3610 Comfort Dr NW, Bemidji, MN 56601

The “Grain-Free” Dilemma

November 14th, 2018 by bemidji

There have been recent news stories about grain-free dog foods causing heart disease. The claims are causing panic among pet owners that have been feeding these diets. We are gathering the details to put your mind at ease, though the studies are still in process and the information is not complete. We will try to bring you updates as they emerge; here is what we know so far.


The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is the government agency that oversees food and drug safety for both humans and animals. It is important to understand that the FDA is investigating a possible link of grain-free foods to Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). It is much too early to jump to the conclusion that these diets are solely to blame.

 “Grain Free”

At this point it is believed that it is not the lack of grain, but what is replacing the grain that is the possible cause. The foods contain peas, lentils, other legumes or potatoes as their main ingredients. The difference in the diet causes reduced taurine production, increase taurine-degrading microbes in the intestine, and reduced bile acid production. Taurine is an amino acid essential for heart health. These are factors that can lead to a disease called Dilated Cardiomyopathy. For pets on a grain-free diet long term, blood tests are available to monitor taurine levels .

“Grain-free” and other pet food trends often come along with fads in the human diet world. Pet food companies tend to take advantage and market diets that mirror current human diet trends. Consumers believe that since it is “healthy” for humans, it must also be beneficial to pets; this is not true. It is important to understand that canine and feline nutritional requirements are vastly different from humans.

Good Grains

Grains are an important ingredient in pet foods. There has yet to be reliable research to demonstrate that grain-free diets offer any health benefit over diets that contain grain, except in rare occasions where an allergy to a specific grain has been diagnosed in a patient. More often the protein (chicken, beef, etc.) is the offending allergen.

Commercial diets that contain grains have been around for a long time. They have been more thoroughly tested (both in clinical settings and through widespread use) than newer diets that use non-grain sources of carbohydrates. Our veterinarians and staff know and trust the science and research behind the products from the big four pet food companies: Hill’s Science Diet, Royal Canin, Iams, and Purina. None of the current cases under investigation by the FDA are linked to any of these companies.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy

Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a characterized by a weakening of the heart muscles allowing the heart to become enlarged and flabby, decreasing its ability to function. Fluid begins to accumulate in the patient’s lungs, which progresses into congestive heart failure.

Early signs of DCM may include:

  • Difficulty breathing, rapid or excessive breathing, or seeming shortness of breath
  • Lethargy, decreased energy
  • Coughing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Collapse

This disease is often seen in large breeds such as Great Danes, Newfoundlands, Irish Wolfhounds, Saint Bernards and Doberman Pinschers. The recent cases have been reported in other breeds not normally pre-disposed to this disease. This prompted the veterinarians to report the atypical cases to the FDA, which started to see a possible pattern emerging.


There are many differing opinions on nutrition and diets. At Bemidji Veterinary Hospital we believe in medicine tailored specifically for each patient. Consult your veterinarian for any diet and nutrition questions and before any changes. If you are changing your pet’s diet, we recommend doing so gradually over 1-2 weeks. Start by mixing in a small amount of the new food with the old food. Then gradually increase the amount of new food while decreasing the amount of old food until fully transitioned.