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Grain-Free Dog Food: Is it Good or Bad?

Posted 07.31.18 by Susanne Heartsill, DVM

Grain-free, holistic, natural…these are all terms that invoke a sense of comfort. Surely, if something is labeled holistic or natural, it must be better for us and our pets, right? Unfortunately, these are labels that have little meaning as they relate to pet diets. Although they are generally accepted by the dog food industry, there are currently no regulations or legal definitions for labeling pet foods. This allows for misrepresentation of many terms as well as their implications of benefit. Further, recent research shows that grain-free diets may actually be dangerous to dogs even though, as consumers, we were told that grain-free is “better”.

The unfortunate reality is that many of these claims and dietary recommendations were not based on scientific evidence, but rather on marketing trends and human emotion. With so much confusion and misinformation, what is a pet owner to do? The simple answer is “ask your veterinarian“. We are, after all, trained in veterinary nutrition and have access to the latest information and clinical studies to keep your pets happy and healthy.

The grain-free catastrophe

As of July 12, 2018, the FDA alerted veterinarians to an increased number of cases of a potentially fatal heart disorder (canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)) in dogs eating certain grain-free dog foods containing peas, lentils, other legume seeds, or potatoes as the main ingredient. What’s unusual about these cases, is that DCM is occurring in dog breeds not typically affected by the heart disorder.

Breeds that are genetically prone to being more frequently affected by DCM include large and giant breed dogs, such as Great Danes, Boxers and Doberman Pinschers. It is less common in most small and medium breed dogs (the exception is American and English Cocker Spaniels). Alarmingly, the cases that have been reported to the FDA have included Golden and Labrador Retrievers, Whippets, a Shih Tzu, a Bulldog and Miniature Schnauzers, as well as mixed breeds….until now, DCM has been virtually unheard of in these breeds.

First, let’s look at the disease itself

Canine DCM is generally thought of as a genetically associated disease of a dog’s heart muscle which results in an enlarged heart (the genetic component is why we typically see the same breeds with DCM). As the heart and its chambers become dilated, it becomes harder for the heart to pump which leads to a buildup of fluids in the chest and abdomen. DCM can result in congestive heart failure and even sudden death. If caught early, heart function may improve in cases that are not linked to genetics with appropriate veterinary treatment and dietary modification.

Dilated cardiomyopathy B-Mode

The reasons behind this unusual increase in non-typical breeds suffering from DCM appears to be related to taurine deficiency. Taurine is an amino acid that is essential for cardiovascular function, and development and function of skeletal muscle, the retina, and the central nervous system. While more common in cats (until the advent of commercially prepared, balanced cat foods), taurine deficiency has previously been almost unheard of in dogs. This amino acid appears to be lacking in some grain-free diets, thus the correlation between diet and disease.

The FDA and veterinary cardiologists are currently studying the link between taurine deficient diets and this unusual increase in atypical DCM  patients. For now, as always, your veterinarian remains your best resource for nutrition advice.

For a summary of the most recent data, please see the link below:

Taurine Deficiency Induced Dilated Cardiomyopathy in Golden Retrievers

Susanne Heartsill, DVM

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