If your dog is eating a grain-free diet, it’s time to change. This past July (2018), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) alerted pet owners and veterinary professionals about reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating grain-free or “boutique” foods. The exact cause of these cases of DCM is not clear. In some dogs it appears to be related to low levels of an amino acid called taurine, but in many other dogs low taurine levels are not the cause. Often times we hear reports like this in the news and they are quickly forgotten, but this is a REAL problem. Veterinary cardiologists are seeing these cases on a continual basis, and the cases are occurring in dog breeds that don’t commonly have DCM.
What should a pet owner to do when there are still so many questions out there? It is important to choose a diet for your pet that is completely balanced. Make sure the food meets the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) for both nutrient levels and feeding trials. Many owners will be shocked to know that not all foods meet either standard. Veterinary nutritionists recommend feeding a diet made by a well-known, reputable company that contains standard ingredients such as chicken, beef, rice, corn and wheat. Veterinary nutritionists state that you should be less fixated on the ingredient list of the diet and more concerned with the research behind it. Most dogs do not need a grain-free diet, but if your pet does truly have a dietary allergy, there are quality products available. Please feel free to ask our doctors or staff about recommendations for your pet. Below you will find a Q&A section to further answer questions and to provide more detail:
What was reported by the FDA about grain-free diets for dogs?
In July 2018, the FDA posted that cases of dilated cardiomyopathy had been reported in dogs eating grain-free diets containing peas, lentils, other legume seeds, potatoes, or exotic proteins as main ingredients. DCM is a disease of the dog’s heart muscle which becomes weakened and unable to properly contract. The heart chambers start to enlarge and dilate, and the heart is unable to effectively pump blood to the body. This leads to a build-up of fluid in the lungs, chest and abdomen resulting in congestive heart failure. Heart function may improve with medication, but this is a very serious disease that is difficult to treat.
What appears to be the cause of the problem?
Currently the cause of the problem is not clear. Some dogs appear to have low levels of an amino acid called taurine, but in other dogs the taurine levels are normal and the exact cause is not known. The only thing that is clear is that this is a real problem that veterinary cardiologists are seeing on a routine basis. Both the typical and atypical breeds were more likely to be eating boutique, grain-free diets, or diets with exotic ingredients such as kangaroo, lentils, duck, pea, fava bean, buffalo, tapioca, salmon, lamb, barley, bison, venison, and chickpeas. Even some vegan, raw, and home-cooked diets have been associated.
What breeds appear to be affected?
There are breeds of dogs such as Boxers, Dobermans, Irish Wolfhounds and Great Dane where DCM is commonly seen and is genetically predisposed. This recent problem associated with grain-free diets is affecting many breeds of dogs, most of which do not commonly get DCM. The breeds reported include Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Shih Tzu, bulldogs, Schnauzers and Whippets. It is important to remember that this problem may occur in any breed of dog.
Why does my do need to eat a grain-free diet?
The answer is that dogs do not need to eat a grain-free diet. One of our continual concerns about grain-free diets is that they are advertised as healthier and hypo-allergenic, neither of which is true for most dogs. There is no scientific evidence that grain-free diets are healthier than conventional diets. Most of the information about grain-free diets comes from manufacturer advertising and is not based on scientific fact. For example, one “fact” that is often cited is that dogs are wolves and cannot digest or metabolize carbohydrates. But dogs are not wolves. Studies of the canine genome have shown that dogs have significantly increased ability to utilize carbohydrates in comparison to their wild cousins. Currently over 50% of all dog foods produced are “grain free”, and many are manufactured by smaller companies with fewer resources for the design, production, and monitoring of their diets. While there are dogs that do require a specialized diet due to dietary allergies or hypersensitivities, this is not true for the vast majority of dogs.
What do I need to look for in a dog food?
The first thing to always look for is the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) certification on the package. This indicates that the food at least meets official nutrient requirements, and hopefully has also passed actual feeding trials. Other questions to ask are: Does the manufacturer employ at least one full-time qualified nutritionist? Does the manufacturer own the plant where the food is manufactured so they have more control over quality? What quality control measures does the manufacturer practice? Does the company conduct any research? Getting answers to these questions is not always easy, but it is important for your pet’s health.
What foods should I be feeding my dog?
Veterinary nutritionists recommend diets made by well-known, reputable companies that contain standard ingredients such as chicken, beef, rice, corn, and wheat. The FDA reported that the implicated diets usually contained legumes (peas, lentils, etc), potatoes, or exotic ingredients as their main components, so these should be avoided. Exotic ingredients have different nutritional profiles and have the potential to affect the metabolism of other nutrients. Every pet owner wants to feed their pet “the best” diet to keep them healthy, just remember to not always believe what advertising campaigns tell you. Choosing a proven and well-balanced diet is the safest option for your pet.
What ingredients should I be looking for to select a food?
Veterinary nutritionists state that the ingredient list can be one of the least reliable ways to choose a diet. We do recommend avoiding diets with the above listed ingredients as major components. The best way to select a diet is to ensure that the manufacturer has excellent nutritional expertise and rigorous quality control standards. This usually means a large nationally recognized brand. The concern is that many smaller or boutique companies are not doing more than the minimum of balancing their diet in the laboratory.
What if my dog truly has a food allergy?
While food allergies do occur in pets, the majority of those are related to protein (meat) sources and not the other components of the diet. For pets that truly do have food-related allergies, there are numerous appropriate well-balanced diets available. For a diet to be truly hypo-allergenic, it needs to meet one of two criteria. First, it can be novel and exclusive, that is contain only a single protein or carbohydrate source that the dog has ever eaten before in its life and use only those ingredients. The second option is to be formulated so that the protein source will not cause an allergic reaction, such as hydrolyzed protein diets. Hydrolzyed means the protein molecules have been broken down into smaller pieces that should not cause an allergic reaction. Most of the true hypoallergenic diets are not sold over-the-counter due. Remember that “hypoallergenic” means something different to every dog.
What about raw or home-cooked diets?
We NEVER recommend raw diets due to the significant risk of bacterial contamination. Studies have shown that 40% of these type of diets can be contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. The AVMA, FDA, and American Animal Hospital Association also do not recommend raw diets for pets due to risk of infectious disease to pets and their owners. Home cooked diets can be an option, but they need to be properly balanced and prepared. We commonly use home-cooked diets for short term feeding in certain medical cases, but for long-term feeding it is extremely important to be certain they are properly balanced (by a veterinary nutritionist).
Do I need to supplement my dog with taurine, or have their blood level checked?
While low taurine levels were found in some of the diet-related cases of DCM, it is not the cause in all of them. Blood taurine levels can be checked, but need to be sent to a specific laboratory and the testing is not inexpensive. The first question I would ask myself is why do I need to this if my dog’s food is truly high quality? Supplementing with taurine is fairly easy and inexpensive to do, but again, your pet’s food should be completely balanced and not require additional supplementation.
What other precautions or testing is recommended?
In articles about this problem, numerous recommendations have been made for dogs eating one of the implicated types of diets. Some recommend monitoring your pet for early signs of heart disease such as weakness, slowing down, exercise intolerance, difficulty breathing, coughing or fainting. The problem of waiting for these signs to develop is that by that point, the heart disease is well advanced and will be difficult to treat. Some dogs can go from appearing normal to having life threatening DCM within a matter of days. Also keep in mind that once the disease appears, it can take months for your pet to respond to therapy, changes to their heart may be permanent, and some may not respond at all. It has also been recommended to have your dog examined by a veterinary cardiologist and have an echocardiogram performed. Echocardiograms may detect changes sooner, but by then there are already significant changes to your dog’s heart muscle. Another recommendation is checking blood taurine levels, or supplementing the diet with taurine. As mentioned above, not all of these cases have low taurine levels. With all of these recommendations, ask yourself why do you need to be doing this if a diet is truly well-balanced? The best recommendation of all is to change your pet’s diet.
What specific brands of dog food do you recommend?
There are many brands and varieties of dog food available that can keep your dog healthy. Everyone has an opinion on pet food and feels that their food is “the best”. As a business, we carry Hill’s (Science Diet and Prescription Diets), Purina, and Royal Canin. Personally, as a breeder of Standard Poodles for over 25 years, Dr. Palmer and his wife have always used Hill’s Science diet. While no one diet works perfectly for every dog, there are many good options available .