There have been many recent news reports of grain free foods causing heart disease. As a result, many people are concerned they may be causing their dog harm by feeding a grain free diet. In truth, the level of concern this has caused is greatly out of proportion to the actual risk of heart disease. The issue is summarized below to help you more accurately understand the risk and determine if you need to be concerned.
Recently many cardiologists have been finding a form of heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) occurring with an increased frequency in breeds previously not prone to this form of heart disease. The incidence is still very low, however, with only about 150 cases reported across the country as of 7/12/18. When they investigated the cause of this increase, it was found most of the dogs were fed a boutique diet (made by a small company), a diet with exotic ingredients (kangaroo, lentils, duck, pea, fava bean, buffalo, tapioca, salmon, lamb, barley, bison, venison, and chickpeas) or a grain free diet. In some cases, the dogs were fed a vegan diet or a raw diet.
In all the diets implicated in causing DCM, legumes, pulses (seeds of legumes) and/or potatoes were listed as main ingredients. It is speculated these diets carry the potential to have inadequate nutrient content (especially taurine) or poor-quality ingredients (which can affect how taurine is metabolized or have other effects on the heart). Taurine deficiency has long been known to cause DCM in cats, but it is rarely encountered in dogs since they can make their own taurine. Taurine’s role in the development of diet-induced heart disease in dogs was suspected when many of the dogs were found to be deficient in taurine, and their heart disease improved or reversed when supplemented with taurine. Ironically, some dogs were not found to be deficient in taurine, but they improved with taurine supplementation and a diet change. However, some dogs that atypically get DCM did not improve with taurine supplement or a diet change. Therefore, diet’s role in the development of DCM is multifactorial and complicated, not just based on taurine deficiency alone.
To date, it is known that some diets that use legumes, pulses and/or potatoes as main ingredients may play a role in causing DCM in dogs. This includes grain free diets, but also boutique diets and diets with exotic ingredients as well. In most cases, dogs were found to be taurine deficient or have their heart disease improve with taurine supplementation. Cardiologists are teaming up with the FDA to better understand the connection between diet and the development of DCM in dogs. Studies have been conducted and are now under review by the FDA. Until the results are released, there are a few things you can do.
If you are feeding your dog a boutique, grain free or exotic ingredient diet, you may want to change to a major name brand dog food with a more typical ingredient content. There are many companies that make a good quality dog food, even grain free versions and diets that contain exotic ingredients. It seems logical to use a food that contains an adequate amount of taurine but remember that some dogs that developed diet-related DCM were not taurine deficient and did not respond to taurine supplementation. Rather, select a diet that does not list legumes, pulses or potatoes as main ingredients. If you are unsure what dog food to choose, you can ask one of the veterinarians at Pleasant Valley Veterinary Clinic for help in determining what diet to use.
If you are feeding your dog a boutique, grain free or exotic ingredient diet, and your dog develops signs of heart disease such as low energy level, coughing, trouble breathing, weakness, fainting or a distended abdomen, you should see your veterinarian to determine if heart disease is present. Tell your veterinarian what diet your dog is eating and suggest a taurine level be performed on the blood and serum. Your veterinarian will likely perform additional tests or may refer you to a cardiologist for a more detailed evaluation of your dog’s heart.
It must be remembered that grain free foods have been available for many years with an increase in DCM occurring only recently. This means that most dog foods, even grain free versions, are perfectly fine dog foods. Do be aware that some dog food companies do not have the quality control or nutritional expertise to make an adequate dog food, and it is usually these poorer quality diets that have been connected to the development of heart disease. Before you panic and change your dog’s food, take a closer look at your dog food’s company (see the link below). If you are still unsure, or need more guidance, talk to one of the veterinarians at Pleasant Valley Veterinary Clinic for help; together you will be more assured you are doing right by your dog and his/her diet.
For more information on this topic you can visit: http://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2018/06/a-broken-heart-risk-of-heart-disease-in-boutique-or-grain-free-diets-and-exotic-ingredients/
To help you select a good quality dog food you can visit:
To see the FDA’s public notification on diet and DCM, you can visit:
Dr Pensenstadler practices at Pleasant Valley Veterinary Clinic, located at 211 East McMurray Rd. PVVC has been providing full service veterinary care to the Peters Township area since 1973. To make an appointment, call (724) 941-5484.