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  Volume No. 16 Issue No. 9 September 2019  

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Dr. Jim Humphries

  Grain-free pet foods — controversial or safe?
  By Dr. Jim Humphries

   I try not to write about pet nutrition. Why? For every opinion, there are 1,000 other opinions vigorously touted by people with no evidence or facts to back up the strongly held belief. However, veterinarians nationwide are concerned about some direct link between grain-free pet food and a serious heart disease in dogs.
   When I visit a pet store, I shake my head in disbelief when I see all the designer fad foods that cover the shelves. Frankly, there is no reason for 1,500 types of pet food.  I've studied and trust the science in a couple of major high-end manufacturers, and I've never had a problem in the past 40 years feeding these kinds of diets.
   You certainly should try to match a diet for the age and type of pet you have; in addition, veterinarians have many prescription diets necessary when pets develop a disease that can be treated or controlled with food.
   But the latest trends seem to follow human diet trends, and that makes no sense. Companies are making pet food diets that mimic issues that are also fads in human health and diets. Most of these issues are blown out of proportion; yet, the expert pet food marketers will latch on so they can market yet another pretty bag of kibble at a high price. It reminds me of a cure looking for a disease!
   The money consumers spend on these foods has ballooned from $16 billion in 2007 to more than $29 billion in 2017. We now have dog and cat foods that are vegan, vegetarian, organic, raw, ketogenic, all-natural, gluten-free; you name it. I could write two years of columns on all these nutrition fads we put our poor pets through because of good marketing or the well-known bandwagon effect. Lately, there is the huge emphasis placed on feeding a grain-free diet. Grain-free dog food alone, according to “The New York Times,” accounted for just 15 percent of pet food sold in specialty stores in 2011; by 2017, that figure had climbed to 44 percent. Why?
   There is no evidence that feeding any sort of grain has deleterious effects on our dogs and cats. I have extremely healthy dogs and cats that will prove it.
   The popularity of grain-free pet foods is a head-scratcher for experts, who see the movement as a solution in search of a problem — as is so often the case in pet nutrition. A 2016 statement from the Clinical Nutrition Center at Tufts University read,"There is no reliable evidence that suggests that it is harmful to feed grains as a group to dogs or cats.” That advice apparently has not made it to the grain-free marketers.
   Food allergies are rare in cats and dogs. If a true food allergy does exist, it is generally caused by animal proteins like beef or chicken, rather than any sort of grain. In other words, unless you have gone through all the preliminary laboratory testing and then two to three months of elimination diet trials; there is no scientific reason to give your pet grain-free food. But, wow, put this on the shelf, and pet lovers will snap it up and cost or evidence be damned.
   These foods also seem to be more than just a waste of money. There is increasing concern among veterinarians that certain grain-free diets pose specific health risks to dogs, especially when they consume such a diet long-term.
   In July, the FDA released a statement about its investigation into reports that indicated grain-free dog food might be linked to a lethal heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), in which the heart becomes enlarged and ineffective at circulating blood. DCM is a genetic disease, more common in certain breeds like Doberman pinschers and other large breeds. When DCM began showing up in breeds like golden retrievers and other breeds that do not have a known genetic predisposition for the disease, experts took notice and found a troubling prevalence of grain-free diets among these cases. While no cause-and-effect relationship has yet been established, the findings are still concerning enough that they have changed the conversations we are having with our clients.
   According to a paper on the issue by the “Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association,”’Pet food marketing has outpaced the science, and owners are not always making healthy, science-based decisions even though they want to do the best for their pets.”'
   I understand why pet owners would buy into grain-free dog foods. But well-meaning pet owners should talk to a veterinarian before feeding faddish or unproven diets to their pets. The attractiveness of these products is more likely the result of good marketing, not sound science.
Dr. Jim Humphries is a veterinarian in Colorado Springs and also serves as a visiting professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. He lives in Falcon with his wife, horses and Great Danes.
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