Pet Industry Seeing Boom in Alternative Diets

by Gillan Ritchie

Owners Turn Toward Paleo, Keto, and Grain-Free Diets

Wellness–it isn’t just for humans anymore. Since the pandemic, more people are focusing on physical and mental well-being. But improving the quality of life isn’t just about mankind. Exercise regimens and alternative diets have extended to furry, four-legged companions over the last two years. 

In 2021, nearly 1 million animals were adopted in the United States (U.S.) while birth rates declined–both statistics can be attributed to the pandemic. Many pet owners, which are younger adults, are devoting more time and consideration to what their companions consume. 

When Kelly Peak and her husband, Mike Tompkins, adopted their second greyhound, Bear, the animal rescue advised that Bear should be on an alternative diet because of his sensitive digestive system. Their other dog, Barney, was already on a grain-free diet so they decided to use the same food for Bear. However, Bear didn’t respond well to the diet.

“We tried various kinds of food and found one that he liked and didn’t throw off his stomach,” Peak said. 

Bear, now on a low-fat diet, is just one of many pets in the U.S. on an alternative diet. The pet wellness industry has been seeing a boom in raw food, vegan and vegetarian, gluten-free, and grain-free diets. There are even specialty items like immune support for dogs and cats and daily nutritional greens supplements.

FDA’s Guidance on Grain-Free Foods

With so many different food options available to pet owners, it can be hard to decide what to feed pets. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require pet food products to have pre-market approval. The FDA’s website states that products should be made out of safe ingredients and have an appropriate function within pet food. Outside of that, guidance from the FDA on pet food ingredients is vague. 

But in July 2018, the FDA announced its investigation of a potential link between grain-free diets and non-hereditary canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). According to the FDA, anything that is labeled as “grain-free” contains high levels of peas, lentils, other legume seeds (pulses), and/or potatoes in various forms (whole, flour, protein, etc.) within the first 10 ingredients. DCM cases previously reported to the FDA include dog breeds that aren’t previously known to have a genetic predisposition to DCM.

Some pet health experts are cautioning against alternative diets due to misinformation on the internet and the lack of regulation currently from the FDA. Alternative diets–whether for humans or pets–aren’t backed by substantial research, and pets become at risk for potential health problems.

“Due to the potential link for grain-free and legume heavy diets (peas, lentils, etc) to cause diet-related dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), we recommend feeding all the dogs in our care a complete diet including grains and ideally one of the three major brands (Royal Canin, Purina, and Science Diet) to avoid any potential risk for diet-related heart disease,” said Sam Orr, vet director of Angels Among Us Pet Rescue. ”We also consult with our valued vet partners for nutritional advice to make sure we are doing the best thing for each individual dog.”  

Grain-Free Food Business Continues to Boom

Despite the FDA’s investigation into grain-free diets and DCM, there has been a significant increase in the number and sales of foods and treats over the last decade. According to Dr. Stephanie Clark, PhD, CVT, PAS, CFS, Dpl. ACAS, board-certified companion animal nutritionist at BSM Partners, there is no research that indicates a definitive connection between grain-free diets and DCM.

“Our team of animal nutritionists, veterinarians, and veterinary cardiologists is undertaking projects to help bridge the gaps in DCM research,” Dr. Clark said. “We recently collected cases of DCM from around the country diagnosed by veterinary cardiologists and found no significant increase in DCM cases in recent years, while at the same time sales of grain-free pet food rose 500%. Another study we are actively working on is evaluating the relationship between nutrition and canine cardiac disease.” 

As misinformation continues to spread on social media platforms, pet owners feel a sense of distrust with their veterinarians and veterinarians feel frustration as a result. Animals have different dietary needs from humans–what works for pet owners will more than likely not work for their pet.

Diets such as raw food can be very dangerous for pets because of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meats, and homemade meals lack certain nutrients. There are also certain foods that pets can’t digest and detoxify from their bodies such as onion and garlic. 

“At a September 2020 symposium on DCM hosted by Kansas State University, which brought together veterinary nutritionists, cardiologists, researchers, and personnel from the FDA, Dr. Steve Solomon, the director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, noted it is best to talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s specific dietary needs based on their health and medical history” Dr. Clark said.

Moreover, with no reason to believe pulse [lentils, peas, chickpeas, field beans, and cowpeas] ingredients are inherently dangerous, more research is needed to fully understand this issue.

Dr. Stephanie Clark

Every pet is unique and that means that their diet should fit their nutritional needs. Humans may benefit from certain diets and exercise regimens–but that doesn’t mean pets will. If a pet owner has questions about what to feed their companion, they should consult with their vet before making any lifestyle changes. 

This article ran in the April 2022 edition of HOME Magazine.

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