One year ago, the Food and Drug Administration announced that they were investigating a potential link between heart disease in dogs and grain-free diets. Last month, they published an update on this investigation that if you haven’t heard yet, has many people concerned that they might be harming their pets by the food they have chosen for them. This is a very complex topic and I’m going to do my best to explain what we know, what we don’t know, and what we can/should do.
Specifically, the concern is about a certain type of heart disease in dogs, dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). This is a disease where the heart begins to dilate over time and weaken, ultimately becoming so weak that the dog will go into congestive heart failure. This is a naturally occurring disease in dogs; however, some veterinary cardiologists felt like they were starting to see an increase in the number of DCM cases and began collecting data.
“Grain-free diet” refers to commercial pet food diets that do not contain grains like corn, soy, rice, and wheat that have historically been found in most foods. Grain-free diets typically have other sources of starches such as sweet potatoes, peas, and lentils. There is nothing specifically wrong with feeding grain to dogs, however, following a general trend in human nutrition to veer away from gluten and cutting carbohydrates, “grain free” rapidly became a buzz word in dog and cat foods over the past 10 years and the number of grain-free options has exploded. Also following the trend of “paleo”-type diets in humans, pet foods that tended to be advertised as higher protein and lower carbohydrate resonated with people looking for a healthier food option for their pets. Lastly, food allergies are also on the rise in dogs and cats, just as in people. As a veterinarian, I commonly see cases of chronic vomiting, diarrhea, or skin allergies that are ultimately responsive to a diet change. Nationwide, veterinarians have been more frequently recommending that owners of pets with these types of problems seek out a grain-free diet and see if their pet’s problem resolves, and with much success! All of these factors led to a very large increase in the number of dog and cat owners feeding their pets grain-free diets over the past five years.
So, as the cardiologists referenced above started investigating the histories of the dogs presenting with DCM, they started to find that a majority of them were indeed fed grain-free diets. Also, in many cases of DCM, the dogs responded to a diet change as well as supplementation with the amino acid taurine. Ultimately, this was reported to the FDA and now we have a bunch of nervous pet owners and veterinarians.
The general suspicion here is that many of these grain-free diets contain inadequate levels of taurine, or somehow are affecting the body’s absorption or production of taurine. Taurine is an amino acid that has many functions in the body, but has a known importance in heart health in dogs and cats. It is well known that taurine deficiency can cause DCM. However, research up to this point has shown that dogs can produce their own taurine and don’t necessarily need to have high levels of this amino acid in their food. I think we are learning now that perhaps some individual dogs do indeed need extra taurine in their food to maintain normal heart function.
Here are some facts to put all of this in perspective:
The July 2019 FDA update refers to 524 reported cases of DCM.
There are approximately 77 million pet dogs in the US.
Okay, I really like these odds!
However, here are some reasons we can’t completely ignore this:
To have a documented case of DCM, not only does a cardiologist have to take the time and headspace to report a case to the FDA, but also a dog with DCM would have to go to a veterinary cardiology specialist in the first place. As a general practitioner, I can tell you that the vast number of dogs with heart disease have owners who are not really interested in going to a specialist. Most are older and somewhat manageable by their general veterinarian even without a specific diagnosis. Also, as a vet who works in a very progressive hospital, I can tell you that doing an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart) is a very specific technical skill that is best left to a specialist. So, how big is the actual number of dogs with DCM?
Many dogs that were reported did have improvement or resolution in their case when their diets were changed and with taurine supplementation.
Admittedly, I am having a hard time giving my clients firm recommendations about all of this. And I have a lot of clients who feed their pets grain-free diets, many of them on my specific recommendation. And many of them have had their chronic allergies/vomiting/diarrhea fixed by this type of diet. So, what to do? Here are some general recommendations I have come up with:
If you are currently feeding your dog a diet with grains and they are doing great, don’t change!
If you are currently feeding your dog a grain-free diet, for no specific reason other than it seems to be a higher quality food than other options, I would consider finding a diet that is not grain-free. We simply do not have a lot of information as to this complex topic and why not be safe? I would hate for even one dog to develop heart disease because of a dietary deficiency. What diet to get? Oh boy, this is a can of worms! Just not grain-free and I’ll leave it at that.
If you are currently feeding your dog a grain-free diet because of a suspected food allergy, and they are doing better on the grain-free diet, talk to your veterinarian about your options. Taurine can be purchased and supplemented as a pill or you can even add foods that are high in taurine into your pet’s daily routine. Salmon, cod, chicken, and turkey are all great sources of taurine.
Add some variety! One thing that we can come away with from this issue is that we sure do put all of our eggs into one basket by feeding our dogs only one specific food. Variety is probably the best thing we can do for ourselves, and why not our dogs? And getting to the title of this column, go ahead and feed them some table scraps! Many people apologize to me when they admit they feed their dogs table food, but, hey, it’s some variety and different nutrients. My rules for feeding human food to dogs:
Avoid chocolate, raisins, grapes, onions, and anything with the sweetener xylitol.
Watch your dog’s waistline—probably the biggest problem with feeding table scraps is the dogs getting too many calories. You need to look at total food intake, including calories, and feed your dog to a good weight/body condition. Talk to your vet about this at your pet’s next visit.
Avoid foods that cause vomiting or diarrhea, and everything in moderation. Some dogs are sensitive to certain things, so try new things in small amounts.
This is a lot of information, and still feels incomplete, but I hope you will find it a helpful guide and I hope your dogs will enjoy their bites of lasagna and banana! Here is the link to the FDA’s most recent report: www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/news-events/fda-investigation-potential-link-between-certain-diets-and-canine-dilated-cardiomyopathy.