DCM and the Grain-Free Connection

DCM and the Grain-Free Connection

Canine nutrition, a topic that can inspire strangers to discuss with each other the size of their dog’s poop, and the frequency of their flatulence, and equally rouse the likes of keyboard warriors when it comes to what is best for the pups. When discussing doggy dinnertime, even well-intended advice can often draw a sting from the recipient. Why is this? Just like other topics that concern the well-being of our furry friends like debunking training myths, fear free philosophy, and ditching painful collars, absolutely no adoring owner wants to hear that someone thinks they are doing their dog a disservice.

In July, when the Food and Drug Administration announced that it’s investigating a link between canine grain-free diets and a type of heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), I was both worried for the pups, and felt for the owners. I was relieved to see that others share my sentiment. In the dog groups and forums I frequent, I saw no fingers pointed, but rather support. Most owners who feed grain-free spend the extra cash because they believe that they are going above and beyond in providing excellent quality nutrition to their very, very loved best friends. Hearing about the possible connection between grain-free and DCM caught so many of us off guard. Here is what you need to know about the current grain-free controversy:

What spurred the investigation?

CVCA, a large veterinary cardiology practice serving the Baltimore-Washington metro area took note of a disturbing trend. They were seeing an increase in cases of DCM. Not only was the number of cases steadily growing, many of these cases were appearing in breeds that aren’t genetically predisposed to the condition. What did many of these dogs have in common? Diets high legumes and/or potatoes. These ingredients replace grains in almost all grain-free dog food formulas, including the expensive boutique varieties.

What is DCM?

A cardiomyopathy is a disease that affects the heart muscle. Dilated cardiomyopathy, DCM, affects the heart muscle in that it causes an enlarged heart. When the heart is dilated, it goes from being a dense, strong muscle to being stretched thin with drastically weakened contractions. The heart is no longer able to pump blood effectively. The body overworks itself to compensate for the poor blood flow, but ultimately, the heart valves begin to leak, which causes a buildup of fluids in the chest and abdomen, and heart failure develops.

DCM is predominately genetic with large breeds most often affected. Although treatment options in genetic cases of DCM only slow the progression of the disease, if caught early in cases that are not linked to genetics, such as the nutritional DCM we’re discussing, heart function may improve with treatment and dietary modification.

Why do grain-free diets cause DCM?

Unfortunately, there not a simple answer. In fact, it’s still not clear if diet is actually causing this rise in cases of DCM. What we do know is that there is a rise in cases of non-genetic DCM and that a similarity in many of the cases is a grain-free diet. However, correlation does not imply causation and the issue simply needs to be studied for a longer period of time with a larger sample size in order to come to a conclusion.

In some of these cases, a taurine deficiency seems to be the culprit. The link between taurine deficiency and DCM is well-documented. It’s the same phenomena that led to the addition of taurine into cat food. Why cats and not dogs? Cats are obligate carnivores. There are nutrients that their bodies cannot produce on their own, like taurine. They must eat animal flesh to get these nutrients and survive. Dogs are scavenging, or facultative carnivores. They have developed the ability to produce their own taurine so that they can survive on plant material alone if necessary. However, they thrive on a balanced diet of quality animal protein and nutritious plant sources. Their intestinal length, and genes related to starch and glucose digestion also set them apart from cats and are indicative of this very important difference.

However, some breeds are better at producing their own taurine than others. Notably, taurine deficiency has been studied in Cocker Spaniels since the mid 90s. In the wake of this spike in DCM cases, many Golden Retrievers who have been diagnosed with DCM have been testing as taurine deficient. Whether it is something about legumes and/or potatoes that is inhibiting taurine synthesis, or lower bioavailability of taurine in exotic meat sources common in grain-free foods – think bison, kangaroo, even duck and lamb, has yet to be determined. Other breeds we know are susceptible to taurine deficiency are Newfoundlands, St. Bernards, English Setters, Irish Wolfhounds, and Portuguese Water Dogs. Feeding these already vulnerable breeds a food that for some reason is interfering with taurine production is a double-whammy.

To complicate matters, in a large percentage of these non-genetic DCM cases, the dogs’ taurine levels are registering as normal. Again, we just don’t have enough information yet to conclusively say exactly what is leading to this increase in DCM. However, as dog owners, I feel that we can’t just ignore that grain-free foods, often with exotic proteins, seem to be a theme.

What can you do to prevent nutritional DCM?

Letting your vet know your concerns about DCM and the grain-free connection is a smart move. They will be able to offer valuable insight when it comes to your specific situation. We will be keeping our eye on the research and will be sure to let you know when more information becomes available. Until then we suggest that you:

Reevaluate feeding grain-free

I urge everyone to reevaluate why they are feeding their dog a grain-free diet. Please keep in mind that whole grains are nutritious, mineral-rich, and often protein-rich food sources that can absolutely be a great part of a balanced canine diet. Marketing can be a powerful tool. It’s easy to forget that in most grain-free foods, the grains are being replaced with legumes and/or potatoes which aren’t necessarily nutritionally superior, especially when consumed daily in high quantities. The bottom line is that none of these foods are ‘bad’. However, the DCM scare should be enough to push owners to consider shelving grain-free foods or adding variety until more research is completed.

This being said, there are plenty of valid reasons to feed-grain free. Dogs, like people, are unique, and different dogs will thrive on different diets. Some dogs are sensitive to grains, however this is actually rare. Beef is by far the most common canine allergen, followed by other proteins and then dairy. Wheat sensitivities are uncommon. This misconception often arises because dogs can develop an allergy to their main protein source after years of consumption. In fact, the lack of variety is often what leads to the allergy developing. When owners go grain free, many times this changes up the protein source, alleviating the protein allergy, but it appears that switching from grains was the answer.

Diversify your dog’s diet

To help prevent allergies and minimize the risk for this dietary DCM, consider rotating through foods. One brand that makes this easy for owners is Fromm. Fromm’s Four-Star recipe line is a great option that has interchangeable formulas. The average, healthy dog will have no trouble switching through their recipes and will love the variety. Who would enjoy eating the same thing day in and day out anyway? They have both grain-free and grain-included options. Swapping through these formulas can help you provide your dog a balanced, nutritious diet that is safeguarded from deficiencies. We carry Fromm at the Lodge (see what we offer here) and are happy to assist you in choosing food for your dog if you stop in during our regular business hours.

Increase taurine consumption

If grain-free has been a godsend for your pup, don’t worry. Take a deep breath and remember nothing has been definitively proven yet. You have options. Do you feed, or would you consider feeding a grain-free option with a common protein (think beef or chicken)? Since it’s unclear whether it’s the grains, exotic proteins, or a mixture of both that may be causing DCM, this could possibly help. Also consider fortifying your dog’s diet with taurine-rich treats. Tripe, the lining from the stomach of cattle and sheep, is an excellent source of taurine.

We’re carrying three types of tripe treats at the Lodge:

-Vital Essentials Freeze Dried Beef Tripe Treats

-Barkworthies Tripe Twists

-Wag Wholesome Dog Treats Premium Cuts Tripe