Q: I recently received a letter from my dog’s cardiologist alerting me to the possibility that some grain-free foods might cause heart muscle problems. Gopher has a heart condition he developed early in life and he’s been getting a special grain-free diet ever since. Now, it seems like going grain-free might not have been the best idea. It would be nice if you could let others know before their dogs develop problems.
A: Thank you for helping to disseminate this information. This past year, a team of researchers published a paper raising the possibility that some grain-free foods might lead to changes in the heart muscle. The low levels of the amino acid taurine in these diets may have predisposed these dogs to a cardiac disease known as dilated cardiomyopathy.
Though the level of evidence they presented is as yet considered low, some of the members of this team are well-respected pioneers in the research that made the crucial connection between taurine deficiency and cardiomyopathy in cats (research that ultimately prevented millions of cats from developing a deadly heart disease).
The fact that these cardiologists are raising yellow flags has led the FDA to issue a warning urging dog owners to exercise caution when feeding grain-free diets exclusively. Some cardiologists have suggested that this is a problem more specific to golden retrievers, others suggest it’s about legume-based diets, but urge all dog owners feeding grain-free diets to pay attention.
The diets most implicated include Acana Pork and Squash Singles diet, Nutrisource Grain-Free, and another diet comprised of kangaroo and red lentil. Nonetheless, all dog owners should be aware that this is not yet about specific brands or ingredients. All grain-free diets are potentially suspect.
Here are the current recommendations for dogs being fed these diets:
▪ Dogs who have no current heart symptoms (coughing or exercise intolerance, primarily), should immediately have their diet changed to one that includes grains.
▪ If heart disease is suspected for dogs eating these diets, taurine levels can be checked and echocardiograms performed.
▪ For owners who prefer not to change their dogs’ diets, taurine levels can be checked to be sure they’re getting enough of it.
▪ For owners who elect not to change their dogs’ food or elect taurine level testing, taurine can be supplemented. Ask your veterinarian for the right dosage!