Many pet owners believe a grain free diet is a healthy option for pets. However, recent findings of increased cases of dilated cardiomyopathy, or D.C.M., could cause many to reconsider. D.C.M. is a condition which causes the heart to weaken and become enlarged. Some large breed dogs such as Doberman pinschers, Irish wolfhounds, boxers and Great Danes have a genetic predisposition to developing this condition. Unfortunately, veterinary cardiologists are diagnosing D.C.M. in breeds with no genetic component.
A common factor among cases of D.C.M without a genetic component, is a diet of grain free dog food. CVCA, a veterinary clinic specializing in cardiology located in the Baltimore – Washington D.C. area, recently notified the Food and Drug Administration of increased numbers of cases involving this diagnosis. CVCA has diagnosed this heart condition in golden retrievers, doodle mixes, Labrador retrievers, and Shih Tzus. They discovered the common factor among the dogs diagnosed was a diet heavy in peas, lentils, chickpeas, and potatoes. These carbohydrates are intended to replace grains. Due to the high number of new cases of D.C.M., the FDA announced in July they are investigating a link between this condition and grain free dog food.
Furthermore, CVCA surveyed 150 recent cases of D.C.M. and found most dogs were being fed a grain free diet. They now see 8 to 12 new cases of D.C.M. each month unrelated to genetic factors. The FDA has received reports of some two dozen additional cases of D.C.M. Unfortunately, three of the dogs diagnosed died.
Sales of grain free dog foods have soared in the last few years. At the end of 2017, 44 percent of the dog food market included varieties of grain free dog food. Sales climbed to nearly $2.8 billion in 2017.
Lisa Freeman, a specialist in nutrition and research at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, cautions no research demonstrating grain free diets offer any health benefits over diets that contain grain exists. Similarly, Dr. Freeman suggests skepticism about the claims made by manufacturers of grain free dog food is appropriate. In fact, grains provide an important source of protein and other nutrients in meat based food. According to Dr. Freeman, grains do not cause health problems in pets unless an allergy to a specific grain exists.
Dog owners, Tracy and Chris Meyer, who reside in Phoenix, MD have a golden retriever, Bentley. Because they believed a grain free diet was healthy, they spent approximately $80 each month for his food. Certainly, they thought the ingredients found in grain free food including peas, red lentils and green lentils were healthy. However, Bentley became ill and was diagnosed with D.C.M. He was in heart failure. His taurine level was 58. A normal taurine level is over 200. Taurine is an amino acid vital for a healthy heart.
Bentley’s veterinarian prescribed heart medication. A year and half later, he is healthy. He remains on two heart drugs and his diet now includes lots of grains. Though no effective preventative strategy for dogs with a genetic predisposition to D.C.M. exists, dogs with diet-associated cases can sometimes be reversed. Dogs with diet-associated D.C.M. can improve with medication, taurine supplements, and a changed diet.
Finally, research on the relationship of grain free diets and D.C.M. in dogs continues. If your dog is on a grain free diet, veterinary experts recommend discussing with your veterinarian reasons for doing so. Grain free diets sound deceptively healthy. However, they may not provide the nutrition your pet requires to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Above all, discuss with your veterinarian whether a grain free diet is the best choice for your beloved pet’s continued good health.