The FDA says grain-free food could be killing dogs. Here’s what pet owners should know.

A scary announcement from the FDA deserves a closer look.

Last week the FDA made a scary announcement: grain-free food might be linked to a dangerous heart condition in dogs. This is actually the third update in a saga that’s been going on since July 2018, when the FDA first began investigating the link. But they’re not much closer to an answer, and there’s been a lot of misinformation about the mysterious rise in canine dilated cardiomyopathy circulating in the meantime.

For starters, it’s not just grain-free diets that seem to be the problem.

To really understand what’s going on here, we first need to talk about general canine nutrition. In recent years, many pet owners seem to have begun to think of grains as filler products in dog food—something our pups don’t need that could harm them. The truth is that grains provide essential nutrients, even protein, and there are very few dogs out there with grain allergies. Gluten intolerance is also rare in dogs: only a single family of inbred Irish Setters has confirmed gastrointestinal issues from consuming gluten, according to the Clinical Nutrition Service at Tufts’ Cummings Veterinary Medical Center. Of course, not all grains are created equal. Potatoes and tapioca are grains, but they’re pretty starchy and have very little fiber. They wouldn’t be ideal ingredients in pet food. That doesn’t mean grain-free is inherently better.

Like humans, a dog’s diet needs to fulfill their needs, and some veterinarians worry unconventional pet foods—alternatives that might seem outwardly healthier—aren’t meeting those requirements. Some of them happen to be grain-free, but the real term vets use is “boutique, exotic-ingredient, and grain-free.”

It’s not at all clear yet how these so-called BEG diets might be contributing to the rise in dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), or even if they contribute at all. The FDA only began investigating the link because vets saw an anecdotal rise in DCM rates in breeds not normally predisposed to getting the disease. Some purebreds, like Great Danes and Doberman pinschers, have genetic links to DCM. But when bulldogs and labrador retrievers started coming in with heart problems, vets got worried. They also just happened to notice that a lot of these dogs were on grain-free or other BEG diets.

As a 2018 paper in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association points out, though, that could be an association. Grain-free foods are rapidly becoming more popular, so perhaps the rise in BEG diets is unrelated to the rise in DCM. Maybe they’re just both on the rise. Certainly, the authors note, some of the cases reported to the FDA have nothing to do with diet.

They do, however, suspect diet plays some role. They’re just not sure what it is yet. Taurine deficiencies are known to cause health issues, and certain breeds like American cocker spaniels and golden retrievers are inclined to developing taurine deficiencies, so perhaps it’s a nutritional deficit in these alternative kibbles. Some of the dogs were found to have low taurine levels and improved after getting supplements. Still, plenty of others didn’t. Maybe it’s not taurine, but some other dietary nutrient. The FDA analyzed grain-containing versus grain-free foods and found little difference between them, but that’s no guarantee.

Lisa Freeman at the Tufts Clinical Nutrition Service noted when the FDA’s original announcement came out that BEG diets often use unusual, exotic ingredients that manufacturers know less about. Just because two types of meat have the same taurine levels, for example, doesn’t mean that a dog can extract the same amount of it from the resulting food. Companies need to study the ingredients they’re working with to know whether they’ll provide all the nutrients canines need.

The concern, she explains, is that many manufacturers—especially small ones—come up short in their nutritional profiles. Across 90 types of canned cat food, for instance, she and her colleagues found that 15 percent were deficient in a crucial nutrient, and all of those were made by small companies. That indicates quality control could be lacking at the same manufacturers that tend to produce BEG food.

Though the FDA isn’t currently recommending that anyone get rid of their pet food, some experts like Freeman are suggesting pet owners make a change. “It’s unlikely that most dogs eating a BEG diet will develop DCM,” she wrote in a November 2018 update.”However, given the fact that we don’t yet understand why BEG diets are affecting some dogs and because DCM is a life-threatening disease, I recommend you reconsider your dog’s diet until we know more.”

Since there are no health reasons to have your dog go grain-free, and potentially a reason not to, it may be safest to switch to a more conventional kibble. If you’re unsure how to pick one, start by looking for a label on the bag that says whether the product used “animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures.” AAFCO isn’t a certifying or regulatory body, but they do release nutritional guidelines and allow manufacturers to use this label to indicate their products have been tested to prove they provide proper nutrition.

If you want to be even more thorough, you can see if a particular brand is in the Pet Nutrition Alliance’s manufacturer report. The group asked every manufacturer in the U.S. a few key questions about their methods, though only a few responded. You’re looking for a company that, ideally, doesn’t contract out their manufacturing at all and employs full-time nutritionists with advanced degrees in animal nutrition. Those are the companies that have the knowledge base to adequately test and formulate pet food.

You might be surprised to find that many of the all-natural, grain-free type companies don’t employ these crucial experts (though most companies simply didn’t respond to the request from the Pet Nutrition Alliance). Manufacturing giants like Purina, on the other hand, often do.

We all want what’s best for our pups, and it’s easy to go along with the shiny marketing that tells us grain-free or all-lamb is really the healthiest thing—heck, we do it with our own diets. But when it comes to dog food, the boring conventional choice might be the best.