Is there a link between grain free diets and heart disease in dogs?
With-in the veterinary community there is a growing concern: that particularly boutique grain free diets may be causing a specific form of heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy. Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) involves heart enlargement and reduced contractility of the heart wall muscle. DCM is a life threatening condition often involving congestive heart failure, dangerous arrhythmias, and death.
In dogs DCM typically occurs in large breeds like Doberman pinschers, Boxers, Irish Wolfhounds, and Great Danes, where it is thought to have a genetic component. Recently, veterinary cardiologists have been reporting increased rates of DCM in dogs. This is occurring in the typical breeds, but also in breeds like the Schnauzer, Golden Retriever, Cocker Spaniel, and French Bulldog. There is suspicion the disease is associated eating grain free diets, with some dogs improving when their diet is changed.
This condition was common in our feline patients in the 1980’s and was specifically linked to a deficiency of the amino acid taurine. Once food companies began fortifying their diets with taurine the disease disappeared. Currently taurine deficiency is suspected in many boutique grain free diets; and is likely the cause of the increased numbers of DCM in our dog pets today. In many cases of DCM, taurine levels were measured and found to be deficient.
Currently the FDA and interested veterinary cardiologists are researching the role of taurine in DCM. The latest thinking is that some cases of DCM are related to diet and a second group are related to an unidentified factor. Ultimately researchers will solve the puzzle.
In the last several years veterinary nutritionists have seen many cases of dietary deficiencies related to home prepared diets, raw diets, and boutique commercial pet foods. Unfortunately the powerful marketing strategies to sell pet foods are unsupported by nutritional science. This includes grain free and exotic ingredient diets. In one study a single ingredient was measured in 90 canned pet foods. The result showed that 15 percent of the diets were deficient in that nutrient. Clearly nutritional expertise or rigorous quality control is lacking for some manufacturers.
At this time there is no proof that grain free is better. Much of the grain free movement is driven by concern over food allergies. The fact is food allergies are uncommon. Food allergies represent less than two percent of the pet population with allergic disease. Yet grains in pet food provide needed nutrition in the areas of proteins, vitamins, and minerals.
If you are feeding a boutique, grain free, or exotic ingredient diet consider making a change. If a change is not in the cards, then watch for early signs of heart disease like weakness, slowing down, exercise- intolerance, shortness of breath, coughing, or fainting. In the event of heart disease symptoms see your veterinarian. Chest radiographs, heart ultrasound, ECG, and taurine levels may be performed. Additionally a diet change, taurine supplement, and heart medications may be helpful.