Raw. Whole food. Limited-ingredient. Ancestral. Grain-free. Awareness of human food continues to evolve, and as pets become more like family members, it’s changing the way we view their food, too. Where human diets have trended, it seems so have dogs’.
“If I don’t want to put that in my body, I don’t want my dog to put it in theirs either, because my dog is like my child,” said Kristen Zang of Fall Creek-based fresh dog food company Emma Lou’s Homemade Kitchen.
Zang founded Emma Lou’s in 2007, when fresh dog food wasn’t common. But demand for fresh and raw foods is growing, said Mark Dunn, owner of Nature’s Pet Market in Eugene. Dunn opened the store with two freezers a decade ago and is about to add a fifth.
“I think the pet food companies started looking at the trends of what consumers were buying in the grocery stores and restaurants for themselves,” Dunn said.
Dunn has “absolutely” seen a correlation between grain-free human diets and dog foods, which he said were more of a novelty when he started his franchise business 10 years ago. Since then, “we just saw this massive change,” he said.
For some pet parents, entirely grain-free dog foods are increasingly seen as a safer, higher quality alternative to conventional kibble. Replacing corn, wheat and rice with more nutritious-sounding ingredients like peas and sweet potatoes and the perception of a higher proportion of meat has bolstered this wholesome image.
So it came as a shock for many dog owners when a research study conducted on golden retrievers at UC Davis in 2018 showed an apparent link between grain-free dry food and an increased incidence of a canine heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, which is a kind of heart failure and can be fatal if not treated.
Despite some critics questioning the research methods, several major brands named in a follow-up FDA report last summer saw a drop in sales, as much as 10% over three months, according to Nielsen data reported by petfoodinsider.com.
This research has left many dog owners who buy grain-free not knowing what to believe.
“What’s particularly tragic is these are really good clients that really care about their dogs, said Nancy L. Johnson, DVM, owner of The Veterinary Hospital in Eugene. “They’re paying top dollar; these are high-end foods. It’s not like somebody is trying to cut corners.”
How food choices are made
If there’s any consensus on how to choose a food, it’s that there isn’t one right answer. The FDA regulates the ingredients in pet foods, but formulas vary widely and nutritional guidelines aren’t strictly enforced by the Association of American Feed Control Officials, which sets minimum standards for test results.
“I personally think it’s a good place to start, but (that) it’s the minimum requirement is not very impressive,” Zang said. She labels her Emma Lou’s Homemade Kitchen food as meeting/exceeding AAFCO’s standards.
“Everyone has an opinion,” Zang said of the various feeding styles. She advised pet owners to trust their instincts and experiment. Two nonprofit food review sites, dogfoodadvisor.com and truthaboutpetfood.com, are a good place to begin consumer research, she said.
But the internet shouldn’t necessarily dictate choices, said Johnson, the veterinarian.
“‘Dr. Google’ is sort of an associate of this practice, he’s got a lot of information but not a lot of experience,” Johnson joked. She said she will discuss independent research with clients, but refers them to trusted sources such as the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Veterinary Information Network or balanceit.com, which hosts a nutrition calculator for homemade pet food, if dog owners prefer that route.
Oftentimes, puppy owners will inherit feeding habits from breeders, shelters or older dogs. When Shawn Mogenson got his second chocolate Lab puppy, Larry, he kept him on the same grain-free diet the breeder used. That aligned with Mogenson’s previous chocolate Lab, who had itchy skin and was put on a grain-free diet.
“It’s better for them,” he said while watching Larry play at Alton Baker Dog Park. He said Larry’s not allowed any “people food,” but he does get frozen baby carrots because he’s teething. Otherwise, he eats Canidae kibble or whole food treats like coconut oil inside a rubber Kong toy, which Mogenson said is also to support skin health.
But some puppies seem to do just fine, or even better, on a basic, conventional kibble. Dog park-goer Liam Green got his 1-year old rescue dog Sami, who he said is probably a blue heeler-black Lab mix, from a shelter. Green said he’s tried four different kinds of kibble, but Sami either had digestive issues or didn’t like them. His vet recommended Hill’s Science Diet, but Green said due to cost, he’s switched Sami over to Safeway’s brand of kibble. She’s healthy and seems to like her food more, he said.
All experts say reading labels and ensuring the first five ingredients are good sources of animal protein (“meal” is fine) is the best way to judge a food’s quality. Researching who owns a company is a good way to judge its priorities, say both conventional and holistic vets. And while most vets sell some sort of food, none say they make much off those sales.
Green’s vet, Eugene Animal Hospital, strongly cautions against grain-free dog foods, he said, using signs in their waiting and exam rooms with messages like “Just because it’s a trend, doesn’t mean it’s healthy for them.” The signs inform clients of the research into DCM and caution against feeding grain-free diets unless “absolutely necessary,” confirmed manager Anna Donahue.
Johnson at The Veterinary Hospital isn’t convinced there’s direct causality between grain-free foods and DCM, but her office still advises a balanced, nutritionist-approved diet, and often one including grains.
“It’s a vague problem right now,” Johnson said. She attributes some of the DCM cases to breed-specific predispositions, but said it still appears there’s a “relationship” between diet and the heart disease.
“Most of the dogs affected were also on grain-free diets. That doesn’t mean (the diets) caused the problem, but we’re seeing these things linked,” said Johnson.
She said researchers don’t know exactly why DCM is occurring, but in all the research she can find, it’s not happening to dogs on what she refers to as the top four conventional brands of kibble: Royal Canin, Iams, Hill’s Science Diet and Purina.
Meanwhile, holistic vet Dr. Teri Sue Wright of Balance Veterinary Clinic recommends grain-free fresh or raw foods, such as the brand Answers, which is sold at Nature’s Pet Market. Wright also exclusively sells this brand at her office. She says she views it as the optimal choice across the board for all her four-legged clients.
Its grain-free formula relies on raw, grass-fed meats and fermented organic vegetables and is meant to mimic the flesh and stomach contents of the prey dogs once ate in the wild. Though Wright views this as more natural, she admits it’s not always a dog’s preference over conventional kibbles, which she compared to junk food.
“They don’t love it. It’s like teaching a kid that eats Kraft mac and cheese out of a box to eat fresh meat and fresh potatoes and homemade mac and cheese without MSG,” she said.
More meat matters
As for humans, the freshest, most minimally processed dog food provides optimal nutrition. But whether you’re making it yourself or not, it’s expensive.
Raw food diets are primarily meat, which contains high levels of amino acids. This is important because the issue with grain-free foods is thought by some to be related to a lower levels of the amino acid taurine, which is synthesized from other amino acids cysteine and methionine and necessary for heart health in dogs.
By removing grains from kibble formulas, bulk and carbohydrates must come from elsewhere. Often the balance is made up with ingredients like legumes and potatoes instead of good quality animal proteins, which are important sources of amino acids.
“If your dog is getting good quality protein, muscle meat protein, it’s going to get those two amino acids it needs to make its own taurine,” Zang, the fresh dog food maker, said.
Zang worked closely with a holistic vet in Portland to formulate her recipes, which use quinoa as a companion to vegetables and both muscle and organ meat like liver. A seed in the same family as spinach, quinoa is popular among human vegetarians for its complete amino acid profile. It’s also very gentle for dogs to digest, Zang said. And, it’s expensive, which is part of why her food costs $8.50 a day for a 35 pound dog.
“We’re using real food. (The cost is) pretty much the lowest we can make it while still making a profit,” Zang said.
The Answers brand is about $5 a pound if bought in bulk through Wright’s office, which works out to about $4 a day for a 50 pound dog, Wright said. But the way she sees it, a quality food pays for itself.
“Buying food for your pet is an investment up front, otherwise they’re dealing with medical and dental bills at the end,” she said.
Wright and Zang advised supplementing kibble with as much fresh or raw food as a dog owner can afford.
“If you can afford only kibble for your dog, that’s fine,” Zang said, but she recommended seeking out the highest-rated kibble on Dog Food Advisor that’s affordable. Beyond that, feeding vet-recommended, safe produce and meats as supplements is a great way to do more, she said.
“Buy some fresh food, fresh veggies and muscle meats and when something’s on sale at the supermarket and just add it to your dog’s food. Getting that fresh food in their diet over time will make a big difference in their health.”
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