Horses & Hounds: Is Your Dog At Risk For Heart Disease? — The Grain-Free Debate

Published: April 14, 2019 at 07:00 am


A topic garnering major news headlines in recent times is the grain-free/boutique diet trend and the possible connection of heart disease. According to the Food and Drug Administration, “dogs that are fed ‘grain free’ food based on lentils, potatoes, and peas” are developing an unusual condition that can cause an enlarged heart.

The condition, called canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), is more prevalent in certain breeds, but it’s also showing up in breeds that are not usually susceptible. Some breeds of dog have a genetic predisposition to cardiomyopathy and include, boxers, Doberman Pinschers Great Danes, Newfoundlands, and St Bernards. However, some of the cases reported to the FDA have included mixed breeds, a bulldog, shitzu, golden retrievers, labrador retrievers, miniature schnauzers, and whippets.

Dr Martine Hartogensis, representing the FDA, said, “We are concerned about reports of canine heart disease, known as dilated cardiomyopathy, in dogs that ate certain pet foods containing peas, lentils, other legumes, or potatoes as their main ingredients.”

Dr Hartogensis further went on to say that, “The FDA is investigating the potential link between DCM and these foods. We encourage pet owners and veterinarians to report DCM cases in dogs who are not predisposed to the disease.”

Dogs with the DCM disease have developed an enlarged heart, which then struggles to function properly. They can develop congestive heart failure, which can be fatal. Symptoms of DCM include lethargy, weight loss, and sometimes a cough. With the appropriate veterinary care and treatment, the heart function may improve in cases that are not linked to genetic predispositions.

It’s important to note that the early reports from the veterinary cardiology community indicate that the dogs consistently ate diets labeled as “grain-free” for their primary source of nutrition for time periods ranging from months to years. High levels of legumes or potatoes appear to be more common in diets labeled as “grain-free,” but it is not yet known how these ingredients are linked to cases of DCM.

While the FDA has not named brands, it appears that the ingredients are more important than the brands. The dogs affected by DCM appear to have been fed certain types of pet foods. One possible explanation is a deficiency of taurine, an amino acid — a building block of protein — that is essential for most carnivores. A taurine deficiency is well-documented in felines as potentially leading to DCM, but now we are seeing a steady rise in canines.

Diets consisting of lentils, peas, legumes, other “pulses” (such as seeds of legumes), and their fiber, starch, and protein derivatives indicated as the foods main ingredients are the ones that have been reported to the FDA. Any changes in diets for dogs with DCM should be made in consolation with a licensed veterinarian.

The investigative study regarding the grain-free diet issue was conducted by Doctors Stern, Fascetti, Kaplan, and Larsen at UC-Davis, and they recommended the following protocol for dogs affected by DCM:

*Evaluate the diet that you are feeding your pet. If the diet is boutique, contains exotic ingredients, or is grain-free, you may consider a diet change to one without these properties. Talk to your veterinarian about the FDA announcement and what diet may be best for your dog.

*If you are concerned about your dog based on what you are feeding, watch closely for signs of heart disease such as weakness, slowing down on walks, coughing, fainting, or trouble breathing. Your veterinarian may also recognize early heart disease by hearing a heart murmur or abnormal heart rhythms. If you observe these things or your veterinarian is concerned, additional testing may be indicated, such as X-rays, blood tests, EKG, or heart ultrasound (echocardiogram).

If your dog is diagnosed with DCM, particularly if eating a diet that meets the criteria listed above:

*Ask your veterinarian to test blood taurine levels;

*Report the findings to the FDA;

*Change your dog’s diet, as directed by your veterinarian’s recommendations;

*Ask your veterinarian to help you identify a dose for taurine supplementation;

*Seek guidance from a veterinary cardiologist.

It’s important that when selecting a diet, you research a healthy nutrient profile that is backed by expert formulation and research is for your canine pal. Your veterinarian will always be your best source of information when it comes to your best friend. Give them a call.

Margaret A. Reed, PhD, is the coauthor of the best-selling book The Dogs of Camelot, an AKC dog show judge, thoroughbred racehorse owner, principal of Canine Training and Behavior Services LLC, and she serves on the board of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, James A Baker Institute for Animal Health.

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