What’s Up with “Grain Free” Diets and Heart Disease?
And What Should I Feed My Pet?
So glad you asked! Sustenance can be such a hotbed topic and I am happy to share my knowledge and personal recommendations.
First, since I don’t have the time (and I’m guessing you don’t either!) for ongoing daily veterinary nutrition research, my recommendations come from the people that DO study veterinary nutrition day in and day out because they are THAT passionate about the subject. These doctors are known as American College of Veterinary Nutrition Diplomates–or Boarded Veterinary Nutritionists. These docs (like me) have no motive other than identifying and integrating nutritional needs for the most optimal health and longevity of your pets.
Even as a veterinarian, I have walked down the seemingly miles of pet food aisles in pet stores and been utterly overwhelmed by the vast selection of shiny bags and fantasmical health claims. The US pet food market has reached $66 BILLION. We spend a LOT of money feeding our pets–which is a big incentive for all sorts of business (ie profit minded) people to jump on the gravy train (sorry, couldn’t resist).
Savvy business advertisers, with little to no veterinary nutrition knowledge, find they can legally bite into the pet food market by solely tapping into pet owners’ emotions (because, c’mon, who DOESN’T feel emotional about nourishing their dog or cat?). Market research shows we love word and catch phrases like “organic”, “grain free”, “whole food ingredients”, “gluten free”, “free range chicken”, “natural”, “dental care”, “coat/skin care”, “freeze dried”, “meat is the first ingredient”, “corn free”, “just like their ancestors”, celebrity endorsed”. Combine these claims with an adorable and beautiful package (let alone a sympathetic and earnest pet store “nutrition counselor”) and we’re sold! And, feeling pretty self righteous about providing our pets the best food!
IN REALITY, however, many of these beautifully marketed foods are FAR from optimal for the health of pets. A recent and frightening example is the link identified between DCM (dilated cardiomyopathy) in dogs and several grain free diets. DCM is often an expensive and irreversible condition resulting in congestive heart failure and death. Veterinary Nutritionists have now coined the acronym “BEG” for these imbalanced diets. BEG stands for BOUTIQUE, EXOTIC INGREDIENTS, GRAIN FREE diets. These are the exact beautifully packaged, emotional catch phrased, “pet counselor” recommended foods we feel so good about buying. Among other factors within BEG diets, it is theorized that the substitution of lentils and chickpeas for grain by these companies, leads to a nutritional deficiency in taurine–an amino acid required for heart health and prevention of DCM.
So, what to feed?
My goal is that your pet eat an individualized diet that keeps him/her as healthy as possible, s(he) feels good on, and increases longevity. Avoid the temptation to fall for marketing strategies and follow these basic guidelines instead:
- Choose a well known pet food company that employs at least one full-time QUALIFIED NUTRITIONIST (pHD Nutritionist or Boarded Veterinary Nutritionist)
- Choose a company that utilizes THEIR OWN manufacturing plants
- Choose a company that conducts and publishes NUTRITIONAL STUDIES for continued improvement to their diets and overall pet nutrition
- Choose a company that uses strict INTERNAL CONTROL TESTING and standards (for ingredients, end product, shelf life accountability)
You may hear veterinarians and Veterinary Nutritionists referring to the “BIG FOUR” pet food companies. These are the companies that have reliably, over the test of time, met the above requirements more often than not. They are PURINA, ROYAL CANIN, EUKANUBA and HILLS. These are also my go to trusted pet food companies for my own personal pets. My cat, Remmie, with a history of lower urinary tract inflammation, eats Purina Urinary Tract Care (dry and canned). My greyhound, Lykke, with a history of hemorrhagic diarrhea due to chronic whipworms (from track life) eats Royal Canin Hydrolyzed Protein. And no, veterinarians get no financial kickbacks from these recommendations! Your pet’s safety, health and wellbeing are behind this recommendation.
(And for those that want to prepare a home-made diet–I strongly recommend consulting with a Veterinary Nutritionist to avoid unsafe deficiencies as with the BEG diets. A great resource is acvn.org.)
As always, feel free to contact us to schedule an individual nutrition consultation or email us with specific questions!
Dr. Jennifer Kimmel