Recently, dog lovers have become worried about heart disease and their canine companions. Why? Because the FDA is investigating a possible link between grain-free dog food and dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).
This hit dog owners hard — especially those who choose to feed grain-free. If you’ve been scanning headlines on dog food and DCM, you may be tempted to haul those big bags of grain-free kibble back to the store to demand guidance.
Of course you want to feed your pooch in the best way possible — and you’re smart to think carefully about your dog’s daily dining. But the FDA’s look into whether DCM is caused by dog food isn’t necessarily helpful in making an informed choice (yet). Let’s break it down.
What’s DCM anyway?
DCM is a disease of the cardiac muscle. It causes the heart’s chambers to become dilated and weak, diminishing its ability to pump blood through your dog’s body. It’s a serious condition that often goes undiagnosed until it’s too late to resolve. Most dogs diagnosed with DCM live just 6 months past diagnosis.
Definitely take your dog’s heart health seriously. If your dog is coughing, breathing heavily, or suddenly stops wanting to play, you should talk to your veterinarian. Better to talk to your vet early if you notice these possible symptoms of DCM in dogs.
How worried should I be about DCM in my dogs?
While you should take your dog’s heart health seriously, don’t get overly worried about DCM in dogs. DCM is typically a genetic disease in which some breeds are known to be more susceptible than others.
Rarely do small or medium breeds suffer DCM, though Cocker Spaniels are susceptible. It is mainly seen in large breeds like:
- Great Danes
- Irish Wolfhounds
- Saint Bernards
- Doberman Pinschers
But just because you have a Cocker or a big dog doesn’t mean you’re headed for heart disease. It sounds scary, I know — but bear in mind that DCM affects less than 1% of dogs.
So, what’s all the fuss about, then?
In the FDA study, 33% of the dogs affected by heart disease were Golden Retrievers, a breed not usually thought to be susceptible to DCM. But at the same time, not all pups in the study on grain-free dog food developed DCM, and some that did were breeds known to be at higher risk.
The FDA may be detecting unique interactions between dog food ingredients, nutrient levels, and individual dogs. Think of it like a perfect storm — one not all that likely to hit any particular dog.
If you still want to take extra precautions, it’s not that hard to ease your fears about grain-free dog food and cardiomyopathy. Here are some things you can think about:
Re-look at your dog’s food. If your dog has been eating grain-free for years, and especially if you use dry kibble, it’s easy to have your vet check your pet for cardiac murmur or other signs of heart disease.
- Keep an eye on your dog’s health. If you notice any coughing, labored breathing, lethargy, or decreased willingness to engage in activity, get your dog examined sooner than later.
If your vet does detect early signs of DCM, discuss a holistic dog food plan with your vet that includes a look at taurine levels and possible supplementation for taurine deficiency if warranted.
Should I just give my dog a taurine supplement?
Meat contains natural taurine that can help your dog’s heart stay healthy. Logic implies that in order to feed your pup the best dog food to avoid DCM, the food needs to incorporate taurine gleaned from meat. And by meat, we mean meat — plant proteins don’t have taurine.
But at this time, the benefit-to-risk profile of adding a taurine supplement into a healthy dog’s diet is unknown. While risks may be low, there is no specific dose to recommend as a preventative to DCM in dogs.
In the FDA study, not all dogs with DCM were taurine deficient or responded to supplemental taurine — but most did. If your dog is diagnosed with DCM, your vet can suggest the proper dose for your dog’s weight and diet. Do not give your dog extra taurine without veterinary guidance.
Ok, so what’s the best dog food to avoid DCM?
The fact is that there’s no proven correlation between grain-free dog food and DCM. It’s not yet possible to choose dog foods that prevent DCM. Long story short, if your dog is doing fine on the food you currently use, there’s no need to make a sudden change.
If you DO wish to make a change, judge your dog’s food content holistically — not on whether it’s grain-free or grain friendly. Remember, the biggest health risk for dogs is being overweight. High carb foods can result in insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes, and other health problems that are far more common than DCM in dogs.
If you really want a simple rule of thumb upon which to address your fears about dog food and DCM, consider this: Choose a fresh, all natural meat-forward formula in which 90% of the protein is derived from meat ingredients.
Why? The FDA’s findings suggest that any potential DCM caused by dog food may be linked to dry food. More than 90% of DCM cases in the study were in dogs eating dry food. We already know that dry dog kibble:
- Strips natural taurines from meat ingredients in processing
- Replaces meat ingredients with plant content that lacks taurine
A Pup Above is a good example of a meat-forward dog food, available in both grain-free and grain friendly profiles. A Pup Above recipes are only 4 to 5% carbohydrates, making them a good high meat, low carb choice.
Just because we’ve been conditioned to think of dog food as kibble, and kibble as dog food doesn’t make it so — and doesn’t make it healthy, either. So, try imagining your dog’s food differently!
What about avoiding BEG foods?
BEG, an acronym made from Boutique, Exotic, and Grain-free, is used by some to guide “healthy” dog food choices. But BEG isn’t helpful in choosing the best dog food to avoid DCM, even in light of the FDA study. Here’s why:
Boutique: Avoiding specialty brands isn’t helpful as the FDA list contains foods from large, well-known producers like Iams, Purina, and Kirkland.
Exotic: Avoiding unusual meats, like buffalo, isn’t helpful since the meats in the FDA study were mostly chicken, lamb, and salmon.
- Grain-free: Not all of the FDA’s DCM cases were dogs on grain-free dog food, and some cases improved when dogs were switched from one grain-free food to another.
We all love to have easy rules that make our choices simple. But choosing the best dog food means gaining a holistic understanding of the nutrition it delivers, and what ingredients deliver that nutrition.
What matters is getting 90% of the protein in your dog’s food from meat and watching your dog’s carbs. Many dry formulas are loaded with carbs, grain-free or not. Conventional dry foods can exceed 40 to 50% carbohydrate content.
But, hold on — will the advice on dog food and DCM change?
Rest assured that industry partners and veterinarians are collaborating with the FDA to identify whether DCM caused by dog food is an emerging problem that requires attention or not.
It is wise to stay informed about the latest learnings about dog health and diet while keeping perspective. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that out of at least 77 million dogs in the United States, we have less than 600 cases of DCM in dogs reported in the last 2 years.
Meanwhile, grain-free dog food products have been on the market for more than 20 years and make up about 40% of dog food formulas sold. So, we know that many, many pups have been eating grain-free dog food for years without developing DCM.
At the same time, dog food research continues to evolve. If there is an emerging disease problem, staying informed will help you make great choices for the dog you love — from Great Dane to Chihuahua and everything in between.