If you follow the animal nutrition world at least (and I dare to believe you do if you’re here), you’ve certainly heard of the grain-free food saga which is linked to an increase in cases a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy ( DCM ) .
But the real question I would like to ask you is: have you heard about it? Because reading the articles published on the subject, I unfortunately have to tell you that most of the time…it makes me sigh and roll my eyes! But be careful: I’m not saying here that everything is perfect in the kibble business and that this doesn’t exist…only that we told you the story…with great eagerness and quickly jumping to conclusions.
Dilated cardiomyopathy (I’ll use the abbreviation CMD frequently throughout this article) in relation to grain-free food, everyone has heard of it but very few people can tell me about it …although I try every time I am asked about it. I then ask my interlocutor to tell me what he knows or what he has heard and each time it is the same thing: “ grain-free food would cause heart disease and it is dangerous for my dog “. But still? No one is ever able to tell me more. They have read it in articles (New York Times, La Presse), heard it at the vet…but each time it ends there: grain-free is not good or at least is no longergood, although it had been for several years. Nobody knows why, how many dogs have been affected, if a scientific study supports these statements or can explain it to me in more detail…but they heard it!
What exactly did they hear? Things like that:
- “ Grain Free Food Kills Dogs ”
- “ Grain-free food causes heart disease (CMD) in dogs ”
- “ Your dog can eat grain-free, but you absolutely must add grain (usually rice) to his grain-free kibble ”
- “ If your dog’s food has not passed a feeding trial according to AAFCO rules, you should not feed that food ”
- “ If the kibble company you donate doesn’t have a full-time nutritionist, that’s no good ”
- Any other variation on the same theme placing the grainless in the position of the enemy to be slaughtered or the grains as the savior of this story.
This is where I come to the rescue and I hope over the course of this article to restore the facts, raise questions and above all, explain to you where this whole story comes from. It’s complex, but exciting!
First, a bit of theory
A food is made of 3 important things (macronutrients): protein, carbohydrates and fat. If we add humidity (water) to these three things, we will arrive at nearly 100% of what we have…on our plate or in your dog’s bag of kibble.
Dogs need protein and fat to live. Protein feeds its muscles while its energy comes from fat. It has NO need for carbohydrates. Unfortunately, a kibble without carbohydrates does not exist because it will be impossible to manufacture. Carbohydrates (or starch) are used to hold the kibble together. In short, it serves as glue! But where it gets interesting is that the ingredients used as carbohydrates (glue) also contain some protein. That’s good for the company that produces the kibble, not for your dog’s health!
Ideally, the protein in your dog’s kibble should all come from meat sources, whether fresh meat or meat meal (pre-cooked meat powdered). But what if the ingredients we use as glue (carbohydrates) are also protein? Well it allows (the manufacturer) to save on meat (which is expensive). Between 100 lbs of chicken and 100 lbs of peas, which do you think is more expensive?
It’s like a two-for-one special: the ingredients that serve as glue also allow them to save on meat! This is a technique used by any company producing kibble (good or bad): part of the protein comes from sources other than meat.
Without grains vs with grains, what’s the difference?
Historically, kibble was invented and designed WITH grains like rice, wheat, corn, oats and barley. Be careful though, these are not the same grains that you eat as an accompaniment to your meals. Those used in kibble are those deemed unfit for human consumption; this is what is called in English “ feed grade ”. The reverse (“ food grade“) would be foods deemed fit for human consumption, so what you find at the grocery store for you. As I have already explained in another article, the kibble industry is very much about recycling, as much if not more than animal nutrition. What isn’t good enough for us gets sent to our dog’s kibble. You have to take your head off the sand and admit it: nobody turns filet mignon or salmon fillets into croquettes.
The thing to remember is that a kibble WITH grains is when the list of ingredients contains: rice, wheat, corn, oats or barley .
When it became apparent in the late 90s that grains in kibble were causing many health problems for dogs (allergies, diabetes, obesity, cancer), the industry created grain-free kibble by replacing grains with legumes. . It was quite marginal at first and only people willing to pay a higher price could afford it. On the other hand, the word spread by seeing good results on dogs (reduction of allergies for many) and grain-free grew over the years to the point of becoming a huge market share. From 2012 to 2016, sales of grain-free products increased by 221%. Who this market share was taken away from: companies that produce kibbles with grains. This point is important to remember for the future…
So a grain-free kibble will contain: potatoes, tapioca, sweet potatoes, peas, chickpeas and lentils . The purpose of these ingredients remains the same: it serves as a binding agent (glue) to hold the kibble together and bonus: some provide their share of protein… which (unfortunately) allows you to save on the quantities of meat.
Which is better between the two?
The answer is unfortunately not that simple (and we’re not talking about CMD here yet). In fact, there are good products on both sides.
For foods WITH grains, I would tell you that those containing wheat, rice and corn are almost always low-end products. These are the foods that you will find at the grocery store…or at the veterinarian because yes, the vet’s kibbles are made of really troublesome ingredients. If, on the other hand, you see a kibble that contains oats and barley , then you have a much better chance of finding a good product. It’s normal: these grains really cost more than the other three.
At the grain-free level, products containing potatoes and tapioca are generally lower-end, while those containing sweet potatoes, peas and lentils are generally better.
On the other hand, I would tell you that it is relatively difficult to choose a product (with or without grains) based solely on the list of ingredients. The reason is that we cannot talk about ingredients only without talking about the quantity of these ingredients.
I tell you that a kibble made with barley or lentils is generally better, if the product contains very little meat and a lot of lentils or barley, then you will not have a good product. Dogs need their protein from MEAT. This is what is complex and unfortunately you will have no way on the label to know what percentage of protein comes from the meat although some companies are now starting to write it on the bag or their website. If you read my article on the top 10 best kibble companies, this was a key element of my ranking: the percentage of protein from meat.For me, a good kibble must have AT LEAST 65% of the proteins that come from meat. The best kibble will have 80-85%. Bad kibble like Hill’s, Iams and Royal Canin contain so little that the numbers aren’t even available! That’s saying something…and I’d be surprised if someone could prove to me that these products contain more than 10 to 25% animal protein. Royal Canin fans (veterinarians): prove me wrong please, I’m waiting for that!!
To conclude with the theory of animal nutrition, you should know that if a kibble contains little protein, it will automatically have a lot of carbohydrates. I told you earlier: a kibble contains only 4 things: protein, carbohydrates, fat and moisture. Since the last two (fat and moisture) have roughly the same percentages in both good and bad products, there are only two values that will really vary: proteins and carbohydrates.
So for those who are afraid of having a food with too much protein, tell yourself that if you take a low protein product, you automatically increase the carbohydrates . And carbohydrates, that’s the real enemy . That’s what we want as low as possible, whether we have a product without grains or with grains. The dog does n’t need it, it only serves as a binding agent (glue) and the dog’s body transforms it into…SUGAR!
Why do you think the three biggest diseases affecting dogs are: type-2 diabetes, obesity and cancer? Because our dogs eat too many sugars (carbohydrates). Not surprisingly, bad kibble will contain up to 50% carbs! Look at your dog’s bag and imagine half of it being sugar. Let’s admit it’s awful. It’s not for nothing that the percentage is not written on the bag , it would scare you too much! Yet another proof that this industry does not really want you to know…
How to calculate the percentage of carbohydrates in a kibble?
Add the following values:
- Protein (%)
- Gras (%)
- Humidity (%)
- Ashes (%) (if the total ash is not listed on your bag, use 6% which is the average in the kibbles.
Then take 100 (%) – (minus) the total obtained and you will have the percentage of carbohydrates contained in your croquettes.
Now let’s talk about this heart disease: dilated cardiomyopathy
Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a primarily genetic heart disease . Certain breeds of large dogs have always been more at risk of developing this disease, such as the Great Dane, Boxer, Doberman, Newfoundland, Saint Bernard and the Irish Hound.
As you know, each breed of dog has its share of associated genetic problems:
- Chihuahua: dislocated patellas
- Yorkshire terrier: fragile digestive system
- Cocker spaniel: liver, heart and epilepsy disorders
- Jack Russel: lens dislocation
- Dalmatian: deafness and bladder problems
- Pug: overweight and difficulty breathing
- Boxer: heart conditions, thyroid and allergies
- German Shepherd: degenerative myelopathy
- Australian Shepherd: deafness
- Labrador: hip dysplasia
Going back to CMD, it is an enlargement of the left ventricle of the heart. The heart has two “sacs” (ventricles) and a dog with CMD will have one larger than normal. With this comes weakness of the heart muscles, which contract less well than normal . Over time, the heart becomes less and less able to pump blood to the organs, and fluid can also build up in the lungs.
Depending on the stage of the disease, dogs may be symptomless, have symptoms not associated with heart disease (less appetite or energy) or in the later stages: coughing (due to fluid on the lungs), fluid in the abdomen, or severe weakness.
DCM is the most common cause of congestive heart failure. This disease is irreversible when genetic in origin and worsens over time, although medication will slow its progression.
When the cause of this disease is not of genetic origin, another possible cause would be a lack of taurine.
Taurine, essential element or not?
We saw earlier that protein can come from animal (meat) or plant (grains or legumes) sources. A protein molecule is made up of a chain of amino acids. These amino acids are essential to the body and mainly help to create the barrier of the intestine. This barrier allows the blood to absorb the good stuff (vitamins, nutrients, etc…) and not let the bad stuff (waste) through.
When a dog does not get all the amino acids it should, this barrier in the gut will stop working well and allow waste products to pass into the animal’s bloodstream. We will then find ourselves with a dog showing what seems to us to be allergy symptoms (although it is rather a nutritional problem): excessive scratching, repeated ear infections, redness, hair loss, etc. The masters will then look for what their dog may well be allergic and many veterinarians who do not know the ultra precise food allergy test that is the Nutriscan, will therefore never be able to discover the cause of the “allergy” (which is not an allergy). ). The dog will then be put on medication such as Apoquel (which will cause a host of negative consequences) and most likely “hypoallergenic” food such as the famous kibble made from feather meal. All this…while the dog has no allergies; he is just too malnourished, his body not getting all the necessary amino acids.
There are 22 amino acids in total. 10 of these 22 are considered essential for the dog. They are essential because the dog’s body can NOT make them ; they must therefore absolutely be found in his food. The other (non-essential) amino acids are made by the liver.
Taurine comes from meat and is the amino acid primarily associated with healthy heart function. But is it an essential amino acid or not? It’s a bit complex…
The history of taurine in pet food
We saw earlier that when the kibble was invented, the manufacturers had no choice but to add starch (carbs/glue) to it to hold the kibble together. In the beginning it was grains… and these do not contain taurine!
In the 1970s, cats began to develop serious eye and heart diseases (including CMD). In the late 1980s, specialists identified a lack of taurine as the cause of these problems . It was normal after all: the kibble (new way of feeding our animals) contained a lot of carbohydrates and less meat than what the cat ate before its invention. In addition, you should know that cooking the kibble kills some of the taurine present at the base in the meat. The more a food is processed, the more it loses its nutritional value.
So in the 80s taurine became the 11th essential amino acid…for CATS . Why not for dogs too? Because dogs can make their own taurine from two other amino acids (methionine and cysteine). This is why taurine is mandatory for manufacturers to include in cat food but not in dog food. The dog has its own taurine manufacturing plant inside of it. But are we sure he can make enough for his needs, regardless of race? It is on this question that we begin to doubt more and more.
Recently, the FDA discovered that certain breeds (Golden Retrievers, Labradors, German Shepherds, and Cockers) could not make (or absorb from their food) enough taurine for their needs when fed a diet that was too low in animal protein . They then develop the same heart disease that affected cats in the 70s: CMD.
Although CMD can develop in all breeds of dogs, these medium and large dog breeds saw the degeneration of the disease partially reversed when taurine was added to their diet . We had seen earlier that when this disease is of genetic origin, it could not improve. This is the major difference between a genetic CMD and one due to a lack of taurine.
The beginning of this saga
In 2018, the FDA (USA) issued an alert ( not a study! ) that it suspected that a lack of taurine was the link between grain-free foods and an increase in cases of CMD, particularly in Goldens. Retrievers (23), Labrador (9), German Shepherd (8) and Cocker Spaniel (7). Yet you will tell me: all these dogs ate a complete and balanced food according to the “standards” of the AAFCO (standards which do not require the presence of taurine in dog food ). I will come back to the AAFCO a little later…
On the other hand, where it gets complicated is that not all the dogs that developed CMD had taurine deficiencies. The FDA evaluated 116 dogs that had CMD:
- 44% (51 dogs) had too low a level of taurine
- 33% (38 dogs) had a normal level of taurine
- 23% (27 dogs) had too high a taurine level
These are not conclusive enough figures to say that the lack of taurine directly causes CMD, but it can be one of the leads to analyze.
On the other hand, if we are only talking about Golden Retrievers, there it is different:
- 79.2% had too low a level of taurine
- 16.7% had a normal level of taurine
- 4.2% had a taurine level that was too high
That said, when compared with healthy Goldens, 64% also had too low a level of taurine . It therefore seems that the breed is predisposed to often being too low in taurine.
So is taurine and/or grain-free really the problem? It’s still too early to tell because the causes of CMD are multi-factorial: genetics, nutritional, etc. That’s what your vet should tell you, not that grain-free kills dogs!
A third cause according to veterinarian Dr. Jean Hofve would be intestinal health (microbiome):
“The microbiome may also play a major role in taurine deficiency. This turned out to be the main factor in cats. Taurine from bile is reabsorbed in the colon, but bacteria can “steal” taurine and prevent this crucial recycling. Processing (of the kibble) can also play an important role, as it also does in cats. To date, this issue has not been investigated or studied (in dogs) .”
And if your vet ever still tells you that adding grains is the solution, I’d love to hear about these 4 studies from reputable vets, excerpts of which follow (full versions available in the bibliography):
Dr. Sean J. Delaney:
“Taurine, methionine, and cysteine levels were lowest in diets containing meat, turkey, rice , and barley meals .”
Dr. Robert Backus:
“Comparing Newfoundlands and Beagles, I found that Newfoundlands synthesize less than half the taurine that Beagles can synthesize, once the weight difference is ruled out and given the same food lamb and rice ”.
drs. Kwang Suk Ko and Andrea Fascetti:
“Beet pulp has the greatest effect in reducing taurine concentration by decreasing protein digestibility and increasing faecal bile excretion and possibly promoting taurine degradation through the gut barrier ” .
Dr. Sherry Sanderson:
“Dogs eating a protein-restricted diet can develop taurine levels that are too low. Supplementation is therefore recommended. It is also possible that the minimums recommended by the AAFCO are too low for protein-restricted diets”.
Why is this CMD story a scandal in my opinion?
On June 27, 2019, the Food and drug administration (FDA) released a list of 16 companies whose food MAY promote the development of CMD. This caused real hysteria among the millions of people who gave away these foods and the stores found themselves bombarded with questions for which the answer is not simple (hence the length of this article). I am of the opinion that this exit from the FDA was premature and unwarranted.
This FDA exit, everyone has suffered the consequences: consumers are confused (with good reason), manufacturers are being questioned based on no scientific fact, stores are being asked questions they have not the responses and credibility of the FDA was severely affected by making a big deal without supporting studies.
In fact, the only ones to benefit are veterinarians; not because they have no more response but because they have turned the situation to their advantage hoping to win the loyalty of confused customers…by convincing them based on false arguments like “ your dog lacks grains in his diet “. As if the grains brought taurine! It borders on dishonesty and once again proves their lack of knowledge in animal nutrition.
The other thing the FDA named in this release is the number of cases for each company. Again, that doesn’t make sense. I can tell you that Taste of the Wild has 53 reported cases and Natural Balance has 15, it all depends on the quantities sold. It doesn’t mean Natural Balance is better or causes less CMD if they sell 10 times less kibble than Taste of the Wild. It’s all a question of proportions in relation to sales. It’s as if I’m telling you that there are a lot more punctures with Michelin tires than with the Sailun brand. Not surprisingly, Michelin must sell 50 times more tires than the other company. This does not mean that Michelin manufactures less good products!
Finally, in the reported cases, no one knows how long these dogs had been eating the “accused” foods . It seems to me that this is an essential element. If for 10 years I ate McDo and for two years I ate salad then I was diagnosed with an illness, is it the salad that will be blamed as having caused my illness, only because that’s what I’m eating right now? For now, that’s how the FDA is building its investigation: without any background of what the dog was eating before or how long he’s been eating his current food. Remember grain free is relatively new…so is this what affected dogs have been eating the majority of their lives? Impossible to know.
This FDA investigation started in 2014 but it was in July 2018 that everyone started talking about it, after the first public notice from the government agency.
Let’s retrace the timeline of this saga:
- June 4, 2018: A Tufts University veterinarian wrote an article and notified the FDA of her belief that grain-free dog foods and exotic meats can cause CMD in dogs.
- July 12, 2018: FDA issues alert outlining potential link between grain-free diets and CMD in dogs. Veterinary cardiology and animal nutrition researchers at the University of California Davis (UCD) and University of Florida (UF) veterinary schools have also reportedly brought this concern to the FDA’s attention.
- July 12 to November 30, 2018: The Davis University of California veterinary cardiologist – who focuses on heart disease in Golden Retrievers – a breed he personally has – has given numerous interviews blaming grain-free diets as the cause heart disease in dogs. All that based on what study? None at that time, or to date.
- December 1, 2018 : An article by the same researchers titled “Diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs: what do we know?” appeared in the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA). I will come back to this article below because it is cited in the majority of cases where YOU are told about CMD.
- February 19, 2019: FDA advises it is continuing analysis
- June 27, 2019 : The FDA replaces its previous note with this one. (details below)
What the December 1, 2018 article mentions:
- Some dogs that have switched from a grain-free diet to a grain-free one have seen their condition improve.
- The cases of CMD observed are not necessarily related to diet.
- The study on golden retrievers cannot be retained for lack of standardization of the processes. In short, it is not a study but an observation without scientific process.
- Ultimately, the authors of this article speculate that the increase in CMD cases is related to grain-free foods. They believe that the use of ingredients like kangaroo, duck, buffalo, salmon, rabbit, venison, lamb, bison, beans, peas, tapioca, barley, lentils and chickpeas could be the cause. Ok, so almost anything other than chicken and corn would be suspect according to them?
They (the authors) conclude by saying:
“The apparent link between BEG ( boutique, exotic & grain free ) diets and DCM may be due to the grain-free nature of these diets (i.e., the use of ingredients such as lentils, chickpeas or potatoes to replace grains), other common ingredients in BEG diets (e.g. exotic meats, flaxseeds, fruits or probiotics), possible nutritional imbalances or accidental inclusion of components toxic food. Or, the apparent association may be false. “
If I understand correctly, they are really not sure. It can be this, this, that…or nothing at all! And that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about grain-free foods that could cause CMD? Is THAT why people were rushing to stores in panic to change their dog’s food?
But the best bit of this article is at the end, in the ‘ Acknowledgements ‘ section. This is where the authors must legally disclose the links ($) that unite them to certain companies that have given them money in the last 3 years. It’s so good that I’m copying it to you without translation:
Within the past 3 years, Dr. Freeman has received research support from Aratana Therapeutics, Nestlé Purina PetCare, and Royal Canin; has consulted with Aratana Therapeutics and Nestlé Purina PetCare; has given sponsored talks for Aratana Therapeutics, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, and Nestlé Purina PetCare; and has served on a scientific advisory board for Aratana Therapeutics.
Within the past 3 years, Dr. Rush has received research support from Aratana Therapeutics, Nestlé Purina PetCare, and Royal Canin and has consulted with Aratana Therapeutics and Nestlé Purina PetCare.
Within the past 3 years, Dr. Adin has received research support from Nestlé Purina PetCare.
Should we really be surprised that veterinarians receiving funds from Hill’s, Purina and Royal Canin question the benefits of a host of ingredients that are never present in the foods of their sponsors?
But hey, that’s not all and I’m not saying it’s all a conspiracy. The FDA will release another notice on June 27, 2019 that will tell us a little more:
- Based on the data collected, the FDA mentions that a potential association between food and cases of CMD is a complex subject that involves multiple factors .
- Between January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2019 , the FDA received 524 reports of CMDs ( 515 dogs and 9 cats). Of the 515 cases, 54.9% were officially diagnosed with CMD. The others were rejected although some conditions could mean early signs of the disease.
- CMD is a recognized genetic disease with a dietary component for large dogs. Among the reports, on the other hand, there were a lot of medium-sized dogs (and that’s what worries). The only breed of small size was Shih Tzus (5 cases) or mixed breed dogs (62 cases whose size we do not know).
- During this investigation, the FDA received a disproportionate number (95) of reports for golden retrievers.
- 90% of reported cases ate grain-free. It’s very high, but when a year before (in 2018) we accused (without too much evidence) loud and clear of grain-free… who do you think went to have their dog tested? Those who gave grain-free! If the FDA had said in 2018 that dogs who ate kibble (no matter which) were at risk, we would surely have very different results.
- The foods in the dock were a bit of everything (in order of importance): Chicken (113), lamb (98), salmon (72) , white fish (65), kangaroo (58), turkey ( 57), beef (47), pork (24), venison (21), duck (20), bison (20), egg (18), vegetarian (7), rabbit (4) and goat (1).
- Of the suspected brands, the FDA tested several and all had results within normal limits for minerals, metals, and amino acids including taurine, cysteine, and methionine .
- The FDA requires that they be notified of any positive cases of CMD but not negative cases . So if I get my dog tested for CMD, he eats grain-free, but he has no heart problems, I don’t have to notify the FDA. How do they do their stats?
So to sum up, this big story exists…for 515 dogs in 5 years? How many dogs are there in the United States? 90 million. Is it just me who thinks the hype is overdone? Because from listening to the vets here, it really sounds like grain-free is killing our dogs like the lentils contain arsenic. Yet reading the authors of the articles (remember, these are not studies but articles), even they are not sure what role food plays in this disease. Not to mention that they accuse exotic proteins while the first three positions are chicken, lamb and salmon (for 283 cases). It’s not very exotic for me!
That’s why I call it a scandal: a big story without study and for a disease that affected 515 dogs (including 95 golden) over 5 years.
It seems to me that if we started looking, there must be diseases whose statistics are much more frightening than that! There is then reason to ask: is all this done to scare people who give grain-free in order to bring them back on a diet made of grains? Because it must be said, it’s a lot of money that Hill’s, Purina and Royal Canin have been losing since the arrival of grain-free. If it wasn’t for this “find”, I believe their only other choice would have been to start making grain-free! But that wouldn’t have pleased the AAFCO. They would have had nowhere to pass their unfit for human consumption grains.
Precisely about the AAFCO, all these grain-free foods that we suspect have all their approval? Yes, absolutely… so would we have a problem on the AAFCO side?
How AAFCO contributes to health issues (CMD and others):
To avoid CMD, your vet may have told you to trust “his” brand (the one he sells in the clinic) because it is rigorously tested in clinical trials under AAFCO rules. For those who believe the AAFCO is there to protect your pet and ensure safety, prepare to be disappointed and get your tissues out.
First, you need to know what AAFCO stands for: Association of American FEED Control Officials. You remember earlier when I told you about food unfit for human consumption, I told you that it was feed grade and not food grade . Well, the AAFCO is advocating for MORE food not fit for human consumption ( feed ) in your dog’s kibble.
Do you know who is part of the AAFCO? Senior executives of bad kibble companies (those known to use bad ingredients) such as Nestlé/Purina, Hill’s, Royal Canin, etc. The other members are those who work in the feed grade environment , such as food companies. rendering (these companies that take leftovers from slaughterhouses, make a big soup with all this waste and transform it into powder that will be used in the manufacture of croquettes.
In addition, it should be noted that the AAFCO is not a government entity but a PRIVATE group. They don’t inspect factories or test products…but they set the rules (eg a food should have at least this much calcium). They are also the ones who define the ingredients , so what each ingredient may or may not contain. Don’t you think it’s weird that a private group (with strong ties to the wrong ingredients) decides what your dog will eat? I do.
The AAFCO regulates the four macronutrients: protein and fat (required minimum), fiber and moisture (required maximum). Additionally, they only specify minimums for vitamins and minerals. This is problematic when you know that too high doses of certain vitamins and minerals can become toxic and create serious problems. Finally, omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are completely ignored by the AAFCO, although they are essential if you ask me. Omega 6s increase inflammation while Omega 3s decrease inflammation. The ratio between the two then becomes extremely important, but the AAFCO completely ignores these two values. It’s a real farce…and it continues.
Proof that they work more for their pocket than for your dog? In 1995, the AAFCO had the minimum percentage of protein that a kibble must contain reduced from 22% to 18%. This is not surprising, knowing that the protein is the most expensive in a kibble. If your dog has the misfortune to eat an 18% protein kibble, it makes me very sad.
How the AAFCO could improve: by indicating optimal values for the health of the animal, instead of simple minimums. I would like to see for each vitamin, mineral and amino acid an optimal desirable range (minimum X AND maximum Y).
Above all, the AAFCO does not deal with two essential things in animal nutrition: bioavailability (assimilation by the body) and digestibility (ease of digesting an ingredient). To them, protein is protein…whether it comes from a fresh chicken, a pair of leather shoes (it’s protein!) or a dead animal on the side of the road. The quality and the fact of knowing if the dog will be able to assimilate this protein well (ex: the shoe), they do not care. Do we have 18% protein? If the answer is yes it passes the test for them.
But you will tell me: at least they establish the rules for clinical animal nutrition trials to find out if a new food passes the “test”. Let’s talk about these clinical trials.
Clinical trials according to AAFCO rules
You may have already been told that the AAFCO determines the rules for evaluating new foods in clinical trials on dogs, in order to give them the “complete and balanced” seal that we hear so often. But do you know what the rules for these trials actually are? Here they are:
- 8 dogs per clinical trial and 2 are allowed to die or be withdrawn without harming the statistics (6 out of 8 must finish the trial)
- Duration of 26 weeks (6 months)
- Food can be given ad libitum
- (Only) 4 blood values are checked before and after the test (hemoglobin, hematocrit, alk phosphate and albumin). If you have ever seen the results of a blood test, you know that 4 parameters is really not much.
- Dogs are allowed to lose 15% weight during the test
So if 6 out of 8 dogs survive for 6 months eating ad libitum the food tested, it will be declared “ complete and balanced ” . As simple as that!
Oh, I forgot: Not all foods are tested. AAFCO rules allow that as soon as a food looks on paper like one that has already been tested, it is automatically declared “ complete and balanced ”. Since everyone uses the same ingredients, there are very few foods that are actually tested. But does it really matter, when the test is as easy to pass as keeping 6 out of 8 dogs alive for 6 months when they can eat as much as they want?
So if your vet tells you that their food is tested to AAFCO standards and that’s super important, allow yourself a little smile…
Is there anything positive that comes out of this whole story?
Since the beginning of this crisis, I have seen the companies adjust and I am very proud of it. Admittedly, part of it adjusts for marketing reasons: suddenly everyone starts getting out of diets with “old” grains, talking about oats and barley. I think adding good grain products is good for the market. I’ve never been anti – grain…but good grain foods were so rare it was almost impossible to find.
In addition, serious companies are now paying more attention to taurine in general. Many now add it to their foods although it is not yet mandatory as for the cat, being still a non-essential amino acid for the moment. On the other hand, I see the addition as a good thing and I have the impression that the regulations on taurine will change soon. No breed of dog should lack taurine when eating its food. If it’s missing, let’s add some.
Would raw be the solution to avoid CMD?
If it’s a good product, yes. A good raw diet contains practically just meat, so you’re pretty sure your dog will be getting plenty of taurine. A study in 2003 proved that:
- Meat, especially fish and poultry (dark meat) contained a lot of taurine.
- Vegetable proteins contain very little taurine. Good thing because the vintage does not contain any or almost none.
- Taurine decreases the more meat is cooked, hence the advantage of serving the recipe raw compared to home cooking where the food is cooked.
On the other hand, bad vintage companies exist and especially in Quebec where they are very little followed. These companies have realized that buying fat is much cheaper than buying meat…so their raw recipes will often be very fatty. Ideally in a raw recipe, you should see double the protein than fat. For example, a raw food containing 20% protein should have around 10% fat. If it has more than half, the company is “cheating” and adding more fat than the dog needs. But hey, all this is much less worse than putting 50% carbohydrates in a processed (kibble) and cooked product!
How to defend your dog against CMD?
- Raw food made from meat, bones, offal and vegetables. Since taurine is partially destroyed by cooking and assimilation by the body is reduced, a raw meat diet is the best way to get the maximum amount of taurine. Fresh, unprocessed food will always be more easily digestible and assimilated by the body.
- Kibble containing as much meat as possible and high in protein (to reduce carbohydrates). The more meat there is, the more taurine there will be.
- Adopt a rotating diet , changing protein with each bag (within the same brand), especially if your dog is one of the breeds at risk. The worst thing to do if you have, for example, a Great Dane (a breed at risk) would be to give it a lamb kibble all its life, because it is one of the meats that contains the least taurine.
- There’s no reason to directly avoid grain-free foods , but if you see that a grain-free food is made primarily of lentils and peas, I would look for another product. By mainly , I would give the example of a list of ingredients that would read: Lamb (fresh), peas, lentils, pea protein, etc…Since the only meat is fresh in this kibble, it will lose 70% of its water during cooking and will then end up much further down the list of ingredients. This is why I always recommend having a combination of fresh meat AND meat meal . Attention: I did not say by -product flour sof meat. That’s no!
- Meat supplement given on a regular basis. Even if your dog eats kibble, I encourage you to give him meat (raw or cooked) from time to time. Chicken (dark meat), fish, sardines and organ meats (like heart and liver) are the best sources of taurine. Meat from hoofed animals (beef, lamb) contains less taurine. Their offal on the other hand (heart and liver) are good sources.
- If you have a Golden Retriever (no matter what it eats) I would be inclined to have its taurine level checked . Both healthy Goldens and those with CMD very often had taurine levels that were too low. The sooner you fix it, the sooner you’ll drive the cardiologist away!
- Be suspicious of any animal care professional who will give you ultra-specific answers on the CMD. The real honest answer to give is: It is a complex disease, with several possible causes and at the moment we don’t know enough to make any assertions. Time is an important factor in research if we do not want to rush out information as has been the case so far in this file.
If you are still worried, you can always ask your veterinarian to check methionine, cysteine and taurine levels with a blood test. I invite you to request a reading for plasma and another for whole blood since research has shown variations in results between the two (which is a special phenomenon).
If your veterinarian charges too much for the analysis, be aware that the laboratory at UC Davis University in California offers the analysis for US$75 (blood or plasma) or US$120 (for blood AND plasma). If you suspect a problem or want to be sure, it’s still cheaper than a cardiac ultrasound, which is around $500.
For a small breed I wouldn’t worry, they are at very little risk of CMD. For a medium or large breed, it’s up to you to see if your peace of mind is worth the expense. The sooner we do it, the better!
If you’re considering ditching grain-free, think about the original reasons why you made the switch. Was it to fix an allergy, improve her weight or prevent bowel disease? Don’t rush things by wanting to change food after reading an article in the newspaper…Your dog is not going to die tomorrow morning. Take the time to inform yourself and vary your sources.
That said, if it reassures you to go back to a kibble with grains, that’s okay too. Just make sure you find a good product. When you read the ingredient list, look for the meat, not the grains!
My opinion on this whole saga
We have to stop debating with grains and without grains . The problem is not there! The real problem is that there is not enough meat in the products we give our dogs! Not enough meat = not enough taurine.
But above all: adding grains is NOT the solution. The grains do not contain taurine! It will therefore have no effect to add grains to your diet . If your vet recommends adding rice to your dog’s kibble, ask them this: “ How will adding rice increase the taurine level if the grains don’t contain taurine ”? Then watch him search for his words…and then you’ll know that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and is just repeating phrases learned (most likely by the manufacturer of the grain kibbles he sells).
You find this a weird and wacky example, but I guarantee it’s the one I hear most often: “My vet told me that if I wanted to continue giving grain-free, I absolutely had to add grains ( usually rice) to its croquettes” .
This logic is as if I told you that for years Mcdo ( croquettes with grains ) were sold enormously. Over the years, McDonald’s is losing market share to Subway ( grain-free kibble ) because people are paying more and more attention to what they eat and looking for better ingredients. 515 people over 5 years catch a disease and we realize that they have all eaten at Subway (without knowing since when and how often).
- Does that mean Subway is the cause of their illness? No.
- Does this mean that they lack McDonalds in their diet? Even less!
Currently what veterinarians are saying is: “Stop eating Subway, the subway kills! It is normal for these people to be sick, they no longer eat McDo”. Yet in the population that eats McDo, we have an epidemic of cancer, overweight and diabetes … but that’s not serious. It’s the subway that kills!
Then, we must not forget the problems caused by bad grains (wheat, corn and rice). Many dogs are allergic or intolerant to grains. In addition, the grains contain micro fungi called mycotoxins which in North America are a real problem. Our grains here (particularly maize) have a risk level of 80% whereas in Europe the risk level is 56%. In 2018 out of more than 18,000 grain samples analyzed from 72 countries, each sample had on average 32 different kinds of mycotoxins and 905 samples had more than 380 mycotoxins!
Second, being very high on the glycemic index scale, some grains dramatically increase the amount of sugar in your dog’s body, causing diabetes, overweight and cancer.
One in two dogs dies of cancer these days…and the solution would be to put dogs back on a diet made of bad grains? Hello, that doesn’t hold up your case! One out of two…it’s not nothing. Yet the FDA is not investigating this. Nobody writes about it and we don’t produce lists in the media of the companies producing the worst products. We let it go…but 515 dogs that develop a heart disease (with a strong genetic potential and multiple causes), that makes a big deal out of it!
Sans crier au complot, vous voyez bien que le but est de faire peur aux clients qui donnent du sans grains afin de les ramener sur un produit avec grains? Vous réalisez que c’est une campagne de peur pour que vous remettiez votre argent où ça compte pour EUX (géants fabricants de mauvaises croquettes), sans égard à la santé de votre chien? Car si ce n’est pas pour cette raison, des présomptions avec si peu de conclusions auraient dues rester dans le milieu vétérinaire et ne jamais se rendre à vous les clients, d’ici à ces que des études sérieuses concluent sur quelque chose de sérieux. Pour l’instant, tout ce que nous avons, c’est des “peut-être”…
Is it possible that legumes block part of the absorption of taurine? It’s possible, but not proven yet so let’s wait before jumping to conclusions. And still, although some of the taurine is blocked by legumes, if the grain-free product at the base contains 4 times more meat than the grain-free, I will still recommend the grain-free! Because a product WITH grains AND with a lot of meat is really rare and not necessarily better (mycotoxins). If you choose a grain-free product with your eyes closed, you have a 75% chance of finding a good product. Do the same test for a product with grains and your chances of having a good product drop to 15% in my opinion. That’s why I continue to recommend grain-free: because you’re more likely to get a quality product.
Should dog food be supplemented with taurine?, as we already do for cats? In my opinion, yes. I consider that we are reliving the same thing as with cats in the 80s. Our dogs eat less and less meat and cooking kills a good part of the taurine contained in meat. Add to that the fact that taurine is not one of the amino acids regulated by the AAFCO for dogs and this tells us that a big part of the problem stems from (the lack of) regulation. Moreover, several manufacturers have already started to add taurine in their new products. But the addition of synthetic taurine (and its precursors methionine and cysteine) is not without dangers and will never give as good results as their natural version (contained in meat).
This CMD crisis shows us, in my opinion, that kibble is not the ideal solution. This is the trade-off to be paid in order to produce an inexpensive product that is easy to keep. You really thought that a product of this price would have no consequences on the health of your animal?
Also, I predict this is just the tip of the iceberg. We will see other diseases appear in the coming years. It’s a heartbreaking way to learn that food has a primordial place in our health and it’s the same for our dog. A whole life of eating McDo (or Subway) can’t give good results… Moreover, Linus Pauling, who won two Nobel Prizes, said that almost all illnesses come from a nutritional imbalance. We are what we eat…
In conclusion, processed food is at the root of the constant degenerative diseases and inflammation that our dogs experience and one of the main reasons why the life expectancy of each breed continues to decrease over the years. As advocates for our animals, it is our responsibility to know what we are really putting in our dog’s bowl.
I urge you to take responsibility: research what’s in your dog’s food (not just kibble), vary what he eats (because no food is perfect) and even if you keep giving kibble, give the best possible and add fresh food as often as possible. Whether it’s vegetables, fruit, eggs, meat or meaty bones, your dog needs fresh, living foods, not lab-made cookies.
Review of canine dilated cardiomyopathy in the wake of diet-associated concerns – Sydney R McCauley, Stephanie D Clark, Bradley W Quest, Renee M Streeter, Eva M Oxford
Dilated Cardiomyopathy and Grain-Free Diets: Thoughts on the FDA Update – Dr. Justin Shmalberg, DMV
Foods That Invite This Epidemic of Nutrition-Related Disease – Dre. Karen Becker, DMV
The Truth About Grain-Free Dog Foods And DCM – Dogs Naturally Magazine
Grain-free pet food’s future, what it means for market – Pet Food Industry
Dilated Cardiomyopathy – American College of Veterinary Internal Medecine
Hemopet responds to the FDA implicating 16 brands of dog food that may cause heart disease in dogs – Dre. J.W. Dodds, DMV
Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Dogs & Cats: Complaints Submitted to FDA-CVM
Plasma and whole blood taurine in normal dogs of varying size fed commercially prepared food. – S.J. Delaney
Low Plasma Taurine Concentration in Newfoundland Dogs is Associated with Low Plasma Methionine and Cyst(e)ine Concentrations and Low Taurine Synthesis – R.C. Backus
Dietary beet pulp decreases taurine status in dogs fed low protein diet – K. Suk Ko et A.J. Facetti
Effects of dietary fat and L-carnitine on plasma and whole blood taurine concentrations and cardiac function in healthy dogs fed protein-restricted diets – S. Sanderson
Mind Your Peas and Potatoes – Linda P. Case
The amino acid composition and protein quality of various egg, poultry meal by-products, and vegetable proteins used in the production of dog and cat diets – Donadelli RA, Aldrich CG, Jones CK, Beyer RS
When is a test not a test – Dre. Laurie Coger, DMV
What Is AAFCO? – Dogs Naturally Magazine
What is AAFCO and What Does it Do? – Dre. Jennifer Coates, DMV
AAFCO guidelines – Dre. Karen Becker, DMV
AAFCO METHODS FOR SUBSTANTIATING NUTRITIONAL ADEQUACY OF DOG AND CAT FOODS – AAFCO
Prevalence of Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Doberman Pinschers in
Various Age Groups – G. Wess, A. Schulze, V. Butz, J. Simak, M. Killich, L.J.M. Keller, J. Maeurer, and, K. Hartmann
Taurine concentrations in animal feed ingredients; cooking
influences taurine content – By A. R. Spitze, D. L. Wong, Q. R. Rogers and A. J. Fascetti
Scientific Opinion on the safety and efficacy of taurine as a feed additive
for all animal species – European Food Safety Authority
The Taurine Controversy – Food Regulation Facts Alliance
Could Certain Dog Foods Cause Heart Failure – Conversation with Dre. Laurie Coger, DMV
Are grain free diets causing heart disease in dogs? – Dre. Kim Schmidt, DMV
Double Dose of Pet Food Toxins – Truth about pet food
Investigating the Grain Free Link to Heart Disease with Blinders On – Truth about pet food
Bad Science and Financial Conflicts of Interest Plague the FDA’s Investigation Into “Grain-Free” Pet Foods and Dilated Cardiomyopathy – Daniel Schulof
‘BEG’ pet food does not equal DCM – Ryan Yamka
FDA’s DCM updates miss the mark with consumers, industry – Debbie Phillips-Donaldson