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Grain free food linked to specific heart disease in dogs

You might have seen headlines about grain free food lately contributing to a heart disease in dogs called DCM. What’s up with that?

The grain free fad was started a few years ago by marketing companies who make pet food. There was never any real science to back it up, but pet owners jumped on board, under the impression it’s more “natural.” Personally, I’m not a fan -it tends to be higher in calorie (not helpful for overweight pets), and many dogs and cats have lovely intermittent diarrhea while on it. I do have a handful of patients that are on it, not obese, and doing great, so I can’t complain about those. But natural notions aside, here’s some other common misconceptions about grain-free food:

Grain free food is low carb
Some grain free foods are low carb, and others have a higher carbohydrate count than traditional foods. There’s as much variability with grain free as there is with traditional foods.

Grain free food is hypo-allergenic
Having a pet with food allergies is frustrating, to say the least. So if a website swears that grain free food will give your pet relief, you’re on board! However, the most common food allergens are the protein sources: Beef, dairy, chicken, and egg. (Some cats are allergic to fish). Grains account for less than 5% of food allergic pets. So it is not impossible for your pet to have a grain allergy, (somebody has to be in that 5%, right?) but very unlikely. To boot, most pets are allergic to multiple ingredients, not just one. Because life just can’t ever be simple.

About a year ago, we veterinarians started hearing rumblings from our colleagues in cardiology – they were noticing a dramatic increase in a specific type of heart disease called DCM – Dilated CardioMyopathy. This disease typically affects large breed dogs, and is not overly common. When I was in vet school 10+ years ago, the cardiology department saw only a handful of cases of DCM a year.  Since the grain free fad started a few years ago, it has taken years for these problems to develop and for patterns to be established. We’re just now seeing these patterns emerge. When veterinary cardiologists started noticing a dramatic increase in DCM, and they began the search for a cause.

Golden retrievers are one breed that is prone to DCM.

The current theory is that grain free diets affect the body’s ability to metabolize or store taurine. This is a molecule that makes up protein, and a lack of it can promote development of…you guessed it…DCM. The number of cases diagnosed with this in the past year has been dramatically higher than typical rates of this disease. And the dogs being diagnosed with it have one thing in common – a grain free diet.

Specialists are currently trying to determine if certain grain substitutes promote the development of DCM more than others (are legumes worse or better than tapioca?). A year ago, it was just talk among veterinarians, but in the past month, mainstream national news has picked up the story. (You’ve probably seen a blurb somewhere).

The current recommendation from veterinary nutrition specialists and cardiologists is to avoid grain free diets, particularly in large breed dogs or cocker spaniels, the breeds most prone to DCM. We don’t know why some dogs develop this condition and others do not. (Why do some dogs get chronic diarrhea from grain free food and others don’t?) We still are trying to nail down the specifics. In the meantime, better safe than sorry.