FDA Warning: Grain Free Foods for Dogs

In July 2018 the FDA issued a warning to dog parents about the potential correlation between grain free diets and the heart condition, Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). On June 27th of 2019 the FDA released more information about recently reported cases including breeds of dogs and brands of food. This has left many pet parents scared and more confused about their pet’s diet than ever before. In this article, I am going to outline what we know, what we don’t know and my recommendations on next steps.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a heart condition that can be caused by nutritional deficiencies (taurine, carnitine), genetics and other factors. The heart walls enlarge and it becomes difficult for the heart to efficiently pump blood. Many dogs do not have symptoms until their heart fails. These symptoms include lethargy, coughing, fainting and difficulty breathing. DCM can also cause arrythmias that may be fatal.

The following breeds are thought to have a genetic predisposition:

  • Portuguese Water Dog
  • Irish Wolfhound
  • Great Dane
  • Newfoundland
  • Standard/Giant Schnauzer
  • Doberman Pinscher
  • Golden Retriever (new)

Last year veterinary cardiologists noticed that breeds that are not genetically predisposed to DCM were being diagnosed with regularity. They also noticed that many of these dogs were eating a grain free diet. This caused the FDA to release a warning.

So what do we actually know?

Unfortunately, not a lot. Right now there is a level of suspicion that legumes (peas, lentils, beans, etc) may be contributing to the development of DCM. The exact mechanism is unknown and it is currently being investigated. Legumes are present in higher quantities in grain free food and provides a carbohydrate source to help create a crunchy kibble.


Taurine is an amino acid that is made in your dog’s liver from two other amino acids, methionine and cysteine. Both methionine and cysteine are found in foods that are balanced by AAFCO standards. Taurine is concentrated in the cells of the heart and can cause DCM when levels are too low. Dogs that develop DCM from low taurine may be able to reverse the changes in their heart with taurine supplementation and a change in diet. 


While we don’t know much here are a few theories:

  • Legumes may interfere with the uptake of some amino acids that are precursors to taurine.
  • Dogs may not be as good at making taurine as previously thought.
  • Some dogs may be better than others at making taurine.
  • There maybe other nutrient deficiencies such as carnitine that are key players in the development of DCM.
  • The current minimum of amino acids (cysteine & methionine) required by AAFCO to be added to foods may not be appropriate if legumes are present in high proportions.
  • Some pet food companies may not be formulating and balancing diets appropriately. 

My recommendations

This is certainly a scary issue for many dog parents. It’s important to keep in mind that the prevalence of DCM continues to be quite low. However, DCM can be life threatening. The recent release of information included several brands that have had reported cases of DCM while dogs were eating their formulations. 

These foods have been tested and have been found to have adequate levels of methionine and cysteine according to AAFCO minimums. Because we don’t yet know the nature of a connection between grain free foods and DCM, it’s unclear if these particular formulations are flawed. It’s also possible that these brands are more popular and widely distributed. Most of these brands are sold in specialty pet food stores and may cater to a demographic that would have better access to expensive diagnostics such as cardiac ultrasounds. 

While avoiding these brands is understandable, other brands may not be less problematic. While I have no affiliation with any of the listed brands, it’s important to understand that millions of dogs are eating these formulas and not developing DCM. My point is, it’s not that simple. 

Here are possible next steps:

  1. Do nothing and continue to feed the diet that has been working for your dog. The evidence to implicate any one reason for the development of DCM is currently lacking. 
  2. Choose a diet that does not have legumes in the first five ingredients. Many natural pet food companies are adding formulas with ancient grains. In my experience, many dogs thrive on grains. I prefer to avoid wheat, corn and soy. If your dog is sensitive to grains, there are many raw formulations that are grain free and legume free. 
  3. Rotate the brands and formulations of food. Rotate after every bag or every quarter and consider using a different brand with a different protein source. If your dog is sensitive, make the switch slowly over two weeks. 
  4. Supplement your dog’s diet with taurine. Many of the pet food companies are doing this now just to be safe. There is no harm in adding taurine to your dog’s diet. The only side effect I have seen from taurine supplementation is loose stool. This can usually be resolved by adjusting the dose. 
  5. Consult with a veterinary cardiologist and have your dog’s heart evaluated with a cardiac ultrasound. This is the only way to diagnose DCM definitively. It is also possible to test your dog’s taurine levels. Keep in mind that some dogs with normal blood taurine levels can have DCM.
  6. Prepare a homemade diet. With all the controversy about the best food coupled with the constant recalls, you can control your pup’s diet by making it yourself. Check out my blog on home cooking for your dog here

I would love to hear from you! Please leave a comment below!

With love,
dr. angie signature boulder holistic vet

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12 thoughts on “FDA Warning: Grain Free Foods for Dogs”

  1. Hi – it is really hard to find a legume-free diet that is also not chock full with grains. We feed Nulo Salmon & Peas (first the puppy formula and recently the adult formula) to our 15.5 month-old 100-lb German Shepherd. We switched him off a chicken and rice formula when he was young due to some tummy issues and super energy spikes. I wouldn’t be opposed to reintroducing some non-gluten grains, but I don’t want to feed a kibble that is basically all grain! I was also looking into a kibble where legumes would be lower on the list and had come across Acana’s Regionals line. I had no idea such a top line was part of the scare! Not only would we be ill to discover that we’re harming our kiddo, but we plan to neuter him later this year and I’m worried that he might have trouble with the sedation if the kibble is causing other problems. Any thoughts / suggestions? (We are local here in Boulder County.) Thanks!

    • Rebecca,

      Thank you so much for your comment! To make kibble crunchy, there needs to be some form of carbohydrate. Usually this is potato, pea or beans. The current hypothesis is that legumes are causing a change in the digestibility of the kibble. There is absolutely no evidence to prove this. There may be something else at play combined with genetic predisposition. There is a FB group you can join that has a spreadsheet of cases of DCM along with the food being fed. I hope that helps!

      Dr. Angie

  2. We have two American English Coonhounds, littermates, three years old. They’re 100 pounds each & extremely healthy. We’ve been feeding them primarily grain free kibble & wet food since they were just over a year old. They also eat salt & spice free veggies mixed into their meals. I’ll be following this issue from now on, but I strongly feel our dogs are much healthier being raised without corn, wheat or soy.

  3. My input is about grain free foods, but for cats. After losing cats to diabetes, liver disease kidney disease we started researching food for cats. Cats are carnivores and they cannot assimilate carbs. This is what causes the above rampet disease among cats. Most cat food have carb fillers. ALL dry food is mostly carbs. What I read in my research, is they become addicted to carbs just like humans, who like McDonalds over veggies, it tastes good! Which is why it is hard once you have fed them dry foods and carb filled food to turn them to healthier foods. We have fed our kitties pate (no carb filler), or only grain free wet food with out carb fillers. You either pay more for food now OR you pay later trying to keep them alive.

  4. I feed Nulo Brand Lamb with chickpeas mainly because it has zinc in it and I have arctic breeds that tend to have a zinc deficiency. The ingredients are: Lamb, Turkey Meal, Salmon Meal, Yellow Peas, Chickpeas, Sweet Potato, Chicken Fat (preserved with Mixed Tocopherols & Citric Acid), Lamb Meal, Pea Fiber, Natural Flavor, Yeast Culture, Potassium Chloride, Dried Chicory Root, Dried Blueberries, Dried Apples, Dried Tomatoes, Dried Carrots, Calcium Carbonate, Salt, Zinc Proteinate, Vitamin E Supplement, L-Ascorbyl-2-Polyphosphate (source of Vitamin C), Iron Proteinate, Niacin, Copper Proteinate, Choline Chloride, Thiamine Mononitrate (source of Vitamin B1), Calcium Pantothenate, Vitamin A Supplement, Manganous Oxide, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (source of Vitamin B6), Sodium Selenite, Riboflavin, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Biotin, Dried Bacillus coagulans Fermentation Product, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Calcium Iodate, Folic Acid, Rosemary Extract.

    (ME calculated) 3,608 kcal/kg, 426 kcal/cup

    FreeStyle Adult Lamb & Chickpeas Recipe is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO Dog Food Nutrient Profiles for all life stages.

    Is there anything you think would be bad for them in this food? Interested in your opinion.

  5. my 4 year old pit mix was diagnosed with lymphoma in oct last year, he went thru the 6 months of chemo to only have it start to come back after 4 months of ending the treatment. of course the vet is recommending the treatment again. I’m confused to what to do. this dog is such a part of me, i’m heartbroken and want to do what is best

    • Hi Linet,

      I am so so sorry to hear about your sweet pup’s lymphoma diagnosis.

      Have you read Dr. Angie’s blog discussing what to do when your pet is diagnosed with cancer? In this article, she discusses diet and supplements that she would recommend. She also gives other practitioner referrals who have online content available.

      Here is the link: https://boulderholisticvet.com/pet-gets-cancer/

      CBD can also be a helpful addition. It can be helpful for some of the side effects that your boy may experience (such as increasing appetite, decreasing discomfort and increasing a sense of overall wellbeing).

      Big, big hugs to you and your pup!

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