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Grain-free Diets and Heart Disease: What’s Going On?

By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
October 10, 2019 • 4 min. read

Key Takeaways

  • Grain-free diets contain peas, lentils, legume seeds, and potatoes instead of grains.
  • Grain-free diets are largely unnecessary for dogs.
  • Dogs with grain-free diets may be more prone to dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart disease.
  • Talk to your vet about whether a grain-free diet is necessary and beneficial for your dog.

Dog food commercials promoting grain-free diets portray dogs romping through the fields or playing a lively game of fetch—the idyllic image of health and energy. But, do dogs really need a grain-free diet? And what about that possible link between these diets and heart disease?

If you’re concerned about grain-free diets, you’re not alone. Pet parents want to feed their dogs the best food possible, but in light of recent investigations and news articles, they have become increasingly worried about whether a grain-free diet could be putting their dog at risk of heart problems.

What is a grain-free dog food diet?

Grain-free diets contain a combination of peas, lentils, legume seeds, and potatoes as the main sources of carbohydrates in lieu of grains. These dog foods started being marketed in 2007, with sales skyrocketing to $2.8 billion as of 2017.

Pet food marketing has led many pet parents to believe that grain-free diets are superior to regular diets for dogs. What pet parent wouldn’t want to feed their dog the best food available?

Not so fast, though. For several reasons, grain-free diets are mostly unnecessary for dogs. First, dogs’ digestive systems have evolved over thousands of years to process grains. Second, grain-based food allergies in dogs are rare; proteins are the main culprit of canine food allergies. Third, veterinary nutrition research has not shown that grain-free diets provide any additional health benefits over grain-containing diets for dogs.

The problem with grain-free dog food

For the past several years, veterinarians have noticed an increasing number of dogs who have eaten grain-free diets showing signs of a heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). DCM is characterized by thinning heart muscle, enlarged heart chambers, and decreased blood-pumping ability. With DCM, the heart valves eventually stop working well and fluid builds up in the lungs and abdomen, leading to symptoms like collapse, difficulty breathing, and an enlarged abdomen.

DCM has several potential causes, a well-known one being the deficiency of the amino acid taurine. Other possible causes include amino acid imbalances in a dog’s food, and a dog’s inability to absorb certain amino acids.

Certain breeds, like Dobermans and Irish wolfhounds, are genetically predisposed to DCM. However, veterinarians began noticing DCM in breeds such as Golden Retrievers and Shih Tzus, who are not genetically predisposed to the disease. What these dogs had in common was their diet: they contained grain alternatives.

Veterinarians alerted the FDA about these cases. In July 2018, the FDA began investigating if grain-free diets and DCM were linked and announced their investigation to the public.

To date, the FDA has collected hundreds of reports of cases of DCM in dogs eating grain-free diets. They are working with numerous experts, including veterinary nutritionists, veterinary cardiologists, and pathologists, to analyze each report for possible linkage. The FDA is also working with pet food manufacturers to obtain more information on the manufacturers’ dietary formulations.

Despite this thorough investigation, a clear link between grain-free diets and DCM has not been established. Additionally, it remains unclear what role taurine has played in the DCM cases reported to the FDA; in some cases, the affected dogs had normal taurine levels.

What should pet parents do?

The FDA’s complex investigation is ongoing, with few answers that will relieve pet parents’ fears about grain-free diets. Fortunately, you can take comfort in a few things. First, millions of dogs who eat grain-free diets are healthy with no heart problems. Also, as of February 2019, the FDA has not issued any food recalls as a result of the investigation.

That being said, the FDA’s investigation does raise concern that there’s something about grain-free diets that leads to heart disease in dogs. Here are a few things you can do:

  1. Talk with your veterinarian about your dog’s dietary needs. Resist the strong pull of pet food marketing. Your vet will assess your dog’s overall health and let you know the best diet for your dog.
  2. Feed a standard diet. Most dogs do not need to eat a grain-free diet. Feed a standard commercial dog food that contains high-quality ingredients and is nutritionally balanced. A standard diet will contain grains, like corn and wheat, along with traditional proteins (e.g., chicken, beef). Stay away from diets that contain grain substitutes as main ingredients. The American Association of Feed Control Officials website has useful information to help pet parents understand how to read a dog food label and select a healthy dog food. Your veterinarian can also help you with this.
  3. Monitor your dog for heart disease. If you feed your dog a grain-free diet, keep watch for signs of heart disease, such as weakness, fainting, increased heart rate and difficulty breathing. If you see these signs, take your dog to your veterinarian, who will perform several tests, including a blood test to analyze taurine levels and an imaging test to evaluate heart function.
  4. Visit the FDA’s website. The FDA website has the most up-to-date and accurate information about the investigation into grain-free diets and DCM. Visit the website regularly to remain informed.

Bottom line on grain-free diets

Many questions remain when it comes to the link between grain-free diets and DCM in dogs. Talk with your veterinarian if you have concerns about your dog’s diet and check the FDA’s website for updates on the investigation.

Content provided by JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM. Dr. Pendergrass is owner and founder of JPen Communications, a medical communications company specializing in consumer education.

The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical diagnosis, condition, or treatment options.

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joanna pendergrass
By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM, is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer in Atlanta, GA. After graduating from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine with her veterinary degree, JoAnna completed a 2-year research fellowship in neuroscience at Emory University. During this fellowship, she learned that she could make a career out of combining her loves of science and writing. As a medical writer, JoAnna is passionate about providing pet parents at Healthy Paws with clear, concise, and engaging information about pet care. Through her writing, she strives not only to educate pet parents, but also empower them to make good health decisions for their pets. JoAnna is a member of the American Medical Writers Association and Dog Writers Association of America.

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