Don’t Go Breaking My Heart

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Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been investigating the possible link between grain-free diets and dilated cardiomyopathy.

But what is dilated cardiomyopathy or DCM?

DCM is a type of canine heart disease that leads to enlargement of the left ventricle, which is the main pumping chamber of the heart. It becomes weakened and decreases the ability of the heart to pump blood, which often results in congestive heart failure. Typical symptoms include increased respiratory rate, coughing, weakness, tiring easily when exercising, or collapsing episodes. Routine physical examinations with your primary care veterinarian can also help find underlying cardiac issues such as a heart murmur, other abnormal heart sounds, or the presence of an irregular heart rhythm. If signs of heart disease are noted and are related to nutritional issues, some dogs will have a reversal of their cardiac changes with adjustments in the diet and taurine supplementation.

Some breeds, especially large and giant breeds, are predisposed to DCM. These are mostly large breeds including Doberman pinschers, great Danes, Newfoundlands, Irish wolfhounds and Saint Bernards. While DCM is less common in medium and small breeds of dogs, cocker spaniels are also predisposed to this condition. When atypical cases were noted in breeds like golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, whippets, bulldogs, shih tzus, and mixed-breed dogs that all consistently ate grain alternatives in their diets, the FDA started to investigate.

In July 2019, the FDA studied the possible link between DCM and dog foods that were labeled as “grain-free” (defined as no corn, soy, wheat, rice, barley or other grains) and whether the foods contained peas, lentils, chickpeas, beans or potatoes (including sweet potatoes). The report states that more than 90% of foods reported in DCM cases were grain-free, 93% of reported foods contained peas and/or lentils, and 42% contained potatoes/sweet potatoes. There are multiple grain-free diets that are being linked to the possible rise in dilated cardiomyopathy as shown in the table below.

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So what pet foods are best? The first step is to make sure that your pet’s food has gone through Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) testing to confirm nutritional adequacy. One of the concerns with grain-free diets is that there may not be the proper nutrients for you dog to formulate taurine, which is an essential amino acid linked to heart health. In most well-balanced foods, taurine supplementation is not needed as dogs can synthesize taurine from proteins in a good-quality food.

What do pet owners need to know?

If a dog is showing possible signs of DCM or other heart conditions, including decreased energy, cough, difficulty breathing and episodes of collapse, you should contact your veterinarian as soon as possible. If the symptoms are severe and your veterinarian is not available, you may need to seek emergency veterinary care. Your veterinarian may ask you for a thorough dietary history, including all the foods (including treats) the dog has eaten. Your veterinarian can be a good resource for recommendations on a proper diet to meet all of your pet’s unique nutritional needs. For more information on the study, visit www.fda.gov.

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