Dr. Jon's Fireside Chat

Straight from the Victorian chair of Animal Mansion's living room, Dr. Jon takes a moment to share with you information regarding your pet and their overall well being. 


is there a link between grain-free diets and heart disease?

Over the last several months, clinicians and clients alike have been inundated with questions concerning the recent incrimination of grain-free pet food diets as the cause for a particular form of heart disease known as dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM. This disease has been well documented in many breeds, such as Dobermans, Boxers, Great Danes, German Shepherds and even smaller breeds like the Cocker Spaniel. Dogs affected with the disease have a marked enlargement of the heart that leads to improper and weak contracture of the heart muscle that can ultimately lead to congestive heart failure and death.     

Researchers at the University of California at Davis and Tufts University have seen a noticeable increase of this disease in breeds not usually afflicted; Labrador Retrievers and Schnauzers most notably. What is not clear is whether or not having grain removed from the diet is the ultimate cause. Some evidence points to grain free diets leaving out an essential amino acid called taurine, which supports heart muscle health. Others point to ingredients that are substituted for the grains, such as pea flour, lentils, sweet potatoes and other legume-based commodities as the ultimate culprits.     

The effect of a deficiency in taurine on myocardial disease has been well known for over thirty years. It first gained notoriety in feline medicine for a disease known as HCM, or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Since that time, even the most rudimentary of diets that can be purchased OTC have been supplemented with taurine, yielding excellent results at preventing the disease. To further complicate matters, even dogs that are fed diets with grains have been noted to have taurine deficiency. I personally have seen several cases in canine patients that had critically low levels of taurine that were not withheld grains, including wheat, barley and oats. The silver lining to all of this is that taurine can be effectively supplemented as a dietary additive.       

Moving forward; do I believe that you need to stop feeding grain-free diets to your canine companions? As a veterinarian in your community I would recommend taking a sensible approach toward this matter. Many times what appears to be causation, meaning that if "A" occurs then "B" is the result is often confused with correlation.  A simple example of this would be that if 10 people who committed crimes were wearing red shirts, then wearing red shirts makes you a criminal. This just means that two or more observable facts are seen in close proximity to each other, but neither one truly causes the other. What does this have to do with grains vs. no grains? If we look at the number of animals that are on grain-free diets over the last 10 years, the number has probably grown by 3-fold. I personally have recommended that certain dogs be placed on grain-free diets for a number of different reasons, primarily for skin related food allergies. Just because those dogs that had DCM and were concurrently on grain-free diets, does not automatically mean that these diets are the ultimate cause. There may be multiple factors involved, leading to a synergistic response between multiple ingredients.  I believe that further research and an increase in the sampling size of individuals who have DCM and were concurrently fed grain-free diets will bear out the facts.       

It is my sincere recommendation that if you wish to continue feeding grain free diets, you should stay with recognized brands that meet AAFCO standards for taurine and all other essential nutrients. Many articles have centered on staying away from small-batch,  boutique brands of dog food that do not have post production analysis and testing. Feel free to call me if you have any questions regarding your canine companion's diets or any other concerns that you may have.


Dr. Jon