In mid-July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made a troubling announcement that it was investigating a possible link between grain-free pet foods and canine heart disease, specifically canine dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM. Canine DCM is a disease of the heart muscle, resulting in an enlarged heart, and often resulting in congestive heart failure.
The FDA announcement suggested grain-free pet foods may be to blame, especially those containing legumes or potatoes, but no causation was established. The announcement mentioned only a small number of dogs who may have been affected. No brand names were implicated.
Two weeks later, The New York Times published an article titled “Popular Grain-Free Dog Foods May Be Linked to Heart Disease.” This article struck a chord for many conscientious pet owners, especially those who had been feeding grain-free pet foods for years in earnest, advice often taken at the behest of their trusted veterinarians and pet professionals.
There are notable reasons for the favor of grain-free foods for our dogs and cats. These pet foods exploded in popularity following the massive pet food recalls of 2007. Adulterated wheat and rice protein isolates were implicated in these recalls, which led consumers to look closer at the ingredient panels on the products they were choosing for their companions. After such devastating consequences, the move to grain-free pet foods made sense, especially because dogs and cats have no nutritive need for grains. Grains have been used in pet food for decade because they are inexpensive and palatable, not because of their health benefits.
These recalls shed a light on a number of problems in the pet food industry and increased interest in natural pet foods. Consumers wanted foods without meat byproducts, chemical preservatives, and the dyes and fillers found in conventional grocery store and veterinary formulas. Beyond that, they wanted to talk about truly biologically appropriate diets for dogs and cats.
They wanted to know more about fresh and raw pet foods, both commercial and those that they can prepare for their dogs and cats at home, and turned to places like Jeffrey’s Natural Pet Foods to learn about the process and local producers, including sourcing, ingredients, and production standards.
The pet food industry adapted to a more informed consumer. Natural pet food now makes up 71 percent of the pet food market. While grain-free pet foods have been popular diets for dogs with allergies and for weight control for years, this portion of the market is still growing rapidly, now at 43 percent of all pet foods and 10 percent over the previous year.
For those clients who aren’t ready to move to an all fresh or raw diet, which can be time or cost prohibitive, it’s important that they offer other healthy options, including freeze-dried or dehydrated food, canned food, and kibble.
So are grain-free pet foods healthier? Dogs are facultative carnivores, which means that while they are carnivores, they are also flexible, opportunistic, and can thrive on a variety of foods. Cats are obligate carnivores, with no biological need for grains or even what we would consider to be healthy, low-glycemic vegetables.
There isn’t much difference between most grain-free pet foods and their grain counterparts as far as carbohydrate content. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains are arguably healthier for dogs and cats than simple carbohydrates like potatoes. Many of the grain-free pet foods available on the market contain more carbohydrate content than their counterparts do.
Even premium grain-free kibble can contain upwards of 40 percent to 50 percent carbohydrate. Kibble production requires a high carbohydrate content to hold together during production. Excessive carbohydrate consumption can lead to blood sugar fluctuations and insulin resistance, obesity, cancer, and other health problems. For this reason, Jeffrey’s recommends eliminating or reducing the amount of kibble fed and embracing fresh foods for your pets.
Jeffrey’s Natural Pet Foods is a local producer of fresh, handmade, dog and cat food and offers four grain-free recipes for cats and nine different recipes for dogs, one that is grain-free and vegetable-free, four that are grain free, and four that contain grain, always organic, and locally sourced.
Anna Koscielniak Thiel is regional manager of Jeffrey’s Natural Pet Foods. She lives with her wife, Jenn, and a small urban farm of their rescue dogs, refined felines, and assorted chickens in Richmond. She has worked in the natural pet food market for 13 years, 11 of which she has spent at Jeffrey’s in San Francisco. She loves her work, helping the animals of the Bay Area live longer, healthier lives, spending time with her wife and on their small farm, and adventuring.
Main article photo by: ChenDongShan-istock