I’ve Heard Something About Grain-Free and Heart Issues in Dogs. What Do I Do?

Jul 01, 2019

In July 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) alerted pet owners and veterinary professionals about reports of canine-dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating certain pet foods containing peas, lentils, other legumes, or potatoes as main ingredients. These cases were unusual because DCM was reported in breeds not typically associated with the disease.

In “typical” cases of DCM the underlying cause is unknown, but a genetic component is suspected because certain breeds are over-represented. Breeds that are more frequently affected with DCM include large- and giant-breed dogs, such as great danes, boxers, Newfoundlands, Irish wolfhounds, Saint Bernards and Doberman pinschers. Although smaller in size, American and English cocker spaniels are at increased risk for DCM.

The DCM cases that prompted the FDA alert involved “atypical’ breeds and included golden and Labrador retrievers, whippets, miniature schnauzers, mixed breeds, a Shih Tzu, and a bulldog. These dogs were reported to be eating pet foods with legumes or potatoes as main ingredients for periods ranging from months to years. High levels of legumes or potatoes are more common in “grain-free” foods.

In the mid-1990s and early 2000’s, researchers found some cocker spaniels, Newfoundlands, and a family of golden retrievers with taurine-deficiency and reversible DCM. Cardiologists searched for a common thread that tied these cases together. In some of these cases high fiber, lamb and rice meal, and very-low-protein foods were incriminated. There never was proof of a direct causal relationship between an ingredient and DCM, however, the recent FDA alert has rekindled interest in diet-related DCM.

There is no proof taurine is the cause of the current problem. However, it may be helpful to review what we know about taurine in dogs. Taurine is not an essential nutrient, in other words, dogs normally make enough taurine to meet their requirement. However, for reasons we don’t completely understand, taurine deficiency can occur. Potential causes include decreased bioavailability of taurine or it’s precursors; increased fecal or urinary losses of taurine; and altered metabolism of taurine.

Because taurine is considered non-essential, AAFCO doesn't have a recommended level. Because some dogs have reversible dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) associated with taurine deficiency, the taurine level in therapeutic heart diets is roughly between 0.14% DM and 0.18% DM. The rationale for these levels in a therapeutic food is that taurine may be "conditionally essential" in dogs with cardiomyopathy. By comparison the taurine levels in iVet’s Coldwater Culinary Grain Free diets range from 0.22% DM to 0.25% DM. These high levels of taurine are achieved because of the amount of high-quality salmon in the diet.

Typical grain-free diets use exotic protein sources as well as non-grain carbohydrate sources such as peas and potatoes. Most grain-free diets use multiple protein sources to reduce cost. The nutritional content of some of these exotic proteins is poorly understood or inconsistent from batch to batch. iVet’s Coldwater Culinary grain-free diets were formulated to be helpful in addressing allergies and intolerances rather than solely to meet consumer demand for grain-free. Consequently, the iVet grain-free diets remain one of the few grain free diets on the market that use a single source meat protein (salmon).

Another reason you can recommend Coldwater Culinary Grain-Free diets with confidence is iVet’s excellent product safety and surveillance systems. The cornerstone of the surveillance system is that all iVet products are fed under veterinary supervision. If you have questions or comments please feel free to contact me at the email address below.


Timothy A. Allen, DVM, DACVIM (SAIM)