Are grain-free dog foods really causing heart disease in dogs?
The FDA seems to think so … and they’ve finally named the top brands associated with DCM (dilated cardiomyopathy).
You can skip ahead and see the top brands associated with DCM … but you might want to learn more first.
The Link Between Dog Foods And DCM
The FDA recently updated their investigation into the recent spike in DCM cases. From July 2018 through 2019, over 500 dogs have been affected by DCM. And the FDA has concluded most of those dogs were eating a grain-free diet.
DCM is a life-threatening heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy. Dogs with DCM develop an enlarged heart with weakening of the muscles. The heart becomes less able to circulate blood and, over time, fluid builds up in the lungs.
DCM is the most common cause of congestive heart failure, which can cause death within months. DCM is irreversible and worsens with time, although treatment can slow the progression.
Taurine Isn’t Essential (Until It Is)
Protein in the diet comes from either animal sources or plants. The source of the protein determines the value to the animal eating it.
A protein molecule is a chain of amino acids held together by peptide bonds.
Amino acids are essential for all living cells. They’re used to regulate metabolism, and for tissue growth and repair.
Amino acid deficiency has an adverse effect on all the organs of the body, and on the mucosal function and permeability of the gut. When gut permeability is increased, immune function can be affected.
This is called leaky gut syndrome.
There are 22 amino acids in total, each of which is important for dogs and cats to thrive. Ten of these amino acids are considered essential for dogs and 11 of them for cats.
By definition, non-essential amino acids can be manufactured in the liver. Essential amino acids can’t be manufactured in the body, so they must be in the diet.
But in the case of taurine, this distinction is a bit blurred …
History Of Taurine In Pet Foods
A few decades ago, pet food manufacturers started extruding pet foods. Extrusion is a process of high heat and pressure. It gives kibble it’s kibble form and stops it from crumbling. A large amount of carbohydrate (at least 30%) is normally needed for food to be extruded.
And carbohydrate is virtually devoid of taurine.
Back in the 70s, cats started developing serious eye and heart diseases. By the late 80s, pet food regulators identified a lack of taurine in the carbohydrate-rich foods as the cause.
Taurine is an amino acid that’s necessary for the development and function of the heart and muscle cells. It also plays an important role in eye, brain and immune function.
So in the 80s, taurine became the 11th essential amino acid for cats.
Unlike cats, dogs can manufacture their own taurine from other amino acids. So pet food makers don’t consider taurine to be an essential amino acid for dogs.
But recently, the FDA discovered that some large breeds, including Great Danes, Retrievers, Doberman Pinschers and Irish Wolfhounds, can’t manufacture enough taurine when fed a diet that’s low in animal protein.
They developed the same heart disease, cardiomyopathy, that was killing cats.
Although cardiomyopathy can happen in any breed of dog, these particular dogs had their heart disease partially reversed by adding taurine to the diet.
“Complete And Balanced” Is An Illusion
Over the last 30 or 40 years, our food preferences have changed dramatically.
In the 80s we wanted fat-free foods. Then in the 90s we wanted grain-free or gluten-free foods. Then in 2000 we wanted high-protein and paleo foods. Today we want farm-to-table, novel proteins, and even vegetarian and vegan diets.
The foods we feed our pets are largely based on our own food choices.
While we change our minds about what we want to eat, the pet food companies are happy to cater to us … they sell us what we think we want.
And while our nutrition preferences change, the formulation and ingredients in pet foods change with them.
The problem is, there haven’t been any significant changes to the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) nutrient requirements for dogs and cats.
With all the new diets and novel ingredients that have appeared in the last 20 to 30 years, AAFCO hasn’t been able to keep up with the changes … and this increases the risk of nutritional deficiencies.
So it’s important to note that the dogs with DCM that the FDA is investigating today were all eating AAFCO-approved foods labelled as “Complete and Balanced.”
Enter The Grain-Free Diet
Of the dogs that developed DCM, the FDA found that 91% were eating a grain-free diet.
And 93% of the grain-free diets contained peas and/or lentils.
Why is this significant?
Grain-free diets don’t contain the cereal grains we like to avoid (like corn, rice and barley) … but they contain large amounts of peas, potatoes, lentils and legumes. This is because an alternate form of starch is needed for kibbles to be extruded.
But unlike cereal grains, peas, lentils and legumes are all high in protein.
This means that grain-free pet foods can skimp on expensive animal proteins and use larger amounts of cheap plant proteins in their place.
And because plant proteins are devoid of taurine, dog foods might be deficient in taurine, just like cat foods were 40 years ago.
Especially foods using novel ingredients.
RELATED: How Pet Foods Hide Crappy Proteins …
What Dog Food Brands Are Associated With DCM?
The FDA recently published the 16 brands of pet food that were linked to greater than 10 cases of DCM in dogs.
Here are the brands the FDA is focusing on and the number of cases for each brand:
Acana – 67
Zignature – 64
Taste of the Wild – 53
4Health – 32
Earthborn Holistic – 32
Blue Buffalo – 31
Nature’s Domain – 29
Fromm – 24
California Natural -15
Natural Balance -15
Nature’s Variety – 11
MutriSource – 10
Nutro – 10
Rachael Ray Nutrish – 10
But before you avoid those foods and move on, there’s more you need to understand about taurine.
A Twist On Taurine
Not all of the dogs that developed DCM from grain-free foods had low levels of taurine.
That’s because dogs can manufacture taurine from other amino acids, including methionine and cysteine. So inadequate levels of other important amino acids might be the real culprit in some cases.
According to veterinarian Dr Jean Hofve, gut health also impacts the levels of taurine in the body:
“The microbiome may also play a major role in taurine deficiency. This was found to be the primary factor in cats. The taurine from bile is re-absorbed in the colon, but bacteria can “steal” taurine and prevent this crucial recycling. Processing may also play a significant role, as it also does in cats. This has not, to date, been considered or investigated.”
So taurine deficiency might be a multi-pronged issue.
With that said, it simply comes down to the quality of the diet.
So let’s take a look at how you can feed a diet that decreases the risk of taurine deficiency in your dog.
What Are The Safest Foods For My Dog?
It’s not entirely accurate to say grain-free foods are the cause of DCM. This would imply that grain-filled foods are a better choice.
But grains and starches are all associated with gut dysbiosis, obesity, chronic inflammation and more.
The real problem is the use of plant-based protein to replace animal protein. Plant proteins are devoid of taurine.
But foods with animal proteins can also contain lower levels of taurine and you need to be aware of this.
Here are my top tips for avoiding taurine deficiency in your dog:
- Feed a large amount of animal protein.
Most animal protein is rich in taurine, so the best diet to feed is one that’s based on animal proteins. The best diet to feed is a raw diet, since it’s very low in starch.
But there are exceptions …
- Not all protein is rich in taurine.
Taurine is found in most animal proteins, but some sources are better than others.
Poultry, fish, brain, heart and liver are good sources of taurine.
Hooved animals (beef, lamb and goat), eggs and dairy contain lower amounts. So if you’re feeding your dog a beef-based raw diet without enough organ meats, your dog might not be getting enough taurine.
So be sure to add plenty of heart, liver and brain to your dog’s raw diet … especially if you’re feeding beef, lamb or goat.
And if you home cook your dog’s food, heating and processing can reduce the amount of taurine in animal proteins.
- Identify free amino acids in foods.
If your dog’s food is low in animal proteins, it’s a poor-quality, cheap diet.
But how can you tell?
Foods with low-quality proteins will be missing key amino acids … and they’ll be added back in as synthetic (or free) amino acids.
These are chemicals that are made in a lab, not in nature.
Here’s an ingredient panel with several added amino acids (underlined in red):
You want your dog to get real amino acids from his food, not fake ones made in a lab. So avoid feeding any food with added amino acids … it’s a sign of low amounts of animal protein.
It’s a cheap food with cheap ingredients. Move on …
- Avoid foods with lentils, legumes and potatoes.
Peas, lentils, legumes and potatoes are a convenient way for kibble makers to replace animal proteins with cheap plant proteins.
Any food that contains these ingredients is a poor-quality food and, even if your dog isn’t at risk for DCM, he may be lacking other key nutrients when fed these foods.
These foods are also high in phytic acid.
Phytic acid can inhibit the absorption of critical nutrients including manganese, iron, calcium and phosphorus, and can limit the retention of manganese in the body.
Is Your Dog Deficient In Taurine?
If your dog has been eating a grain-free kibble, he won’t necessarily develop DCM.
With that said, there’s no better time to switch your dog to an animal-protein-rich diet than today!
But if you’re concerned your dog is deficient in taurine, especially if you have one of the breeds most frequently affected, there’s hope …
You can ask your vet to check your dog’s taurine levels and even get an echocardiogram to be sure.
For now, the best way to avoid taurine deficiency is to feed your dog a fresh, whole food, meat-based diet … including organs like heart, liver, kidney and lung.
Dana Scott is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Dogs Naturally Magazine and CEO of Four Leaf Rover, a high end natural supplement company. She also breeds award winning Labrador Retrievers under the Fallriver prefix. Dana has been a raw feeding, natural rearing breeder since the 90’s and is a sought after speaker and outspoken advocate for natural health care for dogs and people. Dana works tirelessly to educate pet owners so they can influence veterinary medicine and change current vaccine, food and preventive health practices.