IMPORTANT UPDATE 8/20/19: Click here to read the latest update on grain-free pet foods from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

As a pet owner, you do everything you can to ensure your beloved companion lives a long, healthy life, including providing the best diet and nutrition. If it’s high-priced and touted as the most natural food for your dog’s wild ancestors, it must be top-of-the-line, right? Unfortunately, pet-food marketing is a huge industry that plays on current trends in human nutrition, and tugs at your heartstrings. Paleo, Whole30, low-carb, and keto are a few diet fads that have recently experienced an upsurge in popularity among people and transferred over to pet nutrition. People view their pets as furry family members and want them to eat as well as they do. Pet food manufacturers have capitalized on this viewpoint, but, unfortunately, the declining health of pets may be the result. 

What is the FDA investigating regarding diet and heart disease?

Investigation is underway concerning potential links between canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and boutique, exotic, and grain-free (BEG) diets. These diets are defined as follows:

  • Boutique — Diets manufactured by small companies with minimal feeding trials and no board-certified veterinary nutritionists on staff
  • Exotic — Diets that contain exotic ingredients, such as kangaroo, alligator, squid, artichokes, kale, and blueberries, as a main ingredient
  • Grain-free — Diets that have replaced corn, rice, or other grains with peas, lentils, potatoes, or other legumes as a main ingredient

An alarming increase in dogs diagnosed with DCM appears to be linked to pets eating these BEG diets. These dogs suffering from DCM do not fall into the category of breeds commonly affected by genetic DCM, so the recent shift to BEG diets is thought to be the cause. The FDA has been investigating reports of these abnormal DCM cases since July 2018 to determine the instigating factor. 

What is dilated cardiomyopathy?

DCM is known to affect large- and giant-breed dogs, such as Irish wolfhounds, Great Danes, Newfoundlands, Saint Bernards, and doberman pinschers. Dogs afflicted with DCM suffer from weakened hearts, which enlarge as they struggle to pump blood, often leading to congestive heart failure. While DCM is less common in smaller breeds, cocker spaniels are also predisposed to DCM development. 

Dogs suffering from DCM display common heart disease signs, such as fatigue, difficulty breathing, coughing, and fainting. Some dogs can abruptly die with no previous signs. 

What are the potential links between diet and DCM?

Potential correlations between DCM and diet are still being researched, but common thought is that taurine levels are insufficient. Taurine is an essential amino acid for heart function and is derived solely from animal protein. However, taurine deficiency is not the cause in all DCM cases—some dogs have normal taurine levels, but still improve when their diet is switched. This correlation suggests a different nutrient deficiency, a taurine absorption issue with exotic ingredients, or a toxicity related to BEG diets. With the impressive uptick in exotic ingredients, more research is needed to determine their nutritional composition for pets, and how processing affects these ingredients and absorption of nutrients.

What foods have been seen in diet-related DCM cases?

Grain-free diets comprise most of the stock on pet store shelves, but these are the most implicated in nutrition-based DCM cases. The FDA’s July 2019 report includes the foods that were named at least 10 times in reports submitted through April 30, 2019. Most reports were for dry foods, but also included raw, semi-moist, and wet foods. Dog food brands most frequently named in DCM cases include:

  • Acana
  • Zignature
  • Taste of the Wild
  • 4Health
  • Earthborn Holistic
  • Blue Buffalo
  • Nature’s Domain
  • Fromm
  • Merrick
  • California Natural
  • Natural Balance
  • Orijen
  • Nature’s Variety
  • Nutrisource
  • Nutro
  • Rachael Ray Nutrish

If your dog is eating one of these diets, we recommend that you contact us for a nutritional consult.

What if my dog has a food allergy?

Food allergies are less common in pets than most pet owners believe, and most are caused by protein, not grain. Food allergies are commonly caused by dairy products, beef, lamb, chicken, and eggs. If your pet suffers from a true food allergy, which can only be determined by a food trial, we recommend a hydrolyzed protein diet. Foods made from a hydrolyzed protein contain protein molecules that have been broken down into such small particles that the body doesn’t recognize them as allergens. Grain-free diets have no benefit in the majority of food allergies. 

What foods are safe for my pet?

While the link between diet and DCM is still unclear, we recommend switching your pet to a grain-inclusive food to be safe. Even if your pet has been on a BEG diet for years and has shown no issues, we would be devastated if a preventable cause contributed to your beloved companion’s heart disease. As more studies are released, we will update you accordingly. For now, our recommendations are based on the World Small Animal Veterinary Association guidelines concerning pet diets. Of the top brands of companies conducting the most research and feeding trials, that have board-certified veterinary nutritionists on staff, we recommend Purina and Royal Canin products.

Consult with us before switching your pet’s diet. We can discuss the best options for your furry friend’s specific nutritional requirements to keep her happy and healthy for many years to come.