For 15 years, a growing number of pet owners have been persuaded that grain-free foods are a healthier choice for our beloved pets. The justification is that feline and canine animals in the wild did not evolve to eat grains – rather, their diet consisted mainly of meat. However, pet food companies commonly use grains (wheat, corn, rice, etc.) which are cheaper than meat.
Data from a Pet Food Institute (PFI) study published in 2020 indicates that corn products account for over 20 percent of ingredients, by volume, in dog and cat food. If you read the ingredient labels, some popular, low-cost dry foods list corn first, meaning it is the largest volume ingredient.
Currently, no scientific evidence indicates that grain-free foods are in fact healthier for our pets. The Food and Drug Administration is currently studying whether such foods may be linked to heart disease in dogs. This study was launched after a group of veterinary cardiologists in Baltimore noticed increasing numbers of dogs diagnosed with Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), particularly in breeds not known to be genetically predisposed to DCM. Other cardiologists began reporting similar observations. Many of the dogs had been fed grain-free foods, and many were found to have low blood levels of taurine, an essential amino acid. So far, the FDA has said the research is inconclusive. While the research was done on dogs, one may assume some correlation for cats.
The concern is about the ingredients that are substituted for grains in grain-free pet food. Other plant-based carbohydrates (e.g., peas, lentils, and potatoes) are used instead of corn. These carbohydrates are not typically eaten by canines and felines in the wild. Researchers have hypothesized that these formerly uncommon pet food ingredients may interfere with the body’s absorption of the taurine in their food.
My own personal experience with heart failure in cats has been distressing. In 2022 we lost two pet cats and one foster cat to heart failure. All were young (between 1-3 years old). All had been fed grain-free dry food, as well as canned food. Our veterinarian informed us of a possible connection between grain-free food and heart disease. We immediately changed the diet of all our pets. In November an adopter reported that his seemingly healthy, 2-year-old cat suddenly died of a heart attack. This cat had also been eating a popular grain-free dry food (as well as canned food).
Having four young cats die of heart issues so close together was shocking. As a former researcher by profession, I recognize there is not scientific evidence that grain-free foods cause heart disease in dogs or cats – but our experiences made us realize that there is also no scientific evidence supporting the use of grain-free pet foods.
You may notice that some canned cat and dog foods now say they are “grain-free.” This seems to be mainly a marketing gimmick since canned foods have never been high in grain. So, our family is only avoiding grain-free dry foods at this time. For both wet and dry foods, we focus on whether the first ingredient(s) are “real” meat rather than animal meal or by-products. We have found reasonably-priced cat foods that meet these criteria – not the cheapest, but also not the most expensive.
If you are considering whether to make a switch to or away from grain-free pet foods, the best advice is to consult with your veterinarian, who can help you make choices that give your pets the best chance of a long and healthy life.