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Written by Krista Schmidt, Owner

Hey St. PetersBARKers! You may have seen the news going around regarding grain-free diets for dogs. I have been asked by friends, customers, my staff, and family members what my thoughts are on the matter. With this blog, my intention is to bring a more reasonable, objective view of this news to the table.

What does the news say?

The news articles state that grain-free dog food could be (or is) causing Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs. I’ve also seen several articles mentioning that exotic proteins are also to be of concern. Most articles mention that a lack of taurine in grain-free foods is potentially the culprit. I saw an article that said you should look for dog food that contains corn and wheat instead of reading the labels. I’m not quite sure how anyone can get a dog food with corn or wheat without looking at the labels, but I digress. A few articles said to stop feeding grain-free foods specifically with legumes or sweet potatoes in them.

The FDA’s Statements

First, I want to address the news itself. The most disturbing thing (to me) is that news outlets are presenting a link between grain-free foods and DCM as established fact, when it is nothing more than a handful of reports from a few vets in the same geographical location. This is causing unnecessary panic with dog owners that are just trying to do everything right for their dogs. If you read the actual FDA statement, it is clearly worded that this topic is not fact and is currently under investigation. Here’s the headline (emphasis is mine), “FDA investigates cases of canine heart disease potentially linked to diet.” Furthermore, the FDA is calling out dog foods that contain “peas, lentils, other legumes or potatoes as their main ingredients”.  Nowhere in that statement does it condemn grain-free diets for dogs, and additionally, the article does not make any conclusions at this time about what is the best diet for dogs or what is in fact the cause of the DCM. The news outlets’ suggestions to switch off a grain-free diet immediately is a extremely premature, to say the least.

In fact, if you dig even deeper into the FDA site you find a Q&A list on this topic and even there the FDA mentions several times that they don’t know why any diet containing those ingredients listed above would cause DCM. Also the FDA says “at this time, we are not advising dietary changes based solely on the information we have gathered so far.” And finally, when asked  what is the safest food for my dog, the FDA noted “Different dogs have different nutritional needs based on a number of factors, so nutrition advice is not one-size-fits-all.”

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I am not calling this news hogwash or shrugging it off as something to ignore, I’m just saying the articles and blogs holding this investigation as fact are incorrect. The FDA is investigating a potential link between DCM and dog foods that contain certain ingredients; they are not saying, “hey everyone, you’ve been feeding the wrong food the whole time!” The panic this is causing sucks because we are unable to provide a real answer or course of action to our customers, friends, and family!

What actually is Taurine?

Secondly, I want to address what taurine is and why I think it’s interesting that only grain-free foods are being demonized. Taurine is an amino acid that’s critical for myriad functions, but most notably it is known for its support of the cardiovascular system in dogs, cats, humans, etc. Taurine has been considered a “conditional” amino acid for dogs, since they–unlike cats–are supposed to be able to make taurine from other amino acids (cysteine and methionine). Taurine can also be obtained from a dog’s diet. It is found in animal products such as milks, fish, meat, organs, eggs, etc. You do not find taurine in grains, veggies, legumes, or fruit.

In addition to calling out grain-free dog food, the news articles are placing blame on exotic proteins and boutique dog food as well. This is where I see a lot of red flags. The grain-free dog food and grain-in dog food that we (we’re in that “boutique” category) carry are all meat and meat meal (concentrated protein) based. Remember that taurine comes from animal products, not grains. All the food we carry has been carefully selected to contain meat-based ingredients first on the ingredient list, and on top of that, the food we carry has roughly the same meat content throughout the entire shop regardless of the food containing grains or not. This is true of our dry, dehydrated, canned, and raw foods (not that any of our raw foods have grains.) For these reasons, it is unclear how taurine factors into the grain-free vs. grain-in diet debate, and there has yet to be a reason to demonize grain-free diets when it comes to taurine deficiencies.

The biggest error I see in the news that has come out is the blanket statement and assumption that because the reported dogs were eating a grain-free diet it means that a grain-in diet is the obvious course of action feed to avoid DCM. This is a logical fallacy (or one of many) and is unfortunately freaking pet parents out.

With that said, it is important to mention that there are taurine level differences between different species of animal and type of animal product. On top of that there are nutritional differences between brands that are considered grain free. For example there are usually quality differences between grocery store food and something that we carry. Furthermore with cooked food (like kibble), especially at a high heat, there is some loss of nutrients. Also, legumes are known to contain anti-nutrients and could potentially be stopping certain amino acids or nutrients from being properly absorbed by the dog. Maybe after the FDA does their research we’ll find out that specific animal proteins should be avoided for dogs OR that taurine needs to be added back into the food after it’s been cooked. We just simply don’t have enough answers yet.

I looked high and low for current AAFCO minimums on how much taurine dog food companies have to include in their foods, but there aren’t actually any guidelines for dog food (only cat food). Potentially what we might see come out of this news is similar to what happened with cat food a few decades ago where AAFCO comes out with taurine guidelines and minimum required amounts for dog food. Remember that dogs, unlike cats, should be able to synthesize their own taurine with a meat-based diet, which is why AAFCO never set a minimum. That said, we have received many emails from the vendors that we carry in our stores with statements about the taurine levels in their grain-free foods. All of them have stated that they either add taurine to their food or they don’t need to because they use so many animal products that the taurine levels are naturally really high.

So what do I do?

We believe you should feed your pets the food that works best for them (based on their size, age, allergies, medical concerns, picky-ness, etc) AND still fits within your budget & lifestyle. For some folks that means feeding all raw. For some it’s only canned because their dog is so picky it won’t eat anything else. For others it’s feeding a high quality kibble with bone broth on top. Some of you home-cook for your pets, and that’s awesome! The list goes on and on.

Finally, I think it does the natural pet and dog boutiques a huge disservice to demonize the foods we sell that we carefully and meticulously pick out. We are here because we love your pets as much as you do, and we genuinely want to help you and guide you to the best diet for your dog and cat! It’s irresponsible for me to tell you that grain-in Fromm is better than grain-free Nutrisource because it might not be! I will be keeping a close eye on this subject over the next several months and will post updates.

Taking my opinion into consideration, if you are still interested in a decently inexpensive way to add taurine-rich foods to your dog’s diet, we would like to make the following recommendations:

  1. Take a peek in our freezer to add either the recommended daily dose of goat’s milk or cow’s milk kefir to your dog’s food
  2. Also from the freezer grab a box of Answers Rewards Goat Cheese treats and give a few to your dog daily
  3. You could also grab one of our favorite supplements, Nupro, to make a gravy and add to your dog’s food
  4. Crack a raw egg or scramble up some eggs to top your dog’s food a few times a week (bonus points if they’re pasture-raised or backyard chicken eggs! These are super nutrient-dense and healthier than conventional eggs)
  5. Substitute some portion of your dog’s dry food (grain-free or grain-in) with raw food which is packed with tons of amino acids

FDA Release