The Scoop on Grain-Free Diets

Recently there has been a lot of hype about grain-free diets and the connection between dogs going grain-free and Dilatative Cardiomyopathy (DCM), a serious heart disease that can lead to death.  More research is needed to pinpoint the culprit and make definitive recommendations, but here is what we know:  Last July the FDA released an alert regarding reports of DCM in dogs eating commercial diets containing peas, lentils other legumes or potatoes as the main ingredients, often combined with exotic protein sources such as soy or kangaroo.

Certain breeds such as Golden Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Newfoundlands and Saint Bernards historically are predisposed to diet responsive DCM and may be more apt to develop problems from consuming these diets.  However, numerous recent cases of DCM have been reported in breeds not typically prone to the disease.

The leading hypothesis is a deficiency of the amino acid taurine in grain-free pet foods.  A statement from top researchers at Washington State University notes that “while taurine deficiency may play a role in the identified DCM cases, it is unclear whether taurine deficiency is a cause or merely an association with yet unknown other dietary components.”

Early clinical signs of DCM can be weakness, exercise intolerance or coughing at rest.  Your veterinarian might detect an arrhythmia by listening with a stethoscope or running an electrocardiogram (ECG).  Earlier detection could be made by performing a cardiac ultrasound, or echocardiogram, usually done by a specialist at a referral hospital.  Blood taurine levels can be measured in dogs with DCM being fed a grain-free diet and a taurine supplement should be added if levels are found to be low or low-normal.

So What is a Pet Owner to Do?

Our current recommendations at Marshfield Animal Hospital are as follows:

  • Healthy dogs with no known allergies should be fed a balanced diet that contains standard ingredients (chicken, beef, fish, sweet potatoes, rice and wheat.)
  • Dogs that have a medical condition that requires a nonstandard diet (e.g. grain-free diet) should be fed a diet that has undergone extensive feeding trials through the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
  • DCM related to diet may be reversible if it is detected early.  Dogs diagnosed with DCM that are eating a diet with nonstandard ingredients should be switched to a diet that contains standard ingredients as noted above.

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