Over the past couple of years, there has been much discussion around the link between certain foods—particularly grain-free diets—and heart disease in pets. In June 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated its investigation into this link, with results indicating a staggering increase in a form of heart disease in dogs eating particular diets. Much about this link is still unknown, causing confusion and frustration among pet owners, who want only the best for their furry friends. To help guide you through this complex correlation, here are some known facts.

The diets in question are linked to a specific heart disease in dogs

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a condition that occurs when the heart wall becomes thin, causing the muscle to weaken. The result is a dilated, enlarged heart that can cause an abnormal heart rhythm and, eventually, heart failure. DCM is well-documented in certain breeds, such as the Great Dane and Doberman pinscher, suggesting a genetic component in some cases.

DCM is not a new disease, but its nutritional link in dogs is a more recent discovery. In the 1980s, a deficiency in an amino acid, taurine, was found to be a major cause of DCM in cats, but so far, this has not been found in dogs. Taurine deficiency and related conditions are presently rare in cats, as most commercial cat foods contain adequate amounts of the amino acid. DCM signs can include: 

  • Weakness
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Collapse or fainting
  • Coughing
  • Increased respiratory rate

Pet grain-free diets aren’t the only diets in question

While the majority of diet-related DCM cases in dogs are correlated with grain-free foods, diets containing exotic ingredients, such as novel meats, vegetables, or fruits, are also showing strong associations. Collectively, these diets are known as “BEGs” (i.e., boutique, exotic, and grain-free). For a list of the dog food brand names used most frequently in DCM cases reported to the FDA, click here

An exact cause of DCM in dogs is still unknown

While a correlation between DCM and specific dog food types is certain, the direct cause of the uptick in cases remains unknown. Many theories are floating around, but here is what we know:

  • Many BEG diets are grain-free, indicating they do not include any wheat, corn, soy, rice, or barley.
  • Common ingredients in BEG diets include peas, lentils, chickpeas, or other beans.
  • Most dogs with DCM reported to the FDA were fed dry, kibble food.
  • Taurine deficiency seems an unlikely cause of DCM in most dogs, since it is not considered an essential amino acid in this species. However, research suggests that golden retrievers may be more genetically prone to taurine deficiency and, subsequently, DCM. 
  • Quality control and nutritional expertise involved with many commercial pet foods, including BEG foods, varies greatly, which may introduce other potential issues.
  • So far, the association between BEG diets and pets has been reported only in dogs.

There is still much to learn about this curious relationship between BEG diets and DCM in dogs. To stay updated on the latest findings, consult the FDA, or a reputable veterinary nutrition website, such as the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine Clinical Nutrition Service. 

Our recommendations about DCM in dogs

We know that pet owners want the best for their pets, which is why many choose exotic, often expensive food brands. However, the potential risks of these foods for your pet are simply not worth it, at least until we know more. Therefore, we recommend that all clients reconsider feeding their dogs boutique, exotic, or grain-free foods unless instructed otherwise.

We recommend you feed your pet a diet from a reputable manufacturer that uses traditional ingredients, including grains. Once the connection between diet and DCM is better understood, we may be able to recommend other foods, but while the link is still uncertain, it is safest to stick with reliable ingredients and pet food companies. 

If your pet has an allergy or a chronic condition, or you need advice on what to feed your pet, do not hesitate to contact our Southern Crossing Animal Hospital team for guidance. In addition, if you are concerned about DCM, or believe your pet is showing signs of DCM, contact us, or your closest veterinary emergency clinic, as soon as possible.