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Grain-Free Dog Foods Linked to Canine Heart Disease

Increasing numbers of dog have been developing nonhereditary heart disease that has been linked to diets that are free of grain and high in legumes like peas and lentils. DCM or Dilated Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle that leads to heart enlargement and weakness with reduced ability to pump blood, DCM will lead to congestive heart failure. DCM is usually found in genetically predisposed breed such as Newfoundland, Irish Wolfhounds, and Great Danes and less frequently in small and medium breeds, but recently dogs that do not usually get DCM are becoming sick due to these boutique, grain free and home cooked diets.

Highly unusual cases have been occurring more frequently in breeds where there is no breed predilection and veterinarians have noticed that these dogs have been eating exotic diets or diets that are grain free. Studies performed by the FDA and cardiologists at veterinary colleges including UC Davis and Tufts University have confirmed that there is a link between legume rich, grain free foods and canine heart disease. The problem is complex and we as a profession do not understand everything about why the disease occurs. We do know that boutique companies, exotic ingredients, grain free diets including vegan, vegetarian, and raw meat diets have been linked to these dogs with DCM. In one study peas showed the greatest association of over 800 different compounds that were looked at, but we do not know if peas themselves are actually causing the problem. Veterinarians at Elko Veterinary Clinic have a diagnosed patient with DCM that were eating exclusively grain free foods high in Lentil content.

The good news with diet related DCM is that many dogs respond to treatment and recover when their diet is changed. Dogs with hereditary DCM do not recover with treatment and diet change and usually have a short survival time. The unique characteristic about dogs with diet-associated DCM having improved survivability and significant improvement by changing the diet suggests that the diet is the problem and can also be part of the solution. If your dog is eating a grain free food, it is a good idea to have your veterinarian advise you on changing to a different diet.

Taurine is a nutrient that when deficient can cause DCM. Many byproducts that come from organ meat like kidney, liver and heart are very high in taurine and are often excluded from exotic diets. Another reputable source for finding a safe and healthy dog food is the World Small Animal Veterinary Association ( The bottom line is feed your best friend a diet and a brand of food that have stood the test of time and have been available for years. Often times the hype about grain free or exotic food is not worth the risk and majority of pets do not need a “grain free” diet.

Signs of DCM can occur very suddenly as the heart can no longer keep up the flow to provide tissues with needed oxygen. Unfortunately, DCM is often not diagnosed until congestive heart failure sign begin. Most dogs have shortness of breath or increased respiratory rate, exercise intolerance, coughing, fainting and fluid distention of the abdomen. The most helpful method of home monitoring is by observing your dog’s breathing. Learn how to measure your dog’s resting respiration rate. Normal respiratory rate is 36 breaths per minute and an increase of 20% in one day is cause for concern. There is even a smart phone app called Cardalis that can make this monitoring easy.

Diagnosis of DCM and be made with screening test allowing earlier treatment. Elko Veterinary Clinic uses electrocardiography (ECG), echocardiographs, serum biomarkers such as troponin, NT-proBNP. Genetic testing can also be done on some predisposed breed like Doberman Pinchers and Boxers. Preventing diet associated DCM is key and can mean life or death. Avoiding diets that have been linked to DCM is critical. Early diagnosis and treatment are also critical in cases where prevention has failed.

For our cat lovers there is good news: DCM can be but is rarely diagnosed in cats. If you are concerned that the food you are feeding your dog may not be healthy and safe, please schedule a nutritional consultation appointment with your veterinarian right away and ask if DCM screening tests are indicated.

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