There has been growing concern surrounding grain-free diets for dogs, and I am often
asked for nutritional recommendations in general. “Which diet is best for my dog?” “If I pay
more, do I get more?” “Is my pet’s health really a reflection of what I feed him/her?” The short
answers to those questions are . . . it depends . . . not necessarily . . . and a resounding YES.
Recently the NYT, Washington Post and Fortune (among others) reported on a large
group of Golden Retrievers who were diagnosed with a heart condition called dilated
cardiomyopathy, due to taurine deficiency. Taurine is an amino acid, and as a building block of
muscle protein, it helps the heart to pump effectively. It was discovered that the common
denominator in this unrelated population of dogs was that they were all on a grain-free diet.
GF diets have become more popular in recent years for a variety of reasons, and the veterinary
community is concerned. The good news is that most of these dogs have responded positively
to diet change and taurine supplementation (see below). Their heart disease is either
improving or plateauing/stabilizing.
So what should we look for on the labels of food we feed our dogs, regardless if it’s GF
or not? I’ve done some research on my own and have also spoken with an independent board-
certified veterinary nutritionist. If you’d like to do your own homework, a great resource is Dr.
Lisa Freeman’s blog at www.vetnutrition.tufts.edu.
But here’s my take:
1. The implicated diets had less than 26% protein and had high ash content. Ash is
basically bone meal, and is not a readily available source of protein. Industry standards
put ash content in most diets at 18 - 20%, but some go as high as 30%. By comparison, if
you cook down a whole chicken (meat, bones, etc), you’ll have an ash content of 7%.
2. Dog foods of concern also had a unique protein source (think lamb, kangaroo, alligator,
etc). We know that chicken and beef are good sources of taurine, so diets consisting of
those proteins are less risky. While dogs with allergies are often put on unique-protein
diets, it doesn’t make sense to forego tried and true protein sources like chicken and
beef for everyone else.
3. Foods with high amounts of legumes (chickpeas, peas, lentils, most beans, etc) were
also implicated in these cases. It is suggested that these foods may interfere with
taurine absorption in the gut, or result in increased degradation of taurine before it can
4. Since we know that taurine supplementation reversed or stabilized these dogs’ heart
disease, we should look for taurine (and/or its precursor Methionine) on labels. A good
food will have 0.1 – 0.2 % taurine and/or a slightly higher level of Methionine.
5. Grains are not “bad”, and in fact, corn and wheat can provide reliable sources of
nutrition for our pets. If you’re already feeding GF food, and your dog has no signs of
cardiac disease, make sure you’ve satisfied #1 – 4.
6. Read labels! Your pet’s food should meet AAFCO (Association of American Feed
Control Officials) guidelines for complete and balanced nutrition. Make sure they have a board-certified veterinary nutritionist consulting with them. The largest pet food manufacturers are Hills, Purina, Mars and Royal Canin . . . they spend the money to do the research, but the smaller
companies may do this too. Ask! The best ones will do third party testing and publish
those results online. It is not unreasonable to expect that the ingredient list
actually matches what’s in the bag of food and if there are any contaminants, such as
bacteria, mold, heavy metals, and other toxins.
7. Finally, you should discuss your dog’s diet with your veterinarian. Have the food label at
hand, so you can review your pet’s unique needs; this will change over the course of
his/her life, of course. Just like us, our furry companions are what they eat, and it’s up
to us to make sure all of their nutritional requirements are met.