Grain free food has been steadily growing in popularity as more and more pet owners are learning to be savvy about reading ingredients of the foods they feed to their dogs. Camp Cocker Rescue has been feeding our dogs grain free food since we started rescuing back in 2006. The one thing we tell adopters, is to be diligent about reading the ingredients of any commercial pet foods they use (including dog treats). Ingredients to avoid are starchy fillers such as corn, gluten, by-products and anything with the generic word “meat” or “animal” in the ingredients. These generic terms refer to “protein” sources that cannot be identified by name so as not to upset consumers. Just google more about what types of animal protein come from rendering plants that supply the dog food industry with cheap “meat.”
Avoid the hysteria, let’s break down the facts
In July of 2018, the FDA announced it was investigating if there was a link between grain free dog food and heart problems in dogs. Specifically Canine Dilated Myopathy aka DCM as discussed in this 2017 article by Cornell University, mentioning Great Danes and Cocker Spaniels. Reports that dogs developing DCM (canine dilated cardiomyopathy) could “possibly” be related to diets that had PULSES. Most people don’t know what pulses are, we had to google it ourselves to get more informed.
Pulses are part of the legume family (any plants that grow in pods), but the term “pulse” refers only to the dry edible seed within the pod. Beans, lentils, chickpeas and split peas are the most common types of pulses.
In July of 2018, the FDA issued a warning stating that “certain types of diets” may be contributing to nutritional deficiencies in dogs.
Grain Free diets are NOT the cause!
The link between DCM cases reported to the FDA were dogs that had a deficient amount of Taurine in their diets. It has yet to PROVE the link, but right now the link is SPECULATIVE that diets with pulses may be creating a taurine deficiency in dogs. A taurine deficiency can be linked to heart problems. The FDA has NOT issued a warning about grain free diets being linked to DCM. They have said there is a “possible link” between a diet with Pulses to Taurine Deficiency, the Taurine Deficiency can lead to DCM.
A simple solution if you are concerned about taurine deficiency
Our holistic vet suggested an easy and YUMMY solution to anyone concerned about a taurine deficiency . . . simply add Sardines to your dog’s diet a few times a week. In fact, our holistic vet says that adding sardines to your dog’s diet is even better than adding fish oil or omega 3 supplements because you are getting more benefits directly from the sardines. Sardines are full of omega-3 fatty acids and Coenzyme Q10 (aka C0Q10). The fatty acids have many health benefits, like cancer prevention, reducing inflammation, and keeping the immune system strong. CoQ10 supports a healthy heart and circulation. We get the unsalted sardines in spring water from Trader Joe’s and it is so affordable, the dogs LOVE it! (always buy wild caught sardines, packed in water)
For dogs on a diet or needing to watch their weight, keep in mind that one sardine is about 25 calories, so perhaps only limit it to a half of a sardine if you are going to do it every other day, or one sardine twice a week for dogs that need to lose weight. Since sardines are small, they tend to have less mercury in them than larger fish like Salmon or Cod.
Is DCM a NEW problem?
Not at all. In the early 1980s, veterinarians began reporting increased incidences of DCM in pet CATS. By 1987, a role for dietary taurine was suspected. In a seminal study, a veterinary researcher at UC Davis reported low plasma (blood) taurine levels in 21 cats with clinical signs of DCM. 1 When the cats were supplemented with taurine, all 21 recovered from the disease. This discovery led to a series of controlled studies that supported the existence of taurine-deficiency DCM in cats who were fed diets that contained sufficient concentrations of taurine.
A study was done of 12 dogs between 1997 and 2001, that linked taurine deficiency to DCM. All 12 dogs were being fed by their owners a commercial dry diet containing lamb meal, rice, or both as primary ingredients. This was well before grain free dog food hit the consumer market. Cardiac function and plasma taurine concentration improved with treatment and taurine supplementation. Seven of the 12 dogs that were still alive at the time of the study were receiving no cardiac medications except taurine.
This was WELL BEFORE the existence of grain free diets on the consumer market and a commercial diet with lamb meal and rice as the primary ingredients is what all twelve dogs had been eating. The solution was to supplement with taurine and it turned around the DCM.
So why is the veterinary community warning dog owners to avoid grain free foods?
We’ve seen several veterinarians that we have personally gone to, begin to publicly condemn grain free diets and encourage that consumers feed their dogs foods manufactured by . . . . (get ready, this list is SHOCKING) . . . .
Hill’s Science Diet, Royal Canin, Purina and Iams/Eukanuba. YUCK! Just read the ingredients of any of these dog foods, you will find plenty of corn, gluten and by-products as well as the generic ingredients labeled “meat” or “animal”.
Additionally Hill’s is the number two employer of veterinarians in the U.S. (only second behind the employment of veterinarians by the 27 U.S. veterinarian colleges). Hill’s has written the ONLY formal nutrition-certification program being taught in vet schools. That would be like the cigarette industry writing the medical safety recommendations of nicotine for doctors. Isn’t it crazy that Hill’s is teaching their version of nutrition to future veterinarians? (as an interesting side note, Hill’s is owned by Colgate whom has perfected the art of getting future dentists to recommend Colgate products through the same tactics to dental students).
It is also interesting to note that the first study done from 1997 to 2001 linked commercial dog foods with lamb meal/rice to DCM, yet the veterinary community did not condemn dog food with lamb meal and rice. This leads one to deduce that the current hysteria instilling fear into pet owners about grain free foods is not really about any scientific evidence and is being driven more by the food companies that stand to benefit from pet owners switching away from grain free foods and buying Purina, Iams/Eukanuba, Royal Canin or Hill’s Science Diet.
It can be frustrating as a pet owner to feel pressured by a veterinary professional whom is supposed to have your dog’s best interests in mind. Please don’t blame your veterinarian if they have only been taught “nutrition” by Hill’s. If you can find a holistic veterinarian to go to, just for nutritional advice, it will really help to give you unbiased information. Pet owners often view holistic vets as not “real vets” but actually they are real veterinarians whom have gone on for additional education in treating the animals’ bodies for longevity and whole body wellness.
What has been learned about diet and taurine
Okay, here’s the nerdy science stuff that everyone is going to be tremendously bored with. The 1980s studies with cats found that several dietary factors influenced taurine status. These were the level and type of dietary protein, the amount and type of dietary fiber, and the degree of heat that was used during food processing. These factors could affect taurine status in three ways: Bile Acid Binding, Increased Microbial Degradation and Reduced Taurine Availability. (before we lose you here and go into more details, just google this stuff to learn more)
Why are cockers affected more than other breeds?
Certain breeds of dogs, and possibly particular lines within breeds, exhibit a high prevalence of taurine-deficiency DCM. Genetically predisposed breeds include the American Cocker Spaniel, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, Saint Bernard, Newfoundland, and English Setter. Although the exact underlying cause is not known, it appears that some breeds have either a naturally occurring higher requirement for taurine or a metabolic abnormality that affects their taurine synthesis or utilization. Simply adding Sardines to the diet can resolve this!
If you want to check your dog’s taurine levels
If you are still really worried about your dog’s taurine levels, you can simply get a taurine plasma test at your veterinarian to check the current taurine status of your dog.
Just tell me what to feed my dog!
Soooo many adopters and pet owners just want to be told what to feed their dog. Our best advice is for the pet owner to learn how to read ingredients. The first three to five ingredients generally make up eighty percent of what is in the food so you really want to google those ingredients to learn and understand what you are feeding your dog.
Since the cocker spaniel breed is often prone to ear infections and skin problems that can be related to allergens such as chicken and grains (rice and wheat being a big allergen trigger) - it was just easier for us to feed the entire rescue group a grain free diet.
Sure, some of the dogs we rescue won’t have allergies to chicken or grains but those are things that future adopters can test out on their adopted dogs once the dogs begin their new lives. It’s not worth it to feed the entire rescue group foods that we know have a higher chance for allergen triggers. Once we get the dogs out of the shelters and get their initial ear infections cleared up, it’s surprising how few of them have re-occurring infections. This must be related to the diet (and we are super careful to not use treats with grains or chicken).
We want to really encourage pet owners to take the power into their own hands and to start reading ingredients of anything they feed their dogs. Once you have the power to read ingredients and understand them, you will be better prepared to have a conversation with your veterinarian about nutrition. Many of the “prescription” foods have primarily corn, gluten and by-products and when you are armed with an understanding of what those ingredients mean, you can better have a conversation with your vet about alternatives to the prescription foods.
We have a vet we are using right now that we LOVE and even though she recommends foods with grains and foods by Royal Canin, she is willing to talk about these foods with us and talk about alternatives to those foods. One thing she has suggested that we are currently experimenting with is “grain friendly” foods. Grain “friendly” being foods with oats in them.
Also, she supports us when we opt to feed our dogs home made diets from Just Food For Dogs. You can download their recipes on their website for free HERE. UC Davis Veterinary school also has many home prepared diet recipes posted HERE. You can get nutritional supplements for your home prepared diets either from Just Food for Dogs or from Balance It (developed by UC Davis).