The Grain Free Pet Food Fallacy

The grain free pet food craze has stuck in my craw as an integrative veterinary medical practitioner for years, but the final straw for me to post this article was a 5 year old female Labrador Retriever that presented for her well visit a few days ago.  The previous year at 72 pounds, I had listed her as overweight and recommended “portion control, and/or weight loss diet, increased exercise to facilitate weight loss.”  The owner had asked me for dietary recommendations at the time and I gave her a few options.

This year, my Lab patient not only failed to lose weight, but presented at a whopping 84 pounds, progressing her body condition from overweight to “morbidly obese.”  The owner was noticeably frustrated, so I asked her which diet she had chosen.  As it turns out, some time after last year’s visit, a friend of her’s convinced her that grains were the root of obesity and most other diseases that occur in dogs, and that her best way to get weight off her dog would be to put her on a grain free dog food.  When the owner saw the pretty wolf on the bag and its fantastic label claims, then even saw that the diet had its own TV commercial airing during prime time, she was sold…and succeeded only in transitioning her dog from a fat dog to an obese dog.

This grain free pet food craze that is pulling pet owners in hook, line and sinker, reminds me of the fat free craze in the early to mid 90’s.  The thought process was that if fat is eliminated from food items, we could eat the things we wanted and stay lean.  Like the grain free pet foods, the opposite actually occurred and people eating fat free foods only found themselves getting fatter and less healthy.

The problem was that in order to take the fat out of cookies, muffins, etc., sugar was added in its place to maintain its taste appeal and consistency.  Sugar, or glucose, is absorbed and utilized much more readily as an energy source than fat, resulting in the intake of a food additive that resulted in a great deal more calories per unit volume than fat.

Like the fat free human foods of the 90’s, grain free pet foods are also commonly loaded up with glucose to make up for the lack of grains.  But the grain free pet foods are even worse, because without the grains, the foods lack adequate amounts of soluble fiber.  Why is dietary soluble fiber important?  There are several reasons!

Soluble fiber unlike simple carbohydrate is not itself absorbed by the gut, but attracts water as it passes through the gastrointestinal tract.  This helps to control hunger by filling the bowel and contributes to regularity by bulking the stool, thereby facilitating bowel health and increasing the basal metabolic rate.  Soluble fiber also reduces the reliance on simple sugars in the diet, offering the pet more stable blood glucose metabolism, reducing obesity, and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, pancreatic disease, and other diseases.

Truly, the only thing that is impressive about grain free pet food companies is their marketing departments.  With images of wolves and wildcats and proclaiming that your domestic pet should be fed more like its wild ancestors, the message is resonating with millions of pet owners.  Let us set aside from for one moment that our domestic dogs and cats are different from their wild ancestors physiologically and metabolically (that is a whole other topic for another day), I am quite certain that after killing their prey, a pack of wolves did not add a pound of sugar to their fresh kill.

Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and highly regarded media personality through a number of topics and platforms.  In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a nationally renowned expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport.  He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health  blogs Web-DVM and Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.

Clarification Of What “Holistic Veterinary Medicine” Really Means

I recently posted on the Dr. Roger Holistic Vet Facebook page about the Canine Influenza H2N2 outbreak in my home state of Florida.  The article I posted came from my general veterinary blog at Web-DVM.net, since I do not like posting duplicate content on my respective blogs.  Nonetheless, I felt that this information was as important for my holistic veterinary blog as it was for my general veterinary blog.

The article presents the facts about the Canine Influenza virus’s high morbidity and educated owners about the risks of the disease and criteria for immunization, highlighting my own veterinary clinic’s immediate implementation of a Canine Influenza immunization program.  While publicly I did not get much backlash about the article, privately I have received disappointment that I would have a holistic veterinary website, call myself a holistic veterinarian, and yet promote a vaccination protocol for dog flu.  I would actually like to thank those readers for raising this issue, as it inspired this post to clarify what holistic veterinary medicine really means.

I consider the terms “integrative medicine” and “holistic medicine” to be synonymous and interchangeable.  Both terms suggest a combination of proven traditional western and alternative treatment to treat the “whole” patient; hence the term “hol-istic.”  Unfortunately, the term has morphed into the notion that holistic medicine rejects western medicine, immunization, and anything outside of herbal or otherwise natural treatment.  I want to be clear that if that is how someone interprets holistic veterinary medicine, that is one’s prerogative, but I will state right now that is clearly not my view nor is it my intent to suggest with this blog.

Holistic medicine seeks to refrain from drawing lines of strictly traditional or strictly alternative treatment in the care of the patient, to use the best available traditional western and alternative veterinary medical techniques that will advocate for the best outcomes for the patient.  Here is a typical example of how integrative veterinary medicine works and I put into practice:

I diagnose a cranial cruciate ligament tear in the knee of a dog.  I recommend surgery, because without surgically stabilizing the injured knee, it will always be painful and cause lameness.   The ligament will not heal on its own because ligaments have poor blood supply, the lack of which prevents healing cells to be delivered to effectively heal the tissue.  Following surgery, I will treat the dog with antibiotics to prevent infection, anti-inflammatories and opioids to reduce swelling and control pain.  This is the western aspect of the case management.

On the alternative side, I am going to recommend rehabilitation with class IV low level therapy laser, and polyglycated glycosaminoglycan (Adequan) injections.  The laser reduces pain by triggering the release of intrinsic endorphins locally, increases healing rates by dilating arterial blood vessels to bring in healing cells, reduces inflammation by dilating venous and lymphatic blood vessels to drain away inflammatory products and fluid.  The Adequan provides potent base molecular building blocks for the repair of connective tissues in the body, while increasing joint fluid production within joints.  This combination significantly reduces post-operative pain and increases post-operative healing rates by 40%.  For the long term, I recommend the post-operative CCL patent be maintained on pharmaceutical grade joints chews and omage-3-fatty acids for long term minimization of inflammation, and maintenance of musculoskeletal structures.

In a similar manner, whether it is an orthopedic case such as this or an internal medicine case, this is always my approach.  From the western traditional approach, I treat the disease directly.  As western techniques, whether surgical or medical, stabilize and reduce clinical signs of disease, I concurrently integrate alternative techniques that aid the body to ultimately do what it does best and heal itself.  The ultimate goal is to minimize the dependence on western surgery and medicine that sometimes comes with unwanted side effects and rely more on alternative techniques that by in large do not.

Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and highly regarded media personality through a number of topics and platforms.  In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a nationally renowned expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport.  He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health  blogs Web-DVM and Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.