People are very passionate when it comes to the subject of what they feed their dogs, and with good reason. A good diet can contribute to a long and healthy life and even psychological well-being for our pets. The question is, what is the best food to feed domesticated dogs? While the majority of people feed a commercial kibble or canned food, many owners today are looking for other options.
A raw food or grain free based diet are two approaches that have grown in popularity over the last decade, but there is little to no evidence that they are beneficial. In fact, they may be harmful. Let’s look at some of the facts around these diets.
One of the reasons people cite for feeding a raw diet is that it is a more “natural” diet for dogs. The theory is that wild canids would eat a diet mainly consisting of raw meat and bones, so people should try and mimic this diet when feeding their pets. However, the pet dogs that live in our homes do not resemble their wild cousins. We have bred dogs to have a range in size from the tiny Papillon to the massive Neapolitan Mastiff, and a variety of builds from the light-framed Whippet to the bulky Bulldog. In addition, there are breeds like the Bedlington Terrier that are prone to specific nutrient deficiencies. With all of these physiological differences between our pets and wild canids, can we be certain that what a wild canid eats is indeed an ideal diet for Rover? Besides, dogs have been domesticated for tens of thousands of years, so they are more adapted to eating human food than they are wild game.
One of the biggest challenges in deciding whether to feed a raw diet is the overwhelming amount of conflicting information, and the fact that much of this information is anecdotal in nature. There are numerous websites and message boards extolling the virtues of a raw diet and there are others condemning raw diets as unsafe and unhealthy. When choosing how and what to feed your dog, you need balanced information—information that outlines both the good and bad so that an educated choice can be made.
The good: Over the past couple of years, there have been a number of pet food recalls. If you prepare your dog’s food at home from raw ingredients, you have total control of what you include in your dog’s food and where those ingredients are from. Home-made raw diets can be prepared to avoid foods that your dog is allergic to and can be made to meet your dog’s specific nutrient requirements. The high water content present in raw food may allow you to feed more while still keeping the calories low for portly pooches.
The bad: Raw diets have been found to contain Salmonella, Campylobacter, Escherichia coli, Clostridium perfringens, Clostridium botulinium, and Staphylococcus aureus, all of which are known human and canine pathogens. These bacteria are shed in the feces of dogs eating raw diets and may be transferred to carpets and furniture as the dog moves around the house. These pathogens usually only pose a serious human risk to the immuno-compromised, the elderly, and young children; however, this is a very important consideration if you are feeding a raw diet and have people in these risk groups living in your home.
In addition, there is a potential risk to dogs from certain pathogens found in raw foods, such as Neospora caninum, found in raw beef, Nanophyetus salmincola, found in raw salmon, and Trichinella spiralis, which is found in raw pork and wild game such as deer, elk, and moose. All of these pathogens can make your dog sick and are potentially fatal.
Feeding bones can cause choking, intestinal blockage or perforations, and chipped or broken teeth. Raw vegetables are often poorly digested by dogs. Most of the nutrients in raw vegetables are rendered more available when they are lightly cooked and then ground.
Because it can be difficult and time consuming to adequately balance a home made raw diet, nutritional deficiencies, especially in vitamins and minerals, are a significant possibility. To complicate the matter even further, some nutritional deficiencies take many months to show up and you may not see the problems with feeding a particular diet until the animal has been eating it for months or years.
Grain Free Diets
Let’s start by learning what a grain free diet is. Any diet made without wheat, corn, rice and other grains is considered “grain free.” However, any dry dog food must have some kind of starch in order to make it into kibble. So with grain-free diets, they just substitute potatoes or peas or some other kind of starch. According to a warning on the FDA web site, they are investigating a potential dietary link between canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and dogs eating certain grain-free dog foods. The foods of concern are those containing legumes such as peas or lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes listed as primary ingredients. The FDA began investigating this matter after it received reports of DCM in dogs that had been eating these diets for a period of months to years. DCM itself is not considered rare in dogs, but these reports are unusual because the disease occurred in breeds of dogs not typically prone to the disease.
Between January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2019, the FDA received 524 reports of DCM (515 dogs, 9 cats), and most reports were submitted after the FDA’s first public alert in July 2018. The total number of pets affected is greater than 524 because some reports included multi-pet households.
What is Canine Heart Disease or Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM)?
Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a type of canine heart disease that affects the heart muscle. The hearts of dogs with DCM have a decreased ability to pump blood, which often results in congestive heart failure.
Some breeds, especially large and giant breeds, have a predisposition to DCM. These breeds include Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, Newfoundlands, Irish Wolfhounds, and Saint Bernards. While DCM is less common in medium and small breeds, English and American Cocker Spaniels are also predisposed to this condition.
The reports submitted to the FDA span a wide range of breeds, including many without a known genetic predisposition. When early reports from the veterinary cardiology community indicated that recent, atypical cases in breeds like Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Whippets, Bulldogs and Shih Tzus all consistently ate grain alternatives in their diets, the FDA took notice.
The FDA’s July 2019 online update includes the names of dog food brands that were named 10 times or more in reports submitted through April 30, 2019. Most reports were for dry dog food, but raw, semi-moist and wet foods were all represented. If your dog is showing possible signs of DCM or other heart conditions, such as decreased energy, cough, difficulty breathing and episodes of collapse, you should contact your veterinarian as soon as possible.
It is easy to panic anytime we see an FDA headline about pet food. After all, keeping our dogs healthy is essential to us, and we know that diet can make a big difference in a dog’s well-being. As a general rule of thumb, the best thing you can do for your dog’s dietary health is to consult your veterinarian. Together you can weigh the pros and cons of your dog’s diet, and discuss alternatives.