A recent trend has been observed in dog food diets available to the canine-owning consumer: an increase in diets containing grain-alternative carbohydrates, exotic protein sources, and other “boutique” ingredients. Advertisements and marketing campaigns for these diets often claim that their special formulations are inherently more healthy than traditional diets containing grains or typical proteins such as chicken or beef. Unfortunately, research in the last year has come to light that suggests that this may not be the case. The FDA recently issued an announcement warning pet owners and the veterinary community of reports of Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating pet foods containing peas, lentils or other legumes, or potatoes as main ingredients.
DCM is a disease of the muscles of the heart which causes it to beat more weakly and enlarge over time. It can result in abnormal heart rhythms, congestive heart failure, or even sudden death. Some breeds of dogs are genetically predisposed to development of DCM (Doberman Pinscher, Boxer, Irish Wolfhound, Great Dane).
Alarm bells began going off when DCM started being diagnosed in breeds not normally predisposed to it. It was noted that these non-typical DCM dogs were being fed “BEG” diets (boutique companies, exotic ingredients, and grain-free diets). There was some initial concern that this atypical DCM was being caused a taurine deficiency. Taurine is an amino acid essential for heart and eye health. However, most of the dogs with diet-associated DCM have had normal taurine blood levels.
DCM has been well-established as a potential consequence of feeding taurine-deficient diets to cats. Thankfully, since 1987, commercially-available cat food diets are required to contain all the taurine that cats need. Taurine deficiencies can cause DCM in dogs as well, although most dogs can synthesize their own taurine and therefore do not require supplementation in the way that cats do. Some dogs on BEG diets are developing taurine deficiencies, but they are the least common type of diet-associated DCM we are seeing (Diet-associated DCM with taurine deficiency).
If most of the dogs developing diet-associated DCM have normal taurine levels and are not genetically predisposed, than what is the cause of their heart disease? The truth is, we don’t yet have an answer to this question. It is possible that these diets are causing other nutritional deficiencies that are affecting heart health, or that they contain ingredients which are actually toxic or harmful to heart tissues. Many researchers, as well as the FDA, are studying this issue to solve the problem as quickly as possible.
If your dog is currently eating a BEG diet but is currently symptom-free, what measures can we take to protect them? Since we do not currently know why BEG diets are affecting some dogs, and since DCM is a potentially fatal disease, it is recommended that you reconsider your dog’s diet until more is understood about the issue. It is popular to believe that grain-free or exotic ingredient diets are more healthy for your dog, but research has shown that these diets provide no health benefits, except in the very rare case of food allergies. Consider reviewing this post for a list of questions you should be asking regarding your dog’s food.
In the meantime, watch for signs of heart disease – exercise intolerance, shortness of breath, coughing, weakness, or fainting. If you observe any of these symptoms, be sure to call a veterinarian and set up an appointment. Your veterinarian will listen to your dog’s heart for a murmur or arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm) and may recommend further testing, such as an ECG (measures the electrical output of the heart), chest X-rays (measures heart size), or echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart).
Finally, if your dog has been diagnosed with DCM after eating a BEG diet, do not feel guilty. You probably spent a lot of money on an expensive diet, thinking it was one of the best options for your dog. There are so many different dog foods on the market, and knowing what really is the best food can be confusing. Keep in mind that the safest foods are going to be those coming from companies that focus on nutritional expertise and quality control, not just on compelling marketing and nutritional fads.
For further information regarding diet-associated DCM, please read the following articles published by the veterinary cardiology team who originally identified the problem:
– A broken heart: Risk of heart disease in boutique or grain-free diets and exotic
– It’s Not Just Grain-Free: An Update on Diet-Associated Dilated Cardiomyopathy