2018 FDA Dog Food Warning: Grain Free Food Leading to Heart Disease?

We are concerned about reports of canine heart disease, known as dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), in dogs that ate certain pet foods containing peas, lentils, other legumes or potatoes as their main ingredients. – fda.gov

Earlier this year (2018), the FDA announced that it was investigating reports of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs that had been eating grain free dog foods. In particular, the agency was looking at a possible link between foods that were high in peas, other legumes, and lentils, along with potatoes, and the onset of DCM. The dogs involved in the investigation included breeds that had never been associated with DCM before.

DCM is a heart condition. It has previously been associated with certain breeds, especially some large and giant dogs, but some of the new reports were connected to other breeds with no previous record of heart problems such as French Bulldogs and Miniature Schnauzers. DCM in these dogs is thought to be diet-related. There appears to be a correlation between the grain free diets, low taurine levels in the dogs, and DCM.

Dietary or taurine-deficient dilated cardiomyopathy cases of DCM appear to be reversible in many cases with a change in diet.

What is DCM?

DCM is a heart condition in which the heart muscle first degenerates. Then the muscle becomes thinner, especially the thick muscle wall of the left ventricle. The pressure of the blood inside the heart makes the thin walls stretch which results in an enlarged heart. This can lead to congestive heart failure (CHF). In the past DCM has been associated with Boxers, Dobermans, and Great Danes. Occasionally, German Shepherd Dogs and some medium sized breeds such as Cocker Spaniels and English Springer Spaniels have developed DCM. Giant breeds such as the Irish Wolfhound and Scottish Deerhound have also been affected.

Research has recently suggested that Golden Retrievers may be especially susceptible to DCM because of a taurine deficiency in grain free dog foods.

The current cases of DCM include breeds that have never had DCM before. Many of the dogs are still large breeds but medium-sized dogs and even very small dogs are also being diagnosed with DCM. The common link shared by the dogs appears to be a diet that was high in peas, legumes, lentils, and/or potatoes (find foods without them here). Testing showed that many of the dogs had low levels of taurine.

Why is taurine important?

Taurine is an amino acid that is found in high concentrations in heart and muscle meat. Taurine is distributed throughout the body but it’s especially important for the proper functioning of the heart, the retina of the eye, and the brain.

Under normal circumstances, dogs are able to synthesize taurine in their bodies. This makes them unlike cats, which cannot produce their own taurine. In the 1980s it was discovered that cat foods were not supplying the necessary taurine that cats needed. Tens of thousands of cats died from heart disease attributed to a lack of taurine in their cat food. Since that time, taurine has been added to most cat foods.

Taurine is not usually added to dog foods. Nor is cysteine, the precursor amino acid that allows dogs to make their own taurine. In most cases (there are some exceptions), the taurine in dog food comes from whatever meat or fish protein is used in the food.

Ingredient labels and guaranteed analyses of grain free dog foods may appear to show that these foods contain lots of protein so you might assume that the foods have plenty of taurine. But that’s not how nutrition works. For one thing, taurine has to come from meat protein. Many grain free foods are high in plant protein (peas, legumes, lentils) but they can be lower in meat protein. The protein percentage on the bag might look high but if most of the protein is coming from plant sources, it won’t provide taurine for your dog. Secondly, nutrients have to be available to your dog. Just because something is listed in an ingredient list doesn’t mean that your dog can use it. Some ingredients can block the absorption of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. It’s possible that this is happening with peas, legumes, and lentils in the case of taurine.

Other factors can also affect how a dog uses taurine. Dogs of different sizes are believed to use different amounts. Fiber in the food can make a difference in how efficiently it is used by the body. How the food is cooked/processed makes a difference. The breed of dog and its calorie needs also seems to matter.

Research

The FDA is currently researching cases of taurine-deficient dilated cardiomyopathy that appear to be due to a diet with heavy concentrations of peas, legumes, lentils, or potatoes. The FDA followed their initial warning up with a Q&A piece. Other researchers, especially at UC Davis in California, are also working on the problem.

Researchers have suspected for some time that some dogs might have a dietary version of DCM. Researchers have been looking at Golden Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, and Newfoundlands especially, with this dietary version of DCM. With the uptick in cases involving multiple breeds and mixes, the FDA has now expanded the investigation.

Which brands are involved?

Many different brands are involved in the investigation ranging from some of the most expensive grain free foods sold today to customer favorites. They come from different manufacturers. The only thing the foods seem to have in common is their heavy use of peas, lentils, legumes and, in some cases, potatoes (including sweet potatoes).

Should you feed your dog a grain free dog food?

At this time the FDA is not advising dietary changes based just on the information they have collected. They are early in their investigation and still receiving reports of dogs with DCM. However, some owners who have had their dogs’ taurine levels tested are changing their dogs’ diets away from grain free dog and puppy foods to foods that don’t contain large amounts of peas, lentils, legumes, or potatoes.

If you are concerned about feeding a food that is high in peas, legumes, lentils, or potatoes, we suggest that you consider why you are feeding a grain free dog food. Does your dog need a grain free food? Does he have documented food allergies? Grain free dog foods were developed for dogs with food allergies but food allergies in dogs are not common. Flea allergies and environmental allergies are much more common in dogs. If your dog doesn’t need to eat a grain free food, you could change foods to a food that includes grain.

Corn and wheat have been thoroughly trashed online as “filler” or garbage ingredients. There is some truth to the fact that they have been overused in dog foods in the past but they won’t kill your dog, especially if you choose a dog food from a reputable company that uses these ingredients in small amounts.

If you absolutely cannot stand the thought of feeding a food that contains any corn or wheat, we can recommend grains such as oats and barley. Many good dog foods use these less common grains.

Canned dog foods are also less likely to contain large amounts of peas, legumes, lentils, potatoes OR corn/wheat. Check the ingredients.

Researchers and veterinary nutritionists generally recommend dog foods made by companies that invest money in nutrtional research. That usually means Purina, Royal Canin (Eukanuba), and Hills. These companies are also recognized for quality control, making their own foods instead of using co-packers, and employing veterinary nutritionists to make their formulations. Their foods are not sexy. They don’t usually have “boutique” foods with exotic ingredients. The companies are often derided online for their ingredients or for other reasons. But their foods are not showing up on the lists of foods implicated in dogs with taurine-deficient deliated cardiomyopathy. So, you may not like foods made by these companies, or their ingredients, but they are healthy and nutritious for your dog.

What should you do if you think your dog might have DCM?

According to the FDA, if your dog is showing possible signs of DCM, including decreased energy, cough, difficulty breathing and episodes of collapse, you should contact your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may also recognize early heart disease by hearing a heart murmur or abnormal heart rhythms. If you observe these things or your veterinarian is concerned, additional testing may be indicated such as x-rays, blood tests, EKG, or heart ultrasound (echocardiogram). Your veterinarian may ask you for a thorough dietary history, including all the foods (including treats) the dog has eaten.

You can have your dog’s taurine level tested if you are concerned. If you plan to have your dog’s taurine level tested, it’s best to test before you make any dietary changes in order to get an accurate reading.

If your dog is diagnosed with DCM, particularly if eating a diet that meets the criteria listed above:

  • Ask your veterinarian to test blood taurine levels.
  • Report the findings to the FDA.
  • Change your dog’s diet as directed by your veterinarian’s recommendations.
  • Ask your veterinarian to help you identify a dose for taurine supplementation.
  • Seek guidance from a veterinary cardiologist.
  • Follow the instructions from your veterinarian or veterinary cardiologist as repeat evaluations and other medications may be needed. It can take multiple months to see improvement in many cases of diet-related DCM.

Conclusion

Grain free dog foods have become very popular but their popularity may be based more on marketing than research or nutrition. It’s too soon to tell what the FDA investigation will find. If you are concerned about feeding a food that contains large amounts of peas, legumes, lentils, or potatoes, look at foods that include grains or canned dog foods. Even though you may not like big companies such as Purina, Hills, or Royal Canin (Eukanuba), you could feed your dog a food from one of these companies while the FDA investigation is ongoing to be on the safe side.

1 thought on “2018 FDA Dog Food Warning: Grain Free Food Leading to Heart Disease?”

  1. Excellent article. My vet just informed us of the grain-Free issue. Fortunately, he also never recommended grain-free for our dogs. He has always recommended food from Hills and Purina. One dog gets Hills, the other, NutriSource. Another reason fad diets don’t work.

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