Grain Free Diets and the Possible Link to Heart Disease

Pet owners and Veterinarians around the world, have recently been warned by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) that dogs fed “grain-free” food diets, (based on peas, lentils or potatoes) is possibly being linked to an unusual condition that can cause an enlarged heart.

Heart disease is common in our pets, affecting 10-15% of all dogs and cats, with even higher rates in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Doberman Pinschers, and Boxers.  Most nutritional recommendations focus on treating dogs and cats with heart disease and there is much less information on the role of diet in causing heart disease.  However, a recent increase in heart disease in dogs eating certain types of diets may shed light on the role of diet in causing heart disease.  It appears that diet may be increasing dogs’ risk for heart disease because owners have fallen victim to the many myths and misconceptions about pet food.

“Its important that all owners discuss their pet’s nutritional requirements with their Veterinarian” says  Dr. Scott Campbell one of Ipswich Vet Groups Partners and a Diplomate of the American College in Small Animal Nutrition.

“The condition, called Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy (CDC) or Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is more common in certain breeds, but has recently been seen in breeds that are not usually susceptible, such as Miniature Schnauzers, Dachshunds and French Bulldogs Golden and Labrador Retrievers, Whippets, as well as mixed breeds” the FDA said. Dogs with the disease develop an enlarged heart, which then struggles to function properly. They can develop congestive heart failure, which can be fatal.

“It might be down to a nutritional deficiency”, the FDA said.

Dr. Scott Campbell -Diplomate of the American College in Small Animal Nutrition

Although not yet naming specific brands, it is believed all grain free diet’s may be a risk that mainly include peas, potatoes, lentils or other legumes as their main ingredients.

“Early reports from the Veterinary Cardiology Community indicate that the dogs consistently ate these foods as their primary source of nutrition for time periods ranging from months to years. High levels of legumes or potatoes appear to be more common in diets labeled as ‘grain-free,’ but it is not yet known how these ingredients are linked to cases of DCM,” it added.

Taurine deficiency is one potential explanation. Taurine is an amino acid — a building block of protein — that is essential for carnivores. “Taurine deficiency is well-documented as potentially leading to DCM,” the FDA said in a statement.

Symptoms include lethargy, weight loss and, sometimes, a cough. Changes in diet, especially for dogs with DCM, should be made in consultation with a licensed veterinarian.”

“Contrary to advertising and popular belief, there is no research to demonstrate that grain-free diets offer any health benefits over diets that contain grains,” she said.

Grains are an important source of protein and other nutrients in many meat-based pet foods, she continued. Grains have not been linked to any health problems except in the very rare situation when a pet has an allergy to a specific grain.

The Veterinary Cardiologist and Nutrition group has pieced together a few brief guidelines to help pet-owners navigate this complex issue:

  1. Evaluate the diet that you are feeding your pet. If the diet is boutique, contains exotic ingredients, or is grain free, you may consider a diet change to one without these properties. Talk to your veterinarian about the FDA announcement and what diet may be best for your dog.
  2. If you are concerned about your dog based on what you are feeding, watch closely for signs of heart disease such as weakness, slowing down on walks, coughing, fainting or trouble breathing. 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).
  3. 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.

Not sure how to select an appropriate food for your pet: Here is a quick link to Recommendations on Selecting Pet Food by the World Small Animal Association : Recommendations for selecting Pet Food