Grain-free, DCM, Taurine deficiency, and You!

Posted by Balanced Blends Inc. on

The terms “grain-free”, “taurine deficiency”, and “DCM” are referenced often in the realm of pet food, but what do they mean for us and our furfams? In this article we shall explain the origins of these issues and the exposure to risk they present.

Please note that Balanced Blends' recipes are not, and have never been, impacted by the issues described below.

Grain Free

NOTE: Under investigation are the species inappropriate 'grain-free alternatives' that are being used, which have been linked to serious health issues, and death.

"Grain-free" pet food diets do not commonly refer to diets such as raw that do not contain any plant matter such as Balanced Blends' Species Balanced™ Raw and Steamed recipes. Both of which are grain-free and free of the harmful grain-free alternatives referenced by the FDA. More details on this below.


What is ‘grain-free’?

The American Kennel Association defines grain free as: “no corn, soy, wheat, rice, barley, or other grains.”


The term "Grain-free" is typically used for recipes that include alternative carbohydrate fillers as listed in the section "Why 'grain-free' is misleading" below.


How did ‘grain-free’ pet food become mainstream?

Despite them being a ‘species inappropriate’ ingredient, grains were used extensively in pet food recipes up until 2007. Three things happened to trigger change: 

  • Contamination of wheat gluten imported from China.
  • Popularization of ‘gluten-free’ human diets.
  • Release of a report on mycotoxin contamination of pet food.


Contaminated Wheat Gluten

The American Kennel Club have done a fine job explaining this with: 

“Grain may have gotten a really bad name from the 2007 pet-food contamination tragedy in which wheat gluten imported from China had been contaminated with industrial chemicals used to falsely boost protein-level readings and caused kidney damage when ingested. Thousands of pets got ill and many died. Of course it wasn’t the grain itself that was the culprit, but that’s what many people remember.”



Gluten-free human diets

Unfortunately, humans have a habit of choosing "human appropriate" diets for their pets, often without realizing how species inappropriate those choices might be. This is something the pet food industry has capitalized on with marketing and product labelling promoting human diet trends on their products. A more recent example of species inappropriate human-food trends being forced upon animals is the ‘vegan pet food’ diet.


Mycotoxin contamination of pet food

What are mycotoxins?

The World Health Organization explains them as:

  • Naturally occurring toxins produced by certain molds (fungi) and can be found in food
  • The molds grow on a variety of different crops and foodstuffs including cereals, nuts, spices, dried fruits, apples and coffee beans, often under warm and humid conditions
  • Can cause a variety of adverse health effects and pose a serious health threat to both humans and livestock
  • The adverse health effects of mycotoxins range from acute poisoning to long-term effects such as immune deficiency and cancer



Are there risks to pets?

Yes. In 2007, Drs. Herman J. Boermans and Maxwell C.K. Leung of the International Journal of Food Microbiology published the report “Mycotoxins and the pet food industry:  Toxicological evidence and risk assessment”



Why ‘grain-free’ is misleading

Most important to note about ‘grain free’ isn’t the removal of grains, but the substitution of other species inappropriate carbohydrate fillers, e.g. peas, lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes. Confirming that going ‘grain-free’ is insufficient for protecting your pets from microtoxins, in an article on The Truth About Pet Food, Susan Thixton shares:

“Many pet food consumers associate grains with the risk of mycotoxins, possibly leading them to ‘Grain-Free’ pet food choices. However, most grain-free pet foods include other starch ingredients such as peas that are just as susceptible to mycotoxins as grains. Another common mycotoxin not tested for in the Brazil study is common to peas (the grain-free pet food ingredient of choice) – “Ochratoxins have been found in a wide variety of agricultural commodities such as corn, wheat, barley, flour, coffee, rice, oats, rye, beans, peas, and mixed feeds, and are notably present in wine, grape juice, and dried vine fruits.”



DCM and Grain-Free Diets

What is DCM?

“Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a type of canine heart disease that affects the heart muscle. The hearts of dogs with DCM have a decreased ability to pump blood, which often results in congestive heart failure.

Some breeds, especially large and giant breeds, have a predisposition to DCM. These breeds include Doberman PinschersGreat DanesNewfoundlandsIrish Wolfhounds, and Saint Bernards. While DCM is less common in medium and small breeds, English and American Cocker Spaniels are also predisposed to this condition.

The reports submitted to the FDA span a wide range of breeds, including many without a known genetic predisposition. When early reports from the veterinary cardiology community indicated that recent, atypical cases in breeds like Golden RetrieversLabrador RetrieversWhippetsBulldogs, and Shih Tzus all consistently ate grain alternatives in their diets, the FDA took notice.”



What is the FDA investigating?

The FDA is investigating links between DCM and ‘grain-free’ diets. IMPORTANT: The link is not specifically related to ‘grain-free’ but to the alternative grain-free carbohydrate fillers being used by the pet food industry – peas, lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes as main ingredients.


Is Balanced Blends grain-free?

Yes – but done in a species appropriate manner. Species Balanced™ recipes are free of grain and also free of the carbohydrate filler alternatives listed above that are under investigation by the FDA.


NOTE: The FDA investigation is not complete and further research is required. You can read our take on this here:


Taurine Deficiency and Grain-Free Diets

What is Taurine?

“Taurine is an amino acid that dogs get naturally in their diets and manufacture from other building blocks contained in the food. Although dogs have the ability to manufacture taurine, it has been known for some time that low levels of taurine are associated with a potentially reversible form of DCM.”



How can you protect your pets?

“Since this initial observation, Stern has been recruiting and studying golden retrievers with DCM and taurine deficiency. He has observed that the vast majority of these patients respond favorably to taurine supplementation and diet change, a prognosis that is not usually noted with traditional, genetic DCM.”



NOTE: To protect your pets, Balanced Blends adds taurine to all of its Species Balanced™ recipes, though not required by AAFCO.



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