Utahn sees a conspiracy behind controversy over grain-free dog food

Utah-based KetoNatural is suing Hill’s Pet Nutrition over health claims about “grain-free” dog food. Hill’s calls the suit “illogical,” and veterinarians are not eager to dismiss potential risks.

Daniel Schulof’s “super Rottweiler-y Rottweiler” needed daily walks, runs or training sessions, he remembers, to burn off energy and remain “a polite member of society.”

Schulof became a little obsessive researching how to efficiently exercise Kody, he said, which led him to studies about pet obesity, and then to what he came to see as the culprit: carbohydrates. He left his law career. He studied animal nutrition. He wrote the book “Dogs, Dog Food, and Dogma.”

He moved to Salt Lake City and in 2018 officially launched KetoNatural, which sells its Ketona brand in pet stores and by subscriptions for a premium $5.16 a pound and touts it online as “the world’s first truly low-carb dry dog food.”

But then, Schulof believes, he and other increasingly successful makers of “grain-free” dog foods were targeted by a conspiracy — led by what he calls Big Kibble.

KetoNatural is accusing one of the largest brands in the country, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, of a broad, “coordinated conspiracy” with veterinarians and scientists to manipulate research and create the appearance of a link between grain-free food and a heart condition that can be fatal to dogs.

In a federal lawsuit filed earlier this year, KetoNatural seeks at least $2.6 billion in damages for itself and other pet food companies that it claims have been harmed. The conspiracy’s further victims, Schulof argues, are America’s dogs and owners who are left uncertain about who to trust with their pets’ health.

Attorneys for Hill’s — whose parent company, Colgate-Palmolive, also makes Colgate toothpaste, Ajax cleanser and Irish Spring deodorant soap, among other products — have asked a judge to dismiss the case. The company did not respond to The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for comment, but its attorneys argue in a June filing that the suit “imagines a wild conspiracy” with claims that are “illogical and implausible.”

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigation into a potential link between grain-free food and the canine heart condition remains open, with the question unresolved, Hill’s points out. And allowing KetoNatural’s claims to go forward, the company argues, “would stifle important non-commercial speech and scientific research on an issue that could help save the lives of pets.”

KetoNatural claims Hill’s helped manipulate research into this possible link because, as the industry’s third largest pet food producer, it lost the biggest market share as grain-free foods gained popularity. Hill’s retorts that KetoNatural’s singular focus on grain-free foods is “piggybacking on trendy ‘ketogenic’ diets for humans” and is not connecting with customers.

“Unable to successfully compete in the market, and rather than invest in improving its own products,” Hill’s argues in court filings, “KetoNatural has chosen instead to launch an implausible and belated attack against veterinary science by filing this speech-chilling suit, attempting to stifle discourse aimed at understanding and protecting pet health.”

KetoNatural hasn’t yet responded to the request to dismiss its 124-page lawsuit, filed in February in U.S. District Court in Kansas, where Hill’s headquarters are in Topeka. It has already dropped claims against some individual veterinarians, planning to enlist them as witnesses instead. A scheduling conference is set for Aug. 2, according to the court docket.

Dr. Jamie Rees, president of the Utah Veterinary Medical Association, said she is not so eager to dismiss any potential risks associated with grain-free diets. Rees sells Hill’s at Country View Veterinary Hospital in American Fork, where she is the medical director — not because she is paid to, she said, but because she genuinely trusts it.

Rees said she has observed the heart ailment — dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM — in dogs who switched to grain-free foods, and until there is definitive proof that there isn’t a link between that category and heart health, she generally recommends sticking to balanced diets that include grain.

An inconclusive investigation

Veterinarians started noticing — and telling the FDA about — an increase in cases of DCM among dogs that were not genetically predisposed to it. The disease, in which a dog’s heart muscle weakens, is typically associated with larger breeds. It causes fatigue and other symptoms, and if not treated, can be deadly.

The FDA launched an investigation in 2018 into DCM and certain dogs’ diets. The agency was primarily concerned with dogs eating grain-free food, which contains no grain fillers, like wheat or corn.

The investigation has not confirmed any definitive link between grain-free foods and DCM, and in 2022 — four years after it started — the agency announced that it would provide no further public updates “until there is meaningful new scientific information to share.”

There was no conclusive evidence, the FDA said, to suggest that certain foods are “inherently unsafe.”

But KetoNatural claims the investigation and its focus on grain-free diets was engineered by Hill’s — and the FDA’s scrutiny, although inconclusive, was enough to sow doubt among pet owners about such food. It was all part of “Big Kibble’s” campaign to manufacture distrust of so-called “boutique” dog food brands, like KetoNatural, at the cost of pets’ health, the lawsuit argues.

The lawsuit asserts that vets affiliated with Hill’s Pet Nutrition — Hill’s funded their research, and the vets prescribed or recommended Hill’s food to pet parents — submitted reports of DCM that were oversaturated with dogs who were on grain-free diets.

”They did this by deliberately cherry-picking cases of DCM involving ‘non-traditional’ dog food brands (while intentionally excluding cases involving ‘traditional’ brands) and submitting them to the FDA all at once,” the complaint says. That “created the illusion that DCM was alarmingly common among dogs fed ‘non-traditional’ diets,” it adds, forcing the FDA to alert the public and investigate.

In its arguments to dismiss the case, Hill’s calls such claims nonsensical. Hill’s also made and sold grain-free products, including foods with ingredients that were investigated by the FDA, during the “alleged conspiracy,” the company pointed out.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

To accept KetoNatural’s claims, Hill’s said, one would also have to believe that Hill’s “conspired” to have the FDA “investigate and warn consumers about its own products, which is illogical and implausible.”

The FDA investigation was separate and independent from Hill’s research, the company said, and Hill’s is not “vicariously liable for statements made by independent veterinarians” — vets, it added, who are “well-respected” in the industry.

‘Cute label’ for a ‘complicated’ problem?

KetoNatural’s complaint includes 18 emails — a small sample, it says — from Ketona customers asking to cancel their subscription or backing out of a sale because their vet cautioned against grain-free food.

“My dog Quincy loved your food and did very well on it,” one email said. “My fear was the correlation with grain-free diets and DCM. I read your articles and they make perfect sense, but every vet I spoke with (I work with vets in a nonprofit organization and they have no stock in any dog food companies) seemed to think it might be a good idea to switch foods. I lost a dog 2 years ago to DCM; she was not eating Ketona but was on a few different grain-free diets during the course of her life.”

The lawsuit claims Hill’s uses the same playbook its parent company, Colgate-Palmolive, relies on to market its oral hygiene products: market to vets and dentists, even help fund their research, and then incentivize those professionals to sell the brand to patients.

The KetoNatural emails are evidence of a ripple effect of Hill’s research “scheme,” the complaint claims. Written into the lawsuit is the charge that vets cannot be trusted outright — at least about nutrition.

Part of the problem, Schulof and the lawsuit argue, is that Hill’s and associated vets invented an entire category of dog food to blame for DCM: BEG, which stands for “boutique, exotic-ingredient, or grain-free.”

That category, the lawsuit argues, includes essentially any pet food that is not made by the top four largest brands in the country. According to PetFoodIndustry.com, in 2023 Nestlé Purina PetCare — known for the Purina brand — was No. 1, followed by Mars Petcare (which makes Pedigree and Iams, among others), Hill’s and General Mills (maker of Blue Buffalo).

Under the definition advanced by Hill’s, BEG dog foods include “high-protein diets as well as low-protein ones; raw foods, fresh diets, and extruded kibbles; homemade diets and those made by companies with hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue per year; vegan diets and all-meat diets, the list goes on,” the complaint says.

If Hill’s vets are to be believed, the lawsuit argues, “those diets would all have to have something in common (other than competing with Hill’s).”

While there are tens of thousands of practicing veterinarians across the country, Schulof points out there are fewer than 100 board-certified veterinary nutritionists, according to a tally by one such vet at Tufts University. Justin Smalberg, a clinical professor at the University of Florida’s veterinary school, is one of them, and he agreed with Schulof that “BEG” is too broad of a category to hold accountable for any single health condition.

“Applying any cute label to a complicated and unproven problem,” he wrote online, months into the FDA investigation, “does a disservice to the attempt to characterize the problem.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Daniel Schulof, KetoNatural CEO, and his dog Wayne, at Healthy Pets in Salt Lake, on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.

Doggie diets

Rees, the American Fork veterinarian, pushes back on Schulof’s skepticism. She and her colleagues recommend certain foods because they “strongly believe in the science” — not for financial gain, she said. “There’s a lot of skill that goes behind a balanced diet,” Rees said.

It is not useful, she added, to project human diets, or even wild dog diets, onto domestic dogs. Canine companions have different dietary needs than their lupine ancestors and their human caretakers.

Humans, for example, don’t “routinely eat the same thing, every single day,” she said. Pets do, happily. In fact, changing a pet’s diet is often what will make them sick. “Most dogs don’t do well with diet changes,” Rees said.

And pet obesity is more accurately explained by overfeeding, Rees said. It’s about volume, not carb content.

There are also misconceptions, Rees said, about what goes into pet food. Plenty of foods list animal “byproduct” as an ingredient. It’s not a bad word, Rees said, nor does it mean the food is made with chicken feet or beaks.

“It’s the heart and it’s kidneys and it’s products of the chicken that we’re not going to eat,” she said — but it’s safe, even healthy, for dogs. And corn, for example, is often maligned, but is a good source of energy, Rees said.

Most animals’ food allergies are to specific forms of protein — not grains, she added. “So the whole grain-free trend is not even necessary,” she said. “Rarely is there a medical need for them to have a grain removed.”

Rees said she fundamentally does not believe dogs need, or benefit from, grain-free diets. Her veterinary colleagues generally agree, she said.

Still, if her clients have their minds set on a grain-free diet, there are ways to balance it out with supplements or treats, Rees said.

“We’ll try and find you a middle ground,” Rees said. “There are ways to try and make things work for you. This shouldn’t be a ‘don’t trust your veterinarian’ scenario. That’s not going to be a winning situation for anyone.”

Rees said pet nutrition has become “one of the most difficult things” to reconcile with her clients in recent years. Clients have accused her of “poisoning” their pets, and have abandoned nutrition plans she prescribed to switch to grain-free diets.

“People are very, very passionate about this,” she said.

Rees said she has seen the devastating risks of dramatic diet shifts. A poodle once came into her office with a “severe heart murmur.” The dog couldn’t breathe; couldn’t do more than lie on her side, Rees said. An X-ray revealed fluid in her lungs and a heart that was “completely round.”

“She was in dilated cardiomyopathy,” Rees said. It was too late to save the poodle. Her heart was too far gone.

The dog had switched to a grain-free diet four years earlier, Rees said. She can’t be certain the poodle’s changed diet caused her heart failure, she said, but until science can definitively rule out any risk, she tells her patients not to go grain-free.

“These cases do happen,” she said. “It’s not a made-up thing. … Science may disprove it’s the food, but you’ve got numerous cases where they link, at this stage. And if we can prevent it, it’s hard to say we should go with grain-free at this stage.”

Vetted and trusted: how to know?

At the register at Healthy Pets, a natural pet food and supply store in Sugar House, owner Shawn Thompson is armed with pamphlets about DCM in dogs. The pamphlets’ central thesis: The FDA has found no correlation between grain-free diets and dilated cardiomyopathy. He’ll offer one to anyone who asks about the potential connection.

Thompson said it’s not his job or his policy to tell customers what they should feed their pets — but he will listen to their concerns and “guide them [toward] what feels comfortable for them.”

Healthy Pets sells KetoNatural products, displayed prominently in the front of the store near the register. But it also sells food made with grains. Thompson said he cares that food in his store is made from “high quality” ingredients, whatever those ingredients may be.

“I thoroughly vet all the companies that I carry in the store, and I feel confident with their products,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he also works to find that middle ground that Rees describes. His dogs eat raw food and have lived long, healthy lives — but he realizes that’s not for everyone.

“If they want to have something with a grain in it, they can,” he said. “It’s about having a variety, an assortment that fits their needs.”

Rees said the best pet food information comes from research, not marketing. “Big” pet food companies have the resources to do studies and product testing. They can save samples and test them if there are reported problems.

The most important thing consumers can look for when buying dog food, she said, is that type of work.

The American Association of Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, does not formally regulate pet food, but it provides industry definitions for those regulators. Its website includes guides about what to look for in foods, how to read food labels and understanding ingredients lists.

Most foods will have AAFCO statements on their labels to indicate whether the food provides “complete and balanced” nutrition to certain animals, or whether the food is intended as a treat or a supplement. Any product that does not meet either standard must be labeled for “intermittent or supplemental feeding only.”

Guaranteed analyses also provide nutrition information and are required on all dog food labels. A label with an AAFCO statement and a guaranteed analysis offers some evidence that a brand has “done some type of study and testing,” Rees said. Foods without them should not be trusted, she said.

KetoNatural has both, on its packaging and its website.

The journey to KetoNatural and the recipe Schulof now sells as Ketona was crafted out of a sincere concern for his own dog’s health, Schulof said. He made it for Kody, and now feeds it to his 160-pound Bernese mountain dog, Wayne.

It’s the “healthiest thing that you could feed to a dog,” Schulof said. “Hand before God.”

Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.