Grain-Free Pet Food Advisory

With many people avoiding grains in their own diets, pet food companies have recognized this trend and developed grain-free pet foods marketed to health-conscious pet owners. While grain-free foods can be fine, a concern has been raised by cardiologists who have diagnosed Dilated Cardiomyopathy, a life-threatening heart disease, in pets as a result of eating certain grain-free foods. This recently hit home when Frontier’s veterinarians diagnosed such a case.

This dog visited Frontier for the first time a few months ago. She was exhibiting no heart-related symptoms at home but was examined a couple of times for other reasons. During these exams, Dr. Palmer and Dr. Yung noticed a right side heart murmur. This murmur was not noted on her previous medical records, and because the dog was young and not a breed predisposed to heart problems, this was unusual. While the murmur wasn’t very loud, the right side location is not typical for the most common, usually fairly benign, left-sided mitral valve murmur.  The doctors were very concerned and recommended seeing the cardiologist right away. 

The dog’s pet parents took her to local cardiologist Dr. Atkinson, who diagnosed her with severe Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM).  It was so abnormal in an otherwise healthy, young dog that Dr. Atkinson queried on their diet, and upon finding out it was grain-free, she ran a taurine level test. Taurine is an amino acid essential to heart muscle function, and Dr. Atkinson was aware of the link between grain-free foods and taurine-deficiency DCM. The test results came back as severely taurine deficient, confirming what she suspected. Dr. Atkinson’s staff praised Frontier’s doctors for saving this dog’s life. 

What is Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM)? 

In layman’s terms, DCM is when the heart becomes enlarged, stretching the heart muscles. This causes the heart muscles to not function properly.  A few breeds are genetically predisposed to DCM, including Great Danes and Doberman Pinchers, but this dog was not one of these breeds. For more information on DCM here is an overview and here is more in-depth information

What is the prognosis for dogs with DCM? 

The prognosis is variable and depends on if it can be reversed by supplementing with taurine.  After a period of taurine supplementation, the cardiologist will repeat the echocardiogram, which will show how much of the condition is reversible. It is suspected to be reversible, but probably not 100%.

How did grain-free food cause it? 

We don’t know for sure, but it appears that this taurine deficiency is linked to grain-free diets that are high in legumes.  An investigation is ongoing, as this only started coming to light at the end of 2017.  The University of California-Davis is currently collecting data for a study on this major concern.

But I think my pet has food allergies, won’t grain-free food help?

While food allergies do exist, protein sources are far more often the culprit rather than grains. If you suspect your pet has allergies, see your veterinarian to determine the cause; food and environmental allergies (or a combination of the two) are both possible sources. For more information on food allergies and grain-free diets, click here.

Buying pet food is so confusing! There are SO many options and I just want to do what’s right for my pet. How do I know what food to choose?

Remember, your veterinarian is a doctor and well-educated in dietetics and essential nutrients. Your pet’s veterinarian is the best resource for assessing your pet’s individual health while considering other factors like age, lifestyle, and breed, and helping you choose a food accordingly. Pet store employees are well-intentioned, but often their education is limited to what is supplied by pet food companies trying to sell their product, as opposed to medical knowledge and science-based studies. Be wary of clever marketing that makes unquantifiable claims or emotional statements without evidence to support them.

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