A recent FDA alert about the possible connection between grain free diets and dilated cardiomyopathy has been gaining momentum. I’m getting tons of questions about it, and I’m learning as much as I can too. Let me start by saying this: we ALL want what’s best for our pets. We might have different approaches for getting there, but that’s the goal.
For the video version, check out my interview with Dr. Lisa Weeth, DVM, DACVN: You can tell by my intense face we were having a GREAT conversation.
That certain categories OF dog foods may inadvertently contribute to heart disease by interfering with the uptake or utilization of taurine, an amino acid vital to heart function.
How It Came About:
A few puzzle pieces came together. Dr. Joshua Stern, a cardiologist at UC Davis, started noticing an increased number of dilated cardiomyopathy cases in Golden Retrievers- above what is normally expected. We’re also knee-deep in the Morris Animal Foundation Golden Retriever Lifetime Study with a wealth of Golden-specific data at our disposal, including diet history. The common factor in this uptick seemed to be the diets the dogs were eating.
After talking to cardiologists around the country, they found the increase in cases wasn’t limited to Goldens, but the diet factor was still there.
The trend started to take form.
What We Know:
There seems to be a correlation between the following categories of foods and dilated cardiomyopathy:
- Boutique (small manufacturer)
- Exotic Ingredients (protein sources like rabbit, duck, things other than chicken or beef)
- Grain Free (legumes such as peas and lentils, or potatoes as a main ingredient)
What We Don’t Know:
We don’t know why, exactly, this is happening. There are theories. We don’t know if the ingredients interfere with taurine uptake and/or utilization, or if they simply aren’t present in the ingredients in sufficient numbers. This is where everyone needs to pause and take a breath and support the research that needs to happen to GET those numbers. If you want a deeper dive into the science, check out Linda Case’s piece.
We don’t know if it’s just about the ingredient list. Making blanket statements without real data (corn is bad!) is how we got here in the first place. We don’t know if it’s peas that are bad, or the combination of peas and something else, or if it’s a problem with poorly sourced ingredients, or manufacturing, or formulation, or… we don’t know.
Is the problem truly grain free or does it only look that way because the actual problem is small companies with manufacturing errors, who just happen to make grain free because that is what sells?
It’s very likely more complicated than just PEAS ARE BAD or THIS BRAND GOT IT WRONG. Guys, we don’t know yet. Very smart people are working on it.
What Are the Signs of DCM?
Weakness, shortness of breath, exercise intolerance, coughing. If your pet is on a suspect diet and is exhibiting those signs, call your vet today! (well, even if they’re not on a grain free diet you should call because that’s not normal.)
I’m Using a Diet In These Categories and My Pet Seems Fine. What Now?
It is entirely possible, and hopefully likely, that your pet is fine. So first, don’t panic.
Step one, as always, talk to your vet. If it were me, I’d consider transitioning to a diet from a manufacturer who’s been around a while (Dr. Weeth suggested at least one generation of dogs, a company at least 15 years old). As of early September, none of the grain free pet foods from, how is it said, “big pet food” have been problematic. If your pet doesn’t NEED grain free, consider a diet with grain.
If you love the food you’re on and would prefer not to change, you may want to consider having your pet’s taurine levels tested. More on that below.
My Vet Says This is Overblown.
We do live in an age of rapid hysteria. Yes, we’re at under 200 cases right now, small beans in the big picture. But if we can stop just one more case, isn’t it worth having this discussion? Best case scenario, your pet is fine and you have nothing to worry about. Yay! Submit your data to the Taurine Deficiency FB group and consider it your fine contribution to research.
This is new. I learn things from clients and pet owners all the time. In this case, it’s not some rando making a wild proclamation: it’s the scientists at ground zero sounding the alarm.
If your vet isn’t aware of this issue, it’s not a terrible thing. We all have a million things going on, this is fairly recent, and not everyone is Golden Retriever obsessed like me. If you tell them, “Hey, the FDA has a warning out about this food I’ve been using, the vet schools are concerned, the cardiologists have been seeing heart disease in dogs on this diet, can we do a blood test?” I would hope they say yes. Why not? Testing is super easy. Here’s what you bring with you to the clinic:
PAGES YOU TOTALLY SHOULD PRINT OUT THAT COME FROM AUTHORITATIVE EXPERTS:
UC Davis Amino Acid Laboratory Submission Guidelines
How Do We Test For Taurine?
It’s a simple blood draw, but it needs to be done correctly and the right samples need to be collected. The sample should be sent straight to Davis, as the results seem to be variable between different labs and Davis has the reference ranges we’re working with. Davis will bill you, the owner, directly for the test. Vets usually charge a fee for sample collection and preparation, but you can pay for the actual lab test yourself.
This is a deviation from most clinics’ normal lab procedures.
Well Thank God I’m Home Cooking! See, Kibble Really Does Suck!
This isn’t about who’s a better owner or who cares more or does a better job. Vets see plenty of taurine deficiency cardiomyopathies from people home cooking an imbalanced diet they found online. It is a choice to cook, and a lovely one, but it also needs to be done right, preferably with the guidance of a nutrition service like BalanceIt.
It’s not kibble vs home cooked. It’s knowledge, love, and trying to do the best by your pet no matter what.
I got skin in the game too. This is my little dude Ollie, and I want him to live forever.
Disclaimer: I’m by no means the expert on this. Dr. Josh Stern, a cardiologist at Davis has been at the heart of this (pun intended) since the start and has been extraordinarily generous with his time on Facebook talking to pet owners. I’m summarizing the info I have from his groups and my conversation with Dr. Weeth (her blog is awesome! I always learn something new.) They know a lot more about this than me; my job as a general practice DVM is interpreting as best I can for you all. I will update this page as information changes, or corrections are needed.
Hi Dr V. Did you mean to say this “The majority of taurine deficiency cardiomyopathies seen are from people home cooking an imbalanced diet they found online”
Or might that have been true BEFORE this recent knowledge of DCM tied to certain commercial diets?
Dr. V says
“Before this” seems like a fair clarification. I actually don’t know what the statistics are since this began, but I’m assuming the cardiologists are gathering that data.
I have my German Shepard puppy on grain free, suggestion of the breeder, should I change her food out of concern, or can I had a Taurine supplement
Dr. V says
Hi Diane, you don’t want to add a taurine supplement unless you’ve confirmed your pet has a low blood taurine! Not all grain free foods have been a problem. I would always recommend calling your vet for guidance as the best course of action at this time. Congratulations on your new puppy!
Hedy Bastian says
Based on information collected by 2 Facebook groups on their Diet and Taurine Table, there are also large dog food companies like Wellpet, Blue Buffalo, Diamond Pet Foods (Taste of the Wild, Diamond, 4Health, Kirkland Natures Domain, etc.) that have dogs on the Table that have tested low taurine levels and/or Dilated Cardiomyopathy. The problem is DCM is often a silent killer and you don’t know until the dog drops dead. No this is not just a boutique pet food manufacturer problem. We have 11,000 members of the 2 Facebook groups, but beyond that, how many people know: Taurine Deficient Dilated Cardiomyopathy and Taurine Deficiency in Golden Retrievers. Please join our groups to learn more.
Dr. V says
Hi Hedy! Thanks for coming by. A couple thoughts:
1. We haven’t gotten a clear definition of boutique, so that would help. I used the verbiage from Tufts: http://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2018/06/a-broken-heart-risk-of-heart-disease-in-boutique-or-grain-free-diets-and-exotic-ingredients/. I would consider some of those brands boutique, but there’s not a clear definition. Does it have to do with testing, or who does the formulation, or do they manufacture in house?
2. To be clear, one doesn’t need to fall into all 3 categories. Boutique OR exotic ingredients OR alternate ingredients seem to be associated. Again, it’s all in the information gathering phase. As you’re saying, there are a lot of unknowns.
3. Thanks for mentioning the FB groups, they are an amazing resource!
Hedy Bastian says
This is the story of Oliver, a young Golden Retriever, who was owned and loved by Julie Carter and her husband. Oliver passed away August 3, 2018 just 3 days after his 4th birthday. Oliver was diagnosed with diet related DCM and was in treatment. Unfortunately the picture of Oliver did not come forward with the text. Readers can also view this on the two Facebook groups. We read stories almost every day of new people coming to the groups with dogs that have been sickened. Oliver was fed Zignature. There is no definition of boutique, but unfortunately it is a term that has been bandied about. Please read Oliver’s story below.
Today has been a rough day. Exactly one month ago, we lost our beloved Oliver to Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM). He had just turned 4 years old and was a proud study enrolled Hero in the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study (GRLS). Oliver collapsed and died on my kitchen floor from a fatal arrhythmia. Something I now understand goes hand in hand with DCM.
Although I’m thankful that Oliver didn’t suffer, the manner in which he died was excruciatingly painful for us. Despite being less than 5 feet away when he dropped to the floor, there was nothing my husband or I could do to save him. He was gone in a matter of seconds, leaving us no time to say goodbye or accept what was happening.
DCM is a cruel and deceptive disease. From the day he was diagnosed to the day he died, Oliver looked and acted like the picture of health. He was strong, playful, energetic and completely asymptomatic. Our only clue there was a problem came when a heart murmur was detected during a GRLS vet visit. Within days, Oliver was at the cardiologist having blood work for a Taurine test (which came back at 209) and an echocardiogram. He was diagnosed with Dilated Cardiomyopathy that day and our lives were turned upside down. His cardiologist prescribed multiple cardiac medications and supplements while advising an immediate diet change. By his next meal, we began switching him to a grain inclusive, legume-free dog food and started giving him the prescribed medications and supplements.
For almost 3 years, Oliver was fed a grain-free limited ingredient kibble. The brand and type of food I chose was based on several pet store employee recommendations, as opposed to what my Veterinarian had suggested. I trusted the wrong people with my dog’s nutrition and he paid the price for my ignorance.
Oliver had his last echocardiogram the day before he died. Although his heart was still enlarged, the strength with which it was contracting had improved, leading his Cardiology team and our family to be cautiously optimistic. His heart gave us no indication of what was going to happen in less than 24 hours.
Although additional time and research is needed to determine the exact correlation between certain diets and DCM, there is no doubt dogs are now being diagnosed at an alarming rate. And, while some dogs have shown improvement with proper treatment, others like Oliver, Jax, Bruin, Abby and Harley have died, leaving their heartbroken families completely shattered.
If you believe your dog looks too healthy to have heart disease, think again. If you think your dog can’t have Taurine Deficient DCM because they aren’t acting ill, please think again. Oliver looked and acted perfectly normal until the moment he died.
Please be your dog’s advocate and spare your family the grief my family is suffering from. Educate yourself by reading everything in the FILES section on this Facebook page. Then, spread awareness wherever you go in order to help educate others. TAKE it, SHARE it and RUN with it! Together, we can be the change that will save lives.
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This whole study has me panicked. My dog, Diana, had gone for a check up about month ago and I had told our vet that she’s had a few coughs here and there and that she’s been picky and not eating her food (she’s perks up if she sees a burger but not her own food). Anyways, the vet was listening to her chest and said she “didnt hear anything that may be a cause for concern” so we left that day with a seemingly good check up (heartworm test was negative too 😀). However, now after reading this FDA study, it has me all worried. My dog is currently on Merrick Grain Free chicken and sweet potato, however since she’s been picky and not wanting to eat it lately I was planning on switching her to Canidae’s new dog food formula (Grain Free Ancestral Raw Coated Avian formula or Raw Coated fish formula). Since its raw coated I was hoping my dog would love the smell and taste of it. When I was reading the ingredients, these formulas have a lot of meat in their ingredients but they also say they contain legumes. This is what’s worrying me and I’m confused on what to do.
Dr. V says
Hi Dennis, I think it’s natural for any dog lover to be concerned. You only want Diana to be healthy, right? We know information that we didn’t even a little while ago, so I think if you’re worried you should call your vet and get her thoughts. Generally speaking, an otherwise healthy dog wouldn’t need chest c-rays, a check of taurine levels, or an echocardiogram so it wouldn’t make sense to recommend them, but with this history, if you’re concerned the only downside to testing is the cost. It’s ok to be an advocate and say “Look, I’d like to do more testing for my own peace of mind.” Good luck!
Hi Dr. V,
Thank you for your response! Indeed, as all us dog owners know, we just want the best for our furry friends. I have actually reached out to my vet since she knows Diana well to get her opinion and also mentioned the tests you specified to see what she thinks. Diana for the most part though seems fine. She wakes up in the morning wanting to play and all. I was reading up on a few things with Taurine and dog food and I’m curious on what you think of Fish formulas? Are they generally a good choice? I recall one vet in the past told me she would only feed her dogs fish formulas if they’re from a company that used high quality ingredients. The newest Canidae raw coated fish formula has several fish ingredients in it but since it’s new there isn’t really much review to go on. It’s one of the foods I’ve been thinking of switching Diana to. Although it’s grain free and includes Legumes, I’ve tried to reach out to Canidae to ask how much percentage of the food the legumes take up.
Thank you for your response by the way, I greatly appreciate it!!
Hedy Bastian says
Dennis, please go to the Facebook group Taurine Deficient Dilated Cardiomyopathy. We have a Diet and Taurine Table in the Files section of that page. It lists dogs that have been tested and the food they were on. Canidae Grain Free foods have a number of dogs in the table and some of the dogs have low taurine or DCM on Canidae. I would not risk feeding this food. There are many foods represented in the table for you to look at. The unfortunate thing is that DCM is often a silent killer. Did you read Oliver’s story. Every people are reporting sick dogs on GF diets, regardless of what the pet food industry is spinning.