Deciding on which diet to feed your pet can be confusing. There are so many different options to choose from, and all claim to be the best for your pet. In this blog, we will discuss the potential risks associated with diet and heart disease, why we recommend brands like Hill’s Science Diet over raw or home-cooked diets, and answer any questions you might have regarding the link between grain-free diets and heart disease.
DCM - Dilated Cardiomyopathy, or DCM, refers to a heart disease that causes enlargement of the heart.
BEG diets – An acronym that refers to the 3 types of diets we will be discussing: Boutique diets, Exotic Ingredient diets, and Grain-Free diets.
Boutique Diet – Any diet produced by a small manufacturer. Companies producing these diets generally prioritize attractive marketing over nutritional science, and many of these diets are not being evaluated by veterinary nutritionists before being distributed.
“Exotic” ingredients – Ingredients include novelty proteins, fruits, or vegetables not commonly used in pet food formulas. (Example: kangaroo, lamb, duck, bison, chickpeas, lentils).
Grain-Free Diet – Pet food that uses ingredients like lentils, potatoes, or legumes in lieu of traditional grains like rice, corn, and barley.
Last year, the U.S Food and Drug Administration began investigating a possible link between heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, and BEG diets. DCM is a heart condition that frequently affects large and giant breeds, such as Dobermans, Newfoundlands, Great Danes, Boxers, and a few smaller breeds like Cocker Spaniels. However, an increase in instances of DCM being reported to the FDA involving breeds previously unassociated with DCM that were being fed grain-free or boutique diets has led to further investigation.
What do we know about BEG diets and DCM?
At this time, the FDA is working with veterinary cardiologists and nutritionists to better understand the correlation, but there is currently no known cause of DCM in dogs consuming BEG diets. However, the FDA does believe there is a link and recommends that pet owners stick to a traditional pet diet until further information on the subject is available
Why does the term “taurine deficiency” keep appearing in my search results?
There have been some cases in which patients on grain-free diets were diagnosed with DCM whose blood work indicated low levels of Taurine, an amino acid that is critical for normal heart function.
Can I add taurine supplements to my dog’s grain-free diet?
It is important to note that while some cases reported low levels of taurine, the majority of dogs eating grain-free diets who were diagnosed with DCM had perfectly normal taurine levels. At this time, we do not recommend adding any dietary supplements to your pet’s food without consulting your veterinarian.
If taurine deficiency isn’t to blame, what is making dogs develop DCM?
Currently, that is what the FDA is working to figure out. Some dogs diagnosed with DCM (who had normal taurine levels) improved when they were transitioned back to a more traditional dog food, which indicates there is still more to learn about the effects ingredients in these fad diets are having on a physiologic level. The FDA recommends, barring rare cases of food allergy (confirmed by food elimination trials or allergy testing), that pets on grain-free or boutique diets transition back to a more traditional diet until more information is gathered.
Are cats being affected by this issue, too?
At this time, all of the information regarding DCM and BEG diets pertains to dogs. However, it is recommended that any cats eating a BEG diet showing symptoms of heart issues be evaluated by their vet and switch back to a more traditional pet food.
My dog has been eating grain free for years and has not had any heart issues. Why should I switch foods now?
Signs and symptoms of DCM are not usually seen until the disease has progressed. Some pets may eat BEG diets their whole life without having an issue. However, the increase in pets being affected by DCM on BEG diets indicates that BEG diets have a higher potential to cause diet-related health issues than traditional diets.
My dog always seemed so itchy before I switched them to grain-free. How do I know if my dog is allergic to their food?
It is far more common for pets to suffer from allergies caused by allergens found in their environment such as fleas, grass, and other pollens than from food allergies. In cases where a dog is experiencing a true food allergy, it is far more likely for the dog to be sensitive to the protein source than any other ingredient. If you suspect that your pet may be allergic to a certain ingredient, we recommend discussing a food elimination trial with your veterinarian to rule out possible allergens.
What is the difference between a food allergy and a food sensitivity?
A food allergy indicates that the dog’s immune system has responded to an ingredient and caused a physiological response. A food sensitivity or food intolerance does not involve the immune system, but rather indicates that a dog’s body does not agree with a particular ingredient/s, similar to when humans get an upset stomach eating something that was too rich or too spicy for them. Because the clinical signs of food allergies and food sensitivities can be pretty similar—itchy skin, stomach upset—we recommend consulting your veterinarian to determine the cause of your pet’s discomfort.
My dog’s ancestors didn’t eat grains in the wild. Should I transition my dog to a more primitive raw diet?
We do not recommend feeding your pet raw or under-cooked meats for the same reason we don’t consume raw or under-cooked meats. Raw diets are not necessarily a safe alternative to other pet foods as DCM has been linked to raw diets as well. Giving animals raw meat/eggs can lead to health problems such as stomach upset or bacterial overgrowth, and handling and storing raw meat in containers can pose risk to human health, too. Most raw diets do not contain all the essential vitamins and nutrients pets need to maintain optimal health.
Some brands state that their diets are so healthy and natural that humans could eat them. Shouldn’t my dog be eating as well as I do?
There are several pet food companies that market their products as being made with “human grade” ingredients and being so fresh that they could be safe for human consumption. However, there is currently no legal definition of the term “human grade” and any company may use this term in their marketing with zero legal repercussions. While there are many fruits and vegetables our pets can be fed as treats, they are most likely to get all of their required nutrients from a traditional diet.
What about vegan/vegetarian pet diets?
Dogs can technically survive on a vegan diet in which animal protein sources are substituted for non-animal products, but we do not recommend attempting to feed your dog a vegan/vegetarian diet without close supervision and guidance from a licensed veterinary nutritionist. Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they require meat to survive. For this reason, we do not advise feeding your cat a vegan/vegetarian diet under any circumstances.
If quality control of ingredients is a major concern regarding these BEG diets, is it better to cook my dog’s food myself?
We do not recommend feeding your pets a home cooked diet unless you are working closely with a veterinary nutritionist to ensure that all of your pet’s daily nutritional needs are being met. Feeding your pet an imbalanced diet, or using an inappropriate or inadequate amount of dietary supplements, can have negative effects on your dog’s health such as malnutrition, vitamin insufficiency, and toxicity from improper supplement dosage. Additionally, preparing your pet’s food every day can be labor intensive and unsustainable for busy owners.
So what should I be feeding my pet?
There are 3 qualities that we are interested in when evaluating pet food: is this brand FDA approved? How do they ensure quality control? Are these diets formulated based on scientific research? At this time, only four brands of dog food meet all of the criteria set by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s nutrition committee: Hill’s Science Diet, Royal Canin, Eukanuba, and Purina.
I’ve noticed some of those big brands being recalled in the past few years. Why should I trust those brands?
Any kind of food, for humans or animals, can be recalled. Last year, the CDC issued a warning advising people to avoid romaine lettuce. However, even after this health scare, it is unlikely that most people will never eat romaine lettuce again. These large, established companies routinely test their food to ensure optimal nutrition, and are quick to issue a recall if the formula isn’t exactly as it should be. These companies budget for routine testing of food and staffing of veterinary nutritionists to oversee the food making process, whereas smaller manufacturers may lack the financial capability to be so thorough in their food testing.
I’ve been feeding my dog a BEG diet for a while. Are there any symptoms I should be watching for?
The early symptoms of heart disease like DCM includes shortness of breath, coughing, exercise intolerance, decreased appetite and episodes of fainting or collapse. Health conditions like DCM can make the heart weak and make it difficult for the heart to pump normally. Untreated, DCM can quickly progress to heart failure, which may result in death. If you have noticed any unusual symptoms in your dog lately, we recommend consulting your vet for a further work up.
What do I do if my dog is diagnosed with DCM?
Further diagnostics may be recommended to better understand your pet’s condition, and your veterinarian may prescribe medications to help alleviate some of the symptoms your pet is experiencing. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to heart disease, your veterinarian can work with you to create the best possible treatment plan to address your dog’s condition and symptoms.
If your dog has been diagnosed with DCM and is/was on a BEG diet, the FDA encourages pet owners to report the case using their online Safety Reporting Portal or calling their state’s FDA complaint coordinator.
For additional information on reporting a pet food complaint, please refer to the FDA’s official website.
As always, please give us a call at 972-347-6100 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or concerns about your pet's health.