Unfortunately, as is the case with many “buzzy” topics the media gets hold of, we heard a lot about a potential link between grain-free foods and DCM, but barely a peep about whether that link was ever verified. For those who like to follow a story to its conclusion, here’s an update (along with some very interesting info regarding possible bad actors).

Most of you know I’m a person of science and a bit of a data geek. I love good research. The opposite is also true…I hate shoddy science. In my opinion, the story of grain-free food and DCM is one of shoddy science (and, as it turns out, possibly worse, but more on that later).

As a refresher, there is a disease in dogs called Dilated Cardiac Myopathy (DCM). It can be life threatening. A handful of breeds (Dobies, Newfies, Cockers, Great Danes, Wolfhounds, Boxers and Schnauzers) are more pre-disposed to it than others. Basically, it’s a heart muscle weakening related to a taurine deficiency. A few years back, it seemed to be that veterinarians were reporting more cases of DCM in dogs of breeds not predisposed. A study was undertaken by the FDA to investigate causation. This study reported that it appeared that something these dogs had in common was that they were being fed grain-free diets. This statement was released very early on and on the basis of a relatively very small initial sample size (the number of dogs in the study). My impression at the time was that it was too little and too soon to come to any reliable conclusions. I was surprised that the information was even reported at such an early stage in the investigation.

That kind of tid-bit is something the media thinks gets people’s attention, so they of course ran with it, saying grain-free foods were causing DCM. In my estimation, in the absence of further data, that’s the scientific equivalent of saying everyone who eats tomatoes will die someday, therefore eating tomatoes will kill you.

Associated with the study was a group of veterinarians who came out with the recommendation that dog owners should only feed certain brands of food to their dogs…those manufactured by Hill’s, Purina, and Mars. That seemed curious because those brands, like many dog food brands, carried both grain-free and non grain-free formulas. That begged the question...Why were these veterinarians advocating for certain brands and not simply recommending discontinuing the use of grain-free food (at least until the study was completed and a link to DCM could actually be verified)? After all, there was no evidence that brand of food had anything to do with causation of DCM. Brands weren't even the focus of the study. (Again, more on this later.)

Anyway, the study continued and expanded to a larger sample size. Some better science was applied and the question was asked, “Is it the absence of grains, or the presence of something else in grain-free foods (like the legumes) that is related to DCM? Or was there really no dietary relation at all to DCM?”

Well, it turned out that no relationship could be found. The grain-free diets of the early sample group were likely just coincidental (or possibly the result of questionable data collection). Also, the supposed spike in number of cases of DCM seemed transient (or at least I can’t find any data supporting an ongoing increase). Of course, that wasn’t ”buzzy” news, so the results weren’t widely publicized or touted by the media, leaving the public confused over poor information on this topic.

Regarding some of the questions surrounding the study, it is of interest to note that recently a smaller dog food producer named Ketonatural has brought a $2 Billion suit against Hill’s claiming the original basis for the study was fraudulent and that Hill’s (along with Purina and Mars, who for various reasons unrelated to their potential complicity, are not named in the suit) contrived this to benefit their brands and harm others. There is a group of veterinarians named in the suit as well (the ones who issued the recommendation to feed only certain brands of food and who appear to have ties to those companies). The suit accuses Hill’s and the named veterinarians of fraudulently inducing the FDA to launch a study into DCM and then of mischaracterizing the results of subsequent studies in an effort to eradicate competition from smaller dog food brands. An article summarizing more of the suit can be found here: Hill’s Pet Nutrition Faces $2 Billion Lawsuit Alleging Fraudulent Claims Regarding BEG Dog Foods and DCM | Canine Chronicle. Within that article is also a link to the entire 124 pg. legal complaint. It will be interesting to see where this suit goes, but a resolution is likely far in the future.

So, setting aside for the moment the very serious charge of defrauding the FDA (and dog food consumers) brought in the suit and getting back to the question, “Is there a causal link between grain-free foods and DCM?” the very short answer is…NO. No evidence of any link was ever substantiated and now we have the specter of the possibility that the original study came about from contrived data.

If you are wondering about feeding a grain-free diet to your dog, here is what I tell people…grain allergies in dogs do exist, but they are rare. (I think my next blog will be on the topic of allergies.) If your dog truly has a grain allergy, then feed him or her grain-free food. If not, then use grain-free to vary the dog’s diet from a flavor and ingredient perspective. Grain-free is more expensive, so there is no need to pay the increased cost all the time if your dog isn’t allergic. Some grains are just filler…they don’t provide nutritional value to the dog. For that reason, stay away from foods that have wheat, corn, or soy. Our Tasteful Pets food never uses those. Corn is something some brands like to use because it is cheap and it raises the protein content of the food, however corn protein has little nutritional value. You want most of the protein coming from the meat/fish or egg product.

I hope this information is helpful. If you ever have any questions, please feel free to reach out and ask…you may not get a short answer from me, but you will get an accurate one!

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