Before you decide to start your dog on a paleo diet, read this.
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Grain-free pet food has been steadily increasing in popularity over the last decade, and it’s no surprise—after all, pets have weight issues too, and who better to be your paleo partner than man's original hunting buddy? But the Food and Drug Administration says that grain-free diets could actually be harmful to your pup's health.

A recent article in the New York Times reported on an FDA statement claiming that the agency is investigating a link between grain-free pet food and a common heart disease, dilated cardiomyopathy, or D.C.M. This canine disease causes the the heart to weaken and enlarge and, the Times piece notes, is often characterized by fatigue, difficulty breathing, coughing and fainting, with some dogs progressing into heart failure.

D.C.M. is usually found in large-breed dogs that are predisposed genetically to the disease. But recent findings by a group practice of veterinarians brought to light the prevalence of D.C.M. in smaller dogs, which are not normally at risk for the disease, including golden retrievers, labs, and doodle mixes. The common factor, the Times reports, was a diet high in carbs that are traditionally added to food to replace grain—things like lentils, chickpeas, and potatoes.

The Times spoke with a doctor at the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, Martine Hartogensis, who had this message, “Don’t panic.” She later noted, however, that due to the number of reported cases, “... this is a real signal.”

In 2016, a group of veterinarians at Tufts University, alarmed by the growing popularity of grain-free dog foods, felt the need to explain that there's no evidence grain-free foods are superior—except in cases where a dog is allergic to a specific grain. The Washington Post covered the topic last year, speaking with many vets who all agreed that "grain-free" is more of a marketing gimmick than anything else. Though it wasn't clear at that time that the diet might actually be detrimental to some pets.

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Yet the demand for grain-free foods has been growing steady. In 2017, it represented 44 percent of the market, or $2.8 billion dollars, according to the Times.

Thankfully, it appears that D.C.M. in dogs without a genetic predisposition for the ailment can be halted or even reversed. Though the issue is still being studied, experts are urging consumers to speak with their veterinarians about why and when to introduce a special diet.

And as with the food we eat, it's important to learn to read the labels.