The FDA has issued a warning about the possible connection between diet and heart disease in dogs. The diets specifically implicated in this warning are grain free formulations. In this article, I am going to outline what is currently known and give you an action plan if you are feeding a grain free diet to your dog. Don’t worry cat lovers, at this time the warning is only applicable to dogs.

I want to start by emphasizing that as of now, there are NO studies correlating grain free diets with an increased risk of heart disease. All reports are anecdotal. 

The specific type of heart disease in this warning is called Dilated Cardiomyopathy or DCM. This disease causes the heart walls to dilate and the heart eventually fails. You can read more about DCM here. Doberman Pinschers, Newfoundlands, Boxers, Great Danes and Cocker Spaniels are common dog breeds that are affected by DCM. While these types of dogs can be genetically predisposed to the disease, a lack of taurine in the diet can also cause DCM. Taurine is an amino acid found in food rich in meat. Unlike cats, dogs can also make their own taurine from other amino acids.

Recently, there has been an increase in DCM cases in breeds that are not predisposed genetically. Some of these dogs have been deficient in blood levels of taurine while others have had normal blood levels. This has caused alarm in the community of veterinary cardiologist. One thing these dogs may have in common is a grain free diet.

As of now, the FDA is collecting information from veterinarians around the country. Here are a few theories as to why we may be seeing a shift in breeds with DCM.

  • As grain free diets gain popularity, more dogs are eating diets with legumes and potatoes. These ingredients may change the way dogs absorb essential nutrients like taurine. 
  • There may be a genetic permutation present in some dogs that causes defective amino acid metabolism. In other words, dogs may not be able to make their own taurine.
  • Manufacturing processes may be reducing the available levels of taurine in commercial diets. 
  • Certain brands of pet foods may not be following best practices in formulating balanced diets and following quality control protocols.

A large percentage of my practice is currently eating a grain free diet. Here is what I am recommending for my patients.

  • Don’t panic. It’s important to keep perspective. These cases of DCM are still relatively uncommon.
  • If you own a Golden Retriever, I would pay slightly more attention. Many of the cases are in Golden Retriever families.
  • An echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) is the only way to definitely diagnose DCM. This can be done with a veterinary cardiologist.
  • Have your dog’s blood levels of taurine tested. While a normal whole blood taurine level does not mean that your dog isn’t at risk, a low level would be cause for alarm. Many of these cases of DCM improve with taurine supplementation despite a normal blood level. 
  • Supplement with taurine just to be safe. If your dog weighs less than 55 lbs the suggested dose is 250-500 mg twice daily. If your dog weighs over 55 lbs, the suggested dose is 500-1000 mg twice daily. Currently, supplementing with taurine is thought to be safe. 

I am neither pro-grain or anti-grain when it comes to feeding dogs. I do believe that each dog is individual with unique needs. I don’t support the use of corn, wheat and soy in diets. You can read more about the grain debate.

I would love to hear from you! Are you feeding your dog a grain free diet?