Lately, the FDA has been looking into a link between grain-free dog food and canine dilated cardiomyopathy. Today I want to talk a little bit about that link and what it means to you as a dog parent.
Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy
Let’s begin by talking about what canine dilated cardiomyopathy is.
Canine dilated cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle. The diseased cardiac muscle is weakened and this means that the heart is not able to pump blood as forcefully as it could before becoming diseased. With less force, less blood is pushed through the vascular system and this can cause a few things to happen:
- Less oxygenated blood is circulated through the body which causes symptoms like lethargy, weight loss, weakness, and collapse.
- Blood congestion in the lungs which causes distension of the abdomen, coughing, increased rate of respiration, and increased effort during respiration.
- Both of the above.
In addition to the primary symptoms above, there are a number of secondary symptoms related to canine dilated cardiomyopathy including:
- Decreased oxygen supply
- Increased oxygen demand due to increased heart rate
- Cardiac dilation
- Cardiac arrhythmia (atrial fibrillation, supraventricular tachycardia, ventricular premature complexes, ventricular tachycardia)
No one knows the definitive cause of cardiomyopathy, but researchers believe that nutrition, infection, and genetics may all play a role. It’s the first of these possible causes that has been making headlines lately, though, as the FDA warns pet parents of potential adverse effects related to feeding grain-free dog food.
Grain-Free Dog Food and Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy
First and foremost it’s important for you to know that while the FDA has been looking into a possible connection between grain-free dog food and canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), they aren’t yet sure how diet plays into the development of the disease. They are, however, obligated to look into the possibility of recent cases of DCM being related to grain-free dog foods, which is why this topic has been making headlines recently.
So What Does the FDA Know About the Possible Link Between Grain-Free Dog Food and Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy?
So far, the FDA can confirm that between January 1st, 2014 and April 30th, 2019, the FDA‘s Center for Veterinary Medicine received 515 reports of dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs. Some of these reports included multiple pets in the same household which puts the actual number of dogs affected at 560.
In consulting with animal health professionals, the FDA found that DCM is found much more frequently in larger dog breeds, but the reports they had received included a number of smaller dogs as well. This indicated that something more than a genetic component was in play.
This additional component, it turns out, may be the food that many of these dogs were eating. More specifically, food that contains legumes like peas or lentils, other legume seeds (pulses), or potatoes as main ingredients. Ingredients that are often found in grain-free foods.
Let’s break for a moment here to say that not all of the dogs reported to have developed DCM were eating a grain-free diet, but a large percentage – 91% of the dogs – were.
What About Grain-Free Dog Food is Thought to Be The Problem?
According to the FDA, they don’t yet know what it is about grain-free dog food that could be causing an increase in cases of DCM in dogs, but they certainly believe that there is a link.
There are some who believe that the increase in DCM and the changing pattern of dogs affected could be the result of a dietary taurine deficiency. They come to this conclusion because taurine deficiency has previously been named as a possible cause of DCM.
Amino acids form the building blocks of life, the organic compounds that create protein. There are 23 known amino acids and they each play an important role in healthy bodily function.
Taurine is an amino acid that, among other things, protects cardiovascular health, boosts immunity, maintains brain health, and maintains eye health.
In some animals, taurine can be manufactured by the body. Amino acids that can be manufactured by the body in the quantities that are needed by the body are referred to as “non-essential”.
Other animals, like cats, for instance, are limited in their ability to manufacture their own taurine. In other words, the body is unable to manufacture the amount of taurine that it needs. These amino acids are referred to as “essential” and must be supplemented through diet.
The best dietary source of essential amino acids is muscle meat. The proteins in meat are broken down by the body to their basic amino acids which then supplement what the body is unable to produce on its own.
Amino acids can be found in things other than muscle meat, for example, some plants have very small traces of taurine, but in order to obtain healthy levels of essential amino acids, the best food source is always going to be meat.
So what does this have to do with grain-free foods?
Well, of the grain-free foods that have been named in the current investigation by the FDA, 93% contained peas and lentils. These alternates to traditional carbs are included in grain-free kibble because they help with the extrusion process during kibble manufacturing. These ingredients also happen to be high in protein. Using high protein plant ingredients leads many pet food manufacturers to use less animal protein in their foods – a great deal for them because they can boast high protein kibble and pay much less to manufacture it. But that also means that your grain-free dog food contains more plant proteins – which have minute traces to zero traces of taurine content- and less animal protein – which is where those healthy levels of taurine (and other amino acids) are found.
So, it makes sense to draw a link between taurine deficiency and DCM, right?
Well, it might make sense if the majority of the dogs in the reports received by the FDA had low levels of taurine. The thing is, though, that they didn’t. Why not? Because dogs can manufacture their own taurine by using other amino acids.
So, is taurine the problem or isn’t it?
Maybe…but the culprit is more likely to be the result of a deficiency in other amino acids – essential amino acids. You can read more about this in this great article from Dogs Naturally Magazine.
If Your Dog’s Diet Is To Blame Now What?
Whether the problem is related to taurine or not, the fact remains that something in the foods in question could be throwing a wrench in the works when it comes to our dog’s health.
So what do experts suggest?
Firstly, the FDA advises that some dog food brands are more implicated than others. Until the mystery of DCM has been solved, it may be wise to sidestep these options as well as other foods that are highly dependent upon peas, lentils, and legumes.
The brands named by the FDA as having 10 or more reports linked to them and the number of reports linked to them to date include:
- 4Health (32)
- Acana (67)
- Blue Buffalo (31)
- California Natural (15)
- Earthborn Holistic (32)
- Fromm (24)
- Merrick (16)
- NutriSource (10)
- Natural Balance (15)
- Nature’s Domain (29)
- Nature’s Variety (11)
- Nutro (10)
- Orijen (12)
- Rachael Ray Nutrish (10)
- Taste of the Wild (53)
- Zignature (64)
What is the FDA Doing About the Possible Link?
So far, the FDA has been pouring their efforts into research – something that’s necessary in order to determine IF there is a link between grain-free dog foods and canine dilated cardiomyopathy. Depending upon cooperation from various communities (including pet food manufacturers) the FDA hopes to further research the possible role that ingredient concentration, bioavailability, sourcing, and processing may have played in the recent cases of DCM. Until their research yields some concrete answers, however, we are left in limbo, guessing at what may be causing the problem and at how to “fix it”.
In the Meantime, What Should You Be Feeding Your Dog?
Since there is no definitive connection between grain-free foods and DCM at the moment it’s difficult to say that grain-free foods are to blame and should be avoided. What you can do, though, is to do a little more research on what is in the food you are feeding.
- Choose foods with high-quality animal-based proteins
- Sidestep foods that have lentils, potatoes, and legumes and skimp on animal-based proteins
Where would I begin?
We fed Jet pre-prepared raw food and I can’t sing its praises enough. It not only helped to give him more energy and help with his arthritis pains, but he was just a happier dog. Our two favorite options were Stella and Chewy’s and Bravo.
We also occasionally included dehydrated and freeze-dried foods into Jet’s diet – Bravo and Grandma Lucy’s were our go-to’s. These were expensive options, but great quality foods and Jet couldn’t get enough of them, so they were ABSOLUTELY worth it.
There are also many pre-prepared human-grade diets out on the market today that were not around when my old boy was. You’ll find an ad for two of my favorite options on my blog, actually – Ollie and Nom Nom Now. You’d also be wise to check out The Farmer’s Dog.
If you do decide to stick with kibble, look for those that use non-traditional grains like millet, amaranth, and quinoa (yes, they put that in dog food too). These ancient grains are much easier on your dog’s digestive system. You can find a great article about the benefits of ancient grains over at The Honest Kitchen. Just be sure that if you choose a food that uses ancient grains or if you stick with a food that has no grains at all, that it also incorporates healthy levels of high-quality proteins.