Young african woman embracing pet dog while working on laptop at home

Updated March 8, 2021 to include limitations of canine dilated cardiomyopathy studies. 

Many Americans brought home new cats and dogs in 2020, and one of their top concerns was figuring out what and how to feed those new pets. Pet owners, especially new ones, are inundated with information on the topic, making it difficult for them to determine what diet is best for their particular animal.

One way pet food manufacturers can set them up for success is to invest in and share emerging pet nutrition research. As pet food trends come and go, researchers uncover more about how various diets and ingredients impact pet health. Here are some of the latest developments. 

Understanding canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) 

Sales of grain-free diets fell when the FDA began investigating the cause of a rising number of DCM cases in dogs. However, no research to date has uncovered evidence of a direct correlation between grain-free diets and DCM. 

One recent study, which is currently in pre-print and has not yet been peer-reviewed, looked at data from more than 67,000 cardiology cases from 14 hospitals and determined that the average DCM incidence rate was 3.83% from 2000 to 2019. And from 2011 to 2019, sales of grain-free pet food were up 500%. They uncovered no relationship between DCM and grain-free diets nor any significant increase in DCM cases over time. However, this conclusion is based on limited data — only one hospital provided the full 19 years of data, while half of the participating hospitals provided less than five years of data.

Research published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine found that dogs diagnosed with DCM showed an increase in survival time after switching from non-traditional (grain-free) to traditional diets (grain-inclusive). However, the study had a small sample size, and other factors such as breed and genetics, medication, and taurine supplementation could’ve played a role in health improvement.

Lastly, a partnership between Hill’s Pet Nutrition and the canine genomics company Embark is working to conduct genetic testing on more than 1,000 dogs with DCM, including both pure and mixed breeds. The results could help with early detection and recovery, as well as identify nutritional and non-nutritional genetic risk factors for the disease.

Comparing conventional and non-conventional diets

According to an international study, most pet owners feed their pets a diet that includes some conventional food, but only 13% of dogs and 32% of cats eat conventional diets exclusively. About half of dog and cat owners include homemade or raw food in their pets’ diets, and a smaller percentage of owners incorporate vegetarian and vegan food. 

But are non-conventional diets safe for pets? And do they offer any health benefits compared to conventional foods? Research is beginning to answer these questions.

  • Vegan diets: There’s been some debate about whether pets require animal-derived protein, particularly when it comes to cats. But new research out of Ontario Veterinary College suggests that feline companions maintain good health while eating vegan foods and may also be less likely to suffer from obesity, GI disorders, and hepatic disease. Although researchers based this study on owner feedback, it’s a starting point for evaluating the healthfulness of plant-based diets. (Animal protein-based foods have their own benefits — another recent study found that meatier diets reduce how often outdoor cats hunt wildlife.)
  • Human-grade: When comparing extruded kibble, fresh, and human-grade fresh diets for dogs, researchers found that the human-grade fresh option led to better digestibility, a healthier microbiome, and reduced fecal matter.

Despite promising studies, experts worry that some non-conventional diets may cause nutritional imbalances and deficiencies among pets. They advocate for further research on the long-term impacts of these diets.

Addressing common health concerns

For pets with certain health challenges, proper nutrition is medicine. 

A study of Staffordshire bull terriers, a breed known to be susceptible to canine atopic dermatitis, compared RNA skin samples of dogs that ate a commercial kibble diet (sensitive skin formula) to those that ate a commercial raw diet. The raw-fed dogs showed an upregulation of genes related to immunity, antioxidant production, and anti-inflammatory responses, suggesting that raw diets may help dogs with skin allergies.

Diet changes have also proven to benefit pets with persistent gastrointestinal (GI) problems. As part of an ongoing study, Cornell University provided GI canine patients with either hydrolyzed protein diets or a high-quality maintenance mixed-protein diet. Regardless of which formula they ate, the diet switch had a surprisingly positive effect on the dogs’ GI health. Researchers hope to dive deeper and find out whether certain ingredients or additives are contributing to these results.

Pet obesity is another common health condition, one that’s become more prevalent during the pandemic. A third of pet owners believe their pet became overweight during the pandemic, and some owners with overweight pets feel that the pandemic has made it more difficult to help their pets lose weight. Extra treats seem to be the primary cause, as more than half of pet owners admit to giving their pets treats “for no reason” in the past year. These results indicate a need for owner education on pet obesity, as well as an opportunity for pet food companies to promote formulas that aid weight loss. 

Although many of the above studies are ongoing, pet food and treat brands can use these research insights to educate customers, market current products, and inform new formulations.   

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