So there’s a lot of information bouncing around the internet recently about grain-free foods contributing to heart disease in dogs. Like most things on the internet, much of this information is good, yet some downright irritating with its bad advice and misinterpretation of the facts. I thought I’d chime in and try to distill it for anyone that it’s interested. Truthfully, all kibble feeders should be interested. Please remember, I’m not bashing kibble per se, but those that feed it should be aware of its shortfalls. The good news is that its very easy and not expensive to provide excellent protection against these shortfalls when feeding a dry kibble diet!
So here’s the thing with this recent issue:
U.C. Davis reported an increase in heart disease (specifically cardiomyopathy) in dogs eating grain free kibble, and when tested, they have low taurine levels.
Some breeds of dogs (like boxers, dobermans, cavaliers, etc) have genetic predispositions to cardiomyopathy (a serious weakening of the heart muscle making it harder to pump blood through the body), but there’s a recent increase in cardiomyopathy in other breeds as well, linked to Taurine deficiency. Golden Retrievers seem to be especially vulnerable to this. The amazing news is that recent research is showing that when you improve their taurine levels through nutrition, they rapidly and significantly improve their heart function (even with other heart problems like murmurs and arrhythmias) Yay! Here’s what we do know: This definitely points to a nutritional problem with their diets.
What we don’t know: Why does it seem to have a correlation with grain free food?
When grain free kibbles came around, it was a big improvement for the pet food industry – so many of the giant companies at the time were making poor quality foods whose proteins were mainly from corn and wheat, with rendered waste meats (not suitable for human use, including diseased, decomposed meats and animals that had died otherwise than from slaughter) used to flavor the food and enable them to call the food “beef flavor”, etc. (They still do, and so are taking the opportunity with this news to bash grain free foods and smaller companies). When new companies entered the market who were focused on high quality (approved for human consumption) meats as the primary ingredient, and eliminated poorer quality, high glycemic ingredients like corn (which carries the significant risk of mycotoxins) and wheat, it made a huge difference on the health and appearance of pets eating them. Grain-free swept the industry, and is pretty much the norm now. Statistically, the reports coming in about a correlation between grain free foods and heart disease might simply be because most dogs are eating grain free these days. Just a thought.
However, there may be more to it:
All dry food needs starch to bind it and make the little round “kibbles” of dry foods. When kibbles went grain free, these binders switched from grains like corn and wheat to other starches like potato, sweet potato, tapioca, etc. None of these had very much protein, so the majority of protein was definitely coming from the meat content, as it should for dogs and cats. However, a strange thing has happened in the past 5 or so years. I remember Horizon Pet Food came to us saying they were using peas and lentils to bind their foods, which was intriguing to us – these ingredients were lower glycemic than other starches, and had some protein content of their own. We always like to recommend that people not only rotate flavors within a brand of food but to occasionally switch brands to be able to take advantage of the variety of different nutrients in their recipes, including different proteins and different binders. Nutritional variety is important for all of us. This helps to avoid developing sensitivities to certain ingredients, or deficiencies in any nutrients for that particular individual. Peas and legumes were novel at the time, so we brought it in. Shortly after, it seemed all new grain free foods started coming out with lentils, garbanzos, and especially peas as their binder. And then, almost all of the foods we already carried switched over to peas, etc as well. Talk about sweeping the industry! It’s been a huge frustration to us, as occasionally some animals seem to have a sensitivity to peas, and they have very few other choices these days in kibble. Many people are suggesting that peas and other legumes may be somehow linked to these cases of heart disease, but we definitely need more research to determine if peas/legumes themselves are somehow damaging amino acids or impacting taurine absorption. Research is underway. It might also be a less direct but still significant correlation. Read on:
What we believe might be the real problem: Because peas and other legumes have more protein than previous traditional starches used to bind grain free kibbles, too much of the total protein is derived from the vegetable proteins instead of from the meat proteins. Pea proteins are less expensive than meat proteins, but vegetable based proteins have no taurine content, and very very few other amino acids that are necessary for taurine production. In fact, research has long shown that one of the big problems with vegan dog food diets is the correlation between long term feeding of plant-based proteins and heart disease in dogs. Plant-based proteins are just not as biologically appropriate for dogs as meat-based proteins. Poorly designed/unbalanced homemade diets are also showing a correlation to heart disease, as many don’t incorporate enough meat and variety of organs to meet their long term needs. Dogs seem “fine” on these diets for some time, and small signs of deficiencies are often overlooked (poor coat quality, bad teeth, flabby body shape with poor muscle mass, etc). Remember: nutritional deficiencies can take a few years to express themselves, and by the time they do, they may have created serious chronic health problems that could have been avoided. Luckily, as stated above, problems such as taurine deficiency is pretty easy to fix (or prevent!)
Important Amino Acids and Kibble Diets:
Kibble is a heavily processed food. It is admittedly a convenient way to feed dogs, and the quality of ingredients for these dry foods has generally come a very long way since we opened in 2004. However, high heat processing and extrusion (the cooking method most dry foods companies use) can really damage many of the nutrients in the food, especially the quality of the essential amino acids that make up the protein content of the food. There are 22 amino acids that all carnivores need to function. 12 are considered “non-essential”, which does not mean “unimportant”, it just means that their bodies have the ability to synthesize them when the right tools are available. 10 amino acids (11 for cats) are “essential amino acids” which means that they can’t make them themselves – they must be acquired from the foods they eat. Carnivores are designed to acquire these through the ingestion of muscle meat and organs. They don’t need to synthesize them, as they are so easily accessible from their meaty prey. Taurine is vital to both cats and dogs. It’s responsible for heart muscle function, and immune and eye health, among many other things. You might know that cats cannot synthesize taurine, so it is an “essential amino acid” for them, and must be supplemented in commercial cat foods if there is not enough meat protein, or they will die. Some of the best natural sources of taurine for cats are rodent brains and insects – no wonder they often eat the heads of mice and leave the rest, or that they like to hunt bugs! Dogs thrive with natural sources of taurine, but can also synthesize taurine from two other amino acids (cysteine and methionine) which are required by AAFCO (food ingredient regulators). If dogs don’t have access to high quality amino acids, they can’t synthesize other vital amino acids like taurine efficiently. The trouble is, taurine and other amino acids are highly sensitive to heat and are easily damaged.
Let’s Explore What Happens In Real Life: When high heat processing damages the structure of the amino acids in fresh meats, the body has fewer tools to accomplish the tasks it is designed to do. Example: Our last cat, Zoe, was a kibble fed cat until she was 18. We had started transitioning her to a canned food diet to increase the moisture and help her deal with her early stage kidney disease. She was a rack of bones with almost no muscle mass in her back end, her black and white coat looked brownish and white as well as greasy and unkempt. We figured she was’t grooming herself as well. Her liver values were off, and she had a hard lump on her arm. You know – she was old, right? Nothing to be done. However, when we switched her to a commercial diet made of minimally processed fresh meats (Rad Cat), within 2 weeks her coat was jet black again and sleek like a seal. Gorgeous. Here’s why: There are certain nutrients like the amino acid Tyrosine, the mineral copper, and certain enzymes which contribute to the manufacture of melanin (color) in hair and skin. These are all found in proper amounts in muscle meats and organs, and a carnivore’s body relies on these to get these sorts of jobs done. When some of those tools are damaged, the body can’t get those jobs done efficiently. The way her coat looked wasn’t really about her age, or her ability to groom herself properly. She was missing nutrients! Even in her human-quality ingredient, low-phosphorus, high-moisture diet, she was missing nutrients that were more intact in her fresh food diet. Within 2 months her muscle mass was also greatly improved – she felt like a cat again instead of a skeleton, and she could jump up into the windows again where she hadn’t been able to in a few years. In a year her liver values were perfect, her kidney function had not decreased, and she looked more beautiful at 20 than when she was 5. She lived to be 22 when we thought we were losing her at 18. It was a big lesson to us to watch this process in action, and the roles of intact amino acids became more apparent to us. Over and over we see these sorts of transformation in our customers’ animals even when they start to just incorporate fresh foods into their processed kibble diets.
Here’s What To Do (these tips go for cats too!):
You could supplement taurine synthetically, but we don’t recommend it – you could give too much, and whole food sources of taurine provide scads of complementary, synergistic nutrients to make for better, more complete supplementation. (Think Synthetic Vitamin A supplement that you could overdose on vs. whole carrots in the diet that contain not only vitamin A from Beta carotene, but also other nutrients like B vitamins, Lutein for eye health, fiber, vitamin K, potassium and antioxidants, without the risk of too much Vitamin A). We’ve long been proponents of adding some sort of whole food toppers to your kibble, for the reasons above. Luckily, toppers are all the rage these days, and tons of ready-made toppers are available at pet supply stores (ie: Honest Kitchen’s Proper Toppers and Stella and Chewy’s Mixers. You can also add real foods to diets that will have significant value, and are a less expensive way to go.
When looking for toppers to support heart health, think fresh or freeze dried or gently dehydrated muscle meats and organs.
Cans don’t count – they’re high heat processed. If you’ve been using cans for flavor, try switching to something from the list below, especially fresh or freeze dried – they’ll love it!
How much? If it were me I’d make sure there’s a little every day. You can overdo it on liver and raw fish (just several times a week is fine), but other muscle meats and organs are safe for every day. Mix it up!
Hearts: (fresh, freeze dried, or gently dehydrated) would be your most ideal source of naturally occurring taurine. (Like feeds like!) We have a number of heart options in the store, and dogs adore them. For example, Small Batch (and Purpose Pet Food make freeze dried heart treats from a variety of pasture raised animals – these are great for snacking and training rewards. We stock 5# boxes of turkey hearts (that’s about 70 hearts) in the freezer as well as 4oz packages of chicken hearts – a few of these a week will really ensure a fabulous PERFECT taurine supplement, and your dog will look at you like, “What? Wow! Why haven’t we had these before???”
Other Meaty Treats: Muscle meats and organs are all good sources of taurine, especially when frozen raw or gently processed through freeze drying or gently dehydration. Fish, clams and mussels are one of the best sources of taurine – check out the beautiful whole sardines in our freezer – they can be given 2 or 3 times a week and also are great for Omega 3s! (for cats also check out Vital Essentials freeze dried whole minnows). Also great are the Freeze Dried “Nice Mussels” by Honest Kitchen.
Freeze Dried Diets sprinkled over their food or fed as goodies:
Stella and Chewy’s 2oz. patties, Small Batch 1oz patties, and Vital Essentials (small softer nuggets and small crunchy treats great for training treats) freeze dried can be found at our store in lots of flavors, and many other good brands are out there, like Primal and Open Farm, among many others.
A Nugget a Day of Fresh Foods From Our Freezers:
This is another one of the cheapest ways to supplement a variety of safe, whole food nutrients that don’t use damaging heat processing. We respect that some folks (especially with big dogs) feel like an entirely whole food diet is inaccessible (talk to us though – we have a lot of great ways for you to do this, often for the same price or just a little more than kibble topped with canned foods) or inconvenient (though it’s really not hard at all with preportioned patties and nuggets). Some people travel a lot, or don’t have freezer space, etc. It just doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. A bag of Small Batch chicken “sliders” (1 oz patties) is $16.99, and there are 48 nuggets in a bag. One nugget a day gives you 48 days of a fabulous whole food supplement with local pasture raised meats and organs, organic locally sourced veggies, salmon oil, herbs like dandelion, cilantro, wheat grass, oregano, and thyme, as well as bilberry and bee pollen. This is likely so much cheaper than any supplement we could sell you from our supplement shelves! Rotate into a box of Answers “nibbles” (1oz patties) and get organically raised pasture fed, certified humanely raised meats and organs, ground bone, organic eggs, organic fermented vegetables (probiotics!), fermented cod liver (probiotics!), high vitamin butter (specially raised to enhance vitamin content and is rich in gut healing butyric acid, fermented decaffeinated green tea (kombucha) or raw goat’s milk whey, Montmorillonite (natural trace minerals), organic parsley, sea salt, and natural vitamin E. You don’t even have to thaw these – your dog loves an ice cube, right? This is a fabulous meat cube and is easier to chew than an ice cube. No muss, no fuss – just toss them a nugget a day (or on each meal).
(Tips for shopping for kibble: check out baked kibbles, like Stella and Chewy’s Raw Coated or Raw Blends – baking doesn’t trash the nutrients as much as extrusion, which is how most kibbles are made. The S&C kibble also has freeze dried raw mixed in (the same mixers they sell separately), which gives a fabulous source of taurine, which ca really be more convenient and cheaper than adding anything to your diet.)
We know that for us, a diet made entirely of processed foods is a recipe for chronic health issues like obesity, diabetes, etc. It’s the same for our dogs. These recent findings are not a surprise, but hopefully they are a wakeup call to all of us that our dogs can be healthier (and cost us so much less at the vet) with the introduction of whole foods to their diet. Do we think an entirely whole food diet is best? Well, sure we do! But, any amount of whole food in their diets (or ours) is a great thing, and can really mean the difference between Surviving and Thriving!
Here’s another good article on the subject by Dr. Karen Becker, DVM. Contains links to published articles about the subject, an excellent discussion on the topic, ways to become involved in the study if your dog has DCM and low taurine levels, what testing to do if you suspect your dog has these issues, as well as a list of other commonly affected breeds: http://www.greendogpetsupply.com/blog/attention-kibble-feeders-new-health-problem-reported/