TIME TO GET OFF THE NO-GRAIN TRAIN?
In recent years, we’ve seen a growing trend with regards to pet parents seeking out grain-free, “boutique”, home-cooked or raw diet options for their dogs and cats. While this may sound like a good idea since grains did not make up part of our pets’ ancestors’ diets in the wild, is it really a good idea to flout decades worth of dietary research into the benefits of grains for domestic animals? Furthermore, alarming reports have come out from the USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the potential damage to our fur-babies that “boutique”, exotic and grain free diets (collectively termed BEG diets) can do.
I THOUGHT “BOUTIQUE” WAS A FANCY CLOTHING STORE…
Boutique diets, so termed because they are currently in vogue and generally produced by smaller companies, may include a variety of types of pet foods, including grain-free, holistic, raw, home-cooked and vegan. Due to their relatively recent appearance, these products do not have the backing of extensive research that the popular veterinary premium brands do. They aren’t always formulated together with a certified veterinary nutrition expert and these smaller companies cannot afford to run the exorbitantly expensive food trials that give the bigger manufacturers’ products such scientific credence. Apart from the fact that many boutique products are not even registered as Complete and Balanced (meaning that they provide all the essential nutrients for the relevant species to survive and can be fed exclusively as a health promoting diet for pets), they haven’t been around long enough for us to know how long our pets live on them, what their health is like in old age, etc.
Even more alarming, is that few, if any of these brands and products are registered with official safety regulatory boards, like the Pet Food Industry Association of Southern Africa (PFI), or the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) in the US, for example. These safety “watchdogs” ensure that all pet foods, regardless of whether they’re available in the veterinary or grocery sectors, are safe and comply with the fundamental nutritional requirements for the health and well-being of our furry friends.
EXOTIC? LIKE A PIÑA COLADA?
Exotic diets refer to those that contain ingredients not normally associated with commercially produced pet foods, eg. bison, tilapia, wild boar, red lentils and the like. These ingredients might sound like something off the menu at an exclusive restaurant, but they too are broken down into the same nutritional building blocks for our pets’ bodies as the more common pet food ingredients.
Human grade poultry products, for example, are far more sustainably produced, reasonably priced for consumers, excellent protein sources and they do the very same things in the body as exotic ingredients that cost an arm and a leg, decimate natural ecosystems and have to be transported from the other side of the planet.
The handful of pets who are troubled by standard pet-food ingredients like chicken and beef may benefit from a switch to other novel, yet far from exotic, ingredients like lamb or ostrich. Why pay way more for a product that is not backed by sufficient veterinary nutritional research, isn’t sustainably produced and isn’t registered with a pet nutrition safety regulator, just because it got a high rating on the latest trendy online webpage, that isn’t necessarily run by a pet nutrition expert ? Because everything we read on the internet is true, right?
Another point to ponder is that if these pricey ingredients are present in higher quantities in the food than can be utilised by our animals’ bodies, they end up either as fat rolls on Molly or Cuba, or as very expensive waste on our lawns…. Worst still, incorrectly balanced nutrients can be the cause of serious and irreversible health problems like kidney failure.
GRAIN-FREE, PAIN FREE?
Grain-free diets for pets came about as a result of people associating their personal, very real, concerns about dietary allergies, food intolerances and gastrointestinal conditions like Irritable Bowel Disorder, Colitis, etc. arising from gluten intolerance, with similar symptoms experienced by their pets. Veterinary research, however, has proven time and again that dogs and cats are not affected by grain-intolerance, as some humans are. If our pets are struggling with ingredient sensitivities (resulting in gastrointestinal symptoms, skin disorders, etc.) it’s mainly the proteins that are the problem, not the grains in their diets.
The leading canine food allergen is, in fact, chicken, with beef also highly represented. This is not as a result of these proteins being ‘bad’ for our pets but because of these proteins being the most commonly found protein sources in pet foods and therefore most pets are exposed to them during their lifetime. A small number of pets can develop an allergy to the proteins found in their regular diets and, in fact, dietary allergies generally only develop over a prolonged time of the pet being fed the protein in question. The same could happen with any protein source found in a majority of pet foods.
And in cats, the most common food allergen is fish. NOT wheat, maize, barley, sorghum, rice or any other grain products. With that said, the percentage of pets who suffer exclusively from pure food allergies is remarkably low. The vast majority of allergy symptoms (itching, bloating, loose stools, ear infections, peri-anal fistulae, skin irritations, etc.) can be attributed to environmental (contact) allergies, or mixed ingredient-and-environmental allergies. Veterinarians can assist in distinguishing between these causes by making use of specially hydrolysed prescription diets, that will not trigger an allergic reaction to dietary ingredients. If feeding this exclusion trial diet does not result in an end to the symptoms, the pet’s diet is not the problem.
Much research has been done by veterinary nutrition experts into the benefits of correctly cooked grains as a carbohydrate source for dogs and cats and this is backed up by the fact that thousands of generations of pets have lived long and remarkably healthy lives eating complete and balanced veterinary premium diets containing grains. Grains provide excellent sources of energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals for our pets, and are tolerated remarkably well by them. Different types and combinations of grains have successfully been used to stimulate appetite in elderly, ailing pets, to help regulate glucose levels in diabetics and to support weight-loss in obese patients.
While there is no doubt that a predominantly cereal-based diet is a no-no for pets (resulting in poor skin and coat condition, flatulence, high stool output, nutrient deficiency and obesity), a complete and balanced veterinary premium diet which contains appropriate levels of meat proteins and contains grains in the correct quantities, is perfectly safe for dogs and cats and in fact, promotes excellent health.
If the above points haven’t quite convinced you to reconsider BEG feeding in favour of tried and tested, quality controlled veterinary premium products with longstanding (over 70 years, in some cases) track records for both health and safety of their products, the FDA recently released warnings regarding links between the increase of dilated cardio-myopathy (DCM) cases in both dogs and cats, where the majority of the affected pets had been fed on BEG diets.
Of increasing concern is the fact that breeds of dogs and cats, not normally at risk for this heart condition, are being diagnosed with it at increasing levels and that this group of pets were being fed BEG diets. While the exact link between grain-free, home-cooked, raw, boutique and exotic diets and the incidence of DCM in pets fed on these diets has not yet been established, the warnings are serious enough and based on extensive feedback from veterinary cardiologists working together with veterinary nutrition experts to warrant us sitting up and taking notice. At this stage, it appears that products containing legumes, pulses, and certain types of potatoes as alternative carbohydrate sources are particularly worrisome.
The FDA strongly recommends sticking to well-known veterinary premium pet diets, that are certified complete and balanced and include grains, until the exact causes of increased heart failure of pets on BEG diets has been clearly established. Those pet parents who wish to continue feeding their chosen BEG product are cautioned by the FDA to let their vet know about their chosen diet for their pet so that particular attention can be paid to their pet’s cardiovascular health at annual check-ups. The good news is that if DCM is identified early enough and the appropriate treatment plan followed, this condition can be reversed but an early diagnosis requires regular ultrasound assessment of the heart and its function by a veterinary cardiologist. Untreated, DCM is usually fatal within 6 months to a year.
DCM refers to a condition where the heart enlarges as due to the heart muscle becoming thinner and weakened. As a result, the heart can no longer pump blood around the body effectively. Symptoms to look out for and discuss with your vet:
- Loss of appetite
- pale gums
- increased heart rate
- difficulty breathing
- distended abdomen
- periods of weakness
Twisted Whiskers has always recommended feeding the leading veterinary premium products, Hills, Eukanuba/Iams and Royal Canin to dogs and cats, based on the extensive ground breaking research that these international companies have contributed to pet health for over 70 years and their proven track record of producing diets with measurable health benefits.
Vets Choice and Ultradog/Ultracat are veterinary quality, complete and balanced foods, that while containing more affordable ingredients are still formulated according to the above nutritional principles. Distinguishing between solid science and passing fads when selecting a diet for our pets, has never been more important than today where we are bombarded with a multitude of marketing messages aimed at the pet owner wanting to do the best for their pet.
We leave the last word to Dr. Lisa M. Freeman DVM, PhD., DACVN (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association December 1, 2018, Vol. 253, No. 11, Pages 1390-1394), https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.253.11.1390:
“Pet food marketing has outpaced the science, and owners are not always making healthy, science-based decisions even though they want to do the best for their pets. The recent cases of possible diet-associated DCM are obviously concerning and warrant vigilance within the veterinary and research communities. Importantly, although there appears to be an association between DCM and feeding BEG, vegetarian, vegan, or home-prepared diets in dogs, a cause-and-effect relationship has not been proven, and other factors may be equally or more important. Assessing diet history in all patients can help to identify diet-related cardiac diseases as early as possible and can help identify the cause and, potentially, best treatment for diet-associated DCM in dogs.”
Your veterinarian will be able to assist with any further questions you may have regarding the best dietary option for your individual pets, but do yourself a favour and check out the following reputable veterinary websites which will give you factual information on the concerns about grain-free diets, as well as reliable advice on how best to meet your fur-baby’s nutritional needs and keep him bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for many years to come.
© Written By Twisted Whiskers