Grain-free dog food exploded onto the pet food market around ten years ago, as pet owners grew concerned about corn and wheat allergies, dog obesity, and genetically modified ingredients.
Grain-free dog food, despite a higher price point, quickly took off. Instead of carbs like wheat, barley, corn, rice, buckwheat or oats — staple ingredients of commercial dog food for years — grain-free boasted ingredients like sweet potato, potato, legume, legume seeds, lentils and peas. Dogs ate it up at the behest of their humans.
In 2018, the New York Times reported that by 2017, grain-free pet food dominated nearly 44 per cent of the market and did around $2.8 billion in sales. The Times also reported that grain-free diets grew in popularity beginning in 2007, after pet food containing wheat gluten imported from China was found to be contaminated with melamine and 14,000 dogs got sick.
The reason for grain-free’s popularity may also have a very human rationale — gluten free (gluten is a general term for proteins found in wheat), low carb human diets also dominated headlines and eating habits. In 2012, around 30 percent of American adults claimed to be cutting down or avoiding gluten. In 2017, Forbes reported that 3.1 million people follow a gluten free diet.
Then, in mid 2018, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration announced it was investigating canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) occurring in dogs that had been eating specific pet foods, in particular ones labelled and sold as grain-free.
DCM is a serious and potentially lethal heart condition. It causes the heart to be unable to pump blood through a dog’s vascular system and can also cause blood to congest a dog’s lungs. Visible symptoms of DCM include lethargy, weakness, weight loss, collapse, coughing, panting and a swollen abdomen, which are symptoms of various illnesses in dogs.
The FDA investigation studied the diets of dogs reporting DCM. “Product labels were examined to determine whether the product was grain-free … and whether products contained peas, other lentils including chickpeas and beans, or potatoes (including sweet potatoes), the FDA’s report, FDA Investigation into Potential Link between Certain Diets and Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy notes. The FDA found that 90 per cent of the foods the dogs were eating were considered grain-free. This put a damper on the popularity of grain-free dog food.
Media, from publications like the Atlantic to public radio like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, covered the FDA story with headlines like “Grain-free dog food may be linked to deadly heart disease.”
Controversy still swirls and grain-free products remain on the market, even while sales drop and marketers have started promoting “legume free” products.
Advocates of more typical grains like wheat suggest dogs can eat it safely unless they have a proven gluten allergy, which is rare in dogs. Food allergies for dogs are more frequently protein related.
Since July 2018, the FDA has released three public reports on the status of their investigation about grain-free pet food.
“The definitive cause of canine DCM is the subject of debate, although a number of factors including nutritional, infections, and genetic predisposition have been implicated,” according to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.