For four years now, there has been a debate raging about the safety of grain-free foods. In 2018, the FDA opened an investigation into an apparent surge of Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), a heart disease in dogs. The following year, 2019, they “updated” their investigation with zero new evidence, no published report on their findings, and no conclusive link between grain-free dog food and DCM. Since that time, however, you have seen practically nothing new about this. No new information. No published report. Nothing for the grain-free-condemning folks to hang their hat on. The reason? There is simply not enough evidence of a link to even warrant spending the money on a study! Keep that in mind as you read.
Commercial grain-free dog food has been around since 1995. Since that time, it has become a huge phenomenon, garnering over 45% of the market share (in dollars) of dog food for America’s 77-90 million dogs (depending on whose number you use). Because grain-free food is much more expensive than grain-laden kibble, it is not 45% of the dogs eating grain-free food, though. It’s estimated to be just over 10% of the total, or about 8-9 million dogs eating grain-free food.
Most of the major grain-free brands have been around for over 20 years, and did not change their formulas in that time. That’s important to remember as you read this information.
The charge is that grain-free food that is loaded with peas and legumes as carbs, rather than corn, wheat, soy and other grains (those three are the worst ones, and the most commonly used in commercial kibble), creates an inability in dogs to produce enough taurine, a chemical in the body. Lack of taurine can result in DCM, which can be fatal. DCM can also be caused by a genetic predisposition, and that cause is more common than a suspected dietary link.
That was the constant refrain back in 2018-19. A surge in cases of DCM in dogs began to be reported by vets in 2018, and was reported to the FDA, which proceeded to open an investigation, that can be found here, on the FDA’s web site. If you read this entire government post (and I encourage you to, because it actually supports what I’m saying) you will find out all the ingredients they looked at, the diagnostic testing, etc., etc., ad nauseum. It’s all there, but they reached no conclusion! The truth is, they DID reach a conclusion, but they didn’t announce it like they trumpeted the “investigation”. I will post just one of the many bar graphs in the government article, because that alone gives even the casual observer the answer to this question that they are looking for.
Yeah, but… Dogs Are Dying!
This graph clearly shows the numbers of affected dogs that we are talking about here. A quote from the paragraph with this graph from the FDA: “Between January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2019, the FDA received 524 reports of DCM (515 canine reports, 9 feline reports). Approximately 222 of these were reported between December 1, 2018 and April 30, 2019 (219 canine reports, 3 feline reports).
So, let’s do the math. Let’s “follow the science”! For the sake of argument, we’ll use the lower number of total dogs in the US, approximately 77 million. Of those 77 million, just over 10% eat grain-free kibble, about 8 million dogs. In the five years of the most vigorous reporting by vets and pet owners, there were 524 reports over a 5-year period. At its height, there were 320 cases reported in 2018. It has significantly declined since then. We see then, that all cases reported in that five-year period represent sickness (not death) in 0.0066% of dogs eating grain-free food. That’s simply getting the disease. The death toll from this supposed link was 19 dogs! That’s right. 19 dogs out of 8 million! That is 0.0051%, in other words, one five-thousandth of one percent! In still other words, it’s about one in every 421,000 dogs, assuming there actually IS a link, which is highly questionable at all. Even if there actually IS a link, you’re dog has WAY more chance of dying from virtually any of the cancers and conditions that your breed is susceptible to. Your dog has much more likelihood of dying in an accident in your car, or drowning in your pool, or getting hit by a train. Seriously.
Folks are going to battle over a “suspected” and unproven link between grain-free food and lack of taurine production, when that condition is also genetic. And they’re doing it based on a death-rate of 0.0051%. It’s absurd on its face.
But wait, there’s more! In a capitalist society, which ours still has the last remnants of, the market always responds to new developments quickly (as opposed to government entities), so they don’t lose market share. The grain-free food industry has done the same thing, and immediately started adding taurine as a supplement in their kibbles in 2019. The reports of DCM being reported in the last 2 years is nearly zero. But there are still “experts” and vets claiming that grain-free food is dangerous! This author has written a great piece that “follows the money” and offers a rational explanation for the continued warnings, despite the lack of evidence. It also links to dozens of experts that hold the same position as I do.
Folks, it’s pretty obvious to the most casual observer, that if grain-free food actually was killing dogs, there would be an FDA update, there would be warnings being blasted everywhere, and the FDA would definitely be posting the sickness and death numbers from 2020 and 2021. Those are nowhere to be found.
Back to Basics
Let’s go back to basics here for a minute, folks. Dogs are carnivores! There are those out there that like to claim that dogs are omnivores (will eat anything as part of their regular diet). But they are not. They are classified as “Facultative Carnivores”. In short, they can and will eat plant matter (but not insects and such, as omnivores do), but they do not require it, and they obviously do not prefer it. That’s an easy one to prove. Set a nice plate of veggies and corn and wheat and soy down on the floor next to a nice plate of raw meat. Is there any question about which which plate ANY dog would polish off in a few seconds, and which plate would remain untouched? I rest my case.
To further this argument, here is another article on the science of dogs’ dietary needs, based on their own biology. Dogs have the type of jaws and teeth created for tearing and grinding meat. They have the salivary enzymes in their mouth to break down meat, different from the enzymes in the mouths of herbivores and omnivores. They also have an intestinal tract that is designed to break down and process a load of meat as opposed to grains or herbs.
The fact is, commercial dog food was developed as a way for farmers to sell corn that was not fit for the human market. Prior to that, all dogs everywhere were simply fed from the family’s store of food and scraps. If we follow the money, we can see that there is plenty of politics to go around, even in the dog food business, and the FDA actually jumped right into it.
This article (also linked above), called A Canine Controversy: Dueling Reports on the Safety of Grain-Free Dog Foods is a must-read on this “controversy”. in this article the author lays out the money trail of the protagonists in this debate, the ones claiming that grain-free food is killing dogs. In July of 2019, the FDA produced a list of actual brand names of food that were being fed to affected dogs, as part of the update. They named brand names, and did significant financial damage to those brands, with zero proof of a connection whatsoever! This article shows the financial incentives that certain entities that were furthering the “danger” narrative had, to report the way they have. Yes, politics. Even in dog food.
Make no mistake, we’re plenty political over here, as any of you that follow us on Facebook know. But not about dog food. No.
The Bottom Line
The best diet for your dog, by far, is raw feeding. Many people lack either the time or the finances to feed raw, as it can consume a lot, both in cost and food prep time. If you have the financial ability, there are freeze-dried, ready-made meals from many different vendors now, the choices are endless.
Nearly any grain-free food is going to be better nutritionally, than the most fancy and expensive food that is loaded with corn, wheat and soy.
At Covenant Farm Puppies we start all of our puppies out on grain-free kibble, and use 4Health, the store brand of Tractor Supply Co. Our adult dogs are not on an exclusively grain-free diet, because legumes (especially peas and pea flour) contain phytoestrogens, which mimic female hormone in bitches, and can cause temporary infertility. We discovered that the hard way when we tried to move all the dogs to a grain-free diet. We use a feed that has no corn, wheat or soy, but does contain some oats and barley, and no peas or pea flour. It was a compromise I had to make as a breeder.
Our web site has a page called Care & Feeding, that has all kinds of info on food, treats, meds and other useful stuff to check out.