Grain Free?

Many of you may have heard recent publicity about the possible connection between grain-free diets and heart disease in dogs.  We are concerned about this new information and want to relay what is currently known so you can make appropriate decisions about your pet’s diet.

In July 2018, the FDA announced an investigation into a potential link between certain diets and a disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs.  This was prompted by veterinary cardiologists (including our local cardiologist, Dr. Steve Rosenthal) noticing an increase in the incidence of the disease in breeds that are not commonly affected by it.  DCM is seen more commonly in breeds such as Doberman Pinschers and Boxers, but when the disease started showing up in other breeds, the cardiologists began to wonder if diet could be a factor. As it turns out, many of the dogs that were developing DCM were eating diets that were either grain-free, made by boutique companies or made with exotic ingredients such as kangaroo, bison, barley, etc.

Dilated cardiomyopathy can be caused by a deficiency in an amino acid called taurine.  Many years ago, cats were frequently diagnosed with DCM until it was discovered that most commercial cat foods were deficient in this essential ingredient.  Once nutritional requirements were changed and taurine was added to cat foods in the late 1980’s, the problem went away for cats that were eating good-quality diets.  Some of the dogs that have recently been seen with DCM have had low taurine levels when tested, but not all of them. It is therefore unclear if taurine is directly related to this new dietary concern.

The FDA, veterinary cardiologists and nutritionists are still investigating this problem and trying to figure out the mechanism for how diet could be linked to DCM.  Legumes and/or potatoes are a common factor in the foods that have been implicated, but the connection is not clear. In the meantime, some recommendations have been made by the nutritionists and cardiologists that are researching the problem.

  1. If your pet is currently eating a grain-free, vegetarian, or exotic-ingredient diet and is not on it for a specific medical reason, consider transitioning to a traditional commercial food that contains the more common protein and grain sources (chicken, beef, rice, corn, wheat).  
  2. If your pet is eating one of these diets, monitor for signs of lethargy, shortness of breath, coughing or fainting which could be signs of heart disease.
  3. Choosing a nutritious diet for your pet can be challenging as the marketing techniques of pet food companies can be deceiving.  For example, companies know that saying that their food is “natural” or including blueberries on the ingredient list can increase sales.  If you have questions about diet, please ask your veterinarian for advice.

For more information, please check out the following links:

Chesapeake Veterinary Cardiology Associates:

FDA statement:

Article by veterinary nutritionist, Dr. Lisa Freeman


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