August 5, 2019

General Medical Issues Wellness & Prevention

Grain-Free Diets and Heart Disease in Dogs

by Karen Strickfaden, DVM, CVA, CAC

The FDA has been investigating a possible connection between some grain-free dog foods containing high levels of lentils, peas, and other legumes and a possible increased risk of heart disease.

The current FDA report included dogs that have eaten grain-free diets and grain-containing diets in all forms: kibble, canned, raw, and home-cooked. Therefore, it does not appear at this time that the small number of documented cases of Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) can be attributed to their food being grain-free or being made by a specific pet food manufacturer. The problem is that there are many more questions currently than there are answers. The FDA admitted that it is a “complex issue that may involve multiple factors.”

Understanding DCM

Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a disease where the heart muscle stretches and becomes thinner and weaker, eventually resulting in congestive heart failure. In the early stages of DCM, there may not be any symptoms. As the condition progresses, dogs may develop symptoms such as:

  • Decreased activity/lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Rapid breathing
  • Cough
  • Reluctance to lie down
  • Distended abdomen
  • Fainting

Dogs having these symptoms should be evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Breeds with a genetic predisposition to DCM (not related to diet) include:

  • Afghan Hound
  • Boxer
  • Bernese Mountain Dog
  • Cocker Spaniel
  • Dalmatian
  • Doberman
  • Golden Retriever
  • Great Dane
  • Irish Wolfhound
  • Newfoundland
  • Old English Sheepdog
  • Portuguese Water Dog
  • Saint Bernard
  • Schnauzer
  • Scottish Deerhound
  • Springer Spaniel

If your pet is listed as one of the breeds above, extra caution and heart screening should be considered (regardless of diet). The primary test for diagnosing DCM is a cardiac ultrasound (or echocardiogram). Other screening tests include blood taurine levels and a proBNP blood test which becomes abnormal as the heart is stressed.

The current statistics show that less than 1% of dogs will develop Dilated Cardiomyopathy during their lifetime. Of the estimated 77 million dogs in the U.S., there are currently 560 dogs that may have diet-related DCM (less than 0.1%). The FDA commented that the causes of possible diet-related DCM may be the result of many factors including recipe formulation, food processing, and the individual pet’s genetics. The FDA, the pet food industry, and multiple dog food manufacturers are working diligently to better understand any potential link between DCM and diet so that it can be properly addressed.

How does Taurine play a role?

Taurine is an amino acid that is important in several of the body’s metabolic processes and heart function.  It is found naturally in meat, fish and dairy products. Dogs make their own taurine from food from other amino acids, cysteine, and methionine. It was thought that, because they could produce it themselves, dogs didn’t need supplemental taurine (like cats do). However, large breed dogs produce taurine at a slower rate than small breed dogs, putting them at a higher risk for a deficiency. Genetics also plays a significant role, with certain breeds and family lines being predisposed to developing DCM. There are other factors that could affect a dog’s blood taurine level but those elements have not been fully explored in dogs or dog food.

The issue appears to be more complicated than simply blaming the problem on legumes, as many news reports have done. There may be a relationship between genetics and certain ingredients as well as the food’s overall content of different amino acids. Some of the foods being studied are Bison, Duck, Lamb, Kangaroo, Salmon, Venison, Barley, Chickpeas, Fava Beans, Lentils, Peas, Potatoes, Rice, Rice Bran, and Tapioca.  It is likely that multiple factors are involved.  It is not known which factors, what amounts, or certain combinations of ingredients and genetic predisposition to DCM actually cause the disease to develop.

That still leaves the question – What do I feed my dog in the meantime?

First of all, there is not any one perfect dog food for every dog so there is not a simple answer to the question. You need to look at your pet’s breed for genetic predispositions to heart disease, note any potential food allergy symptoms, and look at your dog’s overall health condition.

Should you feed your pet a grain-free diet?

Is your pet benefiting from eating his/her grain-free diet?
There are multiple possible benefits to feeding grain-free diets including:

  • A decrease in food sensitivities/intolerances (IBD)
  • Better digestion, reduce vomiting/diarrhea issues
  • Improve body condition/normal weight
  • Remove skin irritations
  • Eliminate chronic licking, chewing or itching
  • Reduce reoccurring ear infections
  • Improve oral health and breath

What things should I consider when feeding a grain-free diet?

  1. Investigate the quality and ingredients of the specific food.
  2. Look under the ingredient listing for added taurine to help protect the heart.
  3. Add a taurine supplement to the diet to support the proper levels of this important amino acid.
  4. Supplement the diet with foods that are high in taurine (such as sardines).
  5. Consider a blood test to check your pet’s actual taurine level.
  6. Screen your dog’s heart health with a proBNP blood test that looks for stress on the heart.

How can I screen my pet for DCM?

  1. Have an Echocardiogram performed – it is the gold standard test to evaluate the heart size.
  2. Consider blood tests (taurine levels and proBNP) to screen heart health.
  3. Monitor for early signs of heart disease – weakness, shortness of breath, coughing, exercise intolerance.
  4. Have regular examinations done by your veterinarian to diagnose issues early.

We all want the answer to this question, but unfortunately, no one actually knows yet. Please feel free to call (920) 863-3220 or email Countrycare Animal Complex with any further questions you may have.

Dr. Strickfaden and two dogs

Dr. Karen Strickfaden is a practitioner at and a co-owner of Countrycare Animal Complex. Dr. Strickfaden’s interest in holistic medicine has stemmed from her personal experiences and medical issues. She enjoys the challenge of helping an animal that no one else could.