This article first appeared on LinkedIn
Just because you are in the pet care industry, it doesn't mean you know a lot about pet nutrition. Before I co-founded Guardian Pet Food with Dr. Ryan Yamka, I thought I was pretty well versed. Truth be told, I didn't know Jack Russell Shih-Tzu!! After doing lots of research, asking thousands of questions and reading everything I could get my hands on, I thought I'd put together a primer that would help explain what's been going on in the pet industry. Go ahead and read it! You don't need to tell anyone else in the industry that you have...it'll be our secret.
There are 10 “essential” amino acids for dogs. These are required fundamental building blocks that a dog CANNOT produce but that must be acquired through diet. Protein “chains” using amino acids are created in a dog’s body to repair, build and replenish their cells. Imagine a series of 10 test tubes that need to be filled in order to keep your dog healthy. If any one of these amino acids is missing or “incomplete”, the building process STOPS. The “missing” or lacking amino acid is called the “limiting amino acid”. When this stoppage occurs, a dog will seek out whatever it can in order to “fill” the amino acid requirement. This can manifest itself as overeating, begging, foraging and yes, even eating “things” out of the litter box or something that died in the yard.
Now here’s the tricky part; just because your dog’s diet is high in protein and formulated to meet AAFCO guidelines, it doesn’t mean the food is meeting the right amino acid profile. If the protein sources are of a poor quality and/or not very digestible (due to the protein source itself or the combination of ingredients), your dog won’t benefit from the “suggested feeding” guidelines. Look at it this way: if your dog needs 100 units of something and the diet is formulated to deliver 120, you’d think it would be OK, right? What if the diet is only 80% digestible and contains a mix of ingredients that may interact negatively with the absorption or synthesis of the amino acids? Short answer - your dog will be deficient. Not to worry, in most cases they’ll just eat more to balance themselves out the problem of pet obesity is for another article). The other amino acids that are consumed in excess will create amines, ammonia, phenols & indoles as well as bacterial cells, gases and branched-chain fatty acids. All of these contribute to odor and mass in feces. In some instances, the excess levels of the amino acids can be toxic and the imbalances can cause a deficiency.
So what about Taurine and all the current issues on canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)? Taurine is NOT an essential amino acid but can be produced by sulfur containing amino acids such as Cysteine and Methionine. There is a belief that grain-free diets may be causing an increase in the prevalence of DCM across various breeds. Dr. Josh Stern from the Morris Animal Foundation has said, “If you feed them a diet that has fewer building blocks for taurine or a food component that inhibits this synthesis, they pop up with DCM.” MorrisAnimalFoundation.org
Lets take a deeper dive and consider how this happens. In a previous article I showed you a margin example of a typical pet food. For this article, I'll discuss ingredient substitutions and costs when converting a formula from grain inclusion to grain-free.
This example is purely illustrative and over simplified for discussion purposes. Lets say your current formulation has Chicken and that chicken makes up 27% of the diet with various grains (corn, rice, wheat, etc) making up another 33% (just looking at the first 6 ingredients). A diet like this typically shows 26-28% protein in the guaranteed analysis (GA). If you decide to move to a grain free diet, you’ll need to replace the grains with something. In this illustration, we've replaced them with potatoes, peas and starches. The problem is, those ingredients COST more than the grains did. In order to keep everything in check from a pricing perspective, we take the protein inclusion down as that is typically the most expensive component. The balancing act then is keeping protein high enough to be in a comparative range. This is where all the peas come in because they add protein at a lower cost than meat (but at a higher cost than grains). These diets usually have protein in the GA at 23-25%. If you opt for a novel protein (say unicorn), you’ll want to use even less due to the higher costs and increase the peas and other legumes even more to keep protein levels high.
So far, we’ve lowered our protein levels and/or added a novel protein, which may or may not have the same bio-availability of the amino acids we want (lamb has particularly low bio-availability of cysteine). We’ve also increased the amounts of our grain-free ingredients like legumes, pulses (seeds of legumes) and potatoes. This would include protein, starch and fiber derivatives (e.g. pea protein, pea starch or pea fiber). No wonder grain-free diets are so much higher in starches and carbohydrates than diets with grains (and less digestible by default)! The best part from a manufacturing perspective? We've created a special "exclusionary" diet with a novel protein, lowered the cost and increased the selling price. If only we could decrease the package size and keep the pricing the same, we'd be rich! Wait a second, where HAVE all the 20lb bags gone? I only see 12lb, 15lb and 17.6lb bags!
So how does all this tie in to canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)? Well, the industry may have unknowingly created the “perfect storm”! The DCM issues have come about from a taurine deficiency. Taurine is a non-essential amino acid that can be both absorbed from diet and synthesized using the amino acids of methionine and cysteine. An imbalance in amino acids can inhibit the absorption of taurine in dogs as both an essential and non-essential amino acid is needed (look back at the limiting amino acid graph with the test tubes). Because we have lowered animal protein levels by changing inclusion percentages, we are offering less of these amino acids. At the same time, we’ve decreased the bio-availability of taurine building blocks like cysteine through the use of novel proteins. Lastly, we’ve reduced the dogs ability to synthesize taurine because of reductions in Vitamin A, B6, Zinc as well as Cysteine and Methionine. A lot of little changes in a short amount of time (from a research perspective) may (and I STRESS "may") be causing some unintended consequences.
PetFoodIndustry.com reported that the FDA has received nearly 200 cases of (and 39 deaths from) DCM issues. While any number of pets is too many, it is a very small number considering the shear number of dogs fed on an exclusively grain-free diet. The FDA announcement does not call out any company or brand or even a specific dietary formulation. As more cases come forward, the common thread seems to point towards certain ingredients used together in high levels.
As a 25 year industry veteran, I say its time to require more testing, better publicly shared research and full transparency. I'd be willing to bet that each one of the diets that were fed to the sickened dogs either never tested for taurine or supplemented taurine levels to offset the protein used in their diets. While that may sound good, the problem is that digestibility and therefore bio-availability to the dog is not known. My heart breaks for the 39 pets and their owners. Whether a direct causal relationship is discovered or not, we should expect more from ourselves and our peers in the industry. There is little to no peer-reviewed research that exists for novel proteins; even less on grain-free carbohydrate sources. And very few companies want to have a discussion about the impact that extrusion has on ingredients and actual digestibility. It is time... #DemandMore