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An investigative look at grain free dog food: Could it be doing more harm than good?

CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA, Pa. - Grain free pet foods are a popular choice for pet owners, but is it right for your pet?

New studies are now showing ‘Grain Free’ pet food may be linked to heart problems in dogs, pushing some pet owners to think twice.

This comes after the FDA launched an investigation over the summer revealing that grain free pet food may not be as healthy for your dog, as some originally thought.

Michelle Smith of York County has a 5-month-old silver lab. She says the rescue where she recently adopted him, suggested going grain free.

"He tends to be prone to allergies with that type of breed, they recommended it because they said the dogs process it well," said Michelle Smith, dog owner. “And they seem to do well with the grain free food," she added.

Her story is similar to others.

“It just seemed like it was a healthier choice from the other standard stuff we were using," said Wayne Rumsey of York County. “You assume it’s grain free, you think it’s going to be healthier for your dog," he added.

“They’re family so it’s very important to us that they’re healthy and that we can have them around as much as possible and as long as possible," said Brandon Scheck, dog owner.

However, recent studies are now revealing that grain free pet food may lead to heart disease in dogs.

According to the FDA, grain free pet food with main ingredients like: Peas, lentils or potatoes have been linked to a form of canine heart disease — better known as “Dilated Cardiomyopathy — or — “DCM.”

The disease causes a wide range of symptoms including: Fatigue, coughing and trouble breathing in dogs.

“It’s more of the legume lentils based sort of products that are sort of being added in to substitute for a grain that normally would’ve been in the food that’s causing some interference with the dogs ability to maintain the normal cardiac tissue," said Dr. Jennifer Fletcher,

Dr. Jennifer fletcher with ‘The Animal Hospital of Dauphin County’ says a grain free diet also lacks essential amino acids like 'Taurine,' which is needed for critical heart function.

“I think its the pet food companies that may have driven some of the grain free interest," said Fletcher. “Some of these newer companies kind of came out and wanted to find a niche in the market, they kind of took some knowledge from the human side and tried to extract that into the pet nutrition side," she added.

MaryAnn Geiman with ‘Just Four Dogs & Cats Pet Bakery’ in Dauphin County says she never considered making grain free pet treats in addition to the regular treats she makes, until she started receiving multiple requests from customers.

“I don’t want to say it was a fad but they just started hearing about it, so then they just started asking, almost every other customer would start asking," said Geiman.

Geiman says she created her own grain free recipe to keep up with the high demand, making dozens of batches each week.

“Their dogs have allergies some of them have problems digesting certain foods so then I can just tailor the recipes towards them," said Geiman. "There are a lot of people that actually believe that this actually helps," Geiman added. “I have trouble keeping the grain free in stock," she said.

However, Dr. Fletcher says she doesn’t believe grain free is the exact answer to pet allergies.

“We don’t have any scientific proof that grain free or grains are the real reason that pets are having certain allergies," said Dr. Fletcher.

Fletcher says she believes the different proteins used in grain free like bison and wild boar may be the answer.

"That might of been what the pet needed, was a different type of protein to support their skin, or if their G-I tract was able to digest it more efficiently so the fact that it is grain free may have nothing to do with it, it might be something else in that diet that actually changed that pets life," said  Dr. Fletcher.

Fletcher says the more knowledge people have, the better off their pets will be.

Experts do recommend talking to your vet before changing your dogs diet drastically because what may work for some, may not work for all.

FOX43 reached out to various pet food companies for comment, however our calls went unanswered.

In a statement from the pet food institute -- they wrote in part quote: "The exact cause of recent reported incidents of DCM has not yet been identified and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, in its communications to the public, has not advised dietary changes based on the available information. PFI member company scientists, veterinarians and nutritionists are currently working closely with each other and the agency to further advance the understanding of this issue." - THE PET FOOD INSTITUTE