The Heart of the Grain-Free Debate

Dr. Doug Knueven has been practicing veterinary medicine in Beaver County, PA since 1987 and practicing alternative veterinary medicine since 1995. He lectures at state and national veterinary conferences. He has written two books: Stand by Me: A Holistic Handbook for Animals, Their People and the Lives They Share Together, and The Holistic Health Guide: Natural Care for the Whole Dog.

By Guest Contributor Doug Knueven, DVM, CVA, CVC, CVCH

Since last July when the FDA released a warning regarding a possible link between grain-free dog food and the development of Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), the grain-free debate has raged on. Before we get into the grain-free issue, let’s back up and look at the disease we’re talking about. DCM is an ailment of the heart muscle brought on by a weakening in the muscle tissue. It is the most common cause of heart disease in certain large-breed dogs such as the Great Dane, Boxer, and Doberman Pincer, so there is a genetic component. However, this disease is also linked to a deficiency of the amino acid taurine in a dog’s blood.

The concern with grain-free diets is that they might lead to taurine deficiency. Most caregivers choose grain-free foods because they realize that grains are an unnatural ingredient in a dog’s diet. What they don’t appreciate is that grain-free diets simply replace the grain with ingredients such as peas, lentils, legumes, or potatoes, which are equally inappropriate foods for dogs. In addition, these grain replacers contain anti-nutrients which are natural plant compounds that interfere with the digestion and/or absorption of nutrients such as taurine. So, grain-free dog food manufacturers may formulate their diets to contain adequate taurine, but not account for the amount lost to the anti-nutrients in the diet’s novel components.

The grain-free link to DCM has brought conventional veterinary nutritionists down from their ivory towers and into the media. They are using the concern over grain-free diets to extol the value of grain in dog foods. The mantra of the nutritionists is that, when it comes to pet foods, it’s not the ingredients that are important, but the nutrients. I suppose that they themselves eat “People Chow” rather than freshly prepared meats, vegetables, and fruits.

Pet caregivers are understandably confused. They seem to be forced to choose between foods with crummy ingredients, including grains, with adequate taurine, and dog food with nice looking ingredients that might cause heart disease. Some people have become convinced that corn is good for dogs (which is obviously not true).

For me, this whole grain-free debate is moot. The truth is that no matter how “natural” the ingredients, there is no processed dog food (grain-free or otherwise) that is appropriate for dogs. Dogs have evolved over millions of years to eat a balanced, raw diet such as that of wolves. That’s why their dental structures are nearly identical. A truly natural diet for a dog is free of grains, peas, lentils, legumes, potatoes and other starchy ingredients. It has all the needed taurine and no anti-nutrients.