Grain-free diets may do your dog or cat more harm than good

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.

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Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami.

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!

Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami. Her website is Send questions to