What diet should I feed my pet?

This is one of the most common and difficult decisions facing current pet owners.  We all want the best for our furry family members – from their toys, to their bedding, to their food.  There are SO many options available today, and it can be pretty daunting to sift through those shelves and websites.  To complicate matters, advertisements of “grain free” pet foods have increased in recent years.  This diet trend originated on the myth that dogs are allergic to grains or cannot digest them because they evolved from wolves. 

But wait!  Did you know that dogs are actually omnivores?  They need a combination of meat and plant material for a balanced diet of proteins, vitamins, and minerals.  Furthermore, canine adverse food reactions or “food allergies” are very uncommon.  Those few dogs that have a true food allergy are reacting to protein in chicken or beef.  Actual grain allergies are incredibly rare and are usually related to a protein component found in the grain itself.

But the grain-free controversy doesn’t stop there…

In July 2018, the FDA discovered a link between grain-free diets and a devastating heart disease in dogs.  This disease is called Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM).  The heart muscle becomes weak and does not pump blood efficiently.  This causes blood to back up in the heart and surrounding tissues, and it can lead to episodes of weakness and collapse that shorten a dog’s lifespan dramatically.  The working hypothesis of this connection is that in making a grain-free or exotic-meat diet, necessary nutrients usually supplied by a grain are being left out or become denatured in the process of food production.  In the 1980s, a similar link was found between DCM and cat foods lacking taurine, so now all reputable feline food brands supply adequate amounts of this essential amino acid.  Unfortunately, canine diet-associated DCM does not seem to be limited to insufficient taurine, so the search for the cause continues.

Typically, DCM is seen only in older, large to giant breed dogs, and there is a strong predisposition for it in Dobermans.  That said, many veterinarians have begun to diagnose DCM in young dogs as well as smaller breeds – and the only thing that these animals have in common is a history of a BEG diet (boutique/exotic meat/grain free).  Over the past year and a half, the FDA has been seriously investigating this phenomenon and found several dog food brands linked to animals diagnosed with diet-associated DCM.  These companies are smaller boutique brands that often refuse to report a nutritional analysis on their pet food products. 

Why is that important? 

A nutritional analysis details the percentage protein, fat, fiber, carbohydrate, electrolyte, and vitamin content of the food. This tells you the true nutritional value of that long ingredient list.  Additionally, a nutritional analysis will tell you if the product is balanced for a specific life stage of animal by AAFCO standards (The Association of American Feed Control Officials).  For example, the calorie and nutrient needs of a growing puppy are far different from that of an older spayed dog.  Therefore, when a pet food company lacks an AAFCO label or does not provide an analysis of the food on the bag or upon verbal request, a pet owner should be suspicious of the quality of that food.  This is frustrating because as dedicated pet owners we just want our pets to live long and healthy lives, and they deserve diet options that will support those goals.

So really, what diet should I feed my pet?

Given the startling onset of diet-associated DCM in dogs this past year, veterinarians now recommend transitioning your dog away from a grain-free diet.  It is also best to avoid diets produced by smaller boutique companies, including those advertising exotic meats like kangaroo and buffalo.  Larger food companies dedicated to good animal nutrition perform regulated research, employ full-time veterinary nutritionists, and are more reputable resources for diets that are balanced and safe for your pet. 

For help navigating pet food options and personalized diet recommendations, please give us a call!

Chelsea Burleson, 4th year DVM student extern

Grain-Free Diet Resources






Food Label/Food Selection Resources



Food Allergy Resources