With the rise of grain-free dog foods, veterinarians started to notice a worrying trend; dogs eating these diets were found to be suffering from a rare heart condition. This illness, called Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), causes the heart muscle to weaken and can lead to sudden death. It is traditionally only seen in a handful of breeds including the Doberman Pinscher, the Great Dane, the Boxer, and the Cocker Spaniel.

In 2018, an investigation was launched to figure out exactly what was causing this heart condition in the wider population of dogs. The fact that many DCM patients were consuming grain-free food pushed researchers to pursue diet as a potential cause. 

What does the latest research tell us about grain-free diets for dogs?

So far, we haven’t established the exact cause of what appears to be diet-related DCM, but the latest research is pointing to the possibility of grain-free diets as a factor. Studies have shown that many dogs given a diagnosis of DCM will often have an improvement in cardiac function, with a diet switch to a grain-inclusive food.

Grain-free foods often include a relatively high proportion of peas, lentils, legumes and/or potatoes to balance the diet. Whether these ingredients or the lack of grain is the cause is yet to be established.

Why were grains removed from dog foods in the first place?

The myth that domestic dogs are unable to digest grains is likely to be a factor in the growing popularity of the grain-free diet. It has been well-documented that dogs can thrive on a grain-inclusive diet and have done so historically!

The great evolutionary success of the dog can be traced back to its evolution alongside human populations. This was achieved, in part, by the dog’s ability to adapt to consuming the carbohydrate-rich scraps and leftovers. There are no studies that have shown grain-inclusive diets to be detrimental to the health of our domestic dogs. In fact, the cooked grains in commercial diets provide many beneficial nutrients to the diet including vitamins, minerals, and fibre.

The grain-free statement on the label itself has also proven to be an attractive feature of certain dog foods. The absence claim labelling trend is on the rise as has been seen with the popularity of “free-from” foods on British shelves.

This category of products was originally created to satisfy the needs of individuals with allergies and intolerances. However, “free-from” foods are now being appreciated by the wider market and are perceived to be healthier than ones without a claim. Similarly, with dog foods, absence claims can make a diet seem like a better choice even when the reasons aren’t clear.

Is there any situation in which a dog would need a grain-free diet? What if my dog is allergic to grains?

It is rare that a dog would require a grain-free diet for medical reasons. The top two dietary allergens in dogs are beef and dairy products, with wheat coming in third. Additionally, in the case that a grain sensitivity does exist, it is unlikely that a dog will be triggered by all types of grain. If you suspect that your dog has a dietary allergy, have a chat with your veterinarian. Dietary allergies will require veterinary intervention for diagnosis and treatment.

In light of all this research, what type of diet should I be feeding my dog? 

Choosing the right diet for our dogs is tricky at the best of times. It seems like there is always some new trend that our friends are telling us to follow! When it comes to the question of grain-free diets, veterinarians recommended that dogs be fed a grain-inclusive diet unless there is a reason that makes it unsuitable.

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One thing to always look out for when choosing a food is an adequacy statement on the label. It should say that the diet is complete and balanced for a given canine life-stage. If you’re still unsure of what to feed, you can always speak to your veterinarian. They will be able to make recommendations for a food that is best suited to your dog and can help you make a switch, if needed. 

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Image source: Gentle Dog Trainers

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