Heart Disease in Dogs and Grain-free pet foods

Heart Disease in Dogs (Dilated Cardiomyopathy, aka: DCM) and Grain-Free Pet Foods.

Heart disease in dogs

The Heart of the Matter… Is There a Proven Connection?

For purposes of this article we will be discussing Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM), with regard to heart disease in dogs and grain-free pet foods.

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Heart disease in dogs and grain-free pet foods is a hot topic lately.

Veterinarians play an important role in your pet’s life. We as veterinarians are constantly striving to provide pet owners with the very best advice and guidance. These recommendations are based on the most current knowledge available at the time. As new information in the field becomes known and proven, veterinarians embrace it and work to quickly put it to use in our practices. However, in this electronic and social media age, information is sometimes spread before it has been fully tested for its accuracy.

A recent release by the FDA.

This is the case with a recent FDA report. The report states concerns regarding a possible connection between grain-free diets and heart disease in dogs (dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM). The information released was based on reports that the FDA had received from the School of Veterinary Medicine, at the University of California Davis.

Four dogs, (retrievers) were diagnosed with DCM. All had been seen in the clinic at University of California Davis. Tests showed that all four of these dogs had lower than “normal” taurine levels. These dogs were also being fed grain-free diets.

Taurine is an amino acid that is naturally made by dogs.
Taurine is made from nutrients contained in their food. Taurine is used as a building block for muscle, including the vitally important heart muscle. In DCM, the heart muscle begins to thin out. The muscle becomes too weak to pump the blood properly. The reasons are currently unknown. This can lead to symptoms such as shortness of breath, low endurance, and weakness. In some cases this condition progresses to congestive heart failure.

What about the breed?
It was theorized that some dogs might not be able to make taurine, or at least a sufficient amount of it. This could then contribute to the development of DCM. DCM is thought to be an inherited disease in some breeds. Certain breeds are thought to be genetically more likely to develop DCM.

This heart disease in dogs is obviously very complex. There are a number of factors that contribute to the disease. This point was also addressed in the FDA notification. It stated that while more commonly found in certain breeds, this disease does occur in other breeds as well:

“The underlying cause of  DCM, is not truly known but is thought to have a genetic component. Breeds that are typically more frequently affected by DCM include large and giant breed dogs. This includes Great Danes, Boxers, Newfoundlands, Irish Wolfhounds, Saint Bernards and Doberman Pinschers. It is less common in small and medium breed dogs, except American and English Cocker Spaniels. However, the cases that have been reported to the FDA have included Golden and Labrador Retrievers, Whippets, a Shih Tzu, a Bulldog and Miniature Schnauzers, as well as mixed breeds.”

This same FDA notification further states that “High levels of legumes or potatoes appear to be more common in diets labeled as “grain-free.” It is not yet known how these ingredients are linked to cases of DCM”.

The science used to identify the causes of this heart disease in dogs, (DCM)

As a veterinarian, I do not dispute the underlying science used to identify the contributing factors of this heart disease in dogs. However, I do believe it is a HUGE jump to suggest that there is any connection between grain-free pet foods and the occurrence of DCM.

Wheat, corn, and soy by-products are the common ingredients that many grain-free companies replace with alternate carb sources. Is there a possibility that something in these diets might somehow be blocking the absorption of taurine? Could these diets somehow be preventing the animal from making its own taurine? Possibly, but taurine is found in the meat protein your pet consumes, not the carbohydrates (grain or otherwise). Theoretically, the presence or absence of any specific carbohydrate should have no effect on the taurine levels in a pet’s diet.

So, what should pet owners be feeding their pets?

I advise my clients to feed their pets foods that do not contain wheat, corn, soy, or their by-products. Rather than focusing on the amount of oats, rice, potatoes, or legumes in the diet, I advise them to be more concerned with the quantity and quality of the MEAT in their pet’s diet.

Dogs are carnivorous omnivores (they eat everything, but mostly meat). Yes, the canine in the wild will eat the entire rabbit. Any veggies that the rabbit ate beforehand probably contribute a large portion of the carbohydrates the dog consumes. There may also be some supplemental veggies and fruits that the dog forages.

Dogs have tearing teeth. They do not have chewing and grinding teeth. Their digestive systems were not designed to process even moderate amounts of grain. Therefore, the majority of a dog’s food should be a quality meat protein.

How to choose your pet food:

  • Look at the ingredients list on any can or bag of pet food before purchase. Make sure that the first 2-4 ingredients listed on it are meats.
  • Carbohydrates should be shown further down the list.
  • Choose pet foods that contain carbs that are easily digestible, and therefore more useful to the pet. These include rice, oats, potatoes, and legumes.

Are canine breeding practices having a negative effect?

I also question whether or not some of the canine breeding practices in the United States are having a negative effect on canine genetics.  When humans start breeding creatures to their own specifications, we many times end up with an exceptional animal in some respects - but an inferior one in others.

Veterinarians are seeing a steady increase in diseases and other physical problems in our pets. With this in mind, could we be seeing the retriever breeds having more cases diagnosed of heart disease in dogs (DCM) because of genetics? This is thought to be the case in some of the large breeds mentioned in the FDA’s notice. Currently, this debate only seems to be going on this country. It will be interesting to see if future studies done in Europe or Asia will uncover any connection between diet and heart disease in dogs.

Lab testing is available to pet owners.

Pet owners that choose to feed a grain-free diet, can have their veterinarian run a serum taurine level test, where a sample of its blood is sent to a specialty lab to determine its taurine levels.

Consider supplements.

Pet owners can also add supplements to foods, such as Standard Process Canine Cardiac Support, which contains specific nutrients that are known to provide support for the heart. Other over-the-counter Taurine supplements can be used with caution. Please always consult with your veterinarian before giving your pet any supplement.

4 out of 89.7 million?

Are four dogs out of the reported 89.7 million dogs living in the US (2017, statistica.com) a statistically great enough number for researchers to reach an accurate conclusion? NO. This is a subject that could potentially affect the health of many of our pets.

The fact is that, in my 20+ year career as a veterinarian, I have treated several hundred dogs suffering from a wide variety of skin and gut issues. The pet’s health was significantly improved once they were switched from a commercial, grain-based diet, to a grain-free diet. I have personally seen this to be both effective and beneficial. Therefore, I am not prepared to change my dietary advice based on the initial evidence from a study on such a small number of animals.

Nutrition and metabolism are complicated issues.

The exact relationship between diet, genetics, and other factors that may cause heart disease in dogs is not yet clear. It is too early to say if any specific diets pose a real risk of causing canine DCM. As recently stated by Dr. Jean Dodds, one of the country’s leading experts in pet nutrition: “This investigation is still in its early days, and there truly is no information or data, at least not yet, showing a definite connection between the ingredients indicated and the atypical cases of DCM.”
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Read additional articles by Dr. Trish on Health, Knee injuries in large or small breed dogs and low-level laser treatments
Patricia Kallenbach DVM, CVCP, LMT, CPT