Grain-free Pet Diets: What You Should Know

by Dr. Barbara Lewis

Have you read about the recent controversy suggesting a possible link between specific pet diets and canine heart disease? We have many pet owners inquire about which pet foods can cause harm including “grain-free” diets.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has alerted pet owners and veterinary professionals about reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs that are eating certain grain free foods. The FDA stated in its report in July that the Center for Veterinary Medicine is looking into the links between grain-free dog foods and DCM along with the Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network.

Canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a heart muscle disorder that results in a decreased ability of the heart to pump blood through the body. The definitive cause of canine DCM is the subject of debate, although several factors including nutritional, infectious, and genetic predisposition have been implicated. The fact that canine DCM occurs at a higher incidence in specific breeds suggests a heritable genetic component to this disease in Doberman Pinschers, Boxers, Irish Wolfhounds, and Great Danes. The ability of the heart to serve as a pump is diminished and clinical signs such as lethargy, weakness, collapse, coughing, increased respiratory rate and/or effort, abdominal distention and sudden death can occur.

Recently, veterinary cardiologists have been reporting increased rates of DCM in breeds not usually associated with DCM such as Miniature Schnauzers, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Doodle mixes, Shih Tzus and French Bulldogs. There is suspicion that the disease is associated with eating boutique or grain-free diets with some of the dogs improving when their diets are changed. A cardiologist from North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine noted DCM in a household with two unrelated Miniature Schnauzers and they were both eating the same boutique, exotic protein grain free diet. Cardiologists have noticed that both the typical and atypical breeds were more likely to be eating boutique or grain-free diets with ingredients such as kangaroo, lentils, duck, pea, fava bean, buffalo, tapioca, salmon, lamb, barley, bison, venison, and chickpeas.

Some vegan diets have been associated with DCM and it has even been seen in dogs eating raw or home-prepared diets. The cause of the rise in DCM in breeds not usually associated with this condition is unclear at this time. The first thought was a deficiency of an amino acid called taurine. DCM used to be one of the most common heart diseases in cats but in 1987, it was discovered that feline DCM was caused by insufficient taurine in the diet. All reputable commercial cat foods now contain enough taurine to prevent the development of this lethal disease.
So, is this latest rash of DCM caused by taurine deficiency? Most of these affected dogs were eating boutique, grain free, or exotic ingredient diets. Some of the dogs had low taurine levels and improved with taurine supplementation. Even some of those dogs that were not taurine deficient improved with taurine supplementation and diet change. Fortunately, cardiologists reported the issue to the FDA which is currently investigating this issue to work on answering this question.

So, what should you do if you are feeding a grain free diet to your dog today? Based on the information we have, we are recommending a diet change. The University of California Davis can measure your dog’s plasma and whole blood if deemed necessary by you and/or your veterinarian to evaluate your pet’s taurine levels and potential need for supplementation. If whole blood/plasma taurine levels return from the lab in the normal range, no supplementation is needed, and the recommendation is to change the diet.

So how do you pick the best diet for your pets? As always, please remember you can always speak to your veterinarian about which diets would be best based on your pet’s age, level of activity, and any special needs or requirements they may have. The right nutrients in the right proportions must be in the diet, the effects of processing (or not processing) the food needs to be considered, and the effects all the other ingredients in the food need to be addressed, in addition to ensuring rigorous quality control and testing. Not every manufacturer can do this type of quality control and food analysis/testing and certainly not every manufacturer does.

Below are a few links to help you choose the best pet food for your pet:

10 Questions Every Pet Food Manufacturer Should Answer – YOU should ask these questions to find out more about your pet food manufacturer and your pets’ food.
https://wsava.org/sites/default/files/Recommendations%20on%20Selecting%20Pet%20Foods.pdf

Clinical Nutrition Service at Cummings Veterinary Medical center at Tufts- Great website with nutritional/dietary information directly from veterinary nutritionists, and lots of it for FREE!
http://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/

If you’re interested in making your own pet food, this group of veterinary nutritionists will help you formulate and balance your pets’ diet for a fee.
https://secure.balanceit.com/index.php

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