The year 2019 turned out to be more topsy turvy than dog lovers or dog food companies could have predicted. One of the most popular dog food trends was at least partly derailed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s investigation into grain free dog foods that began in 2018. Other trends, such as increased customization of dog food and interest in newer food forms such as fresh, dehydrated, and other dog foods, continued to rise. Interest in CBD or cannabidiol, from the hemp plant – used in pet treats and supplements – also grew.


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Here’s a look back at things that happened in 2019.

Grain-free dog foods see a surprising decline 

The FDA’s investigation into reports from dog owners about foods possibly linked to a dietary form of dilated cardiomyopathy gained momentum in 2019. The overall number of reports to the FDA is only several hundred, at last report, but there were enough cases to cause concern. Many of the foods were grain free and used lots of peas, lentils, and legumes. As many dog lovers know, grain free dog foods became increasingly popular after the melamine recalls in 2007 because they did not contain corn or wheat. Wheat, in particular, had been contaminated with melamine by Chinese sources in 2007.

Many people buying grain free dog foods believed that they were buying better quality food for their dogs and, in many cases they were. However, over the years some dog food companies have slowly increased the amount of peas and other legumes in these foods and reduced the amount of meat protein. Peas, lentils, and legumes are relatively high in protein (compared to corn and wheat) so when they are added to dog food they can make protein percentages look very high – even if the food only has an average amount of meat protein. Some companies have touted their high protein percentages even though much of the protein was plant-based.

The cases reported to the FDA are about what seems to be a dietary form of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). There is a genetic form of DCM but the kind of DCM being reported appears to be different. This kind of DCM, for example, has been reversed in some cases that are not too advanced, with a change of diet and treatment with certain supplements. That doesn’t occur with the genetic form of DCM.

In July 2019, the FDA put out a report about their findings so far. They have not identified the exact cause of the food-related DCM problem but they named 16 dog food brands that had been most frequently linked to cases of DCM reported. More than 90 percent of the foods reported were grain free and used peas and/or lentils.

The foods reported were, in order of the number of reported cases:

  • Acana
  • Zignature
  • Taste of the Wild
  • 4Health
  • Earthborn Holistic
  • Blue Buffalo
  • Nature’s Domain
  • Fromm
  • Merrick
  • California Natural
  • Natural Balance
  • Orijen
  • Nature’s Variety
  • NutriSource
  • Nutro
  • Rachael Ray Nutrish

The FDA’s report does not break the foods down into recipes or formulas. There may be some product lines causing problems while other foods from these companies are fine.

As you can see from the list, many of these foods have a reputation for being high quality. Many of them are also quite expensive. This isn’t a case of dogs developing a heart problem because they were being fed a cheap dog food.

Since the report, sales of grain free dog foods have, predictably, declined somewhat, though grain free foods are still popular. The FDA has NOT advised people to stop feeding grain free dog foods. However, they have recommended that people choose dog foods that use ingredients such as peas or lentils in smaller quantities. Look for foods where peas, lentils, or legumes are found lower down in the ingredient list and not in the first 5-10 ingredients. Or, choose a dog food that uses grains.

Grain-friendly

In response to the FDA’s report, some dog food companies – especially some of the companies named in the list – began to make changes to their foods. In some cases the changes were small reformulations such as adding taurine to a recipe. In other cases, companies tried to make their foods more “grain-friendly.”

Peas, lentils, and legumes began to move lower down the ingredient list in some foods or even disappear in a few cases. They were being replaced by “grain-friendly,” “healthy grains,” and “ancient grains.” If you’re wondering what these terms mean, you already know most of these grains/cereals. Brown rice, oatmeal, and barley have been used in dog foods for years. Quinoa, chia, and amaranth are appearing in some dog foods. Milo (sorghum) and millet are also showing up.

Veterinarians, veterinary nutritionists, and veterinary cardiologists, meanwhile, frequently recommend foods from traditional dog food companies that invest in canine nutritional research. Companies such as Purina, Eukanuba, and Royal Canin which maintained strong product lines with grains – including corn – have seen a surge. Corn, especially, has been recommended in dog foods by veterinary nutritionists because it contains the amino acid compounds cysteine and methionine which are precursors that dogs need to be able to make their own taurine.

Customization continues to appeal to customers

One thing that all dog food customers seem to like is the idea of customized dog food. Customization or personalization refers to being able to choose a dog food that suits your dog’s age, specific health needs, size, and likes/dislikes. Dog owners like to be able to tailor a food as much as possible to the needs of their individual dog instead of buying a generic dog food. In some cases, you can even design your dog’s food yourself by filling out a questionnaire.

The trend toward more customization of dog food and choices for dog lovers is expected to grow.

Newer dog food formats on the rise

Another trend that’s gaining momentum are new dog food formats or styles of food. Fresh food, dehydrated dog food, frozen food, and freeze-dried food are all becoming more popular with dog owners. This is still a small market segment at this time compared to the enormous popularity of kibble, but it’s showing plenty of growth. These new formats offer the kind of customization that many people like with specialized diets; individual meal plans; easy, fast delivery; and the ease of ordering online.

New dog food products

As you would expect, the FDA investigation affected some of the new dog food products that were introduced in 2019. New food products and supplements introduced in 2019 included taurine sprinkles and other taurine supplements; and dog treats and new dog foods and recipes that promised no legumes, peas, or grains.

Earthborn Holistic, one of the companies named on the FDA list, came out with a new dog food that uses ancient grains and which has added taurine. Hounds & Gatos, known for its canned foods, introduced its first line of kibble dog food. Dr. Jan Pol, known for the television show on National Geographic, came out with a dog food along with cat food and feed for horses, chickens, goats, and rabbits.

Tiki Dog, Merrick, and Health Extension introduced new canned foods.

Another popular trend among new foods was high protein foods and foods that used exotic meat proteins. Essence and Merrick both came out with high protein foods that use some less common meat proteins.

Adirondack and Wellness CORE came out with limited ingredient diets.

And several companies came out with new dog treats.

CBD

CBD from hemp products is available for human use now so it’s little wonder that dog lovers have been clamoring to use it for their dogs. Currently regulations about its use in pet products are unclear but some brands have taken the opportunity to enter the marketplace.

There are currently CBD treats and supplements available for dogs. Some people swear by the use of CBD for certain dog health issues, though its use is not regulated or backed by science at this time.

When it comes to adding CBD to dog food, that day is probably a long way off, if it ever comes at all. The FDA regulates products that contain cannabis-derived compounds, such as CBD. According to the FDA, “it is a prohibited act to introduce or deliver for introduction into interstate commerce any food, including any animal food or feed, to which THC or CBD has been added.” The FDA also points out that there are no approved food additive ingredient definitions listed in the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) official publication for any substances that are obtained from hemp. So, there. In fact, the FDA has been sending warning letters to some companies about their pet products that contain CBD.

Supplements are a different matter and some companies are selling products that way. In any case, this is a trend and you should expect interest in CBD products to continue to grow. At some point AAFCO and the FDA might have to revise their positions.

Dog food recalls 

2019 wasn’t a bad year in terms of dog food recalls, but some products were recalled, as always.

January

Hill’s Science Diet – Canned Dog Food. Potentially Elevated Levels of Vitamin D.

March

Hill’s – Canned Dog Food. Due to Elevated Levels of Vitamin D.

April

Thogersen Family Farm – raw frozen ground pet food. Potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

May

Hill’s – Canned Dog Food. Potentially Elevated Levels of Vitamin D.

August

Texas Tripe – Raw frozen pet food. Potential to be contaminated with Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes.

It was not a good year to make or sell pig ears. Pig ears were recalled repeatedly: in February, July, August, and September.

It wasn’t a good year to be Hill’s Pet Nutrition either. They had multiple recalls throughout the year of some of their canned dog foods because of elevated (or potentially elevated) levels of vitamin D. The FDA, after their investigation and Hill’s response, is not currently satisfied with Hill’s reply.

As if that’s not enough, Hill’s is also facing some 35 lawsuits that have been combined into one federal legal action against the company because of the elevated levels of vitamin D in the canned dog food products.

What To Expect from the Dog Food Industry in 2020?

It’s always hard to predict what’s going to happen with pet food. Popular trends such as customizing dog food to make it more unique for your dog; looking for more transparency about ingredients and how foods are made; and interest in emerging dog food forms such as fresh, dehydrated, freeze-dried, and frozen foods should all continue to grow.

It’s anyone’s guess how the FDA-DCM, grain free/grain-friendly situation will play out. We hope that the FDA will find some answers about the dietary form of DCM. In the meantime, people should not panic about grain free dog foods. Peas and other legumes should not make up a huge amount of any dog food, regardless of the DCM cases. If they are in your dog’s food, make sure they are lower in the ingredient list. If you are interested in dog foods that are more “grain-friendly,” you should be able to find a good selection in 2020.

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