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Grain free foods and heart disease in dogs. Is there a link?

Grain free foods and heart disease in dogs. Is there a link?

Here at Dee-O-Gee in Bozeman, we take nutrition and the health of your pet seriously.  We wanted to update our customers on a current investigation by the FDA. The FDA is looking into a possible link between grain free diets in dogs and Dilated Cardiomyopathy.  Dilated Cardiomyopathy is a specific type of heart disease that causes the heart to enlarge or dilate, causing heart failure if left untreated.  Most of the affected dogs are of certain breeds already predisposed to Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) and appear to suffer from a taurine deficiency.

Taurine is an amino acid found in meat.   In cats it is considered an essential amino acid since cats are unable to manufacture their own taurine, therefore it is added to all cat food. Dogs, like many other species, appear to be able to manufacture taurine from their diet if cysteine and methionine are present. Since the link between taurine deficiency and diet was established in cats in the 1980s, researchers have been monitoring DCM in dogs to see if a link exists between diet, DCM and taurine deficiency in this species.

So, is there a link between grain free foods and heart disease in dogs?

No definitive link was established in all breeds, however, there were breeds that had DCM that did also have a taurine deficiency. Researchers were able to find a link between taurine deficiency and DCM in Newfoundlands, Golden Retrievers and Cocker Spaniels. It has long been postulated that diet played a role in these dogs, but also that genetics are at play. The difficulty in the pet food industry is that since taurine is not considered an essential amino acid in the dog, there is no established minimum of taurine in dog food.  

So more research is needed to determine the dietary needs of taurine in the dog … but suffice to say dogs need meat and lots of it!

Fast forward to 2018. In the last couple years, more dogs are being diagnosed with DCM, specifically Golden Retrievers.  There is an ongoing study at UC Davis to determine the relationship of diet to DCM in this breed. Given it is a specific breed, it is suspected that genes as well as diet may play a role.  

If your furry kid is a golden retriever, there are 4 specific steps that can be taken if you are concerned:

1. If you believe your dog (Golden Retrievers) is at risk, you can have a whole blood taurine level checked with your veterinarian.  It is recommended this sample be submitted to UC Davis. There are specific sample preparations that need to be taken so make sure your veterinarian is familiar with this test or have them call before taking the blood sample. This needs to be done prior to supplementing your dog with taurine.  

2. If you believe your dog is showing signs of DCM (weakness, fatigue, weight loss, coughing, increased respiratory rate) please have an echocardiogram performed by a board certified cardiologist and have plasma taurine samples checked at the same time.

3. If you receive low blood taurine results, please have an echocardiogram performed by a boarded cardiologist.  Do not supplement or change foods until this echocardiogram is performed.

4. If you receive cardiologist confirmed DCM results,  please submit an image of the bag ingredient list and lot number.  Also request images from the cardiologist’s echocardiogram, then complete the dietary history form on the UC Davis site.  Submit a three generation pedigree, diet history form, copies of taurine level results and medical record to: sterngenetics@ucdavis.edu.

What diets are being implicated?  

Grain free foods are a new development in the pet food industry in the last decade.  Since grain free foods seem to be implicated in these most recent cases, it is suspected there is something about these foods that depletes taurine or makes it less bioavailable.  This may be due to a chemical reaction that occurs during the extrusion process in making kibble.

Legumes, and potatoes and other starchy carbohydrates can cause a chemical reaction with the amino acids in the food when heated and processed.  This chemical reaction destroys the taurine and makes it less bioavailable. Food preparations that minimize water loss such as baking and frying retain more taurine, however processing in any form decreases the available taurine.  The addition of starchy carbohydrates and grains to foods dilutes out the amount of protein from meat sources – then you add processing and the taurine that is present becomes less bioavailable for the dog.

Raw food, which is minimally processed and retains its moisture has not been implicated in this investigation.

What can you do??

At this time it is still unclear what is causing the problem in these dogs.  Processed food advocates are using this link between grain free foods and DCM to encourage customers to return to grain inclusive foods.  This alone may not solve the problem. It is not only the fact that the foods are grain free, but also the processing of the food that is the problem.  Switching to a grain inclusive food if it still contains the starchy carbohydrates may continue to cause problems.

Until there is more information, it would be safe to supplement all dogs with taurine.   This can be done by adding a can of sardines to your pet’s diet once weekly. You can also use Answers’ Fish stock which contains 33 mg of taurine per oz.  The suggested supplementation of taurine however is 20mg/kg twice daily. Please discuss supplementation with your veterinarian to ensure the product you are choosing is safe for your pet.  Dee-O-Gee in Bozeman has ordered and will be stocking taurine supplements if you are interested in supplementing taurine for your pet.

If you have a breed that is already susceptible to DCM, such as, Golden Retriever, Cocker Spaniel, Boxer, Doberman Pinscher, Great Dane, Old English Sheepdog, Afghan Hound, Dalmation, Saint Bernard, Irish Wolfhound, Scottish Deerhound, Newfoundland or Portuguese Water Dog >>> follow the 4 step process above for Golden Retrievers, starting with a visit to your veterinarian. The study is only for Golden Retrievers, but you can have taurine levels checked and an echocardiogram performed,  just not submitted to UC Davis at this time.  

At Dee-O-Gee we are following this study closely and are here to answer your questions about your pet’s nutrition. As more information becomes available, we may alter the foods we offer if there appears to be a connection between DCM and a specific food.  However, at this time there is more information needed to draw a definitive conclusion. There are many foods available to choose from in our stores, from raw and minimally processed, to kibble with grain and kibble without grain. We are constantly educating our staff on different foods and the effects of nutrition on pets.  

Most of the pet food companies are also monitoring this study and could be altering their formulas or adding taurine to better nourish your pet. For example, Nutri Source and  PureVita are proactive and have already announce plans to add taurine to all their formulas.

We want to encourage an informed consumer, so we welcome questions about your pet’s nutrition – ask us!

However, we do not want to replace your veterinarian. If you have specific questions about your pet, please contact your veterinarian.

Jane Mittelsteadt, DVM

Owner, Dee-O-Gee Bozeman

About the author

Jane Mittelsteadt graduated in 1988 from University of Wisconsin- Madison with a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine.

  • Certified in Veterinary Acupuncture from Colorado State University in 2005
  • Has been practicing Veterinary Medicine in the Gallatin Valley since 2007
  • Currently enrolled in a Veterinary Chinese Medicine Nutrition Course through The Chi Institute. Anticipated completion: September 2018

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