Over the last few decades there has been a real change in the quality of pet food available to pet owners. We now have many choices of ingredients in these diets. There is a lot of opinion out there on what protein and carbohydrate types are the most optimal for dogs.  Grain-free diets have been quite popular over the last few years and are a reaction to concerns focused on food allergy. Recently, it has been discovered that some dogs have developed a form of heart muscle disease called Dilated Cardiomyopathy related to being fed boutique grain-free diets that are rich in legume based carbohydrates (e.g. Lentils, peas, etc.). 

Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a disorder which reduces the heart’s ability to pump blood. It can lead to Congestive Heart Failure as well as clots forming in the circulatory system.  The underlying cause of DCM is not fully understood, but a genetic link is suspected. The most common breeds that are affected by DCM include:  Great Danes, Doberman Pinschers, Newfoundlands, Boxers, and Saint Bernards. It is infrequently seen in smaller breeds with American and English Cocker Spaniels being exceptions.

Dogs with DCM may tire easily, cough and may have trouble breathing.  More dramatically, they might even exhibit sudden weakness, collapse, faint or die with no warning. If your dog is showing any of these signs, they need to be seen by a veterinarian.

There has been a long standing link between some forms of Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) and Taurine deficiency.  Taurine is an important amino acid that is instrumental to multiple functions in the body.  Taurine deficiency in small animal medicine is usually seen with home cooked diets where the owner has created a diet without the counsel of a boarded nutritionist.  Often times, if the nutritional deficiency is caught early enough, the progression of heart disease can be stopped and sometimes reversed. The concerns with grain-free diets were first reported by the FDA in July of 2018 and the original suspicion was that the problem was related to Taurine deficiency.  However, there have been some cases where the patients were not Taurine deficient, and the true cause of this syndrome remains a mystery

A grain-free diet is identified when one of the main ingredients is a legume or legume seed such as peas, lentils, or potatoes.  The FDA considers a “main ingredient” to be listed on a food’s ingredient list before the first vitamin or mineral ingredient. 

Contact your veterinarian on how to proceed. At minimum, a physical exam should be performed to ensure there is no obvious progression of heart disease already.  If there is evidence of heart changes, a cardiac ultrasound would be advised to properly screen for DCM.  Taurine levels are sometimes advised but should not be the only test performed on a patient suspected to have the disease.

At this time, we agree it’s best to avoid grain free diets and recommend gradually transitioning to a grain-containing diet formulation. Because of nutrition fads, effective advertising, and misinformation, it can be a real challenge to decide what food your pet should eat. Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” answer.  Visit the FDA website for a list of dog food brands that were named most frequently in DCM cases reported to the FDA. Royal Canin, Hill’s Science Diet, Eukanuba, and Purina ProPlan are a few of the dog food brands that have not been linked to DCM at this time. Visit the WSAVA website for the WSAVA guidelines for selection of commercial diets.

If you do not wish to change your dog’s diet as a preventative measure or if your dog is showing possible symptoms of heart disease, schedule a physical exam with your veterinarian. Screening tests such as a cardiac ultrasound and taurine levels may be recommended.

If your dog is on a specific diet due to an allergy or other medical condition, consult with your veterinarian to assess the need to continue with a grain-free approach or find a safer option.

Recommendations from your veterinarian may change as more information emerges. They will help guide you toward making the right choices for your beloved pet to keep them healthy and happy for many years to come.

Here are a few links for additional information:

Jeb Mortimer, DVM and Catherine Gamber, DVM

Green Lake Animal Hospital