Why I (still) recommend grain free diets for pets

by Dr Magda
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Disclaimer: These blog posts are based entirely on my personal opinions, experience and (general) research. I am not involved with the FDA report in any way or affiliated with any of the brands of dog food discussed in these articles. My intention in writing these posts is to share my opinions how to best feed and care for your animals in light of this developing story.

I wrote this blog post series in order to address the recent controversies surrounding the possible connection of grain free diets with the recent upswing in dogs with heart disease.

Having done a lot of research on diet and nutrition over the past 10 years, I still recommend grain-free diets and I will explain why below. I also share some of my findings of what might be happening in these cardiomyopathy cases and my recommendations for pet owners.

I wrote this as a four part blog series.

In part one, I share my personal experiences that led me to recommended grain-free diets for my patients in the first place.

In part two, I will look at the differences between the companies that make the grain- free brands vs the traditional grain-inclusive brands.

In part three, we look at why grains could be a problem for dogs.

In part four, I tackle the discussion of the cardiomyopathy more specifically.

And in part five, I discuss my recommendations of what to feed in light of these recent developments.

I want to extend my deepest sympathy to the people who have lost their pets due to this new disease.

A lot of work needs to be done in the arena of dog food, and much more is needed to improve regulation in order to prevent these kinds of tragedies in the future. However, I don’t believe that changing your dog’s diet to grain-inclusive food is the solution. The recent findings show that the disease doesn’t seem to have much to do with lack of grains in the diet. And as we will look at in the next blog posts in this series, there are other problems altogether with feeding grain-inclusive diets.

My first experiences with grain free diets

It was a busy veterinary practice in New Jersey.

I loved this practice. They practiced good medicine and loved their clients and patients. As a newly minted veterinarian, I learned a lot working there my first year out of vet school.

It was 2009. Grain free diets had been around for a few years now but were only just beginning to garner some attention.

There were certain brands of pet food in veterinary school that had a strong presence both in our student lives and in our education. I refer to these brands in this article, and other articles, as “the veterinary recommended brands.” These are the brands of pet food that most veterinarians recommend (hence, the name).

They include: Hills Science Diet, Purina, Iams/Eukaneuba, and Royal Canin. Some articles also refer to these companies as The BIG FOUR because there are four of them and they occupy such a large share of the pet food market. I will use this term occasionally as well.

During veterinary school, I was very grateful to these companies. They gave us free lunches, free pet food (a life saver for poor vet students with way too many foster animals), free dinners, textbooks and lots of gear.

The diets seemed pretty good. The companies did a lot of nutritional research and my dog seemed healthy enough on the food. So I trusted the experts and didn’t give it too much thought beyond that.

This changed somewhat when I began to work as a veterinarian.

I would say 90% of my clients were feeding their pets one of these brands: Science Diet, Eukaneuba, Iams, Purina, Pedigree or Beneful. I was interested in diet and nutrition and so I would always ask pet owners what they were feeding and make a note of it in their charts.

I began to notice certain things in my patients.

One of the veterinary recommended brands created a very unique change in the animal’s hair coats. The fur would become greasy near the skin and dry on the ends. This pattern was so noticeable, that I soon developed the uncanny ability to identify that the animal was eating this particular brand of pet food even before the owner told me.

I also found that many animals that ate this food would develop itchy, yeasty skin, or “allergies.”

And yet, this particular company was at the forefront of the research on nutrition and skin health.

Their website had numerous studies listed about the topic of skin disease. I found it strange, if not a little disconcerting, that despite all their research, I was seeing the majority of skin problems in the dogs that ate their particular brand of pet food.

At the time, I was starting to read and learn more about the potential benefits of grain free diets, which like I said before, were still kind of a new thing. I started to experiment. Cautiously at first, I would recommend that owners try a grain free diets for an itchy dog or a pet with chronic diarrhea.

And what I found, a little bit to my surprise, is that one by one, animals would have their health concerns go away if I switched them to a grain free diet. Dogs with seizures, skin disease, digestive complaints. They all seemed to do better.

It didn’t work every time, but it worked often enough that I came to expect it. Rely on it even.

Since then, I’ve met countless owners who have told me that insert health condition here improved when they started feeding their pets a grain free diet.

I also started to play around with the various brands and figured out which ones were good for treating what.

Natural Balance helped with digestive complaints. Taste of the Wild was great for dogs with dry, itchy skin. And raw food really helped dogs with yeast overgrowth in their ears or skin. These became part of my go-to formulas for treating animals.

It made sense to me. When you talk to people who changed their diet, many will tell you that THEIR insert health condition here went away or improved when they eliminated processed foods from their diet and starting eating more whole, natural foods.

However, what was interesting and unique in the case of my animal patients is that we weren’t eliminating processed foods.

We were just switching them from one highly processed food to another highly processed food (grain-free diets).

In this case, we were just eliminating certain ingredients.

There are many articles written on the internet about how grain-free diets are just a fad, created as a clever marketing scheme to lure in gullible pet owners. This wasn’t my experience with them.

In my 10 years as a veterinarian, I witnessed the grain-free diets improve the health and lives of hundreds if not thousands of animals. It was no more a fad treatment to me than was using a medication. It just seemed to work in many cases.*

*Many of the grain free diets have changed in quality over the years. The grain free diets of today are not the same in quality as those that I was recommending in 2009, as I will discuss in the third blog post of this series.

The curious cases of the diabetic pets

At this busy practice in New Jersey in 2009, one of the more common diseases that I treated was diabetes.

I would diagnose a new diabetic pet a few times per month.

It was so common, that we had a system in place for it.

We had special notebooks with columns where owners could keep track of when they gave insulin. We had technicians trained to teach owners how to administer insulin. We had handouts and protocols.

As a new vet, I learned about the various insulin types, blood glucose curves, and how to manage and treat these patients.

But diabetes was a tough disease and not every owner could afford the expense, had comfort with needles, or had the schedule that guaranteed they would be able to give insulin injections 12 hours apart.

And so, in some cases, we made the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize animals because pet owners could not manage or afford to treat a diabetic pet.

A little over a year into working at this veterinary practice, I decided that I wanted to learn more about nutrition and alternative medicine. And so, I made the decision to move from New Jersey to San Francisco in order to work with another veterinarian (who happened to also be Polish) who was a highly skilled integrative medicine practitioner.

At this new veterinary practice, I learned that he, like me, had similar views on nutrition. He thought that animals did much better on grain-free diets and was a big proponent of raw and fresh ingredient feeding.

Because this was an integrative veterinary clinic and many of the pet owners had already done their own research or talked with us, the vast majority of clients at this clinic fed their pets grain free, raw or home made diets. It was rare to see patients eating the more traditional brands like Science Diet or Purina.

I had been working at this clinic for almost 2 years, when I had a client with an overweight dog come in because the pet was excessively drinking and urinating. We ran some bloodwork and found that glucose was sky high.

Diabetes.

I was shocked. Not because the dog had diabetes, but because I had literally forgotten how to treat it. What were the insulin names again? Did we have any techs trained to teach owners to give injections?

We certainly didn’t have any notebooks.

How had I gone from diagnosing diabetes almost weekly to not seeing it for 2 years?

Were the pet owners in San Francisco more diligent pet owners? Did they love their pets more? Was it the water? The ocean air? We certainly had our share of overweight dogs that didn’t exercise as much as they needed to.

The only thing I could think of was the diet. Very few clients at this new clinic fed diets with grains in them.

Out of curiosity, I asked this owner what she was feeding her pet.

It was Iams.

I have not found any studies that look into the possible connection between grains and diabetes in dogs and cats. However, my experience made me a little suspicious.

I worked at the San Francisco practice for three years, and since then have worked for two years in Denver and almost three years in Los Angeles. I have now worked at three different integrative practices in different parts of the country. In Denver I didn’t see diabetes very much, but I do see a little more at the vet practice in LA. However the clients at this particular clinic in Los Angeles seem to feed more vegan and other higher grain diets than the owners at the clinics in San Francisco and Denver.

In full disclosure, I have also since then seen a few cases of dogs that developed diabetes on grain free diets. However, in all of those situations, when probed further (which I did, because I was curious) each of the animals had been on a high grain diet for a significant portion of their life in the past. So, if there is a connection between the grains and diabetes, there may be some residual effects from these diets even after they have been discontinued.

These were my first experiences with Grain Free dog foods, and has shaped much of what I believe about them today.

Let’s look more closely at some of the players in the dog food world that are shaping much of this discussion.

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