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Bismarck Animal Clinic and Hospital

Grain-Free Diets and Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) in Dogs

A large black dog eating from a bowl of food inside

Selecting a diet for your pet is a big decision, and we as pet owners can base it on a variety of factors – experience, word of mouth, availability, perceived value, and cost are a few. Grain-free diets have gained popularity over the last several years. Reasons for this may include influence from marketing; additionally a pet owner may start their dog on a grain-free diet due to concern regarding food allergies.

Within the last two years, an atypical presentation of the heart condition Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) has been noted in dogs. DCM is a heart condition in which the heart muscle walls stretch and dilate, leading to a poorly-functioning heart. The condition typically results in the development of congestive heart failure. There are certain breeds of dogs for which this condition has a genetic predisposition.

However, veterinarians were noting the condition in dogs of ages and breeds outside of what is typically found. Through work and efforts led by University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, an association was found between grain-free diets and these dogs, to the extent that when the diet was changed to one that was not grain-free, the heart condition improved or resolved within six months.

What is, or is not, in the grain-free diets that may predispose these dogs to DCM is being investigated by UC Davis. There may be individual factors that contribute to this condition. In some situations, the amino acid taurine has been implicated. We know that taurine is needed for proper heart health – in fact, the incidence of DCM in cats dropped dramatically in the 1980s when it was recognized that cats need this amino acid supplemented in their diets. Taurine is also important for retinal health.

In some situations, the taurine level in the grain-free diet has been appropriate and DCM has still developed. Researchers are working out what the link may be, whether it is the ability for taurine to be absorbed properly or other factors altogether.

At our practice, for dogs that are eating grain-free diets but are not exhibiting signs of heart problems, we are simply recommending the dog transitions to a diet that is not grain-free. Often the best way to do this is to select a food within the same family or brand of diets that is not grain-free. If this is not possible, selecting a diet that has the same main protein source is suggested.

Regarding food allergies in dogs, it is nearly always a protein that is causing the allergy, so this is the most important dietary consideration for dogs with food allergies. To further complicate things, there is often cross-contamination from a variety of proteins within a particular over the counter diet. Traces of proteins not even listed on the bag can often be found when ELISA testing is done. How much this matters for an individual dog will depend on the severity of their food allergy, if any. If you are concerned about allergies in your dog, please speak with your veterinarian. He or she will guide you through an appropriate food trial, and also discuss environmental allergies with you.

We are finding in our day to day conversations with clients that the association between grain-free diets and DCM in dogs is something that many people have not yet been made aware of, so I do thank you for taking the time to review this article, and I’d like to think your dog does as well.

If you have any questions, please reach out to us at the clinic. Thank you!

Hollee Kubik, DVM

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