Are Grain-in Dog Foods the Answer to the DCM Debate?

Diets for dogs that contain whole grains and limit or avoid legumes are seeing a spike in sales, according to retailers and manufacturers. High-quality ancient grains, in particular, are the focus for many consumers, industry insiders noted.

"We’ve seen a trend with [these diets] as more retailers add grain-in and legume-free products to their portfolio and more pet parents are interested in incorporating these recipes into their dog’s diet," said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet, a pet food manufacturer based in Tewksbury, Mass. "However, it’s not just any grains that are being included in recipes for dogs. We’ve seen that popular grained ingredients include ones like oatmeal, barley and quinoa that are nutrient dense and highly digestible."

Many credit the rise in sales and demand to recent announcements from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Since July 2018, the FDA has been investigating potential links between dogs eating certain grain-free, legume-inclusive foods and developing canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).

"Because of the FDA’s summary complaint report … some pet parents have become motivated to seek out grain-inclusive diets," said Bryan Nieman, brand director at Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis. "As a result, we’ve seen an increase in grain-inclusive food sales in recent months."

Some pet food marketers are responding to these consumer concerns by amping up grain-inclusive offerings.

"I have seen some brands scramble to [release] a grain-in formula to try and keep customers from switching to another brand," said Lisa Senafe, founder and owner of Bentley’s Pet Stuff, which has locations in eight states. "[Others] were already talking about a grain-in formula two years ago and just happened to release it in the perfect timing of the DCM scares."

David Lummis, senior pet market analyst for market research firm Packaged Facts in Rockville, Md., said that the consumer-driven pet food industry is highly motivated to meet the latest pet owner demands.

"Time-tested formulas for pet food were drastically changed with grain free when only a minuscule percentage of dogs actually have an allergy to grains," he explained. "What’s going on in grain-inclusive is a swing back to firmer ground in terms of pet food formulas that are more time-tested."

However, new grain-inclusive formulations often contain "less-common grains, like ancient grains, that don’t have the track record in the pet food industry that others like wheat [or] corn have," Lummis added. "It makes sense that marketers step back and consider if it’s consumer demand or science driving pet foods."

Because the FDA has yet to conclude that there is a direct correlation between diet and DCM at this point, insiders pointed out that the rise of grain-inclusive and legume-free diets does come with some uncertainty.

"The DCM issue is fluid and continues to evolve, and the same is true of consumer demand," said Katie McNulty, marketing coordinator for Midwestern Pet Foods in Evansville, Ind. "We believe that we’re in the early stages of a renewed grain-in pet food category."

On the Market

Grain-in Options

The grain-in and legume-free diet category offers plenty of options for those looking for new or tried-and-true diets.

Some pet food manufacturers never stopped offering grain-in and legume-free dog foods. Others have reformulated their offerings to include high-quality grains or introduced diets that incorporate ancient grains and superfoods. Industry insiders list rice, quinoa, oats and barley as the grains commonly included in diets now.

"These are relatively low-fiber carbohydrates, so the dog can get all of its necessary energy needed to function from an easily digestible source, while proteins can be saved to be used for necessary muscle function and cell regeneration," said Mollie Backode, nutrition consultant at Wholesome Hound, a pet store in Naples, Fla.

Solid Gold Pet, a St. Louis-based pet food manufacturer, provides 10 whole-grain dog food recipes for every need, including small or large breed, weight control and several protein options. Offered in eight dry formulas and two canned versions, the manufacturer uses non-GMO whole grains such as brown rice, pearled barley and oatmeal, said Laura Brooks, director of marketing.

"Because we have a trusted history and variety of whole-grain options, we do not need to change our portfolio to meet the changing needs," she said. "We’ve had these recipes and continue to see the success over the years."

Fromm Family Foods, a Mequon, Wis.-based manufacturer, released Four-Star Nutritionals Highlander Beef, Oats and Barley Recipe for dogs last spring. The Scottish-inspired entreé blends hearty meats with high-quality grains including rice, oats and barley, said Bryan Nieman, brand director.

Late last year, Midwestern Pet Foods unveiled its Unrefined line of four taurine-rich recipes for dogs and puppies. The company included a variety of ancient grains such as quinoa, chia, buckwheat, barley, oatmeal and flax, up to 18 superfoods including pumpkin, spinach, kale and blueberries, and sustainably caught salmon, cage-free rabbit, smoked turkey and roasted lamb, said Katie McNulty, marketing coordinator of the Evansville, Ind.-based company.

WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass., started this year by adding eight grained recipes for dogs to its lineup. Wellness Core with Wholesome Grains contains premium protein and nutrient-rich grains and superfoods, according to company officials. Wellness Core RawRev with Wholesome Grains are high-protein kibble with wholesome grains and 100 percent freeze-dried raw meat. Both grained kibbles come in four recipes: Original Deboned Turkey, Chicken Meal & Turkey Meal; Ocean Whitefish, Herring Meal & Menhaden Fish Meal; Small Breed Original Deboned Turkey, Turkey Meal & Chicken Meal; and Puppy Deboned Chicken, Chicken Meal & Turkey Meal.

Consumer Education

Rising to the Challenge

Dog owners are very focused on providing safe and quality foods to their canine companions. Many customers are quite knowledgeable about diets, but independent pet specialty retailers play a crucial role in helping dispel misinformation and public perception not yet backed up with facts.

"Since the advent of social media, it’s been difficult for people to determine what is and is not factual," said Laura Brooks, director of marketing for Solid Gold Pet, a St. Louis-based pet food manufacturer. "We always recommend pet parents rely on information from reliable, science-based sources like Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine. The [U.S. Food & Drug Administration] FDA and veterinary schools like Tufts have done an excellent job of keeping consumers informed of the scope of the issue as well as the need for ongoing research and possible theories about the causes of the [dilated cardiomyopathy] DCM issue."

There’s no question that pet owners want safe food for their dogs. Many customers need help pinpointing what that might be for their individual pets.

"Every dog is different, so not every dog food is beneficial or safe for every dog," said Mollie Backode, nutrition consultant at Wholesome Hound, a pet store in Naples, Fla. "The best way to make sure you have a safe food for your pet is by doing research from reputable sources and peer-reviewed articles, consulting with your veterinarian or visiting a reputable, independent pet store."

While the FDA’s DCM announcements, and the subsequent spread of opinions and marketing, have placed a national spotlight on grain-free and grain-inclusive diets, independent pet retailers have been given the opportunity to demonstrate that specialty service they provide, industry insiders noted.

"Pet specialty retailers can and should serve as a resource for their customers," said Bryan Nieman, brand director at Fromm Family Foods, a Mequon, Wis.-based pet food manufacturer. "The most important thing for a pet parent is to find the right digestive match for their pet."

Educating customers on the facts is a crucial start.

"Education is incredibly important," said David Lummis, senior pet market analyst for market research firm Packaged Facts in Rockville, Md. "Retailers and consumers remain concerned about DCM and are looking for answers. It’s important for everyone to know what’s going on, especially pet owners choosing between one of the diets in question or a tried-and-true one."

Insiders reported that many people don’t realize that the FDA does not recommend changing dogs’ diets at this point.

"There is a belief that certain foods are the causation of DCM and that switching to a grain-inclusive formula will mitigate the disease," said Allison Raithel, director of nutritional wellness at Healthy Pet Products, which has three locations in the Pittsburgh region. "The FDA is providing some clarity to the confusion by opening a DCM FAQ page."

At Wholesome Hound, Backode said staying up-to-date on current information and sharing that with employees to pass on to dog owners is important.

"We try to inform our customers about the issues concerning them so they can make an educated decision about what is best for their pet," she added.

At Bentley’s Pet Stuff, which has locations in eight states, the staff educates consumers by utilizing videos on Facebook, emails and Instagram.

"I focus on our team members with talks each week, videos and our training platform we use," said Lisa Senafe, founder and owner.

Healthy Pet Products employs a full-time media director who helps the company stay active on social media platforms.

"We host seminars and breakout info sessions, and we have had the great privilege of having wonderful vets in our area to help support our shared clients," Raithel said. "Being approachable, talking with our customers, and welcoming questions and concerns helps to keep our relationships strong and build loyalty."

4 Ways to Market Trending Foods

Many independent pet specialty retailers said they do not separate out grain-in, legume-free diets in their stores. Instead, the following tactics are recommended to display and promote these dog foods:

1. Order by brand

"We do not have a grain-in display; our foods are together by brand," said Lisa Senafe, founder and owner of Bentley’s Pet Stuff, which has locations in eight states. "We like to have a hands-on approach with our customers and educate them through our food brands and see what the needs of their pet are in order to make the best recommendations."

2. Group like products within a brand

"Merchandise similar products within a brand together to help the shopper choose," said Laura Brooks, director of marketing for Solid Gold Pet, a St. Louis-based pet food manufacturer.

3. Use visuals

"Visual merchandising is often more beneficial than a dedicated grain-free or grain-inclusive section and will help continue to share a story of variety within their retail location," said Bryan Nieman, brand director at Fromm Family Foods, a Mequon, Wis.-based pet food manufacturer.

Industry insiders recommend making these visuals clear and simple for even the newest customer to the category.

"We think ingredients are key and the specific grains included in these recipes should be clearly marked on retail displays, along with the nutritional benefits so that pet parents who are new to these kinds of products can understand the nutritional purpose they serve," said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet, a Tewksbury, Mass.-based pet food manufacturer.

4. Offer samples

"We also believe that sampling is key, especially when it comes to new products," Leary-Coutu added. "So, whenever there is opportunity to have the product live in stores for pet parents to see firsthand or actually give to their pets to try, this will help boost interest and sales."