea to transition dogs slowly when introducing a new diet. Though they’ll beg you otherwise with those big, beautiful eyes, only give them a little new food at a time to prevent stomach upset.

Feed Your Best Friend Better is an amazing resource for those looking to mix it up in the kitchen and give their bestie all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals they require. Hint: it’s a lot.

1. DIY homemade dog food

While dogs and humans enjoy some of the same foods (peanut butter straight out of the jar, comes to mind), what we need to stay healthy and fit is different.

This recipe has a balance of 50 percent protein with ground turkey and peas, 25 percent veggies with spinach, carrots, and zucchini, and 25 percent grains with brown rice, but it can be easily adjusted for any dog’s nutritional needs.

Here’s the best part: Making this batch of food is cheaper than buying many popular all-natural store-bought varieties.

2. Healthy homemade dog food

We talk a lot about food allergies… but dog food allergies? Yep, it’s a thing.

It could be super obvious, like smelly omg-what-did-you-eat farts or little piles of vomit on the floor. It could also be less obvious, like your doggo licking the area around their joints, a sign of inflammation.

If you suspect your dog has a sensitive stomach, call your vet to make an appointment and then try this recipe. This meal uses pumpkin purée, coconut oil, ground protein, grains, and a slew of colorful produce to create a feast that even finicky dogs can stomach.

It smells so darn good when it’s cooking, we’ve been tempted to eat it ourselves. (OK… we might’ve tried it.)

3. Homemade dog food

Making homemade dog food may not be realistic to incorporate into your everyday routine, but that doesn’t mean your furry friend can’t benefit from a little DIY here and there.

In fact, this blogger only incorporates homemade meals about twice per week — better than never, right? The recipe includes many DIY dog food staples, like protein, grains, apples, and carrots.

This dish also throws in some blueberries, a known heart-healthy treat for humans, thanks to their rich polyphenol content. Rodriguez-Mateos A, et al. (2014). Berry (poly)phenols and cardiovascular health. DOI: 10.1021/jf403757g

Turns out, the protective effects of berries against free radical damage may have a similar impact on dogs with heart failure, though more research is needed. Sagols E, et al. (2010). Oxidative stress in dog with heart failure: The role of dietary fatty acids and antioxidants. DOI: 10.4061/2011/180206

4. Easy Crock Pot dog food

When using a slow cooker, it’s important to use sturdy veggies that stand up to the heat and extra-long cook time.

This recipe sticks to the classics like brown rice, beans, ground beef, squash, carrots, and frozen peas. The dense ingredients ensure that the food freezes well, so you don’t always have to cook it from scratch (glory hallelujah).

5. DIY homemade dog food with chicken

If you think about a dog’s closest modern relative, the grey wolf, Pendelton AL, et al. (2017). Comparison of village dog and wolf genomes highlights the role of the neural crest in dog domestication. DOI: 10.1186/s12915-018-0535-2 it makes sense that a canine’s diet should incorporate at least some produce — perhaps a few greens in the belly of whatever omnivorous animal the wolf hunted down (sorry, little guy).

To that end, this recipe includes some of the other ingredients you’ve seen already, plus a few cups of spinach. Dogs don’t need much in each serving — a little greenery goes a long way.

Pro tip: You can also sub in ground turkey for this recipe.

6. Easy homemade dog food Crock Pot recipe with ground chicken

Chicken, kidney beans, butternut squash, and green beans served over a bed of white rice? Not only is this recipe super simple to make, this is basically a regular stay-at-home dinner for humans. Why not?

Chicken livers also work great in this recipe, though we understand if you are now less keen to take a bite. Make extra servings so you can store plenty of leftovers in the freezer.

If your dog seems less-than-enthusiastic about the nightly ritual of dried kibble — we all know that look — then why not put your cooking skills to good use? It’s just one of the many ways we can show appreciation for our best bud.

With a generous helping of protein, fresh produce, and hearty grains, these recipes will get that tail wagging again. Don’t be surprised when that bowl is licked clean.

Hilary I. Lebow is a health journalist with fitness and nutrition certifications through the Yoga Alliance and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). When she’s not working, you’ll find her playing on the beach with her two dogs or exploring around Miami, the beautiful city she calls home. Read more of her work here.

Is Grain-Free Food Right for Your Dog or Cat?

The latest trend in pet foods is the introduction of grain-free dry kibble diets. The grain-free trend originated with raw diets as many proponents of raw food studied evolutionary dietary habits of our companions’ wild ancestors and decided that grains were unnecessary. While wolves and wild dogs may graze a bit on greens periodically, most of their nutrition comes from meat – including organ meat and the stomach and intestines of their prey which contain small amounts of partially digested grasses and other vegetation. No processed grains. In the wild, cats eat only meat and the very tiny amount of grain or vegetable matter a mouse or bird stomach might contain. So why is grain in most pet foods? Basically, because it is a less expensive source of nutrients and energy than meat, and because something has to hold a dry food together.

While grains are not necessarily bad for companion animals, they can cause problems for some. Allergies are becoming more widespread among dogs and cats, and grains seem to play a fairly significant role in aggravating allergies. Animals with some chronic or acute diseases such as diabetes and cancer often do better on a grain-free or low-carbohydrate diet. Grains and carbohydrates can also contribute to weight problems in our companion animals.

Is Grain Free Food Bad for Cats & Dogs?

Most cats are better off without grains. Cats are designed to acquire the protein and amino acids needed in their diet from meat. They do need some fiber in their diet since their lifestyle is not what it would be in the wild, but a small amount of steamed or ground vegetables is a good way to add fiber.

While grain-free diets are reminiscent of the Atkins diet for humans, they may not be the best choice for every overweight animal. Some less active animals have gained weight on the grain-free kibbles. Keep in mind that if the animal is getting what it needs from less food, then you can cut down on the amount you feed. In other words–Fluffy may have needed ½ cup of cat food that contained rice or oats as a large part of it’s content. With a grain-free food that is as much as 50% meat, she will not need as much food to obtain the same amount of nutrition–1/3 to ¼ cup may be all she needs now. Every animal is different–you will need to be the judge of how much to feed, not the label on the bag.

Very active working and sporting dogs may lose weight on a completely grain-free diet. Rotating a grain-free food with other foods may be a better option for more active dogs.

Puppies and kittens as well as pregnant and nursing mothers can use the extra protein and nutrients from a grain-free food. Remember to feed extra for these high-need individuals three meals a day until they are 4-6 months old, and for pregnant and nursing moms, too.

Monchie, a 3-year-old Pomeranian

We feed Monchie a homemade diet consisting of 50% lean protein (like white meat or white fish) and 50% fresh chopped vegetables (like spinach, kale, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, or brussels sprouts). Vegetables can be raw or lightly steamed or blanched, depending on your dog's preference. We change up the ingredients depending on what&rsquos in our fridge.

With homemade diets, a comprehensive vitamin mineral supplement is essential. So we add a supplement called PAAWS to balance out the homemade meals.

Feeding dogs a balanced homemade diet is a big step up from commercial food, and it&rsquos fairly straightforward. You want to aim for a mix of ⅓ lean protein, ⅓ long-acting carbs such as rice, and ⅓ vegetables. For dogs who need to lose weight, or if you&rsquore concerned about allergies, cut out the carbs and feed your pooch a mix of ½ lean protein and ½ green veggies. The veggies won&rsquot cause diarrhea or gas.
&mdashCarol Osborne, DVM, founder of Chagrin Falls Pet Clinic

Why might someone choose to go grain-free instead of just gluten-free?

Grains are thought to cause inflammation in the body, in a similar manner that gluten does for those with a gluten intolerance, sensitivity, and celiac disease. In a former article on the difference between grain-free and gluten-free diets, Stacey Marcellus, cofounder and co-CEO of Cappello's—a grain-free frozen food company—explains a common reason why someone might opt out of eating grains.

"Most who embrace a grain-free lifestyle are looking to ease digestive issues, relieve inflammation, and balance gut health. Going grain-free means going that extra step beyond gluten-free and eliminating all grains, including corn, rice, and quinoa," she says.

Kelli McGrane MS, RD for the food-tracking app Lose It! also explained in that article that while diets free of grain are thought to reduce chronic inflammation and alleviate bloating, there currently isn't enough long-term research to support these claims.

"However, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which is a type of grain-free diet, has been shown to help reduce symptoms in individuals with inflammatory bowel disease," says McGrane.

RELATED: Your guide to the anti-inflammatory diet that heals your gut, slows the signs of aging, and helps you lose weight.

When Grain-Free is Still a Good Idea

While non-grain-free diets will be the best option for most dog owners, some pooches may still need to pass up grains for certain reasons, including:

  • Allergies. There are some dogs who have grain allergies, although the vast majority of dogs are not allergic to grains. Keep in mind that grain-related allergies like celiac disease are much more common in humans than dogs. Protein allergies are muchmore common for canines.
  • Gas and Digestion. Despite grain allergies being uncommon, some dogs still simply can’t digest grains well, leading to tummy troubles and excessive gas. If your dog seems gassier than normal, it may be worth trying a switch to a grain-free diet to see if that helps.

Dogs on some popular, grain-free diets could be at risk of heart disease

Fiji, a female golden retriever, had taurine-deficient dilated cardiomyopathy. The DCM was reversed with diet change and taurine supplementation.

Quick summary

  • Some popular grain-free, legume-rich dog diets linked to nutritional deficiency
  • Heart disease developing in dog breeds not genetically prone to disease
  • Pet owners urged to take second look at their dog’s diet

University of California, Davis, veterinarians led a team that 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 study was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Researchers found dogs eating some of these boutique diets are not making or maintaining enough taurine, an amino acid important for heart health. Taurine deficiency has been known for many years to lead to dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, a heart muscle disorder that can lead to congestive heart failure and death.

“Given this recent surge in cases, we need to pay close attention to what we are feeding dogs,” said lead author Joshua Stern, a veterinary cardiologist and geneticist at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “Choosing a well-researched dog food that has a healthy nutrient profile backed by expert formulation and research is of paramount importance.”

Stern said while some dog breeds are more genetically prone to a traditional form of DCM, the disease is now showing up unexpectedly in other breeds, such as the golden retriever. The common link unifying these cases is their diets. He began noticing the trend two years ago and is now treating many dogs with nutritionally mediated DCM that were all eating quite similar diets. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an alert to pet owners and veterinarians about the potential association between the diets and DCM. The FDA continues to research this issue in an effort to help identify the exact dietary factor causing the problem.

Study looked at golden retrievers

Suva, a female golden retriever, was treated at UC Davis. She came out of heart failure after switching diets.
Credit: Jamie Warren

Stern’s research involved 24 golden retrievers with dilated cardiomyopathy and a documented taurine deficiency, representing the largest collection of cases with this condition that has been published. Twenty-three of the 24 dogs diagnosed with DCM had also been fed diets that were either grain-free, legume-rich or a combination.

Stern then prescribed the dogs a diet change and taurine supplementation. As a result, all but one dog improved. Nine of 11 dogs in this group with the most advanced stage of the disease, congestive heart failure, also showed dramatic improvements or no longer had congestion.

“This study helped us confirm that this condition is treatable and avoidable, something that traditional DCM of genetic origins is not,” said Stern.

Stern said consumers who are concerned about their dog’s health, should not naively switch their dog’s diet or simply add a taurine supplement. Instead, consult with your vet as dogs can develop DCM from nutritional origins and not be taurine-deficient. Taurine supplements can also mask the problem and lead to a delay of an important diagnosis.

DCM cases involve different dog food brands and formulas

Table 2. List of pet food brands with their diet varieties and characteristics.
For each pet food variety, the number of dogs diagnosed with DCM fed this diet and the number of dogs with taurine deficiency fed this diet were listed. G = grain-free diet, L = if a legume is listed as one of the first five ingredients of the diet. Note that one dog on diet 1a is the same dog receiving diet 9m. The one dog receiving diet 8k is the same dog receiving diet 8l. (Click to view larger)
Credit: PLOS One: Taurine deficiency and dilated cardiomyopathy in golden retrievers fed commercial diets

Stern urged pet owners to take a second look at their dog’s diet. Cases of DCM have been reported in dogs eating multiple different brands and formulas of food.

The problem may not be that the diet is “grain-free” or “legume-heavy” but that ingredients are interacting to reduce availability of taurine or that other nutrients are missing or interacting in the formulation.

For example, while a lot of pet owners may not want to see “byproducts” in their dog’s food, often the byproducts contain organ meat like heart and kidney, which are good sources of taurine.

“Pet owners should ask themselves if they’re buying the food because it sounds good to them, or whether it’s right based on veterinary research and evidence,” said Stern. “Staying away from some of the most common marketing gimmicks may help to protect your pet.”

For more information on selecting foods for your pet, Stern recommends that clients consider using the recommendations set by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association for selecting a healthy dog food.

Co-authors of the study include Andrea Fascetti and Jennifer Larsen, veterinary nutritionists with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and Joanna Kaplan, a veterinary cardiology resident in the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.

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